Saturday, March 10, 2007

Living in Scotland

After a 6-year hiatus, I am back in Europe. During our previous 2-year assignment in Germany, we spent a lot of time traveling around Europe, as evidenced by this blog. There are many places in Europe that we loved, but my two favorites were Scotland and Norway. My wife and I often talked about living in one or the other. And while we weren’t actively looking to move back to Europe, in the fall of 2006 I received an inquiry about an internal transfer to Aberdeen, Scotland. We did not have to think about it for long, and on January 26th I flew from Montana to Scotland to start work. My family will join me here in June.

My New Village in Scotland

Having been here for over a month, my impressions from my first visit to Scotland have been reinforced. These really are the nicest people you could ever meet, and the scenery is beautiful. I probably have a door held open for me a dozen times a day, and everyone is always so cheerful and polite.

Driving here still makes me a little nervous. Driving on the left now feels natural to me, but there are some things I don't like. First, my drive to work is on a narrow, winding road. Most country roads here are that way, and sometimes you don't have much warning before a road will make a sudden curve. Second, when I leave for work it is dark, and very frequently raining. So, not only am I driving on the left and on a winding, narrow road, but it is dark and slippery. However, I could handle all of that OK if it weren't for something else. Despite the fact that that people are incredibly polite, many tend to drive very fast. I try to take my time on the narrow roads, but I almost always have someone who will come right up on my bumper. I have driven all the way to work before with someone about 10 feet off my bumper. I have also been passed going around one of those curves before. So, it didn't surprise me to hear that there is a high frequency of road fatalities here.

Aberdeen is an affluent city, and things tend to be expensive. When we moved to Germany, we found that food cost about the same as in the U.S. Here, almost all food items are double the price in the U.S. And as in any country, there are a lot of strange food items. There is haggis, pork faggots, black pudding, and various other food items that I won't be eating in my lifetime. But the Scots do one thing better than anyone: Sweets. I gave up sugar before I left the U.S., but I have regressed a bit since coming here. The volume and variety of sweets here is simply unbelievable. I work with another American, and he has commented on this to me as well. The first time I was in a supermarket, I encountered a long aisle that was all sweets. Then, a couple of aisles over, there was another aisle that was all sweets. So, I have partaken of a few of the sweets, and one of them, called a tart fancy, is simply the most delicious thing I have ever put in my mouth. My kids are going to love it, but we will need to stock up on toothpaste.

Of course gasoline is about $6.50 a gallon here. But, I am driving a very fuel efficient vehicle, so that doesn't impact me much. I am trying to substantially lower my fossil fuel usage here. They make it easy to recycle, and I am recycling everything I can. I still have not filled up an entire sack with garbage. I found a house not too far from work. I have a grocery store that isn't too far from home, and I walk down and get groceries a couple of times a week. Yesterday, after having been here for 6 weeks, I finally had to put gas in my car. I have also been tweaking the programmable thermostat, which also controls the hot water heater. I have gone too far a couple of times and ended up taking a cold shower in a cold house before going to work.

Getting money transferred without getting ripped off has been a challenge. I got my first bill from my Citibank Mastercard, and they hit me for a 3% foreign transaction fee on every purchase I have made here. I transferred some money from my bank in the U.S., and not only did I not get a good exchange rate, but the banks on both ends hit me for a total of $60. So today I applied for a Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards Card. You get 1% cash back on purchases, and there are no foreign transaction fees. I just wish I had done that before moving over here.

Work is very interesting. I have a group of 12, and it is very diverse. I have 2 Iranian men, an Indian woman, a Malaysian man, 3 Scottish women, 4 Scottish men, and me in the group. We are working primarily on natural gas projects in the North Sea. I love to learn about diverse cultures, so I have spent a lot of time talking to people about their cultures. I have had lots of discussions with one of the Iranian men, and he is very concerned about war with the U.S. His family is still in Tehran, and it pains me to think about what he must be going through. Let's just hope that tensions calm down and the U.S. and Iran adopt a more friendly stance.

It is sunny today and not too cold, and I have learned to take advantage of those times. So, that's all for now, and I am off for a 5-mile walk.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes Scotland is an amazing place.

I quite agree about the sweets. It seems little surprise that Scotland has the highest heart disease rate in Europe, and one of the lowest life expectancies in western Europe.

Aberdeen is very expensive. All the UK is expensive (the pound is overvalued against the dollar and even the euro) but virtually everything consumed in Aberdeen comes from somewhere else, and it is an affluent town: check your local Waitrose grocery store for just *how* affluent.

The one that always gets me is that Aberdeen is as close to the oil and gas as you can get, but it is more expensive to buy gas there than in the rest of the UK. The cost of trucking the petrol from the refineries, I guess.

I entirely agree with you about the British passion for speed in driving. Brits drive well by comparison with North Americans: the driving test is far more demanding. But they take ridiculous risks on slippery roads with low visibility.

The national personality is not to boast, but compared to Americans they seem to vastly overrate their driving skills and underrate the dangers.

Aberdeen is also the county with the highest percentage of Land Rovers and SUVs in the UK, so you have the additional problem that their stopping distances are longer (heavier vehicles).

If I might take a slight diversion, it really is important that you get your pension arrangements sorted out. I don't know what arrangements your company makes for expats but it is really important that you continue funding your existing arrangements (which should be broadly invested in low cost equity index funds ('tracker funds'), if possible and assuming you are in a 'defined contribution' or 'money purchase' type scheme).

If you can't then you need to be included in an alternative, UK tax compliant scheme as quickly as possible. The impact of long term compounding (tax deferred) is huge.

Your absence from the US will affect your Social Security income, however you will be eligible for our National Insurance (which is less generous).

I really envy you having a chance to live in Scotland. The people are great, the scenery is fantastic. The ties back to the US and to World War II are well remembered (check out the Commando Memorial at Speyne Bridge, or the memorial to the minisub crews at the fine suspension bridge at Klylesku).

If you get a chance Fort George is fascinating. The pattern of the fortress, which was established to garrison Scotland after the Highland Clearances, is replicated at various places in North America where the British built forts (Quebec, and Fort Henry on the Kingston Ontario/US border). You'll learn a lot about how colonial soldiers lived. And sometimes you can see porpoises in the Firth.


6:36 AM  
Anonymous Karen Bryan said...

I'm a Scot now living in the north of England.

I totally agree that the driving around Scotland is very dangerous. I've worked in the Aberdeen area several times and was appalled by the driving on the country roads. crazy overtakes approaching bends etc.

However it's not just Scots that are dangerous drivers, the A1 the main road from Edinburgh south through Newcastle is a nightmare to drive. It alternates betwen dual carriageway and two way traffic. It's really frustrating being stuck behind a tractor or slow lorry just after the dual ends but you have to be patient. There have been at least 3 fatal accidents in the last few months between Edinburgh and Berwick.

Scots of my generation have terrible teeth, partly due to all the sweets we ate as kids. The Scottish diet is known as very unhealthy, fry ups, food with high levels of saturated fat, lack of fruit and veg.

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering, how are the people and how do they interact with others in their community? Do they get together and talk or do they keep to themselves and are aloof to their neighbors?

2:21 PM  
Blogger azconnielou said...

I also love Scotland. I think that the UK has a SS/NIS Totalization treaty with the US, which combines NIS and Social Security payments, so your time in Scotland should not adversely affect your Social Security benefits.

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Aberdeen and my family still live there. I miss Scotland and my family very much. I moved to the US in 1990. My ex husband was in the US Navy and we met in Scotland. I have 5 children who are almost grown now and have been raised here in America. Two of my children were born in Scotland. I have never taken to life here in the US and miss Scotland so much. I want to return to Aberdeen. I know the weather isn't the greatest, but neither is here in Atlanta. Ir's so unbearable hot. It makes me feel lazy and tired and you don't want to get out in it, so summers are spent inside. I'd rather be back to the fresh air with sea and Highlands. Thank you for your blog. I hope you really enjoy Aberdeen.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was stationed in scotland in the u s navy at raf edzell (near brechen and montrose) back in 1980/81..loved the friendly. I lived in montrose for a while but traded home with another sailer.he wanted to live in town and I wanted his cottage! So we swapped with landlords cottage was just outside of marykirk.oh..I miss those days!

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband is contemplating a transfer to Aberdeen from Louisiana. We have school age children. What are the schooling options? What about church? We are Protestant. Housing? What can we expect to pay? Are the homes larger or smaller than the average size home in the United States? And groceries are more expensive? Oh no! Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!


8:37 PM  
Blogger Robert Rapier said...

Hi Wendy,

Most expats have their kids in the international school in Aberdeen. Housing varies greatly; I think we paid about $3K a month. Lots of churches over there to choose from. Homes on average are smaller, but Aberdeen is a rich city so homes there are larger than most of Scotland. The cost of living is in general higher; many companies will give a cost of living bump to cover that.

Good luck.


8:42 PM  

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