Thursday, 19 November 2009

Surviving the Winter Blues: How to Embrace the Dark and Gray

I write this from my fourth-story living room where the rain is beating heavily against the windows and pressing all around me, is the aura of gray. It's 2:00PM, but already the daylight has a spent, dwindling feeling. It will have faded almost completely in another two hours. And there's still another month before the winter solstice, which means the darkness will only increase before it begins to decrease again.

One of the perks of living in the UK is the luxuriously long summer days one experiences here. But, the flip side is of course, the dark, darkness of winter. A source I just found, documents the shortest day of the year in Northern Scotland as being 6 hours and 20 minutes in length, with a sunrise at 9:00AM and a sunset at 3:20PM. Sounds familiar.

My point in writing isn't to spread the gloom, though it may sound that way from my mood so far! As I stare into the face of my second winter here, I've been trying to think of ways to counteract the gloom and embrace the gray. Here are some of my thoughts.

1. Exercise. Go for a walk, a run, a hike, a bike ride. Go kick a ball around in the rain. Don't worry about getting all muddy. Embrace the elements. Try to have fun. Being cold and wet and muddy might just make you feel more alive, besides the happy feelings that come along with getting your heart rate up.

2. Drink tea. It's cheap, it tastes good and it helps keep you warm. The perfect winter combo.

3. Use candles excessively. Part of embracing the darkness is trying to turn it from something oppressive into something, well...romantic, for lack of a better word. You can buy a large box of tea lights for very cheap, so you don't need to feel bad about burning through them quickly. Have a candlelight dinner. Even brushing your teeth can feel interesting when done by candlelight. Put a candle in your bedroom before you go to bed to make a cold bedroom feel just a little more inviting.

4. Turn on the lights before it gets dark. (This is something I learned from my oldest sister who lives in the Seattle area where winters are also very dark.) She finds that if she turns on some lamps about half an hour before the daylight starts to fade, she can counteract the late afternoon blah's that come when that dingy, gray daylight is filling your house.

5. Try to wake up early. I know it's hard, especially when it's still pitch black outside. But, with relatively few hours of daylight, it's important to take advantage, and waking up early allows you to meet the light when it arrives. Many people find that mornings are a particularly productive time, even when it's dark, while productivity often wanes on dark afternoons. Waking up early enables you to capitalize on your own energy.

6. Surround yourself with green. Studies have shown that the color green is important for counteracting depression. A great source of green, is of course, plants. If you can get your hands on some house plants, great. If not, here are a few ideas:

  • Buy some green onions (scallions or spring onions) at the grocery store. Bring 'em home and stick 'em in a jar of water so that the bulbs are covered. Leave them on the counter or on a windowsill somewhere. They should last up to two months, maybe longer. You can still use them for culinary purposes too, of course.
  • Take a pair of scissors and go find an overgrown hedge somewhere and do a little "trimming". Bring the "trimmings" home and arrange them nicely in an old jar or bottle. Some hedge trimmings will stay green for months. Others might lose their leaves after a few weeks.
  • Do the above, but with ivy, which also abounds in most areas of the UK.
7. Use music to set the mood. Don't underestimate the importance of putting on music throughout your day. Energizing music can help you find energy during the day. Soothing music can make a dark, dull evening feel pleasant and relaxing.

8. Bake. Take advantage of these cold months to fill your home with the wonderful smells and delicious flavors of home baking. Besides, having the oven on keeps the place extra warm.

Other suggestions welcome!

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Saturday, 14 November 2009

Cheap Dinner Ideas: 10 Easy Recipes from 15p/person

Learning to grocery shop, let alone cook in a new country is an adventure. New foods, different ingredients and incongruous price tags can leave you feeling a little lost. You may feel like some of the recipes you brought from home are suddenly not very practical anymore. Below are ten recipes made from ingredients readily accessible in the UK and available for less than £1 per person: in some cases, considerably less. Most are fairly quick and easy, though if you're not used to cooking from scratch, they may take a little adjustment.

Pizza with Bacon & Caramelized Onions
Spicy Indian Dahl with Mashed Potatoes (vegetarian)
Grilled Open-Faced Sandwiches
Curried Lentils Over Rice (vegetarian)
Delicious French Onion Soup in Thirty-Minutes
Couscous Salad with Black Beans (vegetarian)
Creamy Pesto Pasta
Lentils San Stefano
Thai Peanut Chicken with Coconut Milk
Spiced Bacon and Lentil Soup

Note 1: I have included a rough price per person at the bottom of each recipe. This is an estimate of how much it costs me to make the dish, though, as I'm always saying, it will likely vary a little depending on your location.

Note 2: You will be able to see that I'm caught between two worlds right now. Some of these recipes use American measurements and others use British. One or two may even include some of each! I'll continue updating to try to make sure each recipe includes both British and American measurements. Just leave me a comment if you have questions.

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Spiced Bacon and Lentil Soup

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 8 rashers smoked bacon (or equivalent 'cooking bacon'), chopped
  • 450g potatoes, cut into chunks
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1.7 litres fresh vegetable stock, hot
  • 300g dried red or brown lentils
  • Handful chopped fresh coriander (or for color and nutrition, a handful of chopped spinach leaves)
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and bacon and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, cook for 3-4 minutes, then add the garlic and cumin and cook for 1 minute.

2. Add the stock and lentils, boil, then skim off the scum that forms on the surface. Simmer for 15 minutes, until tender. Add spinach if using. Set aside to cool slightly.

3. Season. Divide between bowls, sprinkle with the coriander and serve with warm rustic bread.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.30/person.)

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Thai Peanut Chicken with Coconut Milk

  • 1 cup cooked, shredded chicken*
  • 2 tablespoons butter or peanut oil
  • 1-2 shallots or one small onion
  • 1 green or red chili or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 carrot, shredded
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
  • 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • salt to taste

Saute shallot and chili in butter/oil. Add shredded carrot, lemon juice, soy sauce, curry powder, ginger and sesame oil. Saute another 2-3 minutes. Add peanut butter and stir well. Add coconut milk and simmer gently for a few minutes. Taste and adjust flavors. Add cooked chicken. Add salt to taste. Serve over rice or couscous.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.55/person.)

*For cheaper chicken I typically buy a whole chicken (fresh or frozen). I cook it (either boiling it or baking it till done), remove all the meat from the carcass, chop it and divide it up into cup-sized portions for the freezer. Then I boil the carcass for a delicious chicken stock.

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Lentils San Stefano

This is a fabulous lentil stew made from very simple ingredients. The key to the great taste is careful preparation. You may want to read the recipe through carefully before beginning.

  • 8 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 lb (1 1/8 cups) lentils
  • 3 bacon slices, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 slices baguette, sliced to 1/2 inch thickness and toasted
  • 1/2 lb potatoes (2 medium), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 (14- to 15-oz) can whole tomatoes in juice, finely chopped and juice reserved
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano

Bring 3 cups water and bay leaf to a boil in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan, then add lentils and simmer, uncovered, 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let lentils soak 1 hour. Drain lentils in a colander.

Cook bacon in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until deep golden and some fat is rendered, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain and reserve for garnish, leaving fat in the pot.

Add oil to fat in pot and heat over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then fry bread, turning once, until golden, about 1 minute total. Transfer toasts to paper towels to drain and lightly season with salt. Add potatoes to fat in pot and sauté, stirring, until golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Add onion and garlic to pot and sauté, stirring, until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in lentils, tomatoes with their juice, sugar, salt, pepper, and remaining 5 cups water and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until lentils are just tender and stew is thickened, 40 to 45 minutes. Discard bay leaf and stir in potatoes, basil, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Thin stew with water if desired, then serve over toasts or with toasts on the side. Sprinkle with bacon if using.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.33/person.)

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Creamy Pesto Pasta

This is a very quick and easy little pasta dish to throw together.

1 pound bow tie or corkscrew pasta
1/4 pound bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons pesto (available in jars at the grocery store)
3-4 cloves garlic
6-8 mushrooms, sliced
handful of fresh, chopped spinach (optional)

Cook pasta according to package directions. Cook bacon in frying pan until done. Add butter and garlic and saute 1 minute over medium heat. Add pesto, mushrooms and spinach. Saute about 3 minutes or until mushrooms begin to shrink. Add cream and turn off heat just before it begins to boil. Toss with pasta and serve.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.75/person.)

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Couscous Salad with Black Beans (vegetarian)

This dish makes a great meal on a warm, summer evening.

  • 280ml (10 fl oz) chicken or vegetable stock
  • 175g (6 oz) uncooked couscous
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 8 green (spring) onions, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, seeded & chopped
  • small bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
  • 175g (6 oz) sweetcorn
  • 2 (400g) tins black beans, drained (or equivalent dried, soaked and boiled)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring chicken or vegetable stock to a boil in a large saucepan and stir in the couscous. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand for 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, vinegar and cumin. Add spring onions, red pepper, coriander, sweetcorn and beans and toss to coat.
Fluff the couscous well, breaking up any chunks with a fork. Add to the bowl with the vegetables and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve at once or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.80/person.)

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Curried Lentils over Rice with Roti Bread (vegetarian)

I got a version of this recipe from my little sister in the US. I've adapted it to make it vegetarian, but you can use chicken instead of lentils if you prefer. This recipe calls for lots of spices. Check out a local Indian food store for cheaper, bulk quantities to keep on hand.

Curried Lentils

  • 1 cup dry lentils
  • 4 onions, diced
  • 8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 inch fresh ginger (or 1 1/2 teaspoons ground)
  • 1 Tablespoon ground coriander seed
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1 Tablespoon garam masala*
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 28 oz diced or crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup double (or heavy) cream
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar

Soak and cook lentils according to package directions. Heat oil in heavy pan and saute onion over medium heat until deep brown for 25 to 30 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, coriander, turmeric, cumin, garam masala and cayenne. Saute additional 2 minutes. Add lentils and 1 cup of water and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in tomato and cook 5 more minutes. Add cream.

Serve over rice and garnish with cilantro if desired.

Roti Bread
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 4-6 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 3/4-1 cup water

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and garam masala.
Stir in 2 tablespoons oil and enough water so dough is soft but not sticky.
Divide dough into 10 balls.
Cover and let rest 5 minutes.
Roll dough into very thin circles.
Brush both sides with oil.
For each roti heat 1 teaspoon oil in large skillet.
Cook 1 min per side on medium heat or until top starts to bubble.

Note: You may put them into a sealable bag when still warm if you don't plan to eat them all fresh. This will keep them flexible.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.50/person.)

*Garam masala is a type of curry powder available in many grocery stores or India food stores.

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Grilled Open-Faced Sandwiches

I am always surprised by how delicious and satisfying these easy, open-faced sandwiches are. Serve with a nice side-salad or a soup and dinner is made! Also, experimenting with other toppings can be quite rewarding.

  • 1 loaf French bread
  • 2-3 tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 2 shallots thinly sliced
  • slices of sharp, white cheddar cheese
  • thinly sliced, cured chorizo (looks kind of like a peperoni stick)
  • fresh basil leaves (we grow our own--can use dried if necessary)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Slice as much bread as you plan to use and brush each slice generously with olive oil on one side. Arrange tomatoes, chorizo, and basil over each slice, then top with shallots and cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange slices in a broiler pan and broil for 5 to 10 minutes, watching carefully to avoid burning.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.65/person.)

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Delicious French Onion Soup in Thirty-Minutes

This simple soup is surprisingly filling and a wonderful dish to enjoy on a cold, rainy night. Why not make your own loaf of easy, delicious Artisan bread to go with it?

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 T butter
  • 6 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup white cooking wine
  • 6 cups beef stock (made from bouillon is fine)
  • 4 thick slices thick, crusty bread
  • Several slices sharp Cheddar or fresh Mozzarella cheese

Saute onions, herbs and spices over medium heat for 15-18 minutes. Add wine and simmer for 1 minute. Add beef stock and bring back to a boil. Toast the bread. Pour soup into bowls and put toasted bread on top. Arrange several slices of cheese over bread and, if desired, put bowls in hot oven till cheese has melted. Serve immediately with remainder of bread.

Serves 4. (This meal costs about £0.15/person.)

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Spicy Indian Dahl with Mashed Potatoes (vegetarian)

This is a really cheap meal if you have all the spices on hand.


  • 25g Butter
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 225g red or brown lentils
  • 700ml water
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped cilantro (optional)

For the dahl, heat the butter and oil in a saucepan, and add the onions, garlic, cayenne and a pinch of salt. Cook on a low heat until the onions are soft.

Tip in the lentils and stir for a few seconds before adding about 150ml water. Simmer until the water has been absorbed by the lentils. Continue adding the rest of the water, and cook until the lentils are soft and the water absorbed. Add the cumin, turmeric and chopped coriander and serve piping hot. (As an alternative, just cook the lentils on their own and when soft add them to the saute above. Then add the spices.)

Mashed Potatoes
  • 1kg Potatoes, even-sized, scrubbed, unpeeled
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 50g Butter
  • 200ml hot milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Garam Masala
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (optional)

For the mashed potatoes, boil the potatoes for five minutes in water to cover. Continue cooking on a lowish heat now. After about 15 minutes, add the whole garlic cloves to the pan, and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender. Mash potatoes and garlic together, then add the butter and incorporate. Add boiling milk, the chilli, garam masala and chopped coriander. Serve straight away with the dahl.

Serves 4 (This meal costs about £0.22/person.)

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Pizza with Bacon & Caramelized Onion

Every Friday night is pizza night at our house. Not only does it give us something to look forward to (since we love pizza!), but I love not having to think about what to make for dinner that night--the decision is already made! At first when we moved to the UK, we tried to make pizza the same way we had in the States. After a few months of exploring the grocery stores and a lot of experimentation, our ingredients changed to fit both the budget and the unique options available here.

This is one of our favorite pizza concoctions that conveniently has a very low price-tag attached. The dough can be made up to a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.

For the Dough:

  • 3/4 cup warm water (105°F to 115°F)
  • 1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 2 cups (or more) all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Pour warm water into a large bowl bowl; stir in yeast. Let stand until yeast dissolves, about 5 minutes.

Add flour, sugar, salt and olive oil all at once; stir well until dough forms a sticky ball. Transfer to lightly floured surface. Knead dough until smooth, adding more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is very sticky, about 1 minute. Transfer back to bowl, coated with a bit of oil; turn dough in bowl to coat completely with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise in warm area until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Punch down dough. (Can be made up to 1 day in advance. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.) Roll out dough according to recipe instructions. (Start in center of dough, working outward toward edges but not rolling over them.)

While the dough is rising you can prepare the toppings.

For the Toppings:

To caramelize the onions you will need:

  • 4 medium-sized onions
  • 1 heaping teaspoon dried or fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan on high. Peel onions and slice thinly. Add onions, thyme and bay leaf to pan and saute for 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Continue cooking onions, stirring occasionally. If they begin to get crispy or dry out, add a splash of water and reduce heat further. Repeat if necessary. You want the onions soft--almost gooey. Cook for 30 minutes or so. Onions should have turned a deep brown color--caramelized! Remove bay leaf. Set aside.

Prepare the bacon:
  • 250 grams 'cooking bacon'* (equivalent of 6-8 rashers/strips)

[*'Cooking bacon' is an assortment of leftover bacon cuts packaged together and sold very cheaply. It tastes more like ham or Canadian bacon than traditional America bacon. I buy a 1 kilo package, bring it home and divide it four ways, using only one part and freezing the other three parts for future pizza nights.]

Cook bacon in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat until done. (You can use the same pan as the onions--no need to wash it! All these flavors will be blending together anyway.) Chop roughly. Set aside.

  • About 15 dry, salt or oil-cured black olives, pits removed
  • 2 fresh tomatoes, sliced semi-thinly
  • 1-2 balls fresh mozzarella, sliced semi-thinly
  • Olive Oil
If you have a pizza stone, put it in the cold oven and then preheat oven to 450 degrees. (If you don't, try creating a stone surface by putting clean bricks or flat stones in your oven. If you're not that adventurous, just use the thickest baking sheet you have, and only put it in the oven 5 minutes before putting the pizza in.) When dough is done rising, divide into two balls. Taking one ball of dough, roll it out or toss it until it forms a disc between 10 and 12 inches across. Place on cutting board thoroughly covered with cornmeal, semolina or flour. Using a pastry brush, coat with olive oil and slide into hot oven directly onto stone. Bake for about 5 minutes--until no longer doughy, but not browned or crisp. Remove and place on cooling rack. Repeat with other ball of dough.

Taking the now-par-baked crust, coat again with olive oil. Spread half of the caramelized onions over the surface, then the bacon, tomatoes, olives and finally the cheese. Return to oven for about 10 more minutes--until the cheese is thoroughly melted and the crust takes on a nice golden color. Repeat with second pizza. Cut in quarters or sixths. Serve hot.

Makes 2 medium pizzas. (If feeding 2 people, this meal will cost about £0.82/person)

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Friday, 6 November 2009

Take the Guess Work Out of Packing

The Universal Packing List

I thought this website was funny and kind of clever. All you have to do is fill in your travel criteria and it will spit out a customized packing list to take the guess work out of preparing for your trip. With most airlines now charging for checked luggage, it pays to pack carefully. Your packing list will also contain all kinds of helpful instructions such as taking out the garbage, turning on/off the heat, even...shaving. If you're a list person like I am, you'll love this little tool.

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Money Saving Tip #5: Buy a Magic Jack

I previously wrote about the money-saving benefits of using Skype for calling home while away. Of course I'm still a big Skype supporter, especially for totally free video calling and calling other Skypers for free. However if you need to call a land line from Skype, you are subject to their international calling rate of something like 3 cents/minute. While this is a still a really good deal, there is something better. The Magic Jack. (Thanks, Wes, for the suggestion!)

The Magic Jack is a small, simple device you plug simultaneously into your computer and your phone. It then enables you to pick up your phone and start making free calls to the US and Canada. It's pretty simple. Here are a couple things to know.

1. The Magic Jack service costs $19.95/year. There is a one time fee of $20 to purchase the device. So, the first year, your total cost will be $39.95. Subsequent years will be only $19.95. (By way of contrast, we spent about $60 last year buying Skype credit.) You are entitled to make and receive as many phone calls as you like--your total annual cost will still only be $19.95.

2. You will be given a free phone number with an area code that you get to choose. This means people can call you too. We chose our parents' area code in Washington State. That way, though we live in the UK, they can call us and it's a local call for them.

3. According to the website, you can make calls only to US and Canadian numbers for free. However, registered users can also purchase low cost minutes for international calls.

4. Along with the free local number, the service also includes free voice mail, call waiting, three-way calling and call forwarding.

5. This may just be a personal thing, but I thought the Magic Jack website looked kind of sketchy. If we hadn't known people who've used the service successfully, I would have been inclined to think it was a scam. Check it out, though, for more information and to order. Note, they do not currently ship to the UK--only to the US and Canada. If you're already in the UK, just have it shipped to family or friends and have them forward it to you.

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Monday, 2 November 2009

Flying with a Baby

Having recently completed two international airplane journeys with our infant, I thought I'd throw out some long-haul travel ideas. Before we left for our second trip I was encouraged by some moms to get something like Benadryl to "encourage" the baby to sleep. I considered it for a while because our first experience had been pretty rough, but wasn't sure what to do. I finally decided to buy some in case I was really desperate, but to try to get by without it. Well, the decision was made when I discovered that neither of the drugstores I visited would sell anything like that for use on a child under six years old. I was really surprised! Just as well as I've since read recent studies that strongly discourage anything of the kind.

So, the following are some practical, natural (as in, non-medical) tips for helping you and your baby cope with a long flight, both for sleeping and for trying to stay occupied and relatively quiet while you travel.

1. Bassinet: If your baby is 22 pounds or less request a bassinet. This can be an invaluable way to free up your tired, sweaty arms, especially if you're traveling alone. It's basically just a little bed that hooks into the wall in front of you. In order to use one, you have to be sitting in the front of a section, so make sure when you make your reservations, that you choose your seat carefully. It may be worth a phone call to the airline to see if they can arrange it for you. Also, make sure you verify it when you check in.

2. Sleep Prop: Before you travel, choose an item for your baby to sleep with and work toward creating a sleep association. This could be a blanket, stuffed animal, pacifier or anything soft or cuddly that's safe to sleep with. (If you don't let your baby sleep with anything for safety reasons, disregard this point.) Make sure you only give the item to your baby when it's time to sleep. Then, when you are on the plane and your baby finds himself in a new environment, he will be able to understand that it's time to sleep when you pull out the sleeping prop. This worked wonderfully for us on our most recent trip.

3. Cheerios: If your baby is old enough for solids, I strongly recommend an investment in a box of Cheerios. They're not just food, they're interesting to play with (prior to eating, of course), make a relatively small and easy to clean up mess, and take a long time to eat. Put one at a time in your hand and make your baby pick it up for himself. This should be good for at least 30 minutes of entertainment!

4. Nurse/Bottlefeed: Of course, there's the conventional wisdom about nursing during takeoff and landing to help those little ears pop. Also good for keeping baby quiet and occupied for a few minutes.

5. Goody Bag: Assemble a little bag of never-before-seen items for your baby to play with. DO NOT take toys that your child is used to playing with. Save your precious space for new things that will keep baby occupied much longer. But, before you run out to the store to buy a bunch of new toys, do a walk around your house and see what kinds of safe, interesting household objects you have that might enthrall your baby for hours. Here are a couple of ideas from our recent trip with an 8 month old: a new toothbrush (this was a BIG hit). (Make sure it's a soft-bristled brush to avoid chaffing his little gums); a well-washed silicon pastry brush; a rubber spatula; a brightly colored ribbon; a Tupperware lid; half of a wooden clothes pin (without the spring, of course). I kept this odd assortment of things in a little zip up bag--like a toiletries bag--that he could also play with. That way everything was contained and I didn't have kitchen gadgets roaming free through my diaper bag. Speaking of diaper bags...

6. Organize your Diaper Bag: This is essential. The temptation when traveling is to let carry-ons become the dumping spot for everything that didn't fit elsewhere. As a result you end up with bulging, disorganized bags and it's impossible to find what you want when you want it. There's nothing worse when traveling with a baby. If you possibly can, ensure that the diaper bag is carrying only baby's things and that they are only things that are absolutely necessary. For instance, does he really need three changes of clothes? Ten diapers and a whole container of wipes? Six jars of baby food? Are bigger toys really better than small? Think carefully through every item you place in the bag and your ride will be much more pleasant for all.

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Friday, 30 October 2009

Reflections on the UK Health System

I have talked to several Americans who've had really horrible experiences with the UK's National Health Service. Others have been full of praise and thoroughly surprised by the level of attentive care they were given. Here are my general reflections about how you might find the care over here, especially as it differs from the American system. I realize being totally unbiased is not possible, but I'll do the best I can.

The fundamental thing to remember about the NHS is that because they are a branch of the government, they do not function like the American private practice system. In short, their primary aim is not to please you. Health care workers have little incentive to make concessions, do things your way or bend over backwards for you. This is because their livelihood does not depend on your satisfaction with their work--they are paid by the government, not by you. This is not to say, of course, that health care professionals in the UK are heartless and lazy. I cringe just typing that sentence. I have had some wonderful doctors here who have worked hard on my behalf and shown a great deal of care about me and my family. I have also had some who nearly put me in tears because of their calloused, unconcerned and unmotivated air. The funny thing is, I could say the same thing about doctors I've had in the US. The difference is, in the US, you have the choice to leave and go find a doctor you like better. Your options here are much more limited, often non-existent.

As a result of this foundational difference, here are some things you might face (based on my experience and that of friends):


1. Dead ends: You may feel that your doctor in the UK will not try as hard you think he/she could to find solutions to your health concerns, particularly if the problem is complicated. For instance, a friend in his 30's, after snapping the arch in his foot, was told by his UK doctor that he would never walk again. He was offered no further assistance. He flew back to the US to see his doctor at home and was walking again within a week.

2. Rigid Compliance to Rules: You may feel your health care provider cares more about the rules or the system than about your needs. We recently had a friend whose NHS prenatal classes were completely canceled. When she asked her midwife how to proceed, i.e., how/where to get the replacement classes, she was told she'd just have to go without because the other classes were full. Another friend was forced to leave her doctor's appointment after 10 minutes because her time was up. They didn't care that she had more questions and concerns to discuss.

3. Limited Options: As I said above, your choice of a health care provider will likely be somewhat limited. If you don't like the practice you're at, changing practices will not necessarily be a sinch if it's possible at all. In my experience, you are only permitted to register at the practice that is nearest where you live. The exception is if there is a practice that generally accomodates the University students, though these practices often have heavy burdens placed on their resources and you may find better care at the one closer to home.


Remember, it's free. Whenever I face something unpleasant, I remind myself that the care I'm getting is 100% free. I was talking to a friend in the US last week who's about to have a baby. Adding herself and the new baby to her husband's insurance plan is going to cost them $700/month. Having the baby, even with insurance, will cost them several thousand dollars. Sometimes I can hardly believe we don't have to think about those enormous expenses!

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Having a Baby in the UK: What to Expect for Delivery and Recovery

I already posted on what you might be able to expect from the antenatal (prenatal) maternity care in the UK. Here are some thoughts on the delivery side of things.

1. The NHS midwives generally give you the option to have your baby in the hospital or in your own home under their care. Some areas also have birthing centres.

2. Your antenatal midwife will almost certainly not be the one to deliver your baby. Antenatal midwives and birthing midwives typically have distinct and separate jobs here.

3. If you choose to have your baby in the hospital, you will be given a private room for delivery. After delivery you will be transferred to a recovery room. Recovery rooms are typically shared with up to three other postnatal women and their babies.

4. Your baby will typically be left with you after delivery and throughout recovery, not taken to a nursery.

5. I think it's fair to say that the midwives treat delivery in a less medical way than it is often treated in the States. It will not be normal for you to be strapped down with IV's and other tubes connected to you. You should be a be able to move about freely during labor if you want to.

6. In my experience, your husband will not be allowed to stay at the hospital with you overnight.

Things you might not have expected to have to take to the hospital, but probably should:

1. A gown or something you don't mind giving birth in. That's right, the hospital does not typically provide you with a hospital gown to wear.

2. Nappies/Diapers. The hospital staff will expect you to have brought your own supply. They may send your husband to the store to buy some if you haven't.

3. Flip flops. Without going into too much detail, just remember you may be sharing a shower with up to three other post-natal women.

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Thursday, 15 October 2009

Afraid of Flying? Try this

Well, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this but since having a baby I have developed an annoying fear of flying. Annoying because I live in the UK and that means that plane travel is an inevitability of my life right now. In fact, since this fear developed less than eight months ago, I have taken six flights and am about to make another trip in a few days. I probably would have just assumed that I was kind of crazy and tried to deal with it on my own had it not been for two things: 1.)I've now spoken with two other students/student spouses here who have developed a fear of flying (okay, so at least there are three of us!) and 2.) I found this course online designed just for people like me. Apparently there are thousands of us closet airplane-fearers out there!

My fears haven't extended into the realm of hyperventilating or having a panic attack or anything like that--I've just come to dread the whole experience--the lack of control, the unexpected noises, landings, take-offs, turbulence--it all makes me a little jittery. I've apparently done a good job of keeping it to myself, though. In fact, I mentioned it to my generally observant husband the other night and he looked at me surprised and said, "You're afraid of flying?" I was grateful at least that I hadn't appeared to be a nervous wreck!

It was in my desire actually to enjoy this next flight and not be gripping the armrests half the time, that I decided to see what help I could find online and that's how I found the course. It's called Fear of Flying Help Course and it's a free online course designed to help travelers overcome their fear of flying. Pretty straightforward. The course consists of reading through five lessons and watching short embedded video clips (also available on youtube) along the way. It took me an hour or two to complete. It was designed by an airline pilot and walks you through what all those noises are that you hear on a plane, what's really happening during turbulence, the construction of an airplane, maintenance requirements, etc.

I admit, parts of it were a bit corny and it would no doubt be silly to those who don't understand the fear in the first place, but I still recommend it to any other flying-fearers out there. It really is free, though at the end he gives you the option of donating if you want to. And, best of all, I can honestly say that after completing the course I'm not worried at all about my upcoming flight. It was definitely effective!

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Saturday, 3 October 2009

Money Saving Tip #4: Don't Pay for Housing

One of the best ways to save money is to reduce your major monthly expenses, and one of the expenses at the top of the list is definitely housing. Just think of the money you'd save if you could eliminate that expense! Not to put too fine a point on it, but it would be somewhere between £5,400 (£450/month) and £9,600 (£800/month) per year depending on the housing prices in your area. And that's to say nothing of utility costs which might be around £1000/year.

The trick to eliminating this expense is to find a live-in position that offers free accommodation as either your entire compensation or part of your compensation. In my experience of looking, these jobs are actually in plentiful supply, you just have to know where to look. I recommend Gumtree, Craigslist and as good places to start. To give you an idea, below are three different positions that I was offered when we moved to Edinburgh. All were willing to accommodate both my husband and me, though two out of the three weren't willing to house a baby too.

Nanny: I was offered free accommodation and utilities along with £200/week payment and plentiful holidays. The work expected was 5 days a week, light housework and minding children who spent most of their day at school. The accommodation was an entire flat in the basement of the home, including our own bath and kitchen.

B&B Caretaker: Free accommodation and utilities with very limited additional pay (probably enough to buy groceries). Accommodation consisted of a double bedroom with shared bathroom and kitchen area. Work was helping prepare breakfast, cleaning rooms and looking after the front desk when the owners were away.

Homeless B&B Caretaker: Free accommodation and utilities plus £200/week. Work required serving breakfast to select homeless people staying in the B&B, light cleaning and locking up at night. Accommodation consisted of spacious flat with own kitchen, but shared bathroom.

As you can see, there are a variety of different options. Others that could be explored are caring for an elderly or disabled person in their home, doing gardening/landscaping on an estate or helping as a farmhand on a nearby farm. These are all opportunities that I have seen available in exchange for housing. Often the position will include a car. Sometimes it will be outside the city center and you'll have to evaluate whether the commute would be worth it. The point is to get you thinking outside the box for solutions to one of the biggest regular drains on your bank account. Happy house hunting!

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Getting a National Health Service (NHS) Number

Remember, as an American studying in the UK for more than six months, you have access to the UK's National Health Service (NHS). This means that you do not need seperate health insurance like you would in the US because the NHS is government operated and functions without the involvement of private insurance companies.

Obtaining your NHS number is pretty simple. All you have to do is register with a GP. (GP means General Practitioner, or doctor.) After your successful registration you will receive, by post, a yellow mailing from the NHS--hopefully within a week or two. This mailing will contain your NHS number in the upper right hand corner. It will also contain your surgery (a.k.a. doctor's office) details and Community Health Index (CHI) Number. Make sure you keep it in a safe place.

Unfortunately, since you need to register at the GP in order to get your NHS number, you cannot apply for it long distance. You must already be residing in the UK.

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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

European Health Insurance Card

If you plan to travel to the Continent during your stay in Britain, you'll want to make sure you apply for a European Health Insurance card. This card, which is FREE to obtain, entitles you to health care while you are away. "The EHIC covers any medical treatment that becomes necessary during your trip...(you'll have) access to state-provided medical treated on the same basis as an 'insured' person living in the country you're visiting. Remember, this...may mean that you have to make a financial contribution to the cost of your care (a 'co-payment')." The card is valid for five years and can be renewed when it expires. "People who are ordinarily resident in the UK are entitled to a UK-issued EHIC (but it is not valid for people who are going to live abroad)."

For those who do not have UK nationality (such as Americans living in the UK), this health insurance is valid in all EU countries, but not in Denmark, Norway, Liechtenstein or Switzerland. Iceland will treat patients for emergency care only.

Here's what you need to do to apply.

1. Go to your local Post Office and request an application form for the European Health Insurance Card. They may tell you just to apply online. If they do, tell them you can't and that you need a paper form. Currently (at the time of writing this post) it is not possible for non-UK nationals to apply online, therefore you need to get an application from the Post Office.

2. Fill out the form. You will need your NHS number or, alternatively, your National Insurance Number. You need only one form per family.

3. In the envelope provided, mail the form to the EHIC Applications Centre. You should receive your new card within 2-3 weeks.

For further information, see the following website:

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Obtaining a National Insurance Number

Everyone who works in the UK, regardless of nationality, must have a National Insurance Number. Most Britons obtain one when they begin work, or around age 16. However, chances are if you're reading this, you haven't yet obtained one and need to know how. Here's a little background first.

A National Insurance Number is different from a National Health Service (NHS) Number. If you're looking for information on getting a NHS number, click here. The NHS number will give you access to free National Health care during your stay in the UK. A National Insurance Number, which is our subject here, is the equivalent of the American Social Security Number. This number is important mostly for tax purposes, though there are special benefits for UK nationals.

In order to apply, here's what you need to do:

1. Contact Jobcentre Plus at 0845 600 0643 (8.00 am to 6.00 pm Monday to Friday) to have your situation reviewed. If they determine that you need a NI Number, they will either set up an interview for you at your local Jobcentre Plus office or mail you an application. (In some cases, you cannot apply for a NI number without a firm job offer.)

2. EITHER Attend your interview on the appropriate day. This shouldn't take more than 30 minutes. They will ask you questions to determine your eligibility to work in the UK, etc. Nothing scary. OR If they don't require you to attend an interview, complete the application and mail back along with copies of your passport and visa.

3. If my experience is normative, they will send you a letter within a week or two containing your new NI number. In about 4-8 weeks, you will get an official NI card for your wallet.

Also note, in my experience, employers are not strict about you having a NI number in order to secure a job, as long as you tell them that you're in the application process, or about to apply. You should be able to give them your NI number as soon as you obtain it.

For more information on applying for a NI number, click here.

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Friday, 10 July 2009

Money Saving Tip #3: Use Skype

Most of you probably already know about Skype. For those who don't I'll give a brief overview plus a couple tidbits you might not already know.

Skype is a program that allows you to make calls from your computer to other computers so you can talk online for free. All you need to do is download the program to your computer and make sure that whoever you want to call has also downloaded it. It is then completely free to make international calls. You must, of course, have a microphone on your computer. If you don't, though, you can always buy one separately and connect it.

The other perk, is of course, the video feature. If you and the friends you're talking to have cameras either on your computer or installed separately, you can talk "face to face".

In addition to the free computer to computer calling feature, though, Skype also has a very cheap rate for calling phones. You still have to call from your computer, but you can call phones in the US for a little under 3¢/minute (that's USD, not GBP). This is a much better rate than you'll get with many phone cards here, many of which will expire within a month of purchase. Here are a few things to note:

-You can set up your Skype account with your payment info, so that if you need to buy more minutes, you can just click a button rather than fishing for your credit card info every time. Especially nice if you're running out of minutes during a phone call.

-Your minutes will not expire as long as you make a call every 180 days. This is from their website: "Skype Credit remains active for 180 days after your last use of a product or feature that uses credit. So making a single call, or sending a single text message will ensure your Skype Credit is active for a further 180 days."

Happy Skyping!

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Gumtree vs. Craigslist

Just a note about Gumtree vs. Craigslist since I've made several references to them already. We were big Craigslist fans in the States and were excited to see that it had expanded to the UK too. However, we quickly found that while it does exist here, it has nowhere near the following here that, a very similar site does. If you want to look for housing, jobs, furniture, etc., you can check Craigslist, but will likely find your options much more extensive at Gumtree.

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UK Grocery Prices

For those of you looking for an idea of what basic food prices will cost you while you're in the UK, here are a few sample items for you. Obviously, we're in Edinburgh, so prices will vary depending on your exact location. Also,I tend to shop for the cheapest brand available--you can certainly spend a lot more if you want to. We do most of our shopping at Sainsbury's, simply because it's the closest, large grocery store to our flat. We also supplement with cheaper items from Iceland and independent, ethnic grocery stores. [Updated 10 May 2010]

Milk: £1.00/4 pints (So, £2.50 a gallon)
Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread: £1.00/loaf
Yogurt: £0.29 for four little pots
Butter: £0.85/250 grams (that's about a cup or two sticks)
Rice: Basmati-- £1.20/kilo Brown--£1.12/kilo
Beans (various): between £0.19 and £0.55/can
Cereal (Fruit & Fiber): £0.64/box (Muesli is £0.58/kilo)
Oatmeal: £0.70/kilo
Apples: (currently) £0.65/kilo (tends to be cheapest in summer months)
Bananas: £0.95/kilo
Vegetables: Usually between £1.68 and £3/kilo
Large Head of Lettuce: £1
Stewed Tomatoes: £0.33/can
Peanut Butter: £0.69/jar
Strawberry Jam: £0.33/jar
Cheddar Cheese: £5.00/kilo
Flour: £0.42/1.5 kilos
Meat: Varies. We can get a large, whole chicken for about £4.50. A bag of 8 small, frozen pork chops costs £2.79.

*Remember a kilo is 2.2 pounds.

If you want to know about specific items, let me know and I'll check them out for you next time I go to the grocery store.

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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Scottish Word Translations

Here’s a rudimentary list of words you might hear or see if you're living in Scotland. Some will be obvious. Others a little less so. Many are probably the same in England, but, not having lived there, I'm not sure.

Ante-natal: Prenatal
Aubergine: Eggplant
Bicarbonate of Soda: Baking Soda
Biscuit: Cookie or Cracker
Black Treacle: Molasses
Bonnet: Hood (of the car)
Boot: Trunk (of the car)
Brofen: Ibuprofen
Chips: French Fries
Crisps: Chips
Coriander: Cilantro
Cot: Crib
Courgette: Zucchini
Crèche: Nursery
Crib or Moses Basket: Bassinet
Diary: Day Planner/Appointment Book
Dummy: Pacifier
Flapjacks: Something like a granola bar
(Lyle's) Golden Syrup: Corn Syrup
Jelly: Jello
Jumper: Pullover Sweater
Mobile: Cell Phone
Napkin: Don't worry, you CAN still say 'napkin'
Nappies: Diapers
Neeps: Turnips
Pants: Underwear
Paracetamol: the equivalent of Acetaminophen
Pavement: Sidewalk
Pudding: Dessert
Rota: Rotational Schedule (like for nursery duty at church)
Rubbish Bin: Garbage Can
Scale & Polish: Tooth Cleaning (at the dentist)
Scan: Ultrasound
Scone: Biscuit or Scone
Tatties: Potatoes
Tea: 'The drink' or another way to say 'Dinner'
Tele: TV
The Wash: Laundry
Traybake: Kind of like brownies: dessert baked in a shallow baking dish & cut into squares
Treble: Triple
Trolley: Shopping Cart
Trousers: Pants
Vanilla Essence: Vanilla Extract
Vest: Baby Onesie
Washing-up Liquid: Dish Soap
Wellies: Rubber Boots

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Setting Up A Bank Account in the UK

I have just a bit to say about banking. We signed up for basic checking and savings accounts when we got here through Lloyds TSB. Since we've had some friends who've had hassles with other banks, I'll just talk about Lloyds--not because they're the only way to go, but because they are all that we know and they've worked really well for us. They are certainly one of the easier banks to open an account with if you're not a UK national.

Here's what we needed:

Proof of Address (an official bill or rental agreement)
A £200 deposit (I'm pretty sure it was only £200--it may have been £250 but certainly no more.)

A few minutes later we walked out with our own UK bank accounts!

Lloyds has great options for online account management, including automatic bill pay.

They have a small overdraft protection for no charge.

They will also coordinate with your US bank to bring funds over directly into your new account if you want. Note there will likely be a charge associated with doing this, but that will come from your US bank. I think we paid something like $35 for the transaction.

If readers have suggestions about other banks to use/not to use, please chime in!

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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

What's in a Fully Furnished Flat?

In case you're wondering what the term "fully furnished flat" means in the UK, here's a basic idea of what you can expect. It's a lot more than just furniture. Obviously, these things will vary somewhat from one place to another, and for your own sake, you'll want to check before you sign anything. Most flats will have gap items that you'll need to go and pick up yourself, but from our experience and that of our friends, this is what you might be able to expect. (For those gap items, don't forget to look at charity shops.)

Pots and Pans
Cooking Utensils
Hot Pot (for boiling water)

Comforter and Cover
Bottom Sheet and Pillowcases (it's not very common to use top-sheets here)


Broom and Dustpan

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What to Pack? General Household Items

Here are some general household items you may want to consider bringing along:

Framed pictures of family and friends: You'll probably want to see familiar faces. (I say framed because if you're like me, it may take you forever to get to the store here to buy new frames and it's just so nice to open up your suitcase when you move in and have things to put up right away. However, if you're organized, just buy the frames when you get here--obviously you'll save on luggage weight if you do. You should be able to buy frames really cheaply--a pound or less if you look in the right places.)

Decorations: If you have small decorations you can throw in, by all means, do so! Small table cloths, candle-holders (tea-lights are easy to get here), little pictures or posters for the walls, a wall calendar, a pretty, light-weight vase, a couple Christmas ornaments, a decorative pillow cover. If you enjoy having them in your home now, you will REALLY enjoy having them when you get here. The point is to make your new flat feel like your home. Again, don't go overboard, but remember, you will probably want these little touches of home more than you realize.

Rags!: Don't overlook the importance of throwing a couple of sturdy cleaning rags in your suitcase. These weigh practically nothing and are invaluable when moving into a new flat that is not up to par with your expectations of cleanliness. While you're at it, throw in a pair of rubber gloves too.

Screwdriver: Hey, it's light-weight and you never know when you might need one!

Pens: Just throw a couple into your suitcase. You can buy more when you get here, but there's nothing worse than not being able to find a pen when you need one, especially when you're flat-hunting. A little note-pad will be helpful too to save the back of your hand from getting covered with chicken-scratches.

Games: If there is a game that you love playing, consider making room for it. I know, this is kind of a luxury item, but if you can make room, you'll be happy for it.

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What to Pack? Kitchen Checklist

Here are a few considerations for kitchen items to bring.

Favorite Recipes: For comfort food, or at least for use until you can figure out some of the local cuisine. You can save room in your suitcase by typing them all up on your computer before you leave. Don't forget to get recipes out of your cookbooks too. I forgot to do so until I'd already packed them up. Now I kick myself every time I want one of those recipes.

Measuring Cups & Spoons: You'll find measurements are different here. Kitchen measurements are done mostly in ml/grams. However, you'll even find differences in measurements that go by the same name, e.g., pint, gallon, ounce. For more info see the chart on British and American variances.

Kitchen Knives: Do you have a favorite kitchen knife or two? If you're picky about your knives, you may want to bring your own along. You never know what quality of knife you will get in a furnished flat.

Anything you really love cooking with: A favorite wooden spoon, rubber spatula, garlic press, a meat thermometer, a particular spice. If it doesn't weigh much and you love it that much, why not just throw it in? You'll be happy for a little connection to home every time you make dinner.

A note on appliances: One of my big packing-splurge items was to bring along my Kitchen Aid immersion blender. The first time I plugged it in (with an adapter, of course) and turned it on, it fried. We heard only a little click and it was dead. Needless to say, I would NOT recommend bringing along kitchen appliances. They may work here, but they very well may not and it doesn't seem worth wasting the space in your luggage without having that certainty (much less, ruining your nice appliance for good! Boohoo!). And, I later found an immersion blender here for under £10.

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What to Pack? Clothing Checklist

Here are some clothing considerations for your trans-Atlantic voyage.

Warm Winter Items: While the winters here are fairly mild compared to many places in the States (especially the Midwest and Northern US) they can feel extra cold when you're out walking in the elements regularly. Those who do not plan to get a car will want to be especially sure they have a good warm coat, sweaters, wool socks, hat, gloves and scarf. Depending where you are, the wind can be strong and brutally cold.

Jacket: We would strongly recommend you invest in a light-weight, waterproof, breathable hooded jacket. (Phew!) It does rain a lot here and you'll want a heavy coat for the really cold months. However, you will get hot very quickly if you plan to be walking a lot and you will regret having only a big, heavy coat to wear (especially if you're also carrying a book bag, groceries, etc.).

Walking Shoes: A good pair of walking shoes is a must. Think about them like you would a good set of tires for your car--especially if walking will be your primary means of transportation. They are one of the best wardrobe investments you can make. (And remember, shoes are a lot cheaper than maintaining a car.)

Summer Clothes: There have been a couple of days this summer when having a pair of shorts and a tank top has been nice. Don't overdo it, though. You can get by with very little in this department. I've been sad that I left my capri's at home--they would have been the perfect thing to wear on most summer days. I would recommend that girls think about bringing skirts instead of shorts--not only are they a little more versatile with warm and cold weather, but you'll look a lot less like an American. (People do wear shorts here, by the way-- they're just not that common.) Another consideration, though, is if you plan to take holidays to the Continent where the summers will be much warmer...

Grungy Clothes: If you're like me, then every now and then you find yourself doing a job or participating in an event that gets you really dirty or grimy. Consider bringing a pair of old jeans and an old t-shirt to accommodate such an activity. If you never find yourself in that situation now, just disregard. But remember, basic life is not going to be that different: if you like hiking, gardening or every now and then doing a house-cleaning so intensive that you need a shower afterward, bring some clothes along that you won't mind getting dirty.

Slippers: A must, in my opinion. Your flat may be a bit drafty and heating is expensive. Also, the sidewalks in Edinburgh at least, are really filthy so you may not want to wear shoes in the house.

Generally, you will probably regret bringing too many clothes at the expense of other items. A large wardrobe is less common in the UK than in the US, so it would be far better to bring fewer clothes of nice quality than lots of clothes so that you have something different to wear every day of the month.

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

How to Get a UK Visa for a Foreign Baby, Born in the UK

Did you know that if you and your spouse are foreigners, your baby has no right to live in the UK, even if he/she was born there? That's what we were told by the border patrol agent at the Glasgow Airport after making a weekend trip to Paris when our son was two months old. Oops! We figured that after getting his passport, we were good to go. We were wrong. The border patrol agent VERY kindly let us back into the UK with the stern warning that he had the authority to put our son in detention and have him put on the next plane to the US without us (now, the logistics of doing this with a nursing infant would have been interesting, but nevertheless, he did a good job of scaring us). He stamped our son's passport with a six month tourist visa and told us we needed to apply for a proper dependent visa as soon as possible. Below I'll share with you what we learned about this process. As usual, though I'm writing from an American point of view, this information would likely pertain to other nationalities as well.

First of all, we found the citizen's advice bureaus to be very helpful. "The Citizens Advice service helps people resolve their legal, money and other problems by providing free, independent and confidential advice..." They are non-profit organizations and they are happy to help people like you and me with just these sorts of questions. I highly recommend giving them a call if you need help with anything.

The other folks to contact are the people at your regional Public Enquiry Office. Actually, the phone number on the website can be incredibly difficult to get through on, but it is possible. They are the people with the definitive answers, so it's good to double check any advice you get with them.

Basically, though, the form we were directed to complete to apply for our son's visa from within the UK is called the FLR(O) form (Further Leave to Remain (Other)). Note, this form is only applicable if you are trying to apply while in the UK. While it may not seem like the right form, it is. It's basically a left-overs sort of form for all the people who don't fit into other categories. Also note (this is important), your child will be the main applicant--don't be confused and add yourself as the main applicant and your child as the child of the main applicant. You will have to add a note explaining your particular circumstances, i.e., that the main applicant is a child.

Also, you will see on the application, that it is expensive. The current price is £465 if applying by mail and £665 if applying in person. Yikes! We had to remind ourselves that we didn't have a hospital bill for this kid! One final thing, the wait-time on this application if you mail it in is 4-14 weeks. The more expensive in-person appointments are processed same-day, but you often need to book your appointment a month in advance. You do this by calling the Public Enquiry Office mentioned above.

The other option, of course, would just be to go home to the US (or wherever you have citizenship) to make the application. If you do this, you would need to follow the procedures for applying for a dependent visa from the US per The difficulty you might run into with this is knowing when to book your return tickets to the UK, since the visa application process can take several weeks and you are not permitted to apply without being on US soil. However, the price for the actual visa is currently around $230. The price difference may almost pay for your plane ticket to go home. Also note, biometric data is NOT currently required for children under the age of five years.

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American Passport for your Baby Born in the UK

One of the first things you'll need to take care of after your baby is born (and you're feeling up to snuff) is to apply for your baby's passport. This is not something you can do by mail or online. You will be required to go in person either to the embassy or your nearest consulate. Here's a little step-by-step guide from the website of the US Embassy in London. This site will give you the up-to-date info on what you need to bring with you to the appointment depending on where you live. For visa info for your baby, see the next post.


You will be asked to show a marriage certificate. If you do not have a copy with you, you should be able to obtain one from the county you were married in for a minimal fee and have it mailed to you.

You will be asked to show a "long copy" of your baby's birth certificate. This must be obtained at a register office within 3 weeks (Scotland) or 6 weeks (England/Wales) of your baby's birth. This website should provide all the information you need. The "long copy" is referring to the copy you have to pay for, as opposed to the "short copy" you receive for free.

The application for your child's passport will automatically include the application for a Social Security Number and a Consular Report of Birth Abroad. You don't have to make any additional appointments.

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General Info About UK Maternity Care

Here's a little general info about the antenatal (prenatal) maternity care I received in the UK.

1. Generally, all maternity care is handled by midwives, not doctors. If you have complications, doctors will likely take a more active role. Otherwise, you may see a doctor only at the very beginning and very end (38 weeks) of your pregnancy.

2. I had appointments every four weeks with the midwife, 36 weeks being my last visit. As I said, I saw the GP at 38 weeks.

3. Last year in Edinburgh, pregnant women were only entitled to one scan (ultrasound) during their pregnancy: around 10 weeks. They have just switched it to two scans: around 10 weeks and 22 weeks. I think this probably varies depending on your location. If you want more scans, you would have to go to a private practice and pay for them.

4. Many hospitals/districts have non-disclosure policies about divulging the gender of your baby. You may or may not be able to find out what you're having before-hand depending on your location.

5. There are birthing classes (called "antenatal classes") available, usually through your local GP.

6. It was made clear that epidurals would be an option for delivery only if an anesthesiologist was on duty when I was in labor. No promises. I had a friend, though, who was given more solid assurance that that would be an option.

7. Prescriptions are free of charge during pregnancy and for the 12 months following the birth of your child. So is all dental care.

Questions? Feel free to ask!

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Registering with a Doctor: the Gateway to the Healthcare System

One of the first things you will want to do upon your arrival (after you've secured housing) is to register at your local surgery (doctor's office). As you've no doubt heard by now, most health care in the UK is free if you (or your spouse) are studying for more than six months. However, there are some things you need to do in order to be able to access it. Registering with a GP (General Practitioner or Doctor) is the first step. It is important to do this as soon as you have housing because it can take up to several weeks to get the process sorted out. If you are pregnant, or have an ongoing medical condition, those weeks can be really frustrating.

1.) Find the surgery that is nearest to your flat. You can do this online by clicking on the following links. For England click here. For Scotland, click here.

2.) They will need to see:

a. Your proof of address. You MUST take either a copy of your rental agreement or a piece of official mail (such as a phone bill) with you to the GP's. A hand-addressed envelope will not work. Believe me, I tried it.

b. Your passport with visa inside.

c. It's worth mentioning that they will need to see you too. You cannot register for your spouse. Again, tried it.

3.) They will give you paperwork to fill out--nothing too long or scary. You should be able to fill it out while in the office.

4.) If you don't need to see a doctor immediately you’re done. If you do, you can try making an appointment while you’re there.

If you are pregnant or need to see a specialist, there may be a further wait as you will now need a referral from your new doctor.

Here is a timeline from my experience for accessing specialized care:

1.) Two weeks after settling in at our flat, we received our first official piece of mail. (Want a tip for speeding that up? Sign up for a phone and/or internet plan as soon as you move in. The phone company should send you a piece of mail within a couple of days. This will be helpful, especially if you don't receive a copy of your rental agreement right away as proof of address.) As you know from above, official mail meant we could register with the GP which was the first step.

2.) At the time of my registration, I made another appointment with the GP to go over my general medical history. Just more paperwork, really. This was a necessary prerequisite to being referred to the midwife. The first available option for this appointment was a week after initial registration.

3.) Only after this appointment, did my GP make the referral to the midwives. A week and a half later, I got a letter from the midwives offering me an appointment for the following week.

So, I had been in the UK a total of 5 1/2 weeks before I was seen by my midwife. I believe the process would be the same with any specialist, though with some specialists I imagine the wait would be longer.

My point in telling you this is so that you will not arrive in the UK (as I did) with the expectation that you can go right to the doctor. It may be several weeks before you can be seen, especially if you need to see a specialist.

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Having a Baby in the UK?

Having recently gone through this experience myself, I would like to offer a couple of posts with advice on what to do if you are planning to have or have had a baby in the UK as a foreigner.

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Money Saving Tip #2: Get to Know the Local Cuisine

While you are certainly going to want to bring your own recipes with you--especially for those times when you just need some comfort food--you will end up saving money if you're willing to branch out into the local cuisine. For example, as much as you may love chicken burritos and as cheap a meal as they may be at home, you will likely find them to be on the more expensive side of a meal cost in the UK. The reason is that most burrito fixin's here are specialty food items. Taco shells, tortillas, refried beans, black beans, tortilla chips, salsa--these are not part of a standard UK diet (at least as far as I can tell!). Even if you can find cheap substitutes for things, your burritos are not likely to taste how you had hoped. Black-eyed beans do NOT taste like pinto beans and a cheap jar of salsa may taste closer to a syrupy tomato jelly than a satisfying, fiery salsa.

By contrast, most Indian-style cuisine is remarkably cheap to make here. At little Indian stores you can buy a 5 kilo bag of lentils for so cheap that the cost per serving ends of being something like 6p. And, lentils are healthy, a good source of protein and quite tastey when prepared well.

Couscous, when purchased in bulk at Asian food stores is also a great deal, not to mention a great thing to have on hand because it's so quick to make.

"Cooking bacon" (quite a bit different from American bacon) is a really cheap way to get meat--if you're making soup, quiche, pasta or pizza, you'll find it's a great flavour booster.

These are just a couple of ideas. The cheap items in your area are likely to vary, so look around. The point is to try to incorporate the cheaper ingredients into your diet, rather than to stick to all your American recipes which may very well end up costing more.

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Monday, 6 July 2009

Money Saving Tip #1: Make Use of Charity Shops!

One way that you could really rack up the expenses on your arrival in the UK would be to go out and purchase a bunch of household stuff brand new. This is especially true if you decided not to ship anything, but your flat is still not furnished with everything you need. Our first month in Edinburgh, I was down at the T.K.Maxx every couple of days. (Yes, that's T.K--not T.J. Don't ask me why!) While I didn't have that many things to get, I look back now with dismay at the price I paid for the few things I got.

The antidote? Charity Shops!!! The charity shops (i.e., thrift stores) here are wonderful! I have noticed them in every town we have visited in Scotland, and I imagine they are just as prolific in England. Unlike the typical Goodwill in the States, the shops here are often quite small, which is why I missed them at first. Keep your eyes peeled as you're walking down the street--they will likely just be little hole-in-the-wall places.

Here are a few examples of some savings:

Blankets: I paid £20 for a new blanket at T.K.Maxx. (We were really cold when we got here and the single comforter on our bed was not doing the trick.) In contrast, later on, when we had visitors coming I was looking around for more blankets and found a charity shop selling really nice, good quality blankets for £1-2 each. I threw them in the washing machine and, presto! They were good as new!

Kitchen Stuff: I found the cheapest teapot I could at T.K.Maxx for £6. I have since seen them at charity shops for under £1. Recently I was at a charity shop and bought a large handful of silverware (forks, knives, spoons), salad servers, a cheese knife, a butter knife, an hors d'oeuvre fork, a beautiful creamer and sugar bowl and a large wire fruit bowl for £2 total.

Wall Hangings: When we got here we spent £10 on a picture for our very bare walls. You can buy them for 50p at charity shops.

Those are just a few examples. You can also look for bedsheets, curtains, clothes, baby items, CD's, DVD's, books, children's books, kitchen appliances, etc.

All charity shops, however, are not created equal. I have two on my street and one of them has significantly lower prices than the other. In fact, the cheaper one often feels more like a garage sale than a typical thrift store. They will often offer a cheaper lump sum for several items purchased together. Be sure to shop around for the best deals!

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Money Saving Tips

I'm going to start publishing regular money saving tips to help you think about ways that you can reduce your expenses during your stay in the UK. When you arrive in a new place it can be very difficult to know where to look to find good deals or even to know what things should cost. I'll try to offer some guidance here. Click on the following links if you're looking for cheap budgeting help on moving to the UK or on living in the UK. Have any great tips yourself? Feel free to pass them along. We'd love to hear from you!

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Using a US Driver's License in the UK

Did you know that your US driver's license will be valid in the UK for one year following your arrival here? That's right! For the first year of your stay, it will not be necessary for you to get a UK license. However, when that year is up, if you plan to do any driving (even just renting a car for a weekend), you will be required to get a local license. How will they know how long you've been here? They will check your passport which should either have a date-stamp from the border patrol or your visa which will have the dates of your stay.

More later on how to obtain a UK license.

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Friday, 3 July 2009

UK Dental Costs for Foreign Students

While the NHS offers free medical care to those who are studying here for more than six months (and their dependents), there are some medical expenses you will have to factor in to your budget. Here's what you need to know about dental expenses.

All NHS dental examinations in Scotland are free of charge. Take note--that's just NHS dental examinations. There are plenty of private dentists around which you would be expected to pay for. If you want a free exam, be sure you make it clear that you want NHS treatment. (Sometimes the same dentist will do both private and NHS treatment. Confusing, I know.)

An examination will NOT NECESSARILY include a cleaning. (We've heard rumors that some have gotten a free cleaning at their exam, but this is not standard.) It will definitely include a general check-up to see that all looks well and is healthy. A standard cleaning fee is around £10. An intensive cleaning might run you £25. If further work is needed, you will be informed and you would need to schedule an appointment which you would be required to pay for. Click here for a sampling of dental prices in Scotland.

In England exams are not free of charge. However, they're not terribly pricey. Click here for a regularly updated list of dental costs in England.

Exceptions exist, however, in both England and Scotland. All children under 18, for instance, receive free dental care. If you are pregnant or have had a baby in the last 12 months, you will also receive free care. There are lots of other exceptions too, but I don't think they would apply to folks like us who have no recourse to public funds.

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Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Cost of Living in the UK: the cheap student version

It's hard to address the issue of budgeting because everyone's lifestyle expectations are a little different. Your specific location will also be factor. For instance, these figures are based on our life in Edinburgh. I imagine you would have difficulty getting by on this little in London. The point is to show that it is possible to get by on a small budget in the UK, if you need to.

Housing: £475/month (This was a pretty good deal when we arrived. We have found that many friends pay around £550. However, we have recently noticed more and more flat prices falling down into the £400's. Don't forget to explore alternative options too. Are you or your spouse interested in nannying? Being a caretaker? Helping at a B&B? Check out my post on how to avoid paying for housing. There are options out there for free housing. We would have done this ourselves had they been interested in taking us with a baby on the way.)

Food: £30/week (This is not easy, but it is possible, depending on the stores you have available. We eat healthily and we think it's tasty, but it's not particularly luxurious. We eat meat only a couple nights a week (sometimes less). We do not eat out, except on a VERY rare occasions. And, I plan our meals and grocery list pretty scrupulously each week to avoid unneeded items and to ensure that nothing is being wasted. For people with less time/interest in scrimping, £40-£50 might be a more reasonable figure. Sometime, maybe I'll do a post on cheap menus especially crafted for life in the UK...)

Electricity/Gas: £60/month (We used the heat pretty sparingly this winter before the baby came. Not so much afterward... I think that's a fairly good average of summer and winter months, though.)

Water/Sewer/Garbage: £0 (This is covered under the Council Tax, which as you'll remember from this post Council Tax Exemption for Students and Spouses, you are not responsible for paying. Yay!)

Phone/Internet: £30/month

Diapers (a.k.a. Nappies): £3.33/week
(Thanks to ASDA!)

Other Toilettries/Household Items: £10/month

Transportation: £10/month or less (We really do walk just about everywhere. No need for a car.)

The total here is £8755/year for a family of three. And, of course, this does not include tuition which, depending where you are studying will probably be around £10,000/year.

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The Cost of Moving to the UK: the cheap student version

Budgeting is a tricky issue because people have such different ideas about what is necessary when making a move like this. Below I am going to detail what we did: the cheapskate way. Keep in mind, my husband and I take a certain pleasure in roughing it a little. Then again, our budget was incredibly small so we just spent according to our means. Here is roughly what we spent (this is for travel in 2008--prices will likely have altered):

US Passports: $100/each = $200

UK Visas: $214/each = $428

Storage of belongings: $0 (Our parents were very generous with their attics. Also, we sold all but our nice furniture on Craigslist and made close to $1000 to help fund our trip.)

Shipping of belongings: $0 (We just decided that what we couldn't fit in our suitcase we could do without. We've missed a few things, but nothing we couldn't pick up here or just accept not having for a couple of years. If you're planning to ship, you might find this website helpful.)

One-way Plane Tickets: $470/each = $940 (Of course this depends entirely on the rates of the day. We've found Cheapoair to have pretty consistently low prices, though.)

Miscellany: $50? (Power converters, adapters, maps, etc.)

2-Nights in a Hostel: £24/each = £48 (It took us 2 days of pretty dedicated searching to find a flat. Thank you Gumtree!)

Bus fare for first 2 days: £8/each = £16 (We took a bus from the airport and then bought day-passes on the bus to get around the city for flat-hunting.)

Food for first 2 days: £22/each = £44 (We hit grocery stores for breakfast & lunch & very cheap hole-in-the-walls for dinner. P.S. Check with your airline--most airlines still serve meals on international flights!)

Setting up house: £50? (With a furnished flat we didn't need much.)

Phone & internet setup: £30

Housing Deposit: £200 (We were a little lucky--I think most people have to deposit a whole month's rent in advance. Also, we rented privately through Gumtree and so we didn't have to pay a rental agency fee--usually around £50 or £75.)

I don't think I've left anything out! So, the grand total (give or take a little for exchange rate variations) is $2234 for two people. And, subtract from that the nearly $1000 we made from hocking our unwanted belongings on Craigslist and you have a very cheap move indeed! (Oh yeah, don't forget that we did have to buy new plane tickets after our visas didn't come in time, but you shouldn't have to do that...)

Obviously, there is a LOT more you could spend, especially if you plan to ship anything, stay in hotels instead of hostels, and eat out a lot while flat-hunting. Perhaps sometime I'll do a non-cheapskate's guide to moving. Until then, take heart: you don't have to spend a bundle unless you want to!

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FAQ's About Obtaining a UK Visa

Q. The website is kind of unclear. Do my spouse and I need separate visas? What about children?
A. YES. You will each need to fill out separate application forms. (Usually online.) Everybody needs their own visa.

Q. Do my spouse and children also need to have biometric data taken?
A. YES, unless they are under the age of five. (Children under age five are not currently required to have their biometric data taken.) When applying online, this can be particularly annoying, especially since some systems don't take into consideration that you may wish to book your appointments together. When my husband and I applied, he was given a slot at the end of August. The next appointment available when I applied (only minutes later) wasn't till mid September. Thankfully for us it was only a 45 minute drive. For some, the nearest office is hours away. So...

Q. ...Will we have to make the trip (to get our biometric data taken) twice?
A. Not necessarily. My best advice would be for both of you to apply (DEFINITELY, don't just think you can squeeze in an appointment without applying for one. In my experience, they WILL NOT see you if you do not have an appointment number. Even if you cry.) So, each of you get that appointment number and then make the trek to the office with your spouse for whoever's appointment comes first (even if the other person's appointment isn't for several days or weeks). There is a good chance that they will see you both together if one of you has an appointment scheduled for that day. Let me repeat again, though. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS UNLESS YOU BOTH HAVE APPOINTMENT NUMBERS. And, if they insist on only seeing the one with the appointment on that day, at least the other has an appointment scheduled. If you'd waited to make that appointment, you would be adding several more weeks on to your waiting time.

Q. How long should I allow for my visa to be processed?
A. Well, the visa website says something like three weeks. If I were you, I would allow more like three months, just to be safe. This is coming from someone who had to cancel plane tickets and buy new ones because our visas weren't ready in time. To give you an idea, we applied at the end of July. The first biometric appointment wasn't available till the end of August. After that, we still had to send our paperwork in to be processed. This took a further three weeks. In all, our visas took about seven weeks to be processed. Maybe it was just a particularly busy time when we applied--it may not happen to you. But, if you can apply sooner, just do it. You will save yourself a potentially big headache and a sizeable wad of cash.

Q. My spouse is planning to work while I study. Is it okay to count this toward our maintenance fees on the application?
A. Yep. We did anyway.

Q. The application says to include our address in the UK, but we haven't secured housing yet. What should we do?
A. Make reservations at a hotel or hostel for when you arrive and include that as your address. Indicate you'll be staying there until you have secured housing.

I will keep updating with more FAQ's. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions and I'll be happy to answer as I can.

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