Monthly Archives: May 2014

Chequed out

An ancient scrivener employing the art of calligraphy to write a bill of exchange.

An ancient scrivener employing the art of calligraphy to write a bill of exchange.

I just paid my rent for June. And that involved doing something very antiquated: writing a check.

Who does that anymore? Checks remind me of the 1980s and grocery shopping with my mother. I always thought of checks as a relic, a vestige of the paper-based banking system, something that ought to be framed and archived to show our children one day.

I can probably count on one hand the number of checks I wrote in my entire 5.5 years living in the UK. My checkbook was relegated to a drawer and rarely dusted off. And when I say “my checkbook,” I mean my one checkbook, because that is all the bank issued me with my account. That was all that was necessary.

Here in the US, on the other hand, I find myself all-too frequently reaching for my checkbook. As an indication that checks are alive and well, when I recently opened a new bank account, I received an entire check box filled with with four checkbooks. And now I find myself steadily working my way through them. At the very least, I use one per month to pay my rent.

I think the persistence of checks in the US can be in large part explained by the fact that there is no free and easy way to make an electronic payment to another person. In the UK, no matter what bank you have an account with, if another person gives you two simple numbers – their account number and their bank sort code – you can transfer them money, completely for free, in a matter of minutes by logging onto your online banking. The money will post to their account in just a day or two.

In the UK, people use this all the time for everything; it’s not only used for paying rent to your landlord. Let’s say you go on a weekend trip with a group of friends, and one friend pays the car rental and gas; at the end of the weekend, you want to divide the costs. Well, just calculate how much that person is owed, and everyone makes a bank transfer to that person’s account to pay their portion; there’s no need for any cash or checks. Likewise, a friend of a friend recently carried my suitcase from London to DC; I will pay her back by remotely making an online bank transfer to her account.

This doesn’t seem to be an option in the US. Unless if you happen to have the same bank as the person you want to pay (in which case transfers are free), then you have to (a) pay a fee, usually at least $3, to make an online transfer to another account; (b) wait 3 days for it to go through (unless if you pay a premium to have it go faster), and – most annoyingly – (c) you have to enter a whole slew of information about the receiving account to get the recipient set up in your online banking system. And, while everyone in the UK knows their sort code and account number, nobody in the US seems to know their routing number.

All of this is a royal pain in the backside. So, instead, you just end up pulling out your quill pen and parchment paper…



Filed under Banking

You’ve got mail. Real mail.

Magical mail.

Magical mail.

Almost every day I get mail. I mean post. As in real paper correspondence, delivered directly to my house. I come home from work and I find a pile of envelopes and papers waiting at my door. Most of it is junk: advertising flyers addressed to the past tenant, or thin “newspapers” showcasing the products on sale at a local supermarket. But usually there is a letter or two in there addressed to me personally. It’s awesome. I feel so special.

Of course, inevitably it’s an electricity bill, or a statement from my bank, or yet another annoying notification from DC Health Link (I’ll write/whine more about my experience enrolling in health coverage in a future post). But it’s still awesome. Because it’s been so long since I’ve gotten any real mail. Or even had a mailing address at which to receive mail.

I spent most of the past 3 years living in Africa, in countries with limited to non-existent postal service. In Somaliland, there was literally no national postal service in the entire 23 year history of the country, either national or international; the same was true of southern Somalia (although apparently just recently, in November 2013, the United Nations’ Universal Postal Union brokered a deal with the government of Somalia to resume shipment of international mail via Dubai).

In Liberia, at least a postal service existed. But, not in the way a westerner would know it. Like many developing countries, the streets in Liberia had names (well, at least some of them), but there were no street addresses as such; the houses had no numbers. So, while it was possible to mail something into the country, there was no such thing as a postman making household deliveries; you had to go to the post office to collect it. I would like to see a Liberian postman trying to deliver a letter to the address “Mr. Kamara, Red House Near the Mango Tree, on the Dirt Road after the Church in Caldwell, Monrovia.”

I did manage to successfully send several post cards out of Liberia, and I also received post in Liberia (although I was advantaged by the fact that I was using the post office box of the government Ministry where I worked). But, needless to say, some of the correspondence went missing…

So, a lover of post, post cards, and stamps (both sending and receiving), I’m delighted to be back in a country with a functioning postal service. That said, I am slightly shocked at how many practical things are still done by post (e.g. electricity bills, bank statements, health insurance enrollment). I would have thought most of these things would be handled entirely electronically by now. But it seems hard copy is still the default, and you have to opt in for electronic communications after you are in the system.

But for now, getting any letter in my name puts a smile on my face. I mean, how incredible is it that letters directed to you individually are hand-carried to your door?


Filed under Communications


Every minute counts.

Every minute counts.

I always considered myself to be a punctual person. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life, and I normally show up on time. Well, at least I thought I did. But recently I’ve been realizing that perhaps my years spent living in Africa have altered my definition of what “on time” means.

The other day I attend a meeting that was scheduled for 10am. Or should I say, 10:00am. Because minutes matter. I showed up at 10:02, expecting to be the first one there. Instead, I was the last one there. Everyone was already seated and ready to go, and the meeting started immediately after I walked in.

Since then, I’ve adjusted my behavior: rather than leave my desk at the time the meeting is scheduled for, I start gearing up for the meeting when Outlook gives me the 5 minute advance reminder. Apparently in America, a 10am meeting means that the meeting starts at 10am, not that you show up at 10am.

Contrast that to Liberia, where a 10am meeting means that the foreign consultants show up at 10ish (or perhaps 10am sharp, if they just recently arrived and don’t know any better), the Liberian counterparts show up at 10:15ish, then everybody waits around a long time until the Minister (or other senior person) shows up at 10:30ish, and finally the meeting starts at 10:45ish after a bit of chit chat. Showing up “on time” often meant nothing more than wasting your time.

As for punctuality in Somaliland, I felt that the lateness units were more often days than hours. At the university where I worked, on the day semester was supposed to start, no students would show up for the first class. But, the following day, and the day after, they started trickling in. What’s a minute or two here, a day or two there really?


Filed under Work

Look left, look right. Or was it right, left?



In the months leading up to my return to the US in January, I spent a lot of time in countries where the traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road. Not only the UK, but also southern Africa, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.

As a pedestrian, I got used to looking right, and then left, before crossing the road. Even if I hadn’t been used to it, in London I was constantly reminded of it by the friendly “LOOK RIGHT–>” signs painted on the road next to the crosswalks, which had no doubt been installed to reduce the incidence of left-looking tourists getting mowed down by buses, which is not good for the tourism industry.

Well, I don’t blame them, because this is a surprisingly difficult habit to learn or unlearn. In my first few weeks back in the US, I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself when driving and bicycling that the default position was the right hand side of the road (oddly enough, my brother seemed slightly stressed about lending me his car and bicycle).

One thing that struck me is that the right-hand / left-hand traffic distinction seems to apply not only to the movement of vehicles along the road, but also the movement of people along the sidewalk or other thoroughfare. What I mean is that if you are walking down a sidewalk and someone is walking toward you, then you sort of instinctively or subconsciously follow the national road rules when passing that person. In the UK, you would pass the person on the left; in the US, you would pass them on the right.

It is something you do totally without thinking. The only reason I became consciously aware of it is because I found that, when I returned the US, I kept on doing these awkward sidewalk dances with people – as they approached me, I would move left, but meanwhile they would move to the right (my left), so that we were still walking right toward each other. Then there’d be a bit of odd bobbing/swaying, followed by a shuffle to the right and a mumbled apology on my part. I’m sorry, you’re right… about being right.

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Filed under Practicalities, Transport

Mutant donuts

This is do-NUTS.

This is do-NUTS.

I went to my favorite bagel joint the other day, took a peek in the pastry case, and had a fright as I witnessed what was the largest donut I have ever seen in my entire life.

I mean, this was no ordinary donut. It was a GIANT donut. The size of my head, in fact. It was like a donut on steroids. Or an Alice in Wonderland donut that had swallowed the “eat me” cake. Or a megalomaniac donut that imagined itself to be a cake.

Whatever the case, it was a gargantuan donut. Everyone knows that American serving sizes are notoriously large. But it’s not just the main courses that are over sized. The pastries are also mammoth. At least the ones for sale in the bakeries often are. Who would want a cookie that fits in your hand, if you could have one that hides your face? Why would you eat a donut as an accompaniment to your coffee, if you could one that your coffee cup fits inside?


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Filed under Food

When it costs money to get your money

Money costs money.

Money costs money.

When I lived in the UK, I had a bank account with Barclays. If I wanted to take cash out, I’d go to any ATM (or “cash point” as the Brits call it), be it Barclays, HSBC, RBS, Lloyds, or whatever other “high street” bank. It didn’t matter. Because, no matter where I took cash out in the United Kingdom, I’d never pay any fees, either to Barclays or to the bank operating the ATM.

Well, I totally forgot that we don’t have it so good on this side of the pond. When I returned to the US on a one-way flight in January, as soon as I cleared immigration and baggage claim, it occurred to me that I needed to get some greenbacks (obviously not yet appreciating that everything today is done by cards, not cash). And that’s when I remembered that meant I’d have to find a Bank of America ATM.

Unless I wanted to pay an ATM surcharge of $2.50 (or thereabouts) to the non-Bank of America ATM machine – for the “privilege” of using their machine without being a customer of their bank – and another “foreign” fee of $1.50 to Bank of America for using an ATM machine not in their network. Add these two fees up, and you can easily end up paying $4 to $5 just take out your own money (regardless of whether you withdraw $20 or $100). So, instead, you walk fruitlessly around town trying to hunt down a Bank of America ATM, not wishing to spend $5 of your own money just to, err, spend your own money.

I’ve seen the same system in Australia, where ATMs charge service fees for withdrawals at their ATMs by non-customers. So, clearly the US is not the only country that follows this practice. That doesn’t make it any less infuriating. On the bright side, it seems like recently there are some non-traditional banks, such as Capital One and Charles Schwab, which have a policy of not charging their customers for using any bank’s ATM and offer automatic reimbursements of any ATM fees that are charged by the other bank. I recently set up accounts with both. Suck that, ATM fees.

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Filed under Banking

Laundry love

Clean in no time.

Clean in no time.

I love doing my laundry. I never thought I’d say that. But it’s never been so easy. Why? I have a washing machine and – wait for this – a dryer. AND they are both INSIDE my apartment. I live in the lap of luxury. I can do all my laundry, without even leaving my house, in a matter of minutes.

Compare this to every flat I rented in London – none of them had a clothes dryer. In fact, I’m not sure I even knew anyone in London who had a dryer. Everyone just washed their clothing in the washing machine, and then hung the wet clothes up to dry, either on a on a clothes line outside the window in the summer, or over the radiators in the cold damp winter.

And even then I was lucky. In Holland, I didn’t even have a washing machine in my apartment. Doing laundry was an afternoon-long ordeal which involved hauling my dirty clothes bag to the nearest laundromat, hanging around for the washing machine to finish, hanging around longer for the dryer to finish, and then folding everything before carrying it back home (or, more likely, just shoving it all back into the laundry bag so it was nicely wrinkled by the time it ended up back in my closet).

And, even then, I was STILL lucky. In Tunisia and Somaliland, I didn’t even have access to a washing machine. I just went to the back yard or the roof and washed my clothing by hand in a bucket, like most of the world does. Because it was so time-consuming, I got in the habit of wearing each item of clothing as many times as possible before throwing it in the laundry pile. I knew I had done well when the water would come off brown while I did my washing. The days when I used to wear something only *once* and then throw it in the laundry basket were a distant memory.

Indeed, since doing my laundry has always been so taxing, the habit of wearing and re-wearing clothes and only washing them when they are actually dirty has become totally ingrained in me (for the record, underwear remains strictly one time use only, except in emergency situations… I’m talking about shirts, dresses, pants, etc. here… even socks can be multiple use, depending on the circumstances). But now that I am once again in the land of the laundry leprechaun, I can see myself starting to slack.

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Filed under Practicalities