Monday, October 12, 2020

What it is like to move abroad when you're old... like me!



So, it's been just over a year now since we moved into our latest 'forever home'. A time to reflect on which things conformed to our expectations, and also which things didn't. I guess it might turn into a guide to international moving which could be helpful for any of the last-minuters trying to escape the psycho-state that is the UK before the rug is finally pulled from beneath everyone's feet on January 1 2021...

At the time everything passed in a whirlwind of madness. I was home alone parenting all the kids as Thomas had had to move before me. I was dealing with everything from selling the house, packing everything, dealing with the colossal emotional upheaval on the side of those who were being dragged away from the only home they had ever known and those who were being left behind. I wasn't even in the equation, as I had no mental energy left once I had dealt with everyone else. And when I think back on it now, I wonder how and where I found the strength from, given Thomas had to leave less than ten weeks after I got out of having surgery for a suspected cancerous ovarian tumour. I had literally been out of hospital four weeks (and was 'signed off work' till March) when we had to take the decision on whether or not to jump ship. I was either mad or I have some extra large balls.

Of course, I have moved internationally before, but that was before I was a real adult. Moving internationally as a student is easy and fun (or rather, it was easy and fun till the Tories got into power - it's about to be about as easy as cooking a slice of toast in a tumble drier...) but in my day at least moving about as a student was a wonderful adventure.

Moving abroad as a family is a thousand times more complex. As a home-owner, a lot depended on selling up back home, which we luckily managed to do though not for quite as much as we'd liked. You incur all sorts of house sale expenses which you hadn't been reckoning with, but that's not unexpected at least. Next you sell your cars, but when you're not buying a new one at the same garage, they have no incentive to give you a reasonable price and you have no time to look for private buyers so no matter what you do, you're inevitably going to be shafted on the car front. 

Next, you start gathering quotes to move your possessions. These make your eyes water - literally! We were quoted £14K to move our house contents and I swore that if I had to carry each item on my back to Denmark on foot, I sure as hell wasn't paying £14K! We managed to get it down to about £6K by throwing out every piece of furniture we owned, moving only clothes, books, kitchen equipment and the odd family heirloom (which ironically Thomas had previously paid to ship to the UK!) We tried selling everything, of course, but time was short and most things were fairly used so we probably made less than £400 in total. £400 for a lifetime's possessions is kind of sad really. In the final weeks, I found that by offering things online for free, I at least didn't need to drive our possessions to the local rubbish dump and throw them out, which was quite soul-destroying. Owning nothing after all those years was strangely liberating. Of course, the things that were in too bad a state to sell or give away were invariably the things that were too large to dump, so most of the £400 profit went on bulk rubbish uplifts - typical! So by the end of the day we owned no house, no cars, no beds, no sofas, no tables, no chairs, no wardrobes, no garden tools, no bikes... the list of what we no longer owned was endless! 

Many of the others who jumped ship at the same time had their removal expenses covered by their new employer. Thomas landed himself a wonderful job and we waken up grateful for that every day, but with a company that had not envisaged any international candidates and therefore with a zero budget for international removals. I imagine it'll be several years before we get over that hit too.

And on arrival here, we had to find a way to acquire all of that again. It will, of course, take some years to get back to where we were. Some things were a must - when your garden is 9000m2, prioritising something for grass-cutting goes without saying. Other things that we'd like, for example a bike for me in a country where cycling is the norm and where the lie of the land is almost flat enough that it might not actually kill me, has had to be punted into the long grass!

As with the UK, Denmark is based on a two-income system, so while I am learning Danish, which I had to pay for, we are trying to live on half what our contemporaries are living on. It'll be a while before we can jet off to Thailand for our summer fortnight. It feels as if we're constantly walking the tight-rope between sacrificing my earning ability so I can learn enough to fit in well enough to feel this is home, and giving up classes and job hunting before I can actually speak well enough to get the right kind of job for me. I'll admit the time I spend at my classes is great fun. You feel like you're connecting with the locals while simultaneously making international friends, but of course, the flipside is that feeling of guilt, that I really shouldn't be spending so much time on something that isn't a real job. When you land somewhere wholly alien to you, where you have no friends and no family and you've never really learned to communicate, language lessons are a lifeline. They are the three mornings a week where I actually see other human beings rather than rattling about entirely alone, listening to Danish radio in a fairly pathetic attempt to submerge myself in the lingo. They are a place of sanctuary, where you can actually say 'god, this is hard' and someone will invariably agree. A burden shared and all that... But there's a reason the average age in my class is late 20s. 90% of people just would never consider starting their life from scratch again after they turn 50.

When you reach my age, people tend to be settled in their lives, as we were back home. You have friends, maybe some family close by, you know the parents in your kids' schools, you have a job and colleagues, you have neighbours you know and trust. If you're lucky, a psycho government doesn't get voted in, burning down your house, threatening your livelihood, and toying with the notion of deporting your partner and forcing you to start life again from scratch. There are few opportunities to make new acquaintances at our age. The same is true here. Fifty-somethings in Denmark are no more in need of new friends than those back home. They certainly aren't in need of mates who struggle to express themselves and that's before you throw in a global pandemic so you can barely even introduce yourself to a neighbour, let alone seek out some way of meeting new people.

Another given in Denmark is that over 18s are self-sufficient. In Scotland parents are legally responsible for their kids who are in further education until they reach 25, or get a job. There is the odd loophole, of course... If your parent refuses to help you, you have to bring a court case against them to force their hand. So in real terms, when a student's parents are divorced, you often find the parent who had had the main custody of the child till 18 is left picking up a greater share of the bills (or in our case, all of them). Student rooms here are reasonably priced and students receive 'SU' - a grant, which is not means-tested on parental income, of £750 a month. And yes I do mean grant as opposed to loan. This is a wonderful way of making sure all kids get the same start in their further education. When the three little ones reach that age, I will be first to explain to them the wonderful advantage they have over their friends and family back home. They'll never take it for granted. Back home parental income is taken into account, there are no grants and student rooms are an eye-watering £700+ a month. Having jumped ship while Lots was still at uni, we therefore have a child who falls under Scottish jurisdiction, putting us at a further disadvantage against our Danish peers. But at least it is temporary, and things should begin to even out by 2024.

Moving country when you're middle-aged comes with some other annoyances - some minor, some major - we're too old to join any of the health or dental plans here so we're stuck with the basics, when the majority of our peers have had some scheme or other for years. Thomas had been a member of such a scheme when he worked here in his 20s, but left it when we settled down together. The result is that unlike our peers we have to pay full price for prescriptions, dental treatment and glasses. Doctor visits and hospital treatment are of course still free to us. My UK life insurance is no longer valid now I have no UK address but taking out a new policy in my fifties will be much more expensive than it would have been to continue paying into my old one, which was taken out when I was significantly younger. That is something we haven't been able to deal with as yet so I'm glad we're not in a Corona hotspot. However, the most obvious one which hasn't hit us yet but will to a certain extent devastate our 'twilight years' is the fact that, quite frankly, UK pensions are utter shit for the vast majority of people our age and worse still, we cannot rule out Brexit leading to such a collapse of the currency back home that the tiny pensions we will be receiving from back home when we reach our late 60s will be negligible. Realistically 70% at least of my pension and 50% of Thomas's will be UK based, so we'll be living on less than 50% of our contemporaries come retirement. Unlike our peers here in Denmark, we won't have the luxury of paying a mortgage past retirement. Our only option for survival will be to have paid off the house in full, some time in the next 15 years. Given I've already been paying my mortgage for over 27 years and we were a mere ten years from finishing our Scottish mortgage this setback is a bit depressing. Quite frankly this whole mortgage malarkey is getting a bit tedious!

Looking back over our relationship, most of this is the fault of Brexit. Had we decided many years ago that our plan was to settle in Denmark, we would have done things very differently... To name a few things - Thomas would have paid into his health plan so he could get subsidised dental etc treatment today. He would have continued to pay into his Danish pension rather than his UK one. I would have learned how to speak and write Danish over a decade rather than simply developing a decent passive knowledge of it, as I had. We would have started job hunting on a timescale that suited us, so we would have had time to sell our possessions, our cars, our house without losing out and we could have allowed ourselves the luxury of seeking out an employer for at least one of us who would have paid towards the international removal costs, even if a couple of years later we could then have sought out the type of job Thomas has now, that suits both his education and interests. And more than anything, from my perspective, we would have left sooner, when all the kids could have benefitted from the Danish higher education system, and could have been kept together. Having my family all based in the same country would have been a no-brainer.

So, given the negatives, do I think we made the right move? Absolutely! Every morning I still waken up relieved. I listen to the Danish radio news on my way into Odense in the morning and my heart is no longer in my mouth at the mention of Boris or Brexit. I can sleep at night, knowing whatever the UK government gets up to is unlikely to devastate my life. Looking forward I see that my kids are growing up somewhere open-minded, international, respected and cooperative. Here they are investing in educating the youth and even old people like me! Our government might have its faults but I haven't seen the EU or the US questioning its trustworthiness internationally over the last few weeks. Watching the UK's decline from afar is eye-watering. How could something so respected fall so far, so quickly? Yes, we are currently much worse off than our Danish counterparts and can never realistically dream of fully catching up with people here with an equivalent level of education, but at the same time we will still be in a much better situation than our UK contemporaries, so it is worth the uphill struggle. Learning to speak here, rather than just understand, as had been the case on visits to Denmark up till last year, gives me hope that one day I'll be able to find a job, make a friend or at least function here.

I'm living in a beautiful house. It cost less than our home in Newton Mearns, but if I were to transport it into East Ren brick by brick, it would easily set me back a seven figure sum. At home I could never have dreamed of owning a home like this. My kids' future is safer here and the older two still have the option to jump or even join us, using their French passport. I'm less than five years away from being able to apply for dual citizenship and therefore getting back the EU citizenship I never should have lost. Next month's exam will (hopefully) bring me one step closer to achieving that goal. Thomas has a wonderful job too. We may be no better off financially here in our new life than we were in Glasgow (at least not until I manage to master the language enough to contribute) but we have gained stability which was something we'd been lacking back home for the best part of a decade. Stability is a very undervalued quality that you don't fully realise you are missing, until you find it again. And who knows - there must be some company in Denmark who could use a English language expert with 29 years experience! Surely someone would like to make sure they never again make a single error when publishing the English-language side of their website or any literature pertaining to their company!? Pleeeeease!


Garden birch boletes

This garden just keeps giving. We've had apples, pears, plums, cherries and berries till they're coming out our ears. Lately we've moved on to hazelnuts and edible chestnuts but these have to be the most surprising find - birch boletes apparently. They grow in obvious lines across the lawn following the root pattern of our colossal birch. (Several of our mushroom expert friends have confirmed their identity!)

The internet claims they are edible but aren't worth picking as they have a boring taste but I have to say I find them really quite nice - creamy, mushroomy and buttery. They definitely make for a passable lunch on a slice of warm toast in my book. 


Friday, September 18, 2020

Coffee

I used to drink my coffee black - when I was a kid that was. It was probably because my mum drank it black so didn't think to put any milk in mine when she first introduced me to instant coffee in the 80s. All through uni my entire friend group were all '237's on the vending machine - well except for one weirdo who didn't (and still doesn't) drink coffee of any colour (we love you all the same Gillian 😁). 

By our mid-thirties, we'd all moved on to white - maybe our old intestines just couldn't keep up with the straight paint-stripper caffeine. 

This year on my birthday, I woke up and wondered if my aging insides might not feel better with no caffeine at all. I was only ever a two cups a day girl, but still, I thought it couldn't hurt to try decaff for a week. I had an old jar lying around that I used to use for my decaff friends back home so I tried that. For two days I had a blinder of a headache. I thought the reaction was completely over the top given I really didn't drink much coffee, but it worried me all the same, so once I'd come through the other side of the cold turkey, I decided to stick with it. 

And what a pain that is turning out to be. Decaff is everywhere in the UK, has been for decades, Italy was the same when we were down there in the summer. Like me it is the taste they are after, not the drugs, but Denmark is a complete pain in the backside. Danish supermarkets are notoriously poorly stocked. It might be different in central Copenhagen, but where I live there are only two supermarkets that stock it (out of more than ten within 15 minutes drive) and each of those has a choice of one (over-priced) brand, when it is (occasionally) in stock. Worse still, cafés think you're insane if you even suggest it. I tried three different ones in Copenhagen airport on Wednesday and they just looked at me as if I'd asked if they happened to stock green and purple stripy hairless cats for human consumption.

I'm not missing that lull in the afternoon when I need a coffee, I'm no longer in need of a caffeine fix but I hope at some point Denmark will catch up with the notion that coffee without caffeine can be a nice addition to the menu too, and not some weird health food item you need to buy off the Internet for home consumption only.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Scotland feels odd

I was over in Scotland for four days - for the first time since February. So this was the first time I have been over to experience the effects of Covid and the run-up to what is increasingly likely to be a no-deal Brexit. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it was an interesting experience.

Simultaneously it looks like things are still completely normal and as if things are changing, ever so subtly.

I touched down in Edinburgh as all the cheap flights to Denmark leave from there. A 6-15pm arrival meant grabbing a bite to eat before jumping on the intercity coach, but I knew that would be fine as there is a large M&S Food at the arrivals gate and various other smaller shops... except it wasn't ok as they were all boarded up with signs saying the falling passenger numbers made it pointless to open at the moment. The rest of the shops were also closed. Finally we found the Costa was braving the pandemic so they rustled us up two toasties to go. On departure on Sunday, things were more open behind the departure gate, with about 50% of the shops open, but still I couldn't help but wonder how long Edinburgh airport (or presumably any other UK airport) will be able to weather the Covid storm without passengers. And even if the Covid threat goes away, passenger numbers are unlikely to reach previous norms with a falling pound, rising unemployment and the knock-on effects of the UK becoming a rogue, pariah state. And fewer flights and fewer airports will inevitably lead to the UK becoming even more isolated and insular than its current unrecognisable standpoint.

So Charlotte and I jumped on the bus - this was newish experience as I almost always hire a car, but given one of the main reasons for my visit was to sell our old car, I didn't need two while I was in Glasgow. This was the second company that worried me. The coach had around 60 seats and shuttles between Glasgow Buchanan bus station and Edinburgh airport in both directions every half hour between around 4am and midnight. There were three people on to coach to Glasgow other than us two. On the way back on Sunday at 5pm there was one. And given the driver has to be in Edinburgh in case anyone wants to take the return leg, he must have to drive it through even if no one shows up for the outward one. I couldn't help but wonder how close this company must also be to liquidation.

Thomas and the kids couldn't come this time as it wasn't holiday season, so I had been given a list much longer than my arm of what they needed from back home. Some of the items were Scottish things they were missing like Scottish crumpets and potato scones. Of course, we make our own in Denmark, but they aren't the same. Other items were specific brands we haven't found here. Thomas likes an oil-based shower gel and the closest we have found here dries his skin out. He also had a medium-sized list of newly published political books that he would rather I picked up than he had to pay the postage on. Finally all the kids had asked for some clothes for school - general underwear and then some specifics.

Given the books were all fairly new, I figured I was best going to the largest bookshop I could find in Glasgow. However, only one of the books was in stock - the rest would have needed to have been ordered in and therefore would have arrived too late for me. I guess people are buying their books online even more than before so Waterstones is probably about to be another 'To Let' sign on the high street, and those signs have definitely increased since my last visit.

Thomas tends to wear M&S shirts to work. He asked me to get a few of the warmer cotton long-sleeved ones just like those I had bought for him last November when there had been four different designs. I tried Sauchiehall street and Silverburn but although there was a selection of maybe four or five different long-sleeved models, there were none of the warmer winter ones he's used to buying and no gap on the shelf to indicate they'd sold out. Maybe there was an issue with supply? 

I proceeded downstairs to get myself and Anna new bras and again was confronted by a supply problem. There were numerous bras but very few in either her size or mine (and we take completely average sizes). Oh well, at least I could pick myself up a couple of those really soft cotton nighties I usually buy in M&S every two or three years. Last time I bought two was when I was going into hospital in November 2018. I had a choice back then between three or four colours in plain, two patterned, one with long sleeves and one almost down to my ankles. I remember trying three sizes - mine and one above and below to see which felt best. This time there were two models - one plain, one with stars - I could have the one remaining size 8, two size 22s or the one size 24. So, again, it seemed to me the selection was greatly reduced and the supply of average sizes completely missing. So no nighties either😒

This pattern repeated itself several times. The kids have been buying their underwear in Primark since they were born. There's nothing Amaia likes better than looking at all the different pants and socks and mulling over whether to have days of the week, llamas, stars, colours etc This time for age ten I could have white pants or pink pants and nothing else. And I could have plain socks or stripy socks in her size. For Anna, who is adult size, the selection was even smaller - she could have white socks, full stop.  So yes, it served the purpose but the selection was entirely gone. They had also asked me to see if there was anything they might like to wear to school. I found nothing between Primark, M&S and Asda that jumped out at me. Usually I struggle to contain them in these shops but not this time.

The final item on my 'to-get' list was a spare double duvet cover for Marcel and Charlotte's rooms. Danish double duvets are bigger (because Danes are bigger) so the duvet covers here don't fit my Scottish 200x200s. I tried my usual haunts for those and although every place had two or three, very few had anything that would go with my colour schemes (which are not outrageous - a yellow room and a terra cotta room). Between the five shops I tried it came down to a choice of one grey one!

I mentioned this to a Scottish friend (who I was chatting to online). Despite being my mother's neighbour, she couldn't meet up with me for coffee because of the new Corona restrictions😢 (next time Lynne!). She's a keen golfer and said her favourite gold shop is also being hit by supply chain issues already.

Finally, I went on the big grocery hunt for my greedy ex-pats. Things I take for granted were much diminished - eg Asda now seems to have mild chorizo or nothing - no extra special, no extra spicy (which I'd been sent for). Their selection of vitamins and shower gels was also smaller than usual. Maybe everyone has simply switched to shopping online instead of in person but the wonderful selection I am used to in Scotland is definitely getting smaller. 

A further issue I came across was the lack of adapting to the new norm. I nipped into Matalan, desperately trying to find Anna the bras that had been missing in M&S, only to be confronted by the biggest unsold and unreduced selection of suitcases I have ever seen in my life. Of course, when they ordered them in back in the winter maybe they didn't see the holiday market falling of a cliff but they aren't trying anything to shift them to make space for something they could sell instead. Home Bargains was the same... they had two aisles dedicated to travel and two to Halloween costumes, decorations and sweets - I can't imaging guising is going to be particularly big this year! Going in to strangers' houses to delve into a communal bowl of goodies - I think not!

Anyway, I'm not trying to draw any conclusions yet - it could be Covid, though our shops haven't changed significantly because of it, it could be a supply chain issue, it could be Brexit. It is all very subtle and I suspect if I was still living there, I might not even have noticed if one item dropped out every other week or if the selection just became narrower, it is simply more obvious to me because Covid has meant that I was away for almost seven months rather than my usual 6-8 weeks.

It will be interesting to watch the next few weeks and months to see what happens. With Covid on the rise again and chaotic no-deal looming, I could be stuck here till after the new year and if I am, it will be very interesting to compare this blogpost to one I write after my next visit.


Monday, September 07, 2020

Wee stripy pests


I swear there are so many of these nasty we buggers on my pear tree at the moment I might start referring to it as my pear byke.

I've been trying to count the bums in this photo, that I was brave enough to take yesterday, and I'm up at about twenty.

Next year I'm setting my calendar to remind me to go and pick them all at least two weeks earlier than this. They'll not get me this way again.

Grrrrr. 

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Assistantships again


I mentioned we'd been talking about Charlotte's (and my) assistantship recently. 

She always knew I'd been to France to do that in the 80s and having had foreign language assistants in her high school, she knew what it entailed, but it wasn't really until a few weeks ago that she asked me more about that year and I thought back to it in any detail.

One question that brought back floods of memories was 'What was it like when you arrived?' I can guarantee she was not prepared for the answer to that. When I think back on it now, I think I was a bit taken aback by the whole thing too, so I am not sure I ever really mentioned it to anyone, probably not even André...

I was assigned a tiny little town in the Vosges. I'd never been to the Vosges and I'd never heard of Bruyères. A quick check in the local library informed me only that it was a little town of about 4000 inhabitants that lived mainly from forestry commission work. But this was pre-Internet so the encyclopedia didn't say much more. My parents happened to be holidaying in France that summer (I was home alone, cat-sitting) so they swung by to check it out and came back laughing - telling me I'd struggle to find it, it was so small and boring, especially with us being used to Glasgow - the biggest city in Scotland.

So I arrived the first week of October 1987. To UK readers that is possibly meaningless, but to French readers of my age group and older, it might ring the odd bell. I arrived in this sleepy little hamlet-sized place in the back of beyond but it was far from sleepy. There was only one street with shops, but it was crowded. The main square was crammed full of vans, each one with a larger satellite dish on the back than the next. There were vans marked TF1, France 2 and more - every conceivable channel, even some close international ones. Press were swarming everywhere, microphones were being thrust in every direction but this was no joyous event. There was a sinister, oppressive feel to it all. There was a lot of whispering, pointing, huddles of people. The vans were even staked out in front of the collège where I was to be a teacher. 

At first the German assistant and I had no idea what it was all about. We sat in our little flat looking out across the Vologne river that meandered beautifully along the edge of our view. We thought it was quaint, endearing even but we had no idea of the infamous nature of the Vologne. 

After a few weeks, the reality of what was going on hit us like a tonne of bricks. His face was on every newspaper. I can still see it now, as I did then, le petit Grégory. A child had been brutally murdered three years, almost to the day, earlier in the next village, a couple of kilometres away. His family were suspected of tying him up and throwing him, alive, into the Vologne. He was four years old. It had become the most infamous case in France in the interim and was still unresolved. The first week of October 1987, a new judge had been put in charge of the case and had decided to hold a reconstruction of the murder that week. One of the accused's presumed accomplices was a young female cousin of the dead boy and a pupil at my school. 

While discussing this start to my year abroad, Charlotte was scrolling through Netflix when suddenly, I saw his face. I couldn't believe the coincidence. Netflix has just put out a mini documentary series about the case called Who killed little Grégory. So we watched it together over the next few days. I felt like I was back in that beautiful, yet oppressively sinister place all over again. Everyone who lived there then feels tied to that case in some small way and probably always will. Friedrun (the German assistant) and I were to become part of it too, along with all the other members of those close-knit villages vosgiens. It became our home and we loved it dearly but at the same time it would always have a dark undercurrent you felt you needed to escape. 




A hat-trick

For the third night in a row, we've had another classic from Léon! Doughb' is on a roll! So tonight is was Amaia's turn to be on the receiving end... The conversation went kinda like this:

Amaia: I'm not really looking forward to my school photo tomorrow. We've been told they're doing my class first. We're getting the individual shots and the class one both at quarter past eight in the morning. I've picked out my lovely yellow suit that Großvater bought me but I'm afraid I'm going to look half asleep at that time.

Léon: I can make you a coffee at 7-15 when I'm making mine if that would help?

Amaia: That's nice of you but I don't really like coffee yet Léon.

Léon: Well, couldn't you just rub it into your skin and maybe you'd still look more awake once the caffeine has seeped in?

Well that's a first for me - caffeine face wash - maybe it'll catch on, especially amongst ten year olds who want to look more awake first thing on a Monday morning! It must be truly fascinating to live in that boy's head at times!