Saturday, September 10, 2005

Life's Little Luxuries

Luxury used to go by the name of Prada, Gucci and La Mer. In Blighty, it has a new name and it's called hot water. This information--like anything else here--didn’t come cheap. In fact, it came at a cost of ₤193 pounds ($355 U.S.D.) in the form of our recent quarterly electric bill. Too late, I learned the astounding fact that you’re not supposed to run your hot water heater 24/7.

Who knew the hot water heater even had a switch? And more importantly, how does one live a life without hot water on demand? This would be challenging enough under any circumstances, but recall this is a country where doing a load of laundry in your combi washer/dryer takes all day and your dishwasher’s "speed" cycle runs about as fast as the Tube’s notorious Circle Line, which is to say, at a snail’s pace.

Next came the grim and alarming realization that hot morning showers were apparently to become a relic of our past lives in New York. With a sinking sensation, I saw with new eyes the bidet they’d kindly furnished us with, which heretofore we’d simply thought was a neat conversation piece in our turn-of-the-century house:

So you can see firsthand the unappealing consequences of living a life planned entirely around the availability of hot water. Apparently, this basic necessity is a very expensive commodity here, as I learned upon opening that electric bill and finding its highly offensive sum glaring back at me in big, bold lettering. Surely that one night we ran our air conditioner this summer couldn’t account for even this vast sum? My "Guide to Settling Into the UK" handbook said that an average electricity bill should run no more than $320 annually.

Immediately, I rang London Energy to inform them of what was certainly a gross billing error on their part. The kindly-seeming Scottish lady (why is it impossible to be angry at anyone speaking in a lilting Scottish accent?) first asked me to verify our meter reading, which seemed to be in order. We then progressed on to other topics, eventually arriving on the subject of the water heater, at which point her tone changed from helpful customer service representative to shocked and chastising school marm: “Now rrrreaallly Missusss Rrrrennn-don, tell me ya 'aven’t been rrrunning yur wa-terrr 'eaterrr 24rrr hours a day now, 'ave ya?” she asked with incredulity.

"Why yes, as a matter of fact we have. Is problem?", I asked sheepishly, suddenly feeling about two inches tall. Well, apparently it was, because this energy-sucking vampire accounts for about 80% of an electricity bill over here, a fact drawn into sharp relief when I crawled under the stairs to inspect our water heater, and realized that it--like our 'portable' air conditioner--was the size of an Exxon oil-tanker.

Gloomily, I hung up the phone, accepting with defeat the grim prospect of WWII-style rationing vis a vis the hot water. This indignity was further compounded when, later this week, I received a separate bill from Thames Water to the tune of $60 a month for the privilege of having the water itself. (And don't even get me started on the $250 annual TV license--separate from your cable bill--and the $2800 annual Council Tax assessment--unrelated to your paycheck taxes.) I was starting to look at the events surrounding the Boston Tea Party with a profound new sense of understanding as I gained firsthand insight into the painful economic injustices suffered by the colonists. In 2005 as in 1773, if the British government can find a way to impose an exorbitant levy on something that should be available for free or at nominal cost, they will gladly and gleefully do so.

By now, I truthfully thought I’d lost all capacity for shock and outrage over this country’s outrageous prices, having instead developed the necessary survival skill of zen-like acceptance. After spending three months visibly wincing every time I took a cab, went to the grocery store or picked up the dry cleaning, I'd finally stopped the defeatist practice of performing mental calculations in American dollars and moved on to the higher ground of thinking only in relativist terms of the British pound.

Now, however, the fresh insult of sky-high utility bills had brought on a profound relapse and yesterday I found myself obsessively tallying up in dollars (and quality level) the cost of every purchase.

There was that $18 cocktail at Hakkasan served by a surly bartender after a 20-minute wait, the $7 spent on a stale, bite-size pre-packaged tuna sandwich, the $4 tube ride to go five stops on an overcrowded train that kept stalling, and the $30 box of medication needed to stave off allergies induced by London pollution. For the first time in my life, I began to realize that having a sense of perspective was NOT necessarily a good thing. In fact, if ever there was a time and a place to disconnect from reality in order to maintain my sanity, then that time had finally arrived, especially now with winter coming on and the looming prospect of our first gas bill to look forward to. One can only assume that heat, like hot water, will come with a luxurious price tag.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Fine Line Between Stoicism and Insanity

When the British abandon their impenetrable facade of privacy and stoicism, they really do so with gusto, as we found out last Thursday night.

Just as I was dozing off to sleep at around two a.m., there came a loud crashing sound emanating from downstairs. Convinced we were in the process of being burgled and that the would-be sticky fingers had just dropped our new TV set (what else could possibly account for such an enormous shattering?), I hastily awoke Steve, who had alarmingly remained asleep. (Note to self: must get guard dog.) Tip-toeing into the hallway with Steve wielding a lamp base for protection--a vision that didn't inspire confidence, especially when complemented by the silk purple sleep mask he wore pushed up onto his forehead--we heard yet more crashing and through the hall window noticed four police officers in the alley suiting up into full-SWAT gear: bullet-proof vests, black padded body suits, and helmets with face visors. It was officially time to panic.

What could possibly be going on to merit this type of Code Red police activity in our idyllic, sedate little Chelsea neighborhood? The crashing sounds intensified, and having safely ascertained that they weren't originating from our domicile, we made our way downstairs to investigate, my head filling with visions of a hostage stand-off involving an Islamic terror cell that had been roosting right under our noses.

Infused with the kind of giddy rush that Miss Marple no doubt felt each time she was on the verge of making a momentous discovery, we peeped out our front blinds to survey the scene. Quickly it became apparent that what we were witnessing was the work of no Islamic terror cell, unless one of their number went by the name of Sharon. Two more police officers in full riot gear were positioned out front, accompanied by a civilian who kept soothingly yelling (if one can indeed can yell soothingly), "Sharon, please come talk to us. Sharon, what are you doing now?"

Well, it was pretty obvious what Sharon was doing now because by that time we had abandoned all pretense of discretion and climbed out on our roof to get a better view, where we saw clearly that she was expelling onto the street every last household item that would fit thru her rather substantial 3rd floor windows. A desktop computer, microwave oven and remarkably, a full dinette set and chest of drawers lost their lives that night as we looked on in a mixture of awe and disbelief.

In between running back into the depths of her flat to look for more possessions, she kept up an inscrutable litany of ranting of which we couldn't discern a word. This went on for the better part of an hour, until the police somehow managed to get in through the back entrance, subdue her in a straightjacket and whisk her away in an ambulance, restoring calm once again to Elystan Street.

We later received confirmation from other neighbors (in addition to gardening and drinking beer, the British LOVE to gossip, a trait that admittedly makes me feel right at home, but demonstrates yet another incongruity of a culture that is obsessed with privacy) that Sharon had evidently suffered a full-blown nervous breakdown. Before I even had time to ponder this sad information, we also learned that she's already been installed back in her (furniture-less) flat, less than four days later.

Now, I don't know much about nervous breakdowns (unless one counts that time in Chicago where I hurled a large portion of Steve's CD collection, Frisbee-style, over our 16th floor balcony--which, for the record, was entirely justifiable), but it would seem that someone who had experienced one might need more than four days recovery time under the care and observation of trained mental health professionals before being cast adrift back into society. But that's the British National Health System for you--there's no money budgeted for something as trivial as a nervous breakdown in the NHS coffers.

When I recently explained to a friend's Irish husband that in New York, not seeing a therapist is the exception rather than the rule, and that therapy is considered a perfectly natural form of maintenance no more embarrassing than say, getting a manicure or going to the gym, he recoiled in horror as if I'd stuck him with pins.

Probing him further on the matter, I learned that when the English have problems, their first line of defense is to try resolve things themselves, and failing that, they might "talk to their mates about it" over a couple of pints at the pub. But since the English seem so private when it comes to personal matters, I'm not sure how much this strategy accomplishes, though it does, however, explain this recent headline:
I guess on the bright side, that's 20% fewer potential nervous breakdowns that the NHS will have to 'treat' in the future.