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Expat Living: Housing

“And my parents finally realize I’m kidnapped and they snap into action immediately: They rent out my room.”
― Woody Allen

The me also be abundently clear. I love living here
Let me also be abundantly clear again. I love living here.

I hinted at the prices of things before, but let me make it abundantly clear.

Rent in the city is ferociously high, it’s climbing, and it’s having some significant consequences (Kerry from Planes, Trains, and Plantagenets wrote about this recently).

Rent here is (accounting for currency adjustments) three times what we paid in the States, for half the space. To put it another way, our rent now costs half of Jeff’s salary and it used to cost just a quarter of mine. That is an adjustment, kittens. It affects every other expense and calculation.

Housing standards are also different. Lots of things are considered basic in the US are considered luxuries here. Our oven is old (the rubber sealing tube actually is no longer attached, I had to get creative in order to secure it back in place), and our cooker hobs actually are old enough to have rust damage. We also don’t own a garbage disposal which means we have to be extra mindful about what goes in the sink and the rubbish.The walls are concrete which means it’s nearly impossible to hang anything on them, and (in case I haven’t mentioned it enough yet) space is limited. Our toilet runs with an echoing dripping noise constantly and our washing machine’s pipes drain through our sink – with attendant clogging issues.

Our building used to be council housing (government social housing originally built to provide decently built, affordable homes for working class people), and the council still oversees most of the maintenance, but our flat is privately owned. Britain has a long history of social housing, stretching straight back to the middle ages, but the current incarnation is largely a result of WWII when so many homes in London were destroyed by bombing that the government had to provide something. It was also a good way to get rid of and redevelop a lot of long standing slum areas – many homes got running water, indoor toilets, and heating for the first time through council housing. Of course, most council housing is fairly dated now. We’re lucky, our landlady is very lovely and very easy going (and actually accessible, which is more than can be said for our old managers). But everything in our flat is very well worn. I suspect we’re going to have to replace at least one appliance while we live here.

On the other hand, we have a washing machine – actually in our flat that we don’t have to pay to operate. This is perilously close to domestic bliss as far as I’m concerned. We also have a lot of other things to be grateful for – a storage closet in particular that holds all our luggage, a shelving unit for shoes and cold weather accessories, all of our boots, and a few clothes that need to be hung up rather than folded to store. We have a great view of some of London’s most iconic landmarks. We live three minutes away from a Tube station and 20 minutes away from Jeff’s work by foot.

All things considered, I’m very pleased at how snuggly we’ve landed. Truthfully there are some days I can hardly believe our luck at how easily we found a place to live, even though it meant completely rethinking our notions about rent. I do worry about housing long term in case we ever need to move – prices keep going up – but in the meantime, in spite of some issues, I’m more than content.

[ETA: Ha! Mere days after drafting this our washer did in fact break. Luckily a bright, shiny new one was delivered yesterday, but I find the timing uncanny. As usual, there’s more to the story…]

A Desk of One’s Own

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
― Albert Einstein

For the past couple of months Jeff and I have been working from the bed, the floor, and the coffee table but we’ve not had a designated work space in the flat. I’ve been surprised at how hard and difficult it’s made things like organizing, good time management, even focusing!  There is something very encouraging and definite about a desk with your To Do list sitting on top of it and all your tools handy, instead of your laptop under the loveseat, your list at the bottom of your bag, and nary a pen in sight.

I’ve been liking our little flat – still a bit bare but pretty hopeful – but since space is at a premium, we have to evaluate how we want to use it. When Jeff’s been able to go off to an office every morning, I’ve had to make do (at one point working from the kitchen counter to just stand for a change) until we got his first paycheck. After a month of back cramps, piles of paper shifting from place to place and getting lost (how we lose anything in a place this small is beyond me!), and general frustration, we were able to hop onto the Ikea website.

My desk finally came…the chair is apparently somewhere still in transit. So I’m still working from a coffee table, it’s just switched functions at bit. It’s amazing the difference it’s already making.

Necessity being the mother of invention.
Necessity being the mother of invention. Disregard that lone shoe, if you please.


The Way We Live Now (or more precisely, where)

“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets.”
― Anna Quindlen, Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City

Ducklings and gentle-kittens, let me make you welcome to Bermondsey.

It’s on the south side of the Thames, a place that has been through the centuries a holy area, a posh area, and a slum area. A large abbey once stood here with royal ties back to the conquest. Apparently Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine held a Christmas court here (presumably more amiable than the one portrayed in The Lion in Winter…), and Elizabeth Woodville retired there along with Henry VII’s blessing after he married her daughter. As usually happened to these presumably impressive buildings, Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey and gave the land to his friend. The Stuarts poshed it up after the Great Fire, but it sank into decay. In the 19th century, the docks and industrialization made things a bit grim.

2013-09-22 19.15.59

This church, built in the 17th century even though a church has been recorded on this sight for well over a thousand years, is the parish church of St. Mary Magdalen.

Charles Dickens described the area near here thusly,  “… crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it — as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage…”


Luckily these days Bermondsey is undergoing a nice little resurgence and we’re really enjoying living here. Huge masses of it was bombed and rebuilt after WWII so it’s relatively recent (compared to a surprising amount of London). Our plumbing is only from the last century instead of the one before – this is cause for rejoicing, trust me!

We’re in Southwark, one of the oldest parts of London – the area from which Chaucer’s pilgrims departed for Canterbury is just a Tube station away, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre is in the same direction. To the east lies the dock where the Mayflower departed for Southampton to meet up with its dour and disapproving paying passengers heading for the New World. The dock where they hanged pirates in the 18th century is nearby. There are excellent restaurants, Bermondsey’s famous antique market, and of course the river.

We also live a 15-20’s minute’s leisurely stroll from Tower Bridge.

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I think you’ll excuse me, minions, if I say that I’m vastly contended and downright giddy about this in a lot of ways. Not too bad, huh!

*all images original to Small Dog Syndrome

Some Treasure From Home

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

While we’re off scrambling for more or less permanent shelter, here are some fun things from my parents house that I thought you guys might like.

The family pile
The family pile

If there is a theme for their decorating, Dad says it’s Anthropology. Dad’s family was in the oil business and Mum’s father was a contractor in Japan after WWII, and then Dad went into government/military service himself. We’ve spent two full generations moving constantly (I’m campaigning hard to make it a third with Jeff and myself, and one brother is going into the military as well). The result is that we have a rather nice collection of hodgepodge in the British style: we picked up stuff wherever we went and now display it on the walls. And floors. And wherever we have space, really.

One of the gallery walls

Mum collects blue willow patterned antique china, so it’s all over the house. At the top is a Samoan (I believe) war club and to the left of the painting is a handmade birdcage.


Dad’s eyeglass case rests on an old Japanese wooden pillow with two Balinese baskets, a Chinese cricket cage, and a betel nut cracker in the shape of a horse, all on an antique obi. Betel nuts are common all over the Pacific and are chewed as mild stimulants, a cheap sort of drug since they literally grow on trees. Unfortunately they have a lot in common with chewing tobacco, especially when it comes to causing cancer.


Balinese mask in the shape of a frog.


Mum’s other collectable, antique pewter. These are a couple of antique farm hutches that sit in the kitchen.


A traditional Chinese folding screen. In our case it’s used as a wall hanging, although I think it would make a spectacular headboard!


“I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”
― Patrick Henry

When politicians talk about small town America, this is what they mean. I’m also convinced few of them spend any substantial time in them. I may be a city girl at heart, but it’s kind of great to know that places like this actually still exist tucked away and plugging along much as they always have.


The historic courthouse and jail to the left. To this day, property auctions take place on the steps.

This courthouse is a bit later, but Louisa’s major claim to fame is that Patrick Henry began his law career here (his first big case was part of the lead up to the Revolution, when King George vetoed a Virginia law in question which the colonists saw as an overstep into their legislative authority. The rest is, extremely well recorded, history). Later he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses to represent the county, where he kicked off his political one.


The jailhouse which operated into the early 20th century and was apparently ranked as one of the worst in the country – because in its long history, it wasn’t renovated in any significant way. Rustic charm is all well and good, but not when you’re locked up, apparently. It’s a pretty good representation of 19th century local justice.


Typical local hours. Very few things can afford to be open all day, every day around here.


During the Civil War, the railroad was a major Confederate supply line, meaning that battles were fought all over the place. The railroad was also supposed to bring a degree of prosperity that, unfortunately, didn’t really make it into the 20th century. The rail station on the left has beautifully worked gables and was clearly once quite nice, but now it’s boarded up and empty except when the local feed store uses it for storage.


Burgerology 101

“Everyone has a right to a university degree in America, even if it’s in Hamburger Technology.”
– Clive James

If I were up to a regular 5+ hour round trip, I can tell you where one of best burgers in Virginia is to be had: Blue Dog Art Cafe in Buena Vista. (Side whine, everything is far away out here, nothing is easy to get to. And poor Mum, this is the same town she teaches at, this is her regular commute!) I had to drop my sister off there the other day for a summer camp and unfortunately they weren’t planning on feeding the kids lunch on the first day, so I had to feed her before leaving her to her fate. Luckily for all concerned we’d passed a rather dilapidated sign on the way into town announcing this gem’s existence. So off we trotted off to support the local economy and eat the local cuisine.

Good. Choice.

Like many businesses in rural Virginia, there isn’t so much as a Facebook page for BDAC, much less a website. Don’t worry. Come visit and I’ll show you the way, like some wise mystic burger guide.


Pardon the phone picture quality.

Buena Vista is right along the Appalachian Trail and has become a quiet, known only to insider hikers place to stay. Blue Dog Art Cafe actually has a spare room or two for hikers to spend the night. And their walls are covered with the signatures of hikers and where they are/were/started/ended up on the Trail.


Behold the guestbook.


Yes, there are deer heads everywhere. And you grab your own cutlery, coffee, and condiments. It’s great!

The menu is almost entirely dog based. The Yorkie, a veggie sandwich. The Irish Wolfhound, no idea but something with meat. But Snickers and I both opted for the Cowboy Joe burger.

Another. Good. Choice.


Homemade chipotle sauce makes this sucker the glorious, perfectly cooked, bacon wrapped, nothing frozen at all beauty that it is. Those fries, unassuming as they seem, are actually quite deceptive. They’re called Freddie Fries and we couldn’t reach a consensus on their seasoning. We agree there’s something lemony in there along with sea salt, but beyond that it’s a mystery.

all images my own