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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, I think you've touched on it within your very own post Jones...Drink enough $18 cocktails (or much more reasonably priced and full-flavored British ales) and the lack of hot water, electricity, air conditioning, etc. will quickly become less and less an wonder everyone gets bombed at 2p every day...bad news on the visit front. I get no vacation time until January and Barb is transferring to Naperville amidst a month-long vacation-freeze-IT's looking grim, we are planning on a Springtime visit instead...if things change, will post!

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done on a nice blog The Reluctant Anglophile. I was looking for information on portable air conditioners and came across your post Life's Little Luxuries - not precisely what I was looking for related to portable air conditioners but an interesting read all the same!

2:01 AM  
Blogger The Reluctant Anglophile said...

Thank you, that's great to hear and it's nice to know that something good has come out of our exorbitant $355 hot water bill!

Good luck with the search for a portable air conditioner and just be thankful that in the States they aren't the size of an Exxon oil tanker like they are over here. (In a country where every other appliance that you actually use on a regular basis is perversely miniaturized.)

5:42 PM  

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