Chicago to London – Compelled to Compare: Circa 2008/9.

International Mobility is a fantastic experience. You see the good, the bad, the ugly across boundaries. The apartment hunting, the packing & moving, the hooking up of services, setting up shop, getting to know your way around, getting lost quite a bit….

I’m quite the veteran at this, having moved from India to Singapore (my very first stint overseas), then back to India, then a few months later to Abu Dhabi – UAE, back again, then moving to Pune within India, then from Pune to Chicago, on to London, and finally back to India.

As you go through the process you can’t but compare life in general, but specifically products and services in various countries.

This is about moving from Chicago to London, but extrapolate that to a  comparison between the US and UK.

Basic Amenities – A Cinch in the UK? Think Again

I think it’s a safe assumption to say that I’m a simple guy, needing the basic conveniences in life, like a cable connection to watch some “telly” as the Brits would put it. I don’t think adding a landline connection, and a broadband service would mean that I’m expecting a bit much, would it?

So I ask around to get some advise on how I can get connected, get some phone numbers of service providers. Things seemed to be looking up finally! Were they really? Nah, was an illusion after all. Now I did speak with the service providers, but I started getting some strange responses.

Some previous tenant, has kindly left behind a broadband connection, which works, but I really want my own, don’t I?

Here I am asking for a Broadband Internet connection or a SKY cable connection to be set up, but all they want to know is if I have a BT landline at home? Now after telling them all that I had only just moved to London, I sort of assumed that they would figure that I didn’t. Nevertheless……

So I tell them, no I don’t have a BT landline at home. “Well sir, we cannot install our service if you don’t have a BT connection”. For the life of me, I have not been able to figure out, why would an Internet Service Provider, insist that I have a BT landline, when BT offers it’s own Internet service as well? Perhaps my stint in the US made me brain dead.

Call Centers in India – Service Levels? WTF is that? Ditto for IT folks.

I’m a really unpopular guy, perhaps to the extent where squads are being sent to exterminate me. I make no friends and neither do I take prisoners in two places, the IT folks, the BPO folks (read Call Center). Since the BT calls were redirected to some dimwit in India, yes, this is about my experience with Call Centers in India.

I am dead sure we have all seen movies that at some point add humor by having a scene or two involving a chat with a call center agent based our of our beloved India.Bhaiya or South Indian accent, nose digging and all.

This horror and frustration I have experienced first hand, didn’t have to see the nose digging though. Not nice. The reps read from a frigging script, and if your query is even remotely off the script, then boy oh boy! Are you in for a marathon call, with absolutely no hope in hell of getting your issue addressed.

As the saga continued, I tried, tried in vain, and several times at that, to get that damn BT Line installed. Now to say that I’m frustrated is the understatement of the century. I get off the phone after being on for about 30 minutes, only to gain access to what its going to take to get a landline installed, and only to get disconnected after all that work. This to please be coupled with the previous episode where the call got cut off, and that too after getting my land line number. And even before that, speaking to BT who promised to send an engineer to survey the property to determine if a landline had ever been installed at that property before, an engineer who sent an SMS that he was coming over but never showed.

Is this what we call doing business or is this how we deliver a service?

Now I started getting a bit ambitious (pretty much glutton for punishment) and wanted to put in a TV connection! So again I do the usual internet search, again shamelessly using the broadband connection that didn’t belong to me, and converge on SKY as the service provider.  Determine the mix of shows I want, and am feeling all happy now. I guess my happiness was meant to be short lived. Now it seems that the only way I can get a SKY box installed is if I have a BT line. What??? What’s this obsession with BT? Could it be something to do with the ugly word “monopoly”? Or would it just be a technology issue.

So very hopefully I ask SKY if there is any way I can get a connection without a BT Line? Yes, there is and all I need to do is pay an amount of 85 quid. So the said sum is paid, the SKY engineer comes over and gets the service going. Soooo at least one thing goes right, albeit at a cost.

So now I’m thinking, well there is an internet connection at home (not mine), there is a SKY connection at home (legitimately mine), and they both need a BT line to function, perhaps BT has a record that there is at least one connection at the penthouse, so let’s talk to BT again.

So talk I do … goes pretty much like the first time, endless waiting on the phone (cellular of course), providing all possible detail, and as luck will have it I got disconnected at the penultimate moment. The agent had given me my digits, saying that this would be my new BT landline number. I waited for about 45 minutes thinking (wishfully) that the agent I spoke to for about 45 minutes, would call me back, since they wanted to earn some money by clinching the deal. Well, she did not and I called BT again.

Should I be surprised that there was no record of my call, no record that I had been signed up (after providing my payment details)? Perhaps not. So I am on the phone for 45 minutes, again, and tell the agent up front that if for any reason I get disconnected, PLEASE call me back. To make a long story short, my cellular battery went dead, I connected to the mains, but I didn’t get a call back in confirmation of the deal.

I finally gave up, but a few days later when looking at my bank statement, discovered a standing instruction favoring BT. So it seems that finally I would get a line, but how?  I did get an SMS letting me know the anointed time when the engineer would come over to get me going, by first surveying the property (at my cost of course). Speaking about surveying, don’t forget that there is a BT broadband connection working in the apartment (kindly forgotten behind by the previous tenant), and one which I’m shamelessly using. What’s more the SKY technician had to put in a landline connection to install the SKY service. Now with two landlines in the apartment (without the broadband SKY will not work), BT still maintains that there is no record of a landline at that post code, at that property, and at that apartment. What gives??? I just don’t get it, and by now I’m beyond caring, and about to give up the whole enterprise. Screw it, will just get an internet dongle.

This saga of moving and getting settled in of course spans a couple of months, so let’s get back to the apartment, shall we? If you recall, I have recently moved from Chicago to London. Moving to London: Circa 2008/9

Still no mailbox key, outstanding issues, such as door not functioning, etc. Still not sorted out. So I speak to the office, the signatory to the lease, and ask them if I can terminate the contract, on grounds of breach. The general opinion is that it’s still not breach, but we do have grounds to send a strongly worded legal notice so I’m told. I waited for two whole months and finally sent a legal notice, after which the key strangely appeared under my door one day. Insert the key and it still does not work. I think that the landlord knows that the key is faulty or even worse the mailbox lock is bad, but does not want to spend 150 quid to fix it.

And they say that the UK is largely a service based economy? In my most humble opinion, it doesn’t seem that way.

Life in the US

The best way to describe life in the US is to say that it is idiot proof, or to be more specific (if you’ve not already guessed), is that the facilities provided allow you to leave your brains at home, therefore my words earlier “brain dead”. Unless of course we all go and assume that since a certain fellow with orange hair, recently got voted to power by popular adult franchise, that does say a lot about the rest of the voters.

I moved to London-UK, from Chicago-USA. That land of opportunity (then in severe recession), ultimate convenience and one that makes you brain dead. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all, except I try to use those words in order to amuse.

America is really an extremely easy place to live in, be it grocery shopping, subscriptions to service like cable television, telephone, broadband internet, and the like.  Then of course there are those fantastic highways or motor ways as I must now learn to call them!

We drove from Chicago to the Grand Canyon, all of 1700+ miles each way and didn’t even feel as if we’d traveled so far. Plenty of convenience stores, gas stations or petrol stations as I must learn to call them now, along the way. Things like grocery shopping and convenience shopping, are really made so easy, with Jewel, Target, Domnick’s, Walgreen, Walmart, all varieties of gas stations (oops petrol stations) all round the corner in practically every little town, or borough as I must learn to call them in the UK.

People Differences: US vs UK

The real difference between people in the US and the UK is that the average US citizen is not really exposed to anything outside of the US. Be it education about foreign countries, people, culture or languages. I remember from my very first visit to the US in 1978 as a Rotary Exchange Student, of people asking me if I had pet snakes, tigers, elephants, etc. I did have a whale of a time leading them up the garden path about stuff like that.

Now I do know from my first experience of living in the US that the school curriculum does not prescribe much international education, and that may well be a reason why people are so badly informed about international issues, but on the flip side, America has been known as the land of opportunities and for that reason people from all over the world flock to America.

So the question that begs an answer, is with the racial mix in the US being truly international in flavor, how come there is so much ignorance about the world in the US? I’ll be dammed if I know…

The average American is also generally a poor world traveler, and that is possibly because of almost everything in the US being idiot proof or incredibly convenient. Whereas the Brit seems to be a natural born traveler.

Now that may be because at one time the Brits ruled a large part of the world. My guess is that all of these character and national traits are in the genes of the general population. Another huge difference is that the US has influenced the global economy and culture, pretty much remotely, whereas the Brits did it by traveling the world physically. I’m talking history of course. East India Company rings a bell?

London is Expensive

Generally, life in London is expensive, and few will beat me up for saying that. The company I worked for took care of me, and I really will not complain too much. They paid for my “chick magnet” penthouse associated utilities, linen, cleaning and everything.

In spite of that if I were to compare the 1000 odd quid a week that the company pays for my apartment and the associated costs, what would that same amount of money buy me, in Chicago, Singapore, Bombay, or for that matter in any other major world city. A lot!

Since I do need to spend my money on groceries and personal expenses, I can say that it’s three times more expensive in London! Even take going out for that odd dinner or two a month. Expensive!

Clothes shopping is expensive too! However, I must comment that over the years that I’ve been visiting, the prices are becoming more realistic and better aligned with other comparable locations.

People talk about people being so well dressed in London as compared to the US, and the topic veered around to women wearing the latest fashions, snazzy stuff, which is not exactly cheap. The style and fashion scene in London, and generally in Europe is up market.

Now if I found London to be expensive, I cannot help but think, how does the layman, or woman as the case may be, survive here!  I do ask around, and what I’m hearing is that household income is pooled to get along, many people don’t have cars so that’s a saving, even people who have cars use the train or tube as it’s called here, and therefore several expenses associated with life in the US are not incurred here.

Raison d’être

I believe it goes back to how these nations came to be created. Europe being the old world where culture and all it’s components, art, language, literature, fashion and the like were allowed to flourish, and the Americas being the new world, where people flocked for several reasons …. escape from life situations, wanting a freedom that was not available in the old world, escape from financial situations, from criminal prosecution……

They all came and by the sweat of their brows, tamed a wild and largely barren land, connected huge distances by rail and road, and overcame mammoth obstacles to make it in a new and free world.

However, all said and done, people who went there, and indeed who still continue to go there (that’s about to change though), go with an intent to begin afresh. And the American system, supports that very well, going back to my points about convenience and ease, rewarding and celebrating success, and providing a basic living to all. Thus, America is still viewed as the land of opportunity, a varied cultural mix, with the old world inhabitants in the New England state of Massachusetts and New York, and the new settlers from across the world spread across the country.

Without a doubt, they looked at what didn’t work in the countries of their origin, and tried to make changes for the better. Of course there has always been a large rebellious streak in America, and perhaps they took it too far and made changes in extremes.

For example, from Cricket they made Baseball, from Football/Soccer they made American Football, from Squash they made Racket-ball. Instead of kilomteres we have miles, we have a different measure even for the gallon. In the financial system as well, it was pure diehard capitalism all the way, fiercely protective, money being the end all and be all, as would be the natural outcome for a race which left all behind to make a new beginning.

Public Transport

Apart from NYC in the US, in general they’ve missed the plot as regards public transport is concerned. You cannot really survive in the US without a car, as you really cannot get from point A to B. Whereas, in the UK the public transportation both intercity and intracity is excellent (save the outages on the Jubilee Line), but even then you’re not left stranded, the replacement bus services connecting the stations affected do manage to ferry you across. Not the most convenient, but it does work. A legacy that the Brits left behind in India.

Your Identity in Country

In the US your identity is your Social Security number and to sign up for anything you will need to quote that number. everything you do is tracked by that identification number. So be it bank accounts, credit cards, phone companies, cable companies and all service-providers, they all track your behavior based on that number. So guess what? Should you delay a payment, or for that matter even get sued, or sue someone else, it WILL be tracked and a whole lot of people will have access to that information! The system does compel you to remain straight.

In the UK your identity seems to be the Bank Account number, and the first thing they will do when you go to get signed up for a cellular service is ask for your UK bank issued Debit Card. That’s what they use for the address proof and verification.

People Differences

In the US I found people to be more open, more friendly, more receptive, albeit with some degree of caution. But in London, I found Londoners to be more closed, save the immigrant population. London, is largely comprised of immigrants, so London wasn’t half bad.

The London Pub Culture versus the US

I found that in the US, the work week was sacrosanct, and people properly went home after work, however, in the UK, and London in partcular, 4.30 pm onwards, its down to the local pubs, tank up and then people head home.

I could go on and on in terms of comparison, and could go on to compare UK versus Europe, or for that matter, Continental Europe with Central and Eastern Europe, but let’s save that for another day. I think one of my next blogs is going to be about working and living in different parts of the world, and my general observations of how people live and work across the globe.

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