Blog Archive

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Tiers and Travel

We have had lots of friends and family reach out wondering how we are doing with the new variant strain of Covid. Thank you for all your concern so today I thought I would address this in the post.

 When we first arrived the country was in lockdown. This didn't mean much to us since most of this time we spent in self quarantine for 14 days. When we were released we had about one week left of the national lockdown but again we felt mostly unaffected since we were staying at our son's house. Our few trips to stores during this time we noted that the stores were strictly controlling how many in at any one time. 

Then on December 2nd the lockdown ended and our area in PortChester was under a tier 2. This meant that stores could relax some, restaurants could have dine in, on a limited basis, gyms and pubs were open but masks were worn everywhere inside. It is sad to say that this felt almost normal. It is also during this time we enjoyed some family day trips. Let me note here that we were trying to be careful since our son Kenny is set to deploy early January and even though the first 14 days of his deployment are going to be spent in quarantine, we didn't want to risk him getting sick. 

Our first daytrip was to Stonehenge. What an amazing site! Sometimes I still have to stop and remind myself at how old so many structures around me are. Stonehenge is an English Heritage site. Except for the museum and shop, which were open at the time, it is outside. We had to buy a ticket ahead of time that specified the time we could enter. I am sure this is the procedure they use to keep the crowd to a small size. 

 The next daytrip was to Dover. At the time Dover was in tier 3. This meant restaurants could only do take away and all the inside space, such as museums, were closed but the outside grounds were open. Again, we had to buy a ticket in advance that stated the time we could enter. We enjoyed the day exploring the castle grounds and walking along the white cliffs. 

We did get to see history up close and personal with all of the big semi-trucks waiting in line for the ferry to France. They were stacked on the road for miles. By miles I mean 10 plus miles. They were trying to get their goods moved before Brexit went into effect. It was surreal. That is my word for this year, "surreal". So many moments from 2020 have been just that. 

 Our last daytrip was to the Isle of Wight. This was the trip we planned for the boys because we were taking a ferry, riding a Christmas train and seeing Santa,aka Father Christmas. The Isle of Wight was at tier 1 which is the most relaxed tier. People were still wearing masks and socially distancing. We once again had to buy tickets in advance that gave us a time to ride the train but also an appointment with Santa. For the train, our family was assigned to a private car, so there were no other passengers sharing our space. We also go to eat inside at a Farm-shop. Don't get too worried, the tables were still socially distanced. I am really happy we got to do some normal things before this next phase kicked in. 

So if my memory is correct, a couple of days before Christmas, the new variant was announced and where we live was thrown into tier 4. Kenny and Kim were still in tier 2, which was totally bizarre since they are only 2 miles from our apartment and in the same county. The way they divided the area into tiers was not very logical and it actually divided a local grocery store into two tiers. The joke was most of the store was in tier 2 but the alcohol aisle was tier 4. 

Since then, we have all been placed under tier 4. Again the big question, how does this really affect us? To be truthful, not much. We are part of a support bubble that includes Kenny and his family. Our life consists of walking back and forth to their house and an occasional trip to the store to gather supplies. I think that people are Covid weary. By this, I mean that we have all made so many adjustments in our day to day living that it is hard to get upset at all the news and changes. It just feels like life and I hate that. I hate the fact this is all feeling normal. I am hopeful on this New Years Eve that we can find another new normal that includes more hugs, handshakes, and meeting new people. 

- Becky

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Tiny house living

Back after a long dramatic pause, we will resume the blog. In my defense, this is the first night in our new place we have internet. So, by the title you may have already assumed that we are finally homeowners in the U.K. My impressions of the whole experience? I hope I don't have to do this again any time soon. It has been such a frustrating process. 
Our new flat (downstairs, right side)

It starts out with us having to hire a solicitor, that we pay in advance, to represent us. Sounds good but since she is already paid, I get the impression that she doesn't really have to hurry or even be that great at what she does. Next, we make an offer. After it is agreed upon by the seller and the buyer then the solicitors take over in a flurry of "inquiries" and vagueness. I say vagueness because there is not set closing date. It doesn't matter if the seller has moved out and the apartment is empty. It doesn't matter if the buyer is paying cash and not doing full inspections to try and speed the process along, it is going to take as long as they decide. Whenever we asked how the process was going, we were told by our solicitor, that she was chasing inquiries. I am still not sure what that all means because we never got a really straight answer. 

Finally, after us calling everyday to check the process, did she decide that this had taken long enough and we could get the keys the following Monday. Keep in mind, that we were told on a Friday. So we made a quick trip to Ikea, to procure some pans and kitchen supplies, purchased to paint to hide the purple walls in the bedroom and obtained ownership. 
Purplish Bedroom (before)

 So, let me describe our "flat". It is just over 400 square feet. It was built, by our guess, in the 1930's. The last owner loved the color teal, loved IKEA, and loved to try and hack really big things to fit into small spaces, without much success. Some of the more interesting features, the bathtub and is so close to the bathroom sink, that the cabinet doors can't open because there is only 5 inches of space between the tub and the sink. If you want to open the oven door, you must first open the cabinet door on the side, once again because there is not enough room. One of the overly large IKEA cabinets, has beautiful pullouts, that of course don't pull out because there is not enough room. 
Teal walls! 
Cramped Kitchen
Space between tub and vanity

Did I mention the bedroom was purplish? But even with all this funkiness, we love having our own place. It was really nice to unpack our suitcases after a month. We have repainted the bedroom, bought some new furniture and have plans to redecorate the kitchen, lounge, and bathroom. 

Bedroom (after)



 Some things that our flat does have going for it, a very long narrow back yard. It has no grass but it does have lots of raised beds for gardens, a nice size shed and bonus, a fire-pit. It is about a 2 mile walk to Kenny and Kim's house. There are several larger stores within an easy walk for us to get the day to day basics, and best of all it is close to my three adorable grand-kids who are happy we are here. So, even though Covid is still and issue and has affected so many areas of my life, it is nice to know we have a place to be that is close to the hugs and kisses of our grand-kids. 
- Becky

Friday, November 27, 2020

out of quarantine and into lockdown

 After 14 days we are out of our quarantine. So what was it really like? Now it is over it doesn't seem like it was too long but there were some days that felt like an eternity. Early on, we had decided that if we made it to day 7 with no symptoms, we would treat ourselves for a walk. There was a cemetery across the street from our lodging. We noticed that it was fenced and quiet. We figured this would be the perfect place since there were so few people and we would be close to home. We spent as long as we could endure looking at the old tombstones and noticing the disrepair of the gravesites. It was a beautiful day but we could only walk the rows of tombstones for so long before we were looking beyond the gates for something else to see. So we set off for a real walk to the sea.

Highland Road Cemetery

Southsea Beach

 We wore masks which really set us apart since most people here don't wear masks outside. We got lots of strange looks, or maybe I just thought people were giving me strange looks because I was just feeling guilty for being outside. Anyway, when we got back to our flat we checked to see if there was any notice of someone checking on our status, like a note under the door or a missed phone call, Nothing! Later that night, after finishing dinner and it was dark, there was a knock at the door. I thought, "this is it, someone is checking on us". David answered the door to see a policewoman. I thought, "someone saw us leave and they are coming to reprimand us". Actually, the officer said she was going door to door because there was a report of "Dodgy" people in the area and had we seen them? I must admit that for a moment, I entertained the idea that maybe we were the dodgy people who had been wandering around town in our masks. We told the officer that we had not seen anything dodgy but we wouldn't know what that looked like since we were only there fulfilling our 14 day quarantine. She left quickly, probably wondering if we were sick.

Becky at the Southsea Rock Garden

The next morning we again heard a knock at the door. We were still lying around in our pajamas but I did look out the window to see someone in uniform at the door. Not to miss my big opportunity to report on our quarantine status, I quickly threw on a robe and ran to the door. It was only the postman who seemed surprised that I would even answer the door. All in all, there was never anyone who checked if we were keeping our quarantine, not a call, not a note, not an e-mail. Nothing! Is this always the case? I don't know but we did take three walks during our stay. Always away from people and always with our masks close by. It was still a lonely time but the few walks did help with keeping my morale. 

At the Southsea Pier

So now we are at our son Kenny's house, enjoying family time that is long over due. We still don't have a definite date for closing on our purchase of the apartment. We did get to see it today but that is a story for another day and another blog.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Tech Issues Pt-3 (Streaming Services)

Streaming is the 21st century way to watch TV. Most of us have one or more streaming video subscriptions to services like:  Spotify, Prime, Roku, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ HBO-Max, CBS All-Access, etc. Some even have replaced their broadcast/cable TV with Sling, Youtube-TV or HULU Plus.  But what happens when you want to take it with you on an extended trip overseas? 

It's easy to just pack up the Roku stick, the Amazon Firestick, or the AppleTV and take it with you when you travel around the USA. All your subscriptions continue to work as long as you have WiFi access where ever you are. Staying at a hotel, B&B, VRBO or Airbnb? Just plug the stick into any HDMI port on the back of the TV and you're in business.  But is it so easy overseas?

When you go overseas, things are different. Because video content licensing terms are so complex, the streaming services don't always purchase rights for their content for overseas markets. Some do and some don't.  But what is certain, is that they are set up to detect what country you're streaming from.  And if it's not part of their licensing scheme, it's not going to work. (At least not so easily, but we'll get into that a bit later...)

Here's what I found was working and not working so far: 

Netflix:  YES, it works in UK!  However, it recognizes UK and offers up some of the same content, and  some different content. Some content is going to be missing from your menu, but other content will be added. We found a number of our favorite (British) shows were missing like Great British Baking Show. This is frustrating if you are in the middle of a season.  But on the plus side, we found that the new Star Trek Discovery was showing on Netflix UK, but in the US, you'll need a separate subscription to CBS All Access to see it. Other shows are in both places simultaneously, including most (all?) of the Netflix original series like The Crown. Which was released on the same day in UK as it was in the USA.  

Hulu, Hulu-Plus:  No, Hulu is not going to work at all in the UK.  They don't even try to change the catalog or provide an alternate catalog, it just refuses to work.  

Disney+: YES! You we could watch the new season of The Mandalorian and other Disney shows. 

Prime Video:  Mixed. Like Netflix, the service is still working but the catalog has changed. The problem, is you can still select all the programs you can't get, and they come up with a pay-wall screen, asking you to pay separately for something you already had in the subscription. It seems like most or all of the Amazon Prime Original content is still available, but little else.  It's a mess. Sometimes they suggest you need to subscribe to other add-on services but we found that add-ons like BritBox (which we had working in the USA) also don't work at all in UK.  

Others: It's going to be hit-or miss on most of them. Most of the ones associated with standard broadcast or cable channels were not working. None of the HGTV/Discovery services worked. I couldn't get anything to play on NBC or PBS streaming services.  Yet, my local TV station streaming services worked fine.  

But what about a VPN work-around?  Yes, you can do some internet trickery and fool these services into thinking you are still in the USA by using a VPN. Many of these premium VPN services advertise how fast they are and that they are suitable for video streaming.  For the most part, this VPN-hack will allow you to watch all your subscription TV services, but only from your PC, tablet or phone. And not necessarily with the same success with every VPN or service.  Here's an article about that.  But watching them on the big-screen means getting them to work from your Smart-TV, or streaming-stick, which is going to be more difficult. Not necessarily impossible, but you better comfortable with setting up proxies and getting into the set-up menus to make some changes that may not be available on all brands or boxes. Here's an article on setting it up a VPN on your router

Happy streaming  - David 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Tech Issues pt 2 (Mobile Phones)

Mobile Phones for Overseas Travel: A simple battery powered device, so essential to everyday life. You just expect them to work. When you take it overseas the main issues are your service plan, unexpected roaming charges for calls or data and you'll probably need a new charger or at least a power-adapter, but unexpected problems can come up. 

We arrived with two smart phones. We left one attached to our T-mobile account from the states, so we could continue to call state-side numbers without any tolls. T-mobile also has a very generous (unlimited data & texting) while roaming internationally so that means all the apps, maps, navigation, web browsing, etc are still working as normally in England, even if it still costs $0.25/minute to dial a UK number for voice. While we keep universal data connectivity with this phone, the roaming speed does drop to 3G speeds, which can be annoying at times. 

For the second phone, we purchased a monthly plan on Three Mobile with unlimited voice, text and generous chunk of monthly of high-speed data. This phone allows us to call and receive from all the numbers in England toll-free as much as we want, which will be important to carry on local business here. While the data connection is full speed, this phone will have expensive tolls to call USA numbers.  We set this up in the USA before departure and verified it was working before we set out. 

Independent of those mobile accounts, we also set-up a Google Voice account on each phone. The Google Voice accounts allow us to talk, text directly to any US phone numbers from wifi signals or from the mobile data service for free.  This effectively bypasses all the phone system infrastructure and sends the voice calls directly over the internet, but unlike Skype, it allows you call any US number directly even land-lines without any charges and assigns you a fixed phone number that can also receive calls from every phone and take messages.  All very handy in theory. Once again we set all this up before departure and tested everything out back at home. 

In practice, we had some serious issues that took quite a while to sort out. First, Becky's phone had the new Three-UK account and sim-card that had been activated before we left USA. Upon landing it should have just worked. Yet there was no joy.  The phone kept reporting a strong signal, but no connection to the network. In addition to no UK voice calling, we didn't have data on that phone either (without wifi). That meant we also couldn't use the Google Voice on that phone while away from wifi signals. 

On the other hand, David's phone, the one that kept the USA phone number and T-Mobile service, seemed to connect immediately upon landing.  So we at least had some slow data and USA dial-tone service. Yet, for some reason his Google Voice refused to work over here.  

So with nothing better to do during quarantine, Dave spent a day on the phone with support people. After about 3 hours on the phone with Three Mobile, who tried very diligently and patiently to try to get Becky's UK phone number working, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Their initial assessment was that for some reason the phone was still "locked" to the US carrier and wouldn't connect until it was released. Now that seemed strange to me, since we had purchased the phone outright and were never on a payment plan. (Locked phones are usually ones that are purchased through your monthly billing plan and must remain on the original carrier until fully paid-off.) Yet, when we put that UK sim-card in David's phone, it connected and worked perfectly, so this proved the sim-card was okay and that the problem was something wrong with Becky's phone (LG Aristo). 

LG Aristo -2017 (16GB Flash, 1.5GB Ram)

So my next 3 hours was on the phone with T-Mobile in the USA (where we bought the phone). They reassured me that the phone was "unlocked" and it should be working.  However, they suggested downloading a special T-Mobile Unlocking app just to be certain.  I downloaded that app and when I ran it, it produced errors, but said it had unlocked. Yet, it still wouldn't connect to the UK phone system. We continued trying and retrying this several times by uninstalling and reinstalling the app, rebooting the phone etc, all with similar results.  

Finally, they suggested I do a "factory-reset" on the phone and try again.  That process restores the phone back to the factory new state, erasing everything on the phone and resetting all customization. First I had to do a full back-up of the phone, so we wouldn't loose precious photos, videos etc. That process took nearly an hour to do, then we did the factory reset and tried everything again. Still NO JOY!  Again the support person was very patient and helpful during this time and we tried the unlock app again and it still produced errors. So this turned out to be a waste of time. The technician then made a generous offer of replacing the phone because it must be a hardware failure of some kind. The only catch was that we would have to bring the old phone in to any T-Mobile store in the USA!  

With that generous option off the table, we set out to just purchase a new mobile phone to use with the UK phone number, replacing Becky's old LG Aristo phone that was still running Android 7.0.  The phone had served well for nearly four years, but did have a small crack in the display, so it was overdue.  We replaced it with a new Moto G8, delivered by Amazon the next day, which has been working perfectly since. 

Moto G8 2020 (64GB Flash 4GB Ram)

Now back to David's trouble with Google Voice on his phone. It turned out that it even wouldn't work from WiFi over here.  (Of course it had been working from home before we left.) So what could it be?  After some googling and chasing various rabbit holes, we found that one difference between Becky's phone (which was working on Google Voice) and David's phone (which was not) was that Becky's phone had been previously disconnected from the T-Mobile (USA) phone number when we installed the UK sim-card.  But David's Google Voice settings were still connected (linked) to the USA number. Could that be it?  Were they blocking calls with Google Voice from overseas?  Yes, it seemed so. As soon as the USA number was removed from the Google Voice account, David's Google Voice started working again.   

Whew! So now that all phone services are working again, what are the lessons learned:
1. Pre-purchase an overseas sim-card before you leave, install and activate it from home to be sure it is working. Alternatively, plan to purchase one at the airport upon arrival and expect to pay about twice as much. 
2. Testing everything at home, is no assurance that things will continue to work when abroad. 
3. There may be some hardware incompatibilities with certain phones sold in the USA, that may prevent them from working abroad. 
4. Make sure you have two separate approaches to making calls, in case one fails to work as expected. 
5. Be sure to set-up Google Voice in the USA before departure, and once you verify it is working, delete the linked phone number from the account and test again.  


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Day 6 of quarantine, small boundaries

 Well here we are, still in quarantine but almost at the half way mark. How are we doing? All things considered we are doing really well. Our rental has been a great place for this strange time. Right now our lives have very small boundaries. It starts at the front gates and it ends at the small bench in the back yard. 

Thank goodness David and I really like being together or this could be torture but as it is there are some very special moments. For the first time in a long time, there are no outside forces demanding our time. We don't have a business to worry about, no projects waiting to be finished, just us and our small boundary. I have had time to read some books on my list, review some French and I got a new phone so I spent some time trying to learn how to take pictures. Judging from the news, it sounds like most of us are going to have smaller boundaries this year. Thanks to technology, I am still able to talk to family and see my grandkids. 

So this blog I will just share some pictures from our small boundary.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Tech issues Part-1 (Infrastructure)

Everyone is aware of the most obvious tech issue with living in England: driving on the left side of the road. Since we're walking and without a car, this shouldn't be an issue for us. Another fairly obvious one is the 240 volt power plugs. The 3-prong power adapters are cheap and easy solution for many electronic devices - however a more complicated solution (power transformer) is required if the device you brought from USA is not capable of 240 VAC. It's important to carefully read the labels on every device you bring to the UK to verify it can operate at this higher voltage. 
Appliance Power Label

US Plug Adapters

 There are some less obvious ones that may take an equally long time to get used to. One of these is relearning how to use light switches when "down" means ON and "up' means OFF.  Of course making the mistake of pushing it the wrong way is not nearly as tragic as forgetting which side of the road to drive on. Still, it seems kind of crazy doesn't it?  
English Light Switches

Another difference in home design and infrastructure is the hot water heaters. Nearly every home/apartment we've seen has this kitchen appliance attached to the wall that is about the size of a dorm-fridge. These are the on-demand water heaters. Yes, on-demand systems are starting to gain popularity in the USA, but they are quite a different set-up. These "boilers" have been around a long time as a kitchen fixture.  The same boilers are used to heat the home as the hot water taps. 
Kitchen Water Heater Appliance

There are several reasons they might be difficult to get used to. For one they often don't heat the water quite as hot as typical american storage type water heaters. In many cases home showers are fitted with a supplemental heater right inside the shower that can give a boost to the temperature making it more suitable for showering. Another reason they are a bit difficult to get used to is that there is quite a bit of hysteresis in the thermostats, meaning that the output temperature goes up and down by as much as 10-15° F. So when you're taking a shower without a supplemental heater, the water temperature might go from chilly to very hot every minute or so as the heater cycles the thermostat on and off. 
Supplemental Shower Heater

It might seem odd that while standing in the shower with the water spraying, you can reach up and adjust the heat setting on an electric water heater right inside the shower.  At the same time, for safety reasons English bathrooms usually don't have any plugs, outlets or even a light switch (you can only turn on bathroom lights by pulling on a cord).  Here's an image of what's inside these little shower heaters - does this seem safe inside a shower?

Inside the supplemental shower heater. 

- David

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Quarantine Activities, Day 2

 So the travel is over and now the real fun begins, 14 day quarantine! This is a time of self reflection, wondering if we did the correct thing traveling during a pandemic, a time to make sure we didn't catch anything, and a time of boredom. David and I are people who like projects and a full day so this will be an interesting time for us.

 We are in a rental that we carefully thought through before coming. We knew that we needed a place that had room to move around, a kitchen to cook, laundry facilities and most important, an outside space! So far we seem to like our choice. Here is what we hope our day will look like. First, we wake up and look at what news came on our phones and tablets over night, we then proceed to the part where we complain about the world situation and talk out loud, maybe we hope someone is listening, on how we think all these problems could be fixed or resolved. So far no one has heard us. After this important step, we move on to talk about what food we can eat during the day and at what time. We have decided to try and only have two meals a day since our stomachs are still in another time zone and we have limited food supplies. Then, we do some stretches and resistance training and a few laps around the house and up the stairs. With the exercise out of the way we can move on to brunch. 

Today we decided to try our hand at an English breakfast, since we ordered the supplies for this breakfast from the owner of the rental ahead of time. We know that it should include sausage, bacon (that doesn't look like bacon), eggs (soft fried), some kind of cooked tomato, beans (luckily we didn't have the beans), toast, and we were also given mushrooms. Here is what we ended up cooking. We decided to save the so called bacon for another morning and only cooked the sausage. We had left over chips, or fries, from our first night of fish and chips, which we cut up an made hashbrowns. I heated up the tomato halves in melted butter, soft fried some eggs and made toast. The mushrooms will be saved for something else. All in all it came out pretty good.

Now for the rest of the day? Yes, I meant to put a question mark at the end of that sentence because it is only noon and what do we do with the rest of the day. We can sit by our window with our computers and write blogs, learn French, try and get our phones working, read books, talk to the grandkids, call our family, once they wake up, and just stare at the outside window and wish we could go for a walk Once I have completed all those important activities, I will probably read a good book, take a nap, fix more food, watch a bit of t.v. and dream about the time when we get to actually hold our grandkids and hug Kenny and Kim.  

- Becky

Friday, November 13, 2020

More Travel Updates

Travelers today must realize they will encounter facial recognition technology. Some of it is designed to be covert, some is more overt. 

At Seattle airport we weren't aware of any such technology or specific opportunity to do a "capture". Yes, they do use it overtly in certain locations including the security check point, but it was just not in use today. 

However, at LAX we did encounter it even though we were already at the gate and already within the secure area. Strangely the LA Police had setup a screening point just before our gate with facial recognition cameras. It seemed odd, because they didn't ask for any ID, they just wanted all the passengers to step up to the cameras one-by-one to have their image captured. Once the camera snapped, it flashed a green light and they let us proceed to the gate. We can only speculate why the local police were using this tech at the airport, but it seems rather odd and seemed like this was a semi-permanent set-up they use frequently.
The Virgin Atlantic plane was a Airbus A350-1000 that seats between 350 and 410 and our flight had a crew of 13 and only 38 passengers! The passengers were very spread-out and only a few individuals for each cabin. We're really lucky they didn't cancel the flight as that same flight was cancelled today. Heathrow airport was a breeze and almost empty. We waltzed through immigration and customs with no waiting, no lines and completely contact-free! The only thing we waited for was baggage claim.
From the airport we took a charter bus to the train station. The full size luxury bus had only 2 other passengers besides us. We got to the train station a bit early and were able to get a train ahead of our original schedule. A few stops had quite a few high-school students, but for the most part the train was also mostly empty and everyone was wearing masks. After the train we found a taxi for our last mile to the VRBO house, which was a great blessing because each of us were pushing about 90 lbs of luggage all together. Now we begin our 14 day self-isolation period. More from Becky tomorrow.