Thursday, November 27, 2014

Learning to Love Again

This flat had a lot to live up to: we weren’t exactly chuffed to be moving in the first place and the flat we left behind held a special place in our hearts. Still, I hoped our inaugural days here might have been filled with the excitement of discovery and the heady promise of a budding relationship. But instead of greeting us like a new lover—giddy and eager to please—the flat remain coy, distant and reluctant to commit.

Our old flat was solid and dependable and we loved its anachronistic quirkiness. This place is a new build, which means everything is smaller, less substantial and more expensive. The building is only ten years old but it is already showing its age and I expect, before another twenty years go by, it will be torn down and replaced with something even more shoddy and doubly expensive.

So, instead of welcoming us unconditionally, our new home pinched around the edges and came with a lot of rules, one being a ban on putting holes in the walls and thereby making it impossible to hang photos or pictures or decorations. When we first viewed the flat, we did notice that the woman living here was residing in a big white box totally devoid of character, but we put it down to the fact that she was only staying here temporarily.

No one's idea of fun.
When I learned the real reason for the pristine walls, I was overcome with despair. If you are not allowed to impose your personality on a room or shape a space to your convenience then, my friend, you are not at home, you are living in a hotel. And I did not relish the notion of living the rest of my days in a hotel.

Fortunately, clever gremlins at the 3M company have been busy these past dozen years working on just this problem, and have—without my noticing it—come up with a whole raft of products designed to hang, hook or otherwise fasten things to other things without doing permanent damage to the thing being attached to.

Now, I admit to being skeptical of some modern innovations, but I am an enthusiastic convert to these nifty and versatile hooks. In addition to what they are supposed to be used for, I have used them to suspend a toy plane from the ceiling (my grandson made it for me) and attach a paper towel dispenser to the wall to free up valuable counter space.

(Incidentally, 3M neither solicited nor paid me for that gushing endorsement. Mores the pity; I could have used the money. Their products might be wonderful but they are substantially more expensive than nails.)

And so, with pictures going up and things slowly being stowed and the mountains of boxes being whittled down to foothills, the flat is, rather tentatively, beginning to feel less foreign. This has also been helped, oddly enough, by the fact that we still have the original flat.

This move wasn’t one of those “get it all done in one day” types. We have a two-week overlap so we still have some stuff at the old place and we have been making repeated trips back there to collect and clean. The first trip was a melancholy affair, filled with regret and tinged with the fear that a bad, and irrevocable, decision had been made.

As the days wore on, however, it began to feel more like bumping into an old girlfriend at a party, where you try to ease the awkwardness by making small talk but you only make it worse and you just know she’s thinking, “I hope his new girlfriend is a right bitch. And I bet she’s not as pretty as me,” and so you cut your conversation short and go back to your new lover and suddenly she seems more comfortable, more compatible, and more like home.

At least they let me put my flag up. Long may she wave.

Friday, November 14, 2014

FATCA Explained

Unless you are a tax lawyer or involved in the expat community, there is little reason for you to have heard of FATCA. Yet.

FATCA, at its heart, is a law designed to make people obey a law that is already in place. In my view, a reasonable response to this situation would be to concentrate on finding the offenders and prosecuting them.

Instead, the US Government decided to hunt chipmunks with a howitzer.

FATCA is so monumentally ill-conceived that it is difficult to pick just one of its potentially horrific consequences. What bothers me most about the law, however, is how it is making my country appear to the rest of the world. This is not exactly a hearts and minds initiative.

Consequently, I am offering my take on FATCA; I want to get it out before someone else thinks of it:

Paying a Visit

A sovereign nation sits at his desk looking over the latest reports. He is cautiously optimistic. An economic upturn appears to be imminent, one that could improve the lives of his people, but it is too early to tell. Still, if nothing goes wrong…

There is a knock at the door.

Sovereign Nation: Come in.

The door opens and the USA walks in, wearing a trench coat, fedora and leather gloves. Two others, similarly dressed, enter as well. Their eyes are narrow. They do not smile.

Sovereign Nation: Greetings. To what do I owe this honor?

USA: Well, me and my boys here—IRS and Treasury Department—thought we’d stop by to give you a heads up about a law we just passed.

Sovereign Nation: That’s very nice or you, but I don’t see what it has to do with…

USA: This law, you see, it says that you have to hand over all the financial information from all your financial institutions for everyone in your country. To us. Now.

Sovereign Nation: That’s preposterous! How can YOUR law tell US what to do?

USA: Yeah, I hear you; it’s a real bitch, isn’t it? But, hey, the law’s the law. Now hand over the data.

Sovereign Nation: No, absolutely not! It would not only violate our own laws on depositor confidentiality, but also—and I cannot stress this enough—we don’t want to. That data is none of your business!

USA: Look, let me lay it on the line for you. We’re tired of our citizens moving to your country, earning money here and not paying any taxes to us.

Sovereign Nation: But…but they’re working in our businesses, earning our money, shopping in our stores, contributing to our economy, not yours. Why should they pay taxes to you?

USA: Hey! You handle your citizens your way; we’ll handle ours our way! Capish?

Relax! We're from the Government; we're here to help.
Sovereign Nation: Well, then why don’t you just pass a law saying they have to pay taxes to you on any money they earn abroad.

USA: We already have that law. See, the thing is, we don’t trust our citizens. We figure they’re fiddling the books, so, what we’re asking for is your help in assisting our citizens to comply with the law.

Sovereign Nation: Then why not just take the data for US citizens?

USA: We thought about that, but it turns out we don’t trust you either. You might let a few fish slip through the net. Not on purpose, mind, but we think we’re better equipped to find what we’re looking for than you are.

Sovereign Nation: Well, that’s totally unacceptable. We will not comply.

USA: Hey, your choice. We’re not here to force you into anything.

The USA clasps his hands behind his back and begins to wander around the office, whistling to himself, looking casually here and there.

USA: Nice economy you have here.

Sovereign Nation: Thanks, we’re rather pleased…

USA: Be a shame if something happened to it.

Sovereign Nation: (Nervously) Like what?

The US as Enforcer.
USA: Like, say, a 30 percent withholding tax on every transaction that travels through a US bank.

Sovereign Nation: That would ruin us! Our economy would crumble. There’d be widespread unemployment, riots in the streets, people would die! How can you…

USA: What? You’re thinking of blaming this on us? All we’re asking you to do is obey the law. You do, and your economy bumps along unhindered and everybody wins.

Sovereign Nation: And what do we get out of this?

USA: You get to keep your economy from going into the toilet.

Sovereign Nation: But we have that now.

USA: Look, I’m not asking again. I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse. You play ball with us, nothing unpleasant happens. You don’t, and, well, as I said, the law’s the law. It’s out of my hands. Really, I’m just trying to help you here.

Sovereign Nation: (Sighs) Well, since you’ve got us against a wall, okay, we’ll do it.

USA: Now you’re being smart. I like it when you’re smart. Stay smart and nothing bad will happen. So, we’ll have that data now and be on our way.

Formerly Sovereign Nation: Now? It’s going to take months to collect and collate and…

USA: Okay, okay. I’ll give you an extension. Four o’clock. Data on my desk, or my boys come pay you a visit. Capish?

Formerly Sovereign Nation: Capish.

For more FATCA:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

If I Could Turn Back Time

I just spent the better part of three days taking photographs of notebook pages so I can store them “digitally” on my computer.

This, naturally, is to do with The Move.

(ASIDE: I realize many of you will be thinking, “Hasn’t he moved yet?” The answer is, No; the move is still eight days away. That’s what I get for announcing our move six weeks before the fact.)

We’re determined to use this as an opportunity to de-clutter, which means ruthlessly ridding our flat of things we don’t actually need—like 20 or so volumes of journals dating back to my teens. They take up a scandalous amount of shelf space and I have finally reached a point in my life where I am not so obsessive that I need to have them near to hand (my therapist would be so proud) so I am packing them up for storage in my father-in-law’s loft.

Still, I couldn’t let them go without making some sort of record of them (I said I was getting better, I didn’t say I was cured) and that involved photographing each and every page and uploading them to my PC.

I didn’t read them (who has the time, or the will?), but the odd sentence jumped out at me occasionally, often enough to let me know—on a deep and visceral level—that if I had access to a time machine and could use it only once, I wouldn’t go back in time to meet George Washington or Winston Churchill or even Jesus, I’d go back to find my 20-something self so I could slap the self-obsessed smugness out of him.

"First stop, 1978, so I can slap the shit out of myself..."
I’d do that, even knowing that my 20-something self would never bother listening to any hard-won wisdom coming from his well-over-20-something self and it would be a wasted trip but, gosh, I’d have to try; I was such an asshole when I was younger.

Seriously, isn't that a face just begging to be slapped?
Coming face-to-face with my former self in those ancient journal entries was occasionally amusing, sometimes baffling (What on earth did I do that for?) and often cringe inducing. And then it got worse; after a while I noticed that my 20-something self was rapidly heading toward my 30-something self, and he was still an asshole, but an asshole now raising children! How could they let this happen? (Whoever they are.)

Finally, my early-40-something-self acquired a proper PC and the journal became electronic so I was spared any additional peeks into my past. By that time, I was a single man again and I would say I was going through my second childhood except you have to grow up first to have a second childhood.

When I gratefully glimpsed the last snippets of my former life, my I-can’t-really-be-40-something-can-I? self was as angst-ridden, confused and self-centered as ever, which leaves me to wonder how I ended up here.

But somehow, that erstwhile bundle of neurosis managed to make the choices (dumb luck is my guess) that would lead him to Ireland, an expat adventure and the woman who would become my long-suffering wife, so perhaps he didn’t turn out so badly after all, despite his inauspicious start.

Not such a bad guy, after all.
If given a shot at that time-machine, maybe it would be best to leave my 20-something self to fumble along on his meandering way and, instead, pay a visit to Coca-Cola’s board room in 1985 where some bright spark is saying, “I have an idea, let’s take our successful formula and change it!” He would benefit more from a slap upside the head than my 20-something self would.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

America the Beautiful

America is such a vast place that, on any given day of the year, it is a good bet that you can find a world-class beauty spot somewhere. During the early weeks of October, however, that spot is definitely New England, and I would be remiss in not exclaiming (again) just how beautiful it is.

Purdy, innit?
Our trip this year was fabulous and, despite my annual carping about the border crossings, fairly relaxing. The weather—traditionally agreeable in early autumn—was especially stunning, with sunny days, clear nights, crystal blue skies and temperatures that occasionally reached into the low 80s.

I was surprised, but pleased, to note that you Americans are not wasting your time braiding rubber bands as so many of the young people here are.

Thankfully, this fad is on the wane.
On the other hand, you are too busy panicking about the Ebola virus to have time for much else. (Seriously, relax—only a few people have it, it’s not exactly an epidemic; wash your hands, don’t kiss strangers on the mouth, you’ll be fine.)

What surprised me most, however, was how foreign I felt in my own country. As if I needed that nugget of unwanted truth underscored, I set out four times to visit friends or family and, four times, I got lost. And each time I was reminded that I had turned down the offer of a Sat-Nav with a contemptuous, “I grew up here; I know my way around.” (Also, they were going to charge me an extra $15 for the privilege. I think next time I’ll swallow my pride and pony up the extra cash; it will save a lot of aggravation in the long run.)

The rental car was another joy. The lights came on automatically, whether I wanted them to or not. And when I did want them on but they didn’t automatically light up, I had no idea where the switch was. It took me nearly a week to figure out how to turn on my headlights. Also, when I ran into a spot of rain, I put the wipers on and the rear window wiper came on with them. When I turned the wipers off, the back wiper kept going. I never did figure out how to turn that off and I spent the entire two weeks with a very clean back window.

Otherwise, it was a lovely time, with ample opportunities to play with the G-boys, test out navigation skills in the corn mazes and tour pumpkin patches with them (they were mad about pumpkins—good thing, too, because they were everywhere).

Pumpkins here...

...pumpkins there...

...pumpkins everywhere.
Somehow, they both managed to find a pumpkin.
While we’re on the subject of pumpkins, is there anything you won’t put pumpkin flavoring in? I realize you had a lot of them, but pumpkin coffee, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin ice cream? What happened to a good old pumpkin donut and a cup of hot cider?

Our visit to one farm was quite an eye-opener. Some farmers these days, in order to make ends meet, are turning their farms into family adventure parks. This is a bold move, as farms are insanely dangerous places. I have to say they do a good job sanitizing them, but sometimes I think they go too far.

For all you kids under the age of 20, this is what a real cow looks like.
I was shocked to see that an onerous task we were forced to perform as kids is now something children flock to willingly—and pay for the privilege!

I wish these kids were around when I was forced to pump water.

During our stay, we visited a posh gallery and checked out the gift shop.
We just browsed; we didn't buy anything.

Apparently, this is a gate for really stupid people.
We left America just as the weather was turning, and arrived in Britain in time to enjoy another week of surprisingly mild days before autumn’s grip took hold. Strangely, I find—after the spectacular weather in the US and the mild days here in Blighty—that I am glad for the cooler temps. I has stopped me thinking that spring is just around the corner and has put me in the mood for turkey dinners, home-made bread and snuggling on the sofa with a hot toddy.

Winter’s coming; we might as well enjoy it.