A wee bit of culture shock

Some things make me feel so very American.

1. When I say “have a good day,” and the other person interprets it as a question.

2. Orderly bus queues.

(I grew up in New York City. At a glance, I can determine how best to position myself so I am among the first to board any oncoming bus or train. Here, the part of the brain that could be devoted to that task is instead used to remember everyone’s place in the bus queue. People track the smokers standing to one side, the friends standing together who did not arrive together, and the unruly three year olds who are swinging on the bench. And the order of arrival is politely, yet strictly, followed when boarding. So I’m learning to wait. Okay, there may have been an incident recently where I swung a small child over my head to snag an empty seat on the train. But there are always bumps in the road.)

3. The time I offered my friend a peanut butter cup, and she visibly recoiled.

4. When I see a date written as, say, 5/9/14 – and I have to stop to think about which country I’m in, and which country it’s referring to, before I know whether it’s already happened.

5. Filling out any form that asks for my race/ethnicity, and there are multiple choices under White, and those choices are White Scottish, White British, White Irish, Polish, and Gypsy/Traveller.

6. When I buy vegetables, and they come wrapped in plastic, and those plastic wrappers have cooking instructions that involve boiling for at least twelve minutes.

Happy Independence Day

I bought some new underwear recently. From the Gap, so no surprises, right? But look at this:

underwear

Can you believe that label? It’s four labels long. Need to know how to wash these underpants in Hungarian? You’re in luck. Because this label contains washing instructions in more than twenty languages. (Including both French and Canadian French. The Canadian French washing instructions are considerably more complex. But I digress.)

According to the Daily Mail (don’t judge), labels like this one are a new European Union requirement. As of 2014, if an item of clothing will be sold in an EU country – or might be sold in an EU country – it must have information printed in the language of that country.

That, to me, is an incredible amount of regulation regarding my underpants. It makes me homesick for the US, where the government would never support an intrusion like that into my… um…

Yeah. Never mind.

Happy Independence Day!

Trip to Arran

We recently spent a week on the Isle of Arran. That’s in Scotland. Really.

tropical

No, really. See?

Lochranza Castle

We saw many things. The baby was kind enough to wake us up in time to see the sun rise over the Firth of Clyde. At 4:27 am.

sunrise

We also saw standing stones at Machrie Moor.

Machrie moor standing stones

And Ireland, from the top of Goat Fell.

view from Goat Fell

Here, let me help you out with that. It’s the bit of land way at the back. See?

view from Goat Fell - Ireland

Three years old

As of Tuesday, I have a three year old.

kid on bike

Some days I want to write down every single thing he says so I can remember it all forever.

Kid: “Take your face off and put it on the apple.”
Me: “But then I won’t have a face.”
Kid: “Then you won’t be able to yell at me.”

Some days I don’t.

My three year old loves trains. Especially trains with faces. He thinks toys with wheels make the best presents. But dinosaurs are pretty good too. Last weekend he convinced us to buy him a toy in the museum gift shop by saying that he needed a Parasaurolophus. He insists that he wants us to paint his walls his favorite color: red. (We’ve been reluctant.) He has a best friend. It took him 45 minutes to pick out his newest pair of shoes. And when it rained the next day, he made us carry him everywhere so they wouldn’t get wet. He can make his baby sister stop crying just by talking to her. He has excellent taste in chocolate. But sometimes he doesn’t want chocolate because it will make him too sugary.

And he’s adjusted remarkably well to a year of huge changes. (Better than his parents, we suspect.)

We’re still here!

We’ve been here a year! (Plus 5 days or so.)

I remember the days before we arrived – newly pregnant, recently robbed, and seriously questioning our sanity.

But what do you know, we’re still here.

I love this city, I really do. Although I’ve experienced it in a totally different way than anyplace I’ve ever lived before. I generally feel like the best ways to get to know a new place are to take long walks, find the best places to eat, and find a couple of great places to relax (namely bars and coffee shops). But being pregnant made all of those things far more difficult. Let’s just say I would not recommend getting knocked up as a strategy for getting to know a new city.

Now that the baby’s here, I’m taking plenty of long walks, eating a LOT (although not at terribly fancy places), and working on visiting every coffee shop within a two mile radius. And taking advantage of the fact that nearly every bar in the city allows kids in during the day. I’ve gone from barely getting out at all while pregnant to getting out constantly and ruthlessly with a small baby in tow. I have learned the precise water resistance limits of all of my jackets, let me tell you.

I’ve heard that it’s impossible to really judge a place you’ve been living until you’ve been there at least a year – because it takes at least that long just to settle in. And living here, while an adventure in some ways, is also just life. I mean, we have jobs and kids and furniture and way too much stuff and families to visit (STILL) and a mortgage and all the other trappings of being grownups. I also know that some of both the shiny newness and the crippling unfamiliarity of the place will be wearing off over these next few months. So watch this space…

Too many clothes, part 1

I would love to be a person who lives simply, who shops mindfully, and who has little enough stuff to be able to pack up and move at a moment’s notice.

Clearly I am not this person. Recall:

our stuff

In an attempt to have less stuff and simplify my life, I decided to keep all of the kid’s old baby clothes, pack them away in huge plastic boxes (which are terribly green*), and bring them to Scotland. Wait, no, it made sense at the time. I wouldn’t need to buy any new baby clothes!

This strategy probably works really well for some people. Do you know when it does not work? When one kid is born in May, in California.

dressing the kid

And the other is born in December, in Scotland.

dressing the baby

On the bright side, she’ll soon start to grow into his winter clothes, which might just get her through the summer here.

Fortunately, we have extremely generous relatives. And friends. And friends of relatives. So we now have a full set of nice, new, warm clothes for the baby. To, um, complement our full set of nice, slightly worn, not-so-warm clothes for the baby.

What, I should just throw them away? There could be a heat wave.

So yeah, that simplifying thing is going really well.

* Really. They’re bright green. From Target. (I miss Target.)

Tax day

The spouse and I are both US citizens. So no matter where we live, we have to fill out US tax returns every year. (So will our kids. Kids, thank us later!)

Usually I don’t mind doing my taxes. Secretly? I even kind of like it. Because here’s what doing my taxes looks like:

- I figure out which questions I need to answer this year (past examples have included: do I need to pay tax on my untaxed student stipend, and what do I do about my “non-resident alien” spouse whom I married three days before the end of the tax year?).
– I research the answers to my questions.
– I use software that, while not perfect, at least does most of the calculation work for me.
– Sometimes I get to make charts.
– For a few hours’ work, I get a large chunk of money deposited directly into my bank account.

While here’s what being a grad student looks like:

- I figure out which questions I need to answer this year.
– I research the answers to my questions.
– I use software that, while not perfect, at least does most of the calculation work for me.
– Sometimes I get to make charts.
– For many, many hours of work, I get very little money deposited directly into my bank account.

I feel like the US system of taxation recognizes my true worth.

(Now, don’t tell me that my practice of overwithholding is essentially giving free money to the government while depriving myself of interest income. Interest rates are, what, 0.1 or 0.2% these days? The government can keep its handful of change, while I get the psychological boost of receiving what feels like the closest I’ll ever come to an actual bonus for a job well done.)

The process was a little less enjoyable this year, though. It was kind of like my second year of grad school: I spent far too long researching the answers to questions that didn’t really matter. For example:

Can I claim mortgage interest paid in another country? Yes – but only if I itemize – which it would have been nice to have realized would NOT be advantageous before I constructed a spreadsheet to calculate what portion of every mortgage payment I’ll make for the next twenty-five years will be interest rather than principal. (Why not just ask the bank, you wonder? Well, when I contacted my bank here to find out how much mortgage interest I paid in 2013… I got locked out of my online account. I still have no idea why. But it did put me off asking again. On the bright side, well, now I have a nice spreadsheet.)

Can Turbo Tax account for taxes paid on two or more sources of passive foreign income? Apparently not, at least not easily – or at least not easily enough to be worth the effort that I found myself putting into trying to claim back $18. Don’t even get me started on that.

And so on. At least I ended up getting quite a bit of money back, and I don’t think I did anything that could land me in federal prison. It helped that we had a baby two weeks before the end of the year who netted us an extra grand in child tax credits (score!), and also that we only actually had US-based income for a couple of months. But I still found myself looking shiftily around the room before I clicked ‘submit’.

Till next year, IRS…

Note: I am not an accountant or tax professional. Nothing here should be construed as “advice”, or even “useful”. Seriously.