Tag: uk

Mister Surgeon

Since November, I have had a small bump in the back of my neck. My local doctor identified it as a harmless cyst.

The bump started hurting occasionally when something pressed against it. In mid-January, I went back to the doctor. She agreed to refer me to a surgery clinic.

I didn’t hear from the surgery for two months. They were supposed to call me to arrange an appointment.

I was prepared for the wait. Many had warned me that the UK National Health Service (NHS) was very good for GP services and would rally behind me in times of serious illness. However, the wait for any medical procedure between routine and emergency is interminable.

After six weeks of no news, I tried to sign up for private health insurance. Then I found out that my company had decided to provide all its UK employees with private health insurance starting in May. I thought, ‘If I don’t hear from the surgery before May, I can at least go to a private surgeon.’

A day before leaving for Germany, I got the letter. The clinic had set my appointment for the week after I came back from holiday. Perfect! Because by the time I was travelling around Germany, even the lightest touch of clothing or my necklace made me wince.

My appointment was today at 9:40 AM with Mister S. Did you know that if a doctor goes through the years of training to become a surgeon, they are honoured with the title of ‘Mister’? (read the link, it’s interesting)

He injected a local anaesthetic. The needle must have been long because it seemed to go on and on. It hurt more than any injection I’ve had. Afterwards, though, the back of my neck was completely numb.

‘Can you feel anything?’ Mister S asked. He and the nurse had already sliced into my neck.

‘Not at all,’ I said. It was very surprising. They must have been digging around back there and I couldn’t feel a thing.

I was thankful that the needle had gone as far as it had when I heard them say, ‘It keeps jiggling.’ ‘It’s tricky. I tried to take it out in one piece but it’s surprisingly deep in.’

Being numb and facing the other way, I didn’t know when the lump had been fished out and when they started stitching me back up. When it was over, I was eager to see the fruits of their labour, which had been dropped into in a small plastic bottle filled with water.

The thing responsible for my pain was white and about 1.5-2 centimetres long. I had expected it to be round but it was long, almost like a small bone. I shook the bottle and it rattled a bit. The lump must have been hard.

I’m glad it’s out of me. I have a dressing on my neck and next week will be back at the GP to get the stitches out.

Banks: doing you a favour

Getting a bank account in the UK is an ordeal.

I was warned of this at the WORKgateways website:

“If you think of the bank as doing you a favour by allowing you to keep your money with them, you will be a step ahead in understanding the system, and less bewildered after your UK bank encounters.”

For the privilege of setting up a basic account, you need one or more of: passport, visa, utility bill, proof of at least three months of income and good credit history. This, mind you, is just for a current (everyday transaction) account where you park your money — no overdrafts, no loan.

I don’t understand the rationale. If anything, the bank can steal your money (because you’ve given it to them to hold) and you can’t take any from them. So what’s the risk to the bank?

When you are a newcomer to the country, it is hard to get an account because you don’t yet have a permanent address. Even if you do have a place to stay, you have to set up a phone/gas/electricity service in your name (making sure you get paper statements, not e-statements!), then wait the month or three before your first bill comes in — then you can set up an account.

I was able to skip some of this bureaucracy because as a student, I got my college to write a ‘letter of introduction’. Even then, the bank would only give me a student account. This student account came with a Solo debit card, which is some kind of ‘training’ card that students and people with bad credit histories are given. Solo cards aren’t accepted by many websites and at crucial services, like train stations.

As a student, I also couldn’t get a chequebook. This is a effing nuisance in a country where people still use cheques for amounts as smiddling as £5. When services insisted on being paid by cheque, I had to ask someone to pay for me, then pay them back.

As you might understand by now, one of the things I was most excited about when I started work was that I could finally get a ‘grown up’ debit card. In the first week of work, I went to my bank to request an upgrade. I was told that the standard procedure was that they had to wait until there were three months income in my account before they could upgrade me.

Well! I thought: If they’re going to be like that, I’m taking my business elsewhere!

So I applied for an account with the Co-operative Bank, which is well known for its humanity, fairness and social consciousness.

A week later, a humiliating rejection letter came in the post.

I JUST WANT A BANK ACCOUNT! Twice already I had to ask my workmates to pay for my train tickets.

My final plan was to get a credit card. In Australia, credit companies practically throw themselves at anyone. I wasn’t poor, I wasn’t a student. They should want my money.


Furious, I went back to my bank armed with my passport, work permit, work contract, first payslip, a perfect UK credit history, and a steely determination not to leave without a real debit card.

I left with a Gold account. Within two weeks, the bank posted me my debit card and chequebook. The bank has also offered me a credit card and high interest savings account.

However, I only knew they were truly repentent when this arrived in the mail last week.

A handwritten Christmas card from my bank branch! This must be an unwritten perk of being a Gold account holder.

Christmas in London and Cambridge

As I said in my last post, I had a three-part Christmas, reflecting the main parts of my life now. These are ‘home and housemates’, ‘work’ and ‘former Cambridge life’.

(The Damjan part of my life is in Melbourne right now.)

So, Christmas started with our house Christmas dinner.

Andrea cooked a delicious roast chicken with vegetables. I have never had such tasty carrots and brussel sprouts before.

Damian made that beloved New Zealand dessert, the pavlova.

We had a living Christmas tree. An array of Neo’s toys held on for dear life. Every now and then, one of them would commit suicide by throwing itself off the tree.

Headgear quickly got silly. It’s inevitable when you have Christmas crackers. For those not aware, Christmas crackers always have inside them a paper crown, a bad joke and a toy.

Now, onto Christmas at work. It started with an exchange of Secret Santa (Kris Kringle) presents. We had to buy something a person could wear for less than £5. I was given a pink sequined cowgirl hat and a gigantic red feather boa. There are pictures so I might be able to post it on here later. Other people got checkered bow ties, reindeer antlers, helium balloons and snowman masks.

We all put on our silly gear and caught the train to St Paul’s. In the tube, Londoners laughed and pointed. We crossed the Millenium Bridge with the sun setting over the Thames. Lunch/dinner was at a Turkish restaurant.

Being the sustainability team, Juhi and Mariane made office decorations out of old magazines.

Isn’t it intricate? I took my cue from this and wrapped some of my presents in magazine paper.

I went to work on Christmas Eve and then caught a 6:30 PM bus to Cambridge. Rebecca and Ian had invited me over for Christmas lunch. I didn’t realise that in England, everything shuts down for Christmas. There are no tube services, no buses, no coaches, no trains. If you don’t have a car, you’re stuck within a walking or cycling radius of wherever you end up on Christmas day.

Which is why I travelled to Cambridge on Christmas Eve and went home on Boxing Day. Luckily, Bec found a place for me to stay overnight.

I had a really comfortable and happy time. It was good to be with friends for Christmas.

We had rosé wine and quality Christmas crackers.

The jokes were not as cheesy as usual and the toys were keepable. From the crackers, I kept a four colour pen and a shower puff.

For our soup starter, Bec blended cauliflower and leek, then garnished with chestnuts. YUM!

And look at this! Roast chicken and vegetables. At London home, I was amazed by the carrots and brussel sprounds. Here, the sweet potato, potato and parsnips were a revelation.

We had Christmas fruit pudding with custard, plus jelly and ice-cream. But before I could tackle dessert, I requested we go for a walk. My tummy couldn’t handle not having a break between mains and dessert.

This photo was taken at 3:15 PM…

…And this was 40 minutes later! The sun went down very quickly.

Merry Christmas!

Brighton weekend

Last weekend, Damjan and I went to Brighton, England’s most famous seaside town. We had a great time. More than any city I’ve visited in the UK, Brighton feels like Melbourne — full of young people, relaxed, and multicultural. We arrived in time for Brighton’s food festival. So not only did we enjoy the tourist guide attractions of the beach, tacky seaside pier and King George IV’s extravagant Royal Pavilion, but we also got to eat ate lots of the best kind of ethical (free range, organic, international and local) food.

Brighton’s beaches are a poor substitute for Australian beaches. Instead of sand, there are pebbles. The good thing about pebbles are that they don’t get into your shoes and clothes like sand does. They can be painful to walk on. The English Channel also makes for cold swims. I only waded in up to my legs.

Walking out of the street of our hostel, directly in front was the wreck of Brighton’s West Pier.

A lady from the Brighton West Pier Trust told us that it was in perfect condition in 1975. Here it is intact, with its concert hall and pavilion on the walkway to the big bit at the end (whatever it is).

Its private owner wanted to turn the pier into a casino but the local council refused permission. Having no other plans for the pier, the owner offered it to the council for £1 but the council declined because it couldn’t afford the upkeep. The pier was left to decay. The West Pier Trust was set up to raise money for its restoration. They finally managed to secure funding from the Government and private funding (£15mil each) but in 2003, there were two fires. The pier was already falling apart so fire was the final straw and the structure was completely gutted. Also gutted was the funding from the government (bye bye, £15mil). The Trust now says they’re going to build a massive needle tower type thing in front of the pier that will somehow save the whole project. Erm. Right.

When we walked by the beach each morning, we saw this fellow with the metal detector. We once saw him stretching and flexing. He looked funny.

The Royal Pavilion was unlike any castle I had visited in England. King George IV was a party dude. He liked clothes, food, women, food, music and food. Over about 35 years, he turned his Brighton holiday farm house into this ‘fantasy palace’. They tried to make it look Indian on the outside and Chinese on the inside. I giggled at some of the attempts at ‘Chinoise’ styling by people who had never been to China.

Damjan’s favourite room in the palace was the huge kitchen. It had all the latest mod cons from the 1800s — self-turning spits, steam tables to keep food warm, exhaust vents. We saw a menu for one of the daily feasts. It had 36 entrées and many more dishes.

We didn’t know that the food festival was going on when we planned our trip. We had stepped out of the Royal Pavilion and suddenly saw tents in the garden. At the first tent, someone offered me a strawberry and banana smoothie. All I had to do was blend it by riding this bike. I was delighted that someone had also thought of harnessing the energy of stationery bikes. Imagine if we could have blenders on our normal bikes. We’d all have smoothies by the time we got to work.

At the food festival, there was a table full of sage plants. I never knew there was such a variety. Pineapple sage?

On the left are giant turnips. On the right are tiny pumpkins.

Like Melbourne, Brighton has laneways of shops, cafés and restaurants. We visited a nice art gallery, a very fun kitchenware store, a shop of well designed futons, outdoor adventure stores, ethnic grocery stores, and quite a few eateries and bakeries. The last three photos are from the Lego shop.

You can buy individual Lego pieces from these portholes. It reminded me of M&M land in Las Vegas, where you can buy every colour M&M in existence.

Even Lego figures like to play basketball and soccer.

Shiny transparent red and blue bricks.

While we were in the Lego store, Damjan and I thought, ‘They should make movies out of Lego!’ And then, what did we find on YouTube?

The Han Solo Affair

Indiana Jones (hehe, watch for the twist)

Amazing Lego dancing on Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller

And a rap music video, Circle Circle Dot Dot.

Engineer: not what you think

There are some things about the UK that seem so ordinary to the natives that they never think to mention them. In fact, such things are becoming ordinary to me, too, so I’d better write them down before I forget how weird they are.

The street lights here are orange. In Australia (and presumably all the other countries I’ve visited because I hadn’t noticed differently), street lights use white light, or occasionally, slightly blue light. Maybe it was a yellowish white.

In England (don’t know about the rest of the country), they use sodium arc lamps, which are orange. I don’t like them. They don’t seem quite bright enough.

If you want to own a TV or watch TV on your PC, you need to buy a television licence. This is in addition to what you pay for a TV and costs about £135 a year. I believe it goes to fund the BBC.

The TV Licensing Authority is aggressive, like a debt collector. If you don’t have a TV licence, you can get threatening letters (‘If you don’t pay up, we’ll send our people along to search your house’). People tell me that the Licensing people drive around in vans equipped with special detectors that know whether or not you are watching TV illegally.

There is a High Street chemist (pharmacy, drugstore) chain called Boots. I think this is a silly name.

If you see a nice restaurant, there is a 50% chance that it belongs to a chain of restaurants. Those restaurants that look like once-offs are actually not. ‘Chain store’ and ‘quality’ are not mutually exclusive terms here.

Everyone uses cheques here. It feels old-fashioned. Back in Oz, if I needed to handle lots of money, usually I sent it electronically. Here, cheques are even used to paid small amounts, like £5 for a movie ticket. If you deposit a cheque, it takes almost a week to clear. If you transfer money electronically, it takes at least three days to get to the account. This country runs on slow. It drives my American friends nuts.

Street signs are stuck on buildings or walls instead of on poles at intersection corners. This makes signs difficult to find because you can’t predict where they will be or at what height or even what style of sign it will be (will it be a metal plate with old fashioned writing or a modern bright green label?). I wish they’d get some consistency.

For my first six months here, I assumed an engineer was an engineer. I see vans go by, which have written on them, ‘scaffolding engineer’, ‘air conditioning engineer’, or ‘boiler engineer’. I thought it was interesting that so many engineers have started small businesses.

Then Gina told me that in the UK, anyone can call themselves an engineer. All those engineers I saw driving past are what we in Australia call ‘tradies’ or tradespeople. At best, we call them engineering technologists. I grew up somewhere where an ‘engineer’ presumably had a four year university degree.

Because of the way British people use ‘engineer’, I’m told that engineering is a relatively low status profession. When you say that you’re an engineer, people think you fix air conditioners. Perhaps this is why professional qualification (chartered status) is such a priority in the UK and not so in Australia.

I have been thinking about whether or not this ambiguity is a problem. I don’t like professional snobbery, especially as experienced tradies and draftspeople know more about ‘engineering’ than graduate engineers and get paid less. It doesn’t quite seem fair. Other people say that one should be rewarded for having slogged through four years of university.

Maybe this isn’t a question of snobbery and superiority. Maybe there is a case for having two different names for engineers and tradespeople because they do different things. Whether or not one occupation is ‘better’ than another is for society to sort out. It’s a separate issue from the terminological one.

After all, would it be sensible for a legal secretary to be called a lawyer, or a nurse to be called a doctor?

If UK’s engineering associations decided this was a problem, how could it solve it? How do you ‘take back’ a term, say to people, ‘Sorry, guys. You can’t be engineers any more’? It doesn’t seem like you can do that. They could invent a new term for university-qualified engineers, I guess, either using a new word or some sort of modifying descriptor. Or they could continue down the path of chartered status and try to reduce public confusion through advertising (‘Doing something big? Check if your engineer is chartered!’).


The pronunciation of names in UK English is messed up. ‘Magdalene’ is pronounced ‘Maudlin’. ‘Edinburgh’ is pronounced ‘Edinbra’. You can count on the ‘w’ being superfluous: ‘Norwich’ is ‘Norrich’, ‘Berwick’ is ‘Berrick’, ‘Warwick’ is ‘Warrick’, ‘Bromwich’ is ‘Bromich’.

Interestingly, ‘Sandwich’ is not ‘Sandich’.

The thing that drives me nuts is the ‘ces’ syllable, which is completely absent in speech.

Gloucester = Gloster
Leicester = Lester
Worcester = Wooster

I was complaining about this to Owen. Owen was saying, ‘I was in this town near Oxford, it had a ridiculous name…’

‘Oh! I KNOW! Bister!’ I jumped in, naming the town spelt ‘Bicester’. ‘Look, I can handle Gloster and Lester and even Wooster. But Bister, that’s just perverse!’

‘It’s better than Toaster,’ Owen said calmly.


‘Yes, there’s another town called Toaster — T O W C E S T E R.’

An ecology of supermarkets

The UK grocery market is bigger than Australia’s. Australia basically has Coles and Woolworths. You might count IGA, too. However, the competition in the UK is much more intense and strangely, there is a relatively clear hierarchy of ‘poshness’.

From my eight months here, the hierarchy of prestige seems to be:

  1. Waitrose
  2. Marks and Spencer
  3. Sainsbury’s
  4. Co-op
  5. Tesco
  6. Asda

There are others that I’ve heard of or walked by but I can’t place on them on the poshness ladder because I haven’t experienced them. Aldi is probably near Asda, at the bottom. There’s also Morrisons, apparently one of UK’s ‘big four’ supermarkets. I wouldn’t have known it existed except that Damjan had to go into one once to ask for directions (we got lost while travelling in Yorkshire). I’ve also been to Somerfield. There is a full list of UK supermarkets on Wikiepedia.

I’ve talked about Sainsbury’s on my blog before. Little Sainsbury’s in the centre of town is my main grocery store because I like what it sells, I like its layout and ‘vibe’, and it only takes me 15 minutes to walk there.

There are other mainstream grocery options, though. The Co-op is even closer than Sainsbury’s but I find it expensive and I’ve had bad experiences with clueless staff there.

On special occasions (when I need anything exotic), I go to a really big Sainsbury’s further out of town. It’s 2 km away. I would normally ride there. Riding home with a heavy backpack is made harder by a serious hill and busy traffic.

You might remember that I once ordered from Tesco online. I’ve never been inside the actual Tesco because I always thought it was far away. However, I’ve just looked it up and it’s even closer than big Sainsbury’s! It is in a very busy part of town, though. There’s a big road with lots of traffic. I’m a little nervous of riding there.

I love going to Marks and Spencer. It’s full of beautiful food. Often, I go just to look at the cold sections and the shelves. I might spend twenty minutes before finally selecting a chocolate or a yogurt. I visit M&S to reward myself after a tough day or after handing something in.

I want to visit Waitrose one day. Waitrose is at the very top of the supermarket ecosystem. If I love M&S, imagine what Waitrose will be like! The nearest Waitrose store is 5 km away. Maybe I’ll bike to it as a field trip or for exercise.

Anyway, the reason I started this blog post is because yesterday, I visited Asda for the first time. I found a shortcut there and discovered that it’s actually as close to my house as little Sainsbury’s!

Asda was huge and confusing. I felt a bit frightened, actually. Nothing was where it should have been. The chips weren’t near the biscuits. The fruit section was split across three aisles. The skimmed milk was hidden. I couldn’t find the honey. The meat was all mixed up instead of being organised by animal. After about fifteen minutes, I wanted to flee to my familiar, safe little Sainsbury’s.

I wandered around for an hour and had to get help twice. I eventually gave up looking for low fat mature cheddar cheese because I just wanted to get out of there.

Interestingly, at the checkout, I was the only person with a reusable bag. Everyone else was taking plastic bags. I think it’s because Asda targets people on lower incomes. I don’t know why lower income people tend to use plastic bags. Maybe they don’t care about the environment as much?

At Sainsbury’s, about a third of people seem to have reusable bags. A British friend tells me that everyone at Waitrose uses reusable bags.

Unscheduled changing of the guard

Here is Joan, paparazzo, in front of Buckingham Palace.

While we were there, there was a changing of the guard. It was a bit of an unexpected treat because the next one wasn’t due until tomorrow at 11:30 AM.

A guardsman appeared in the doorway at the left of the photo and started moving towards the on-duty guardsman stationed in the alcove. He marched very slowly and deliberately.





It went on like this for the three minutes it took for him to get from A to B.

I suppose the unscheduled changeover was finally explained when the travelling guardsman reached the on-duty guardsman and said, ‘Your mother’s on the phone.’

Triumph of swan propoganda

I used to think swans were special. You can hardly blame me; they have such good publicists. Some of their propoganda triumphs include: countless retellings of The Ugly Duckling; encore performances of Swan Lake; Schubert’s relabelled Schwanengesang; and the Sydney Swans being in the AFL grand final for two years running.

You don’t see a lot of swans in Australia so to me, they’ve been mythical beings. When I arrived in England, I was lucky enough to spot a swan on the River Cam. Excitedly, I snapped dozens of photos. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! I was paparazzo.

In the seven months I’ve been here, I’ve come to the realisation that they’re everywhere. That’s right, swans are everywhere. Common as dirt, and they nearly all belong to the Queen.

Mum’s first day in Cambridge: ‘Oh, mum, don’t bother with that old thing. They’re everywhere.’

‘Hello, swan, we meet again.’

‘Smile for the camera!’

Smiling for the camera.

‘What, you call us all the way here and there’s no food? We’re leaving!’

They left behind a feather as a mark of their disdain.

Stonehenge and Warwick Castle

I am in a bed-and-breakfast in Warwick, a small Tudor town in the middle of England. My parents and I have spent the last three days at Stonehenge, in Bath and at Warwick Castle. The castle was particularly enjoyable — we spent 5.5 hours there. It’s like a medieval theme park in a real historic setting. Stonehenge was less impressive; we made the mistake of going on a sunny Good Friday holiday so were stuck in a traffic jam for more than an hour, just two miles from the site. It wasn’t a waste of time, though. The audio tour makes all the difference.

Stonehenge on a beautiful spring day.

There were lots of tourists, all posing and taking photos. I’m kind of sad that every tourist seems to have a camera and is mindlessly snapping away. I can’t actually complain because I probably do it as well. It just feels like the way people hunt and take trophy animals; they’re taking trophy photos to prove that they were here.

Anyway, what I meant to write is that I like this little guy’s way of posing.

One of the younger tourists-with-cameras.

Warwick Castle is very impressive. I don’t have a photo of it in its entirety because I used a telephoto lens today (and was too lazy to change it). Hopefully, I will get some good photos of it from my parent’s camera. Here I am in front of the Castle Mound.

The Warwick Bowman was very funny. He was the highlight of the visit. If he was a rock star, I would be a groupie. Here he is, demonstrating to Alex (the boy) and the crowd how inadequate bowman armour is for protecting people against a sword strike to the neck.

We were lucky in that I accidentally arranged to be at Warwick Castle on the Easter weekend. Easter Sunday (today) is the anniversary of the death of the Earl of Warwick in the Battle of Barnet in 1471. Today, there was a full scale re-enactment of a siege battle. It’s actually less riveting than you might expect but I appreciate the effort the actors have gone to. The armour is really heavy and hot, especially on a warm day like today.

I am not sure why there were women on the battlefield. These women had come down from the ‘camp’. We visited earlier and the actors were lying around, cooking or making armour and shoes. They cook pheasant, rabbit and bread and eat it throughout the day! Imagine getting paid to do that! Dress up in costumes, relax in tents and eat!