Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Well it's about time... announce that we're expecting! Yes, you read that correctly. Ryan and I are excited to announce that we're anticipating the arrival of our first child on September 23, 2015!

Of course, when we discovered that we were pregnant, it brought up a whole host of questions for us. Should we move back to the U.S. immediately, or should we stay in the U.K. as planned? How different is the pregnancy advice given to expectant mothers in the U.S. vs. what women in the U.K. are told? What benefits, if any, would our child receive from being born in the U.K.?

Pretty early on, we decided that staying in the U.K. was probably the best decision. There were a whole host of reasons we decided to stay, of course, but one of the things that did cross our mind was healthcare. If we moved back, one of us would have to ensure that we had health coverage from the day we moved back through our work, find a doctor and a hospital, and pay something in order to give birth to our child. In contrast, if we stayed in the U.K., we were already registered with our General Practitioner, the GP tells you which hospital they work with, and you don't have to pay a dime. It seemed a lot less stressful to stay from that perspective!

On that note, I will pause here to comment on the care I've received thus far. I'm currently 18 weeks pregnant, and I've already had 3 appointments with a GP or midwife and one ultrasound. First baby picture here:

I have another appointment in 2 weeks to do a second ultrasound, and because Ryan was born with a small hole in his heart (it closed on its own, he never needed surgery) the hospital decided to have a cardiac specialist come to the next ultrasound just to make sure everything was developing normally. Thus far, I feel like the care I've received has been quite good and thorough. My only real complaint would just be that I didn't receive any 'new mommy' info until I was about 10 or 12 weeks pregnant, which was a little stressful. Thank goodness for the internet!

However, speaking of looking things up online yourself, (or even talking to your doctor) you will find that the pregnancy advice varies a bit depending on what country you are in. For example, pregnant women are generally told not to eat deli meat in the US, but there is nothing in the UK to indicate that it is anything but safe to eat. This could possibly be because of differences in the health and safety standards in food processing between the countries, but I haven't found any conclusive evidence to support that yet. Another slight difference is the guidance on alcohol. While the official advice is to not consume any, my midwife did tell me verbatim 'We recommend that you don't drink. But if you do, just make sure you limit it to one glass of wine per week'. I think cultural differences come into play here, and I've seen many pregnant women in the UK enjoying the occasional glass of champagne or wine. I think most American women really only do that in the privacy of their own homes.

Finally, I come to the benefits of being born here in the UK. Sadly, there aren't many. As it turns out, the US and Canada are the only developed nations to outright offer citizenship to anyone who is born there. For our child to become a citizen of the UK, Ryan or I would have to be permanently 'settled' here (i.e., free from immigration restrictions) or the child would have to live here the first 10 years of his or her life and then we could apply for them to receive citizenship. Either way, it's unlikely to happen. However, our child will always have that 'fun ice-breaker fact' that they were born in London, and that's worth something too : )

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The British Dentist Experience

It took me roughly two years to muster up the initiative to visit a dentist here in the UK. I don't know what took so long; I probably had unfounded fears about the quality of this country's dentistry.

There's a well-known stereotype that British people have less-than-perfect teeth. Is it true? Partially. The average Briton's teeth are not likely to be as straight or polished as the average American's.

There are a few reasons for this. First off, British people don't care as much about it. It isn't a status symbol to have perfect teeth (nor the opposite), so it becomes a lesser priority. You don't see nearly as many kids with braces in the UK as you do in America.

I have a theory that it also has something to do with the amount of tea people drink and its cumulative staining effects, mainly from the number of times I've seen stains on the inside of teacups.

But to understand a large element of it, you have to think of dental care in the context of the rest of the healthcare system. Brits are accustomed to the NHS, where from childbirth to routine exams to all kinds of surgery, there aren't any out of pocket expenses. I had a minor operation on my eye last year and was astounded how I didn't have to pay a penny for it (NHS taxes notwithstanding).

But dental care largely falls outside of the realm of the NHS. As a Guardian article from several years ago put it,
In Britain today, you can stuff yourself on deep-friend Mars Bars, drink 20 pints a night, inject yourself with heroin, smoke 60 cigarettes a day or decide to change your sex - and the NHS has an obligation to treat you. You might go on a waiting list, but it will do its best to cure your lung cancer, patch up your nose after a drunken brawl or give you a hip replacement. It doesn't charge for operations or beds; it may even throw in some half-edible food. 
But if you have bad teeth, forget it. You may be rolling on the bathroom floor in agony with an abscess, your gums may be riddled with disease, or people may recoil at the sight of your fangs as you walk down the street, but the NHS doesn't have to help you.
To see a dentist, you likely have to pay out of pocket to visit a private practice, which is against the normal habits of Brits with regards to healthcare. Therefore it's not something that many people make a priority to do.

On my way home from work one day, I walked by a private dentist office with a sign out front advertising a 'scale and polish.' I looked it up online and saw it was synonymous with a routine cleaning, so I made an appointment.

A few differences to note: The dentist didn't do x-rays because after a cursory glance, "there was no need." Fine by me. Next, instead of removing plaque with a metal scraper, he fitted me with safety goggles and used an electric scaler. 

This sounded and felt like a drill, so I was a bit uneasy at first. It's a device that uses rapid vibrations to remove stains while simultaneously spraying a mist.

After a polish, there was no flossing, and I was done within about 25 minutes. Altogether I was very satisfied with the experience, and the total cost of £75 seemed reasonable to me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Italy: It's Everything You Could Hope For And More

Last year, Ryan and I had the pleasure of visiting Italy with Ryan's sister and her husband for 6 days. Our itinerary was fairly aggressive, as it included stops in Venice, Tuscany, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast.

We flew into Venice, and quickly made our way to one of the water taxis that takes you from the airport to the city. Arriving in Venice is like nothing else. You're just riding along in a boat and all of a sudden you start to see buildings just rising up out of the water. The buildings get larger, and you turn down a 'street' where there are hundreds of boats and gondolas going by and the 'traffic' is organized chaos. Just the very nature of having a city coming out of the water is what makes Venice such and amazing place to walk around and spend some time in.

I wish we would have had the opportunity to stay longer, because I really enjoyed how 'different' Venice was from every other place I've visited. Most of our approximately 30 hours there were spent walking around the city, visiting St. Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace, and Rialto Bridge, as well as getting our fill of gelato. One of the things we didn't have the opportunity to do, but which I would definitely do if we have the opportunity to go back would be to visit the glass making island of Murano

We left Venice in the afternoon, and drove about 2.5 hours into Tuscany. We stopped to rest at a lovely bed and breakfast just north of Florence and were able to catch the sunset over the beautiful Tuscan countryside. We even made a point to try a new trick for opening wine without a corkscrew. (Don't try this at home).

The next morning, we continued onto Rome, where we spent the next few days. The first day we visited the Colosseum, and walked by Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forums, and the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II.

We spent a day in the Vatican, where we got to see Pope Francis in the flesh, as well as visit the Vatican museums. A tip for visiting any Rome attraction (or any big attraction in Italy, for that matter) is to buy your tickets in advance! We probably skipped a two hour long line just by having a reservation to the museums. 

The following day we packed our bags and after a quick trip to the Spanish Steps, drove out of Rome and down to the Amalfi Coast. We spent a day basically just relaxing at our hotel and enjoying the view. Another thing to note about Italy, as well as other mediterranean countries, is that if you visit during a time that is not considered their 'High Season' you should be prepared for the hotels to be doing a lot of maintenance work and renovations to prepare themselves for the summer rush. While it is quite baffling to us Americans to not have a fully functioning resort open at all times, this is pretty much the norm in these countries, so don't be surprised if some of the restaurants aren't open or the pool is out of service.

Our final stop during our first trip to Italy was to visit Pompeii before flying out of nearby Naples. I wasn't really sure what to expect before visiting, but I must admit, this was probably one of the most interesting and memorable parts of the trip. It was fascinating to see the ruins of the city and to walk the ancient streets. Another tip: if you are planning a trip to Europe, download Rick Steve's app first. You can download many audio guides to some of the main tourist attractions and follow along to his tours. We did this in Pompeii and it really helped bring some clarity and insight into what we were seeing.

Because there is so much to see and do in Italy, Ryan and I decided to go back for a quick trip just a few weekends ago. We took one day off, and flew into Florence. Again, we rented a car, and quickly drove to Pisa, where we saw the Leaning Tower, as well as the nearby cathedral, baptistry, and cemetery. To be honest, we were in Pisa for a total of about 2 hours, and that was actually plenty of time. There are a few museums, shops, and restaurants nearby which could easily add a few more hours if you wanted to spend a full day there, but for us, 2 hours was just right. 

We continued driving and made it to the town of Levanto, which is just north of the famous Cinque Terre region. The next morning, we woke up and caught the train to Monterroso al Mare, and from there, started hiking through the national park. There are many hikes that connect all 5 towns, and to be honest, some of these hikes are no joke. Again, because we tend to visit when it isn't the 'High Season' the main paths through some of the towns were closed for repairs. Thus, we ended up taking a few trails that were the 'lesser travelled by' but the views were just as breathtaking, I have to imagine. We only spent one day in the area, but again, would definitely be a place I would return to an explore a bit more if given the opportunity. 

Our final day in Italy was spent in Florence, walking around the city and seeing some of the main sights. Again, with the help of Rick Steves, we took a self guided walk through the town, and also visited the Galleria Academia, which houses Michelangelo's statue of David, among other works. We did not have the opportunity to go inside the Uffizi Gallery or the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower (home to the il duomo, or large dome that gives Florence its recognizable skyline), so again, plenty more to look forward to if we ever go again!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Air Travel, Part II

Continuing on the last post's theme of airports and air travel, I thought I'd go in a bit more depth about what it's like flying in and out of London, specifically.

The first thing to note is that London is served by five airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and City Airport, listed in descending order by passenger traffic. Heathrow sees more passengers per year than the other four airports combined.

City Airport is the closest to downtown and Heathrow is not much farther out, but the other three are a considerable distance from the city center.

Here's how I would rank the five airports, from worst to first:

5. Luton

Pros: Hard to think of any, really.
Cons: Super inconvenient.

There's no worse feeling than returning home from a weekend trip only to remember that you're on a flight going into Luton. All of the other airports are well-connected to London's transit network. Luton pretends like it is, but it isn't. When you exit the airport, you have to stand around waiting for a shuttle that takes at least fifteen minutes to get to the nearest train station. On Sunday nights, trains aren't very frequent, so you're often in a rush to catch one only to be thwarted by the shuttle. Also, it's quite a distance outside the city.

4. Stansted

Pros: More convenient than Luton, quick to get from front door to gate
Cons: Long distance from the city, only accessible from one central train station

The main knock on Stansted is that you have to access it via London Liverpool Street, and the train ride out there takes close to an hour. The airport itself functions decently well.

3. Gatwick

Pros: Many more destinations than Stansted and Luton, fairly well-connected to downtown, good restaurant options
Cons: Still far from downtown, poor layout, feels a bit dated

Gatwick is the world's busiest single-runway airport. It certainly feels crowded in the main passenger areas, but the gates are very spread out (and a lengthy hike). Also given the congestion and just one runway, we have been delayed getting into Gatwick more often than at the other airports.

That becomes a problem when you have a flight that's supposed to land at 10:00pm but instead lands at 11:45pm. The trains to the city stop running and you're forced to take an hour-plus taxi ride. The last time this happened to us, the taxi fare was £111.

2. London City

Pros: Convenient and quick
Cons: Very limited destination list, only for small planes

The top two airports are leaps and bounds ahead of the bottom three. London City is excellent, first because of its location on the tube network, and second for its size; you can get there quickly, breeze through security, and arrive at your gate in hardly any time at all. It's perfect for the times when you need to travel to one of the European cities it serves, however that list isn't very long. That's because the runway is too short to accommodate heavy fuel loads, so it's dominated by small planes doing short journeys.

1. Heathrow

Pros: Far-reaching destinations, feels incredibly modern, always immaculate, great transport, many dining / shopping options
Cons: Occasional long lines at immigration, expensive to get there by express train

Here's why Heathrow is the best, summarized in one image:

You can get to any of these places on a direct flight from Heathrow - non-stop to just about anywhere in the world except Australia. Watching the departures board is mesmerizing.

A couple other things I like about Heathrow: There are grand pianos scattered around the airport with instructions to "play me", it has perfected the centralized waiting area concept, the multi-level layout is very well designed, and the bathrooms are as spacious and clean as you could ever expect in a public place.

These five airports are constantly discussed in the London newspapers. Ever since we moved here (and I'm sure for a long time before), there's been an ongoing conversation amongst politicians, lobbyists, city planners, environmentalists, and others about the current state of London's airport capacity.

The prevailing idea is that based on population growth forecasts, by 2030 London will need at least one additional runway to handle the increase in traffic. Amazingly, Heathrow somehow handles its current passenger volume (third in the world) with only two runways.

Mayor Boris Johnson's proposal to address the issue - a £50 Billion new island airport in the middle of the Thames estuary - was recently rejected by the UK Airports Commission.

Remaining are three competing proposals, two which involve expansion at Heathrow and one which calls for an extra runway at Gatwick. I am pulling for Heathrow expansion.

The core issue is that two runways simply aren't enough for the number of flights that Heathrow handles - for comparison, Chicago O'Hare has eight runways, Atlanta has five. An extra runway at Gatwick might be useful, but very few people connect through Gatwick like they do at Heathrow, so the benefit wouldn't be realized by nearly as many international travelers.

No matter which option is selected, the expansion isn't expected to be completed for another ten years, so it will be a while before London's airport configuration changes in any significant way.