This post is a follow-up of my first entry, but focusing on the arrival in UK.
Slightly overdue, it described the first 6 months in UK. (OK it’s close to
8 10 11 almost a year now).
Arriving in UK administratively
Registering for taxes
Upon arrival, I had to fill a Starter checklist, which supposedly gives enough info to determine how to tax me. Thanks to the screw up of the temp apartment agency, I gave the wrong address, so I had to resubmit the form. This was obviously after pay cut over date, so I got maximum taxation on the first month. Oh joy.
Overall complexity : low, get ready to pay max tax bracket on your first month
National Insurance Number
You are no one in the UK without a National Insurance Number (NIN). To get one, you need to get an appointment in a job center. I called on my first day at work (Aug 6th, got an appointment to register on Aug 11th, and got my number allocated on Sept 3rd). By UK standards this is super fast. For my wife it took longer : she got a temp one from the Job center on first week, then got her appointment on Sept 26th ( 😲 ), and got her permanent number on October 20th.
Overall complexity : OK, public workers are quite friendly and helpful, even if the vibe is a little “who are you Immigrant and why are you coming to UK?”.
Well, there is none. As a European citizen, my passport is my work permit. At least that was the case when I arrived. Soon, I will have to register to the EU Settlement Scheme that will give us access to the Pre-Settled status, allowing us to stay legally in the UK after 2020. That is, if the Brexit is concluded before then 😁. (I wrote that sentence 5 months ago, and sadly, 5 months later, it’s still not clear at all).
tl;dr : I miss the Swiss banking system. A lot. With passion.
Opening our current accounts
Opening a bank account normally requires to have :
- A permanent address
- a good credit rating
Evidently, as we just arrived we have no credit rating. Google helped a lot in that regard. They invited a bank on site during the Induction day, and Nooglers could register straight away, thanks to a recommendation letter that Google produces on the spot. I was blown away by the efficiency of this HR process coming from a company where the SLA for any basic certificate was minimum 1 week.
For my wife it’s been relatively painless too. Went to the same bank (different branch) and could open her account.
However, after 2 weeks of not hearing anything from the bank, I started to worry. I called them to ask if my credit card had been sent. Plot twist : it had not only been sent, but I had apparently been using it to make several withdrawals for up to £1500. Welcome to UK. I discovered my card had been stolen (most likely in my mailbox directly, it’s called a mail non-receipt). I was lucky to get a super nice and thorough Service representative from Barclays. We spent 1h on the phone, she would put me on hold frequently to “check that she is doing it properly”, but in the end my fraud case went through, and I got my money credited back, on the same day. Good job Barclays.
I obviously called the temp apartment agency to warn them that thieves were operating on the building. This temp apartment must be a gold mine, full of regular newcomers to UK who obviously order new credit cards. In the building you basically have a code for the main door, the mailbox itself has a 3-dials lock, and the apartment door has a key protected in a box with a 3 or 4 dials lock. While this means you can check-in anytime with no assistance. However the safety of this system depends on how often they change the codes.
The agency’s reaction has been absolutely appalling. They reacted as if I would ask them for the money, which I clearly said was not the case as the bank credited me back. But I said that as I ordered a new credit card, I wanted to make sure the new one wouldn’t be stolen. So I requested them to change the codes. This is where they disclosed that it was too complicated, so they don’t do it often. I told them this was a shame as most of their codes were probably compromised. I asked to get my card delivered at work.
Fun fact : a few weeks later, I attended an event in the Shard, which is just behind our temp apartment. We were concerned that mail redirection didn’t work fast enough and that we still had mail waiting for us in the temp apartment (there is always a pile of old mail on top of the common mailbox). I could enter in the lobby with the same code as before, and I could also open the mailbox. Indeed there was a letter for us, with an invoice inside 😁.
Beware of temp apartment mailbox : assume the codes are compromised, so ensure critical things are shipped to your work address instead.
Opening our joint account and a CHF account
This is the story of a bank that has outsourced its back-office operations to India, but seem to have no idea of what is going on. It took us 3 attempts to open a basic shared account, apparently because our credit rating was not high enough (why not), which of course nobody told us. In the end our CHF account[^1] had to be opened to my name only, which delayed closing our Swiss bank account.
Many providers don’t seem to account for the fact their clients might move abroad. In many cases, it’s easier to actually stop the service, and contract again in the new country. For instance it was impossible to move our Spotify Premium account to UK. And since I had to take the trouble to cancel, I subscribed to Youtube Music Premium instead 😁 . The most annoying thing is the geo-fencing : for instance I cannot change my Microsoft Office 365 account credit card. Since we have a Swiss O365 account, it rejects my English credit card.
We had the temp apartment for 2 months, so that was our hard deadline to find a new apartment. We found our permanent house in 3 weeks, which is way better than I expected.
The temp apartment
Google provided me with a relocation package, which had a temp apartment offering. The temp apartment was great, in a cool neighborhood (London Bridge). It was during a heat wave, and in typical apart’hotel style, it was impossible to open the windows more than 10cm. I guess this is because people get suicidal when they see London real estate prices. The proverbial London rain went missing when we needed it the most 😃. Spoiler alert : the weather is actually quite nice in London. Shocking.
Our son loved the place, as it was close to Tower Bridge[^2]. This was the second best perk of the relocation package, as it is a very hassle free experience. You arrive, you unpack your suitcases, voilà, you have an apartment.
The crazy subcontracting chain reared its ugly head again (Google –> Relocation agency –> subcontractor –> temp apartment provider), as the subcontractor gave us the wrong address on the housing certificate. In UK the postcode is rather precise, and defines a bloc, or sometimes even part of a street. So if you have the wrong postcode, mail may not arrive. Guess who gave the wrong address to Swiss administration, UK administration, his employer, new providers, etc… ? Yep, that’s me.
The permanent apartment
Here comes the third best perk of the relocation package : the real estate consultant. We’ve been assigned a lovely woman, with 30 years of experience working in real estate in London. I very much believe so, whenever we drove in London she could tell us the story of any neighborhood, streets, etc. What is the difference between a real estate consultant and an agent ? The real estate agent is usually paid on a commission based on what they manage to sell/rent you, so their interest may not be aligned with yours. The consultant is paid for their time by the relocation agency, so whether you decide to live in a castle or a shack, they get paid the same. The latter ensures much more neutral advice in my view, as the consultant incentive is your satisfaction, whereas the agent incentive is pushing your the most expensive thing they can.
It works like this :
- calibrate the need
- discovery visits
- real visits
- lease signing
Calibrating the need
Finding a suitable location to live in is an NP-complete problem as there are so many variables : the cost, obviously, but also the time to commute to work, the availability of good schools nearby, access to parks. There also the characteristics of the house itself : outside space or not, style of housing (apartment vs house), number of rooms, space in said rooms to allow for an office corner or not, equipment level in the kitchen, etc…
The environmental factors were hard as we didn’t know the city. We had to rely on blog, click-bait articles such as ‘the 10 best locations to live in London’, criminality statistics, housing prices statistics, tube map and maps indicating commute times. London is remarkably well documented, so the information is all there. It just takes a while to find it and process it.
We also spend a lot of time in Switzerland thinking about what was mandatory vs nice to have in a house, and by comparison to our Swiss appartment. Can we accept a house without dishwasher? Without a second bathroom? (yep, first world problems 🎩 ). The idea was not not degrade our quality of life too much vs what we had in Switzerland, but we were also conscious about the price impact of these features. We’ve been heavily encouraged to narrow down our list to 2-3 neighborhoods max. It’s also not practical to include all parameters in the search, so the idea is to focus in one area, and work out from there.
In the end we settled for several areas to explore : Northern London (north of Camden along Northern line), Clapham, Battersea, Fulham, and the south part of Kensington & Chelsea. The rationale for all the South-west neighborhoods was the presence of French schools, which offer affordable bi-lingual education.
Overall complexity : lengthy, due to the sheer amount of information to process, and the number of parameters to consider.
In June 2018 we spend 2 days in London, doing a tour with the real estate consultant. She selected the apartments based on our initial list of criteria, across South Kensington, Clapham and Fulham. It’s been a sobering experience 😰 , but absolutely critical to make the right choices. The goal of those visits was to give us a view of what we could have for our budget, as well as a sample of the different style of housing we were open to.
- we were 20-30% below market prices given the type of apartment we were looking for.
- we understood immediately that South Kensington was not an option. The best we could get was a damp 2 rooms apartment with a little outdoor space the size of a balcony.
- northern London is just crazy (Kentish town for instance). Prices are up as if it were the new El dorado, but I am afraid the gentrification hasn’t caught up with the prices yet. So it’s expensive, to live in very borderline neighborhoods. I have no doubt those are going to be cool areas in 5-10 years, but not now.
- Clapham was a mixed bag : amazing but bloody expensive areas, nice affordable areas but long commute, or shabby areas with good commute.
- Fulham proved to be amazing : we liked everything in that neighborhood, so we agreed we would focus exclusively on this one.
The London market is very dynamic for good places, and it’s almost impossible to rent unless you actually live in the country (need to have an employer, UK bank account, etc…). So we had to wait until we arrived in UK to actually start the proper visits. The real estate agent had done wonders. Based on our discovery visits feedback, plus a few postings we liked seen on Zoopla, she made a shortlist, to be visited across 2 days. We could have rented 50% of them, and all were ticking all the boxes we asked for. None were off the mark. It’s pleasant to deal with people who know their turf.
We found our current house during the first day. It’s a terraced house (i.e. all those houses that looks like clone of each others) with the a nice bay window, a garden outside which enables BBQs and playing soccer with my son, 4 rooms (so I can have my own office, as rooms are usually not large enough to accommodate a desk ), and super nice kitchen. We even have 2 living rooms (that was not a requirement, but it’s nice). Everything is great in the house except the rent, that hurts. We are 50% above Lausanne for a slightly smaller surface. It’s a house vs an appartment, but in the end our garden is a little smaller than our terrace in Lausanne. Ouch.
You remember that contracting chain hell I mentioned earlier? It impacted us again here. Essentially the consultant acted as…well, a consultant. So we also had the relocation provider “Lease team” + the consultant, and the landlord agency between us and the landlord. It turns out both the real estate consultant and the relocation agency are used to work with expats, ie people for whom the company pays the rent. So they are used to have demanding clients who only want what is best. But when you are the one forking out the money for the rent, you become more reasonable and willing to compromises 😁 .
In a nice attempt to “protect us”, both the lease team and the consultant started to make a lot of claims for fixes on our behalf, for things that indeed would have been nice to fix, but were certainly not deal blocker. The house had just been repainted before we arrived, and was in really good conditions. Those back and forth discussions could have cost us the house, as I was afraid we would piss the landlord off, who might have been wondering who the hell are these people with those “demands”. The agent probably fanned the flames a little, as this was extra work for them, and they were putting pressure for me to stop this and sign. I decided fairly early on to bypass the relocation provider, and chat directly with the landlord agent, which probably helped to agree faster, and proved that I was reasonable. This proved to be quite nerve racking and time consuming, as I needed to ensure the decisions would be communicated properly on both sides, and reflected in the lease. It seems all those weeks spend redlining contracts at work (with me being between the vendor and my own company in the discussion, in the middle of multiple teams with diverging interest) gave me a portable skill.
Basically if you let the agent draw the contract, you may not be well protected as UK laws don’t protect tenants at all. So that lease perk (the relocation agency has a team that basically draw up the lease contract for you, and make it decently protective for you as a tenant) is very good. But it has to be well supervised, or there is a risk to drive the landlord away.
Fake edit : we had to renew our lease, and I am really glad that the contract had been drawn by the relocation agency. We had a rent raise protection clause which mean we had a modest raise, and the contract has this protection for 3 years.
Our son being 3.5yo at the time of arrival, he was too young for Reception school. We found a super nice nursery a mere 5min walk from the house. It’s considered one of the nicest in Fulham, and it’s also the closest from home. People have been lovely there, and after 4 months our son started to speak English. Now he corrects us on our English accent. That little brat.
Nursery parents proved to be an interesting sociological study. UK prides itself for mixing people of all means together (which is true, on a given street you can have a house inhabited by people living on benefits next to a superb house inhabited by a couple of high income people). However schools “play dates” tend to gather people from the same “economical and social level”. This is an unspoken criteria when picking a school. There is another unspoken hierarchy : if you are a mum or a dad, you don’t mingle with child minders. They are lovely people, but if you want to meet with them (because they are nice, or because you son happens to like one of the kids they take care of), you must do so clandestinely. Transgressions are frowned upon.
The other amazing thing is birthdays. When I was studying economics in High school, I learned about the potlach. The potlach is found in tribes in Papua-New Guinea as well as the Northwest pacific cost of Canada and USA, and is “the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift-givers seek to out-give their competitors so as to capture important political, kinship and religious roles”. I guess we studied it because it is a peculiar non-monetary exchange of goods.
I was surprised to see that the tribes from Papua - New Guinea had successfully exported the potlach in UK. Birthdays of 3 and 4 year olds are a massive feast where the whole class is invited, kids and parents alike. It is customary that both parents show up for every kid. Parents compete on the most fastuous parties for their kids, involving inflatable castles, professional entertainers, etc… including food, drinks, and even gifts for the guest kids. As you would guess, birthday kids are always overwhelmed by such parties, with reactions ranging from complete apathy and kids playing on their own in a quiet area to the “I cry during the whole thing”. When my wife said “our kid is four, so we will invite four kids”, we evidently broke some rules. Good thing they think we are French, people expect some weirdness from French people it seems.
Reception school and beyond
Finding the school for the next 7 years gave us quite a lot to worry about. The goal is to find a good school (UK conveniently has an administration named OFSTED that publishes school inspection reports, as well as performance data). So from October to December, we visited all the schools nearby. Reflecting on this, I would say we found no bad schools, ie schools where we would dread to send our child. Quite the opposite, most schools were quite impressive, seemed well organized, and the curriculum seems amazing in comparison to what I can remember from my own childhood in France.
In the end the drama comes from 3 things:
- the paradox of choice : too much choice creates discomfort, added to the “risk” of making a bad decision for the future of your kid
- other parents paranoia. It seems here that if you don’t send your kid to Oxford or Cambridge, you’ve failed as parents. It is bad enough that parents reverse plot the ideal sequence of primary / secondary based on schools that have the highest acceptance rate for the next school, all the way until the one that gives your kid the highest chances to enter “a Big One”. As you would guess, this puts a high emphasis on private schooling, in 20-25k£ a year schools.
- Education budgets have been cut so that places are scarce. Applying to a school consist in submitting a wish list of 6 schools, so there is a luck factor as well.
As a pure product of French public school system, for whom a Master’s degree cost less than 1000€ in total over 5 years I must say I am not very comfortable with this logic. It seems that coming out from a regular state schools/uni (read : free, or very cheap) didn’t impede my chances to land good employers. Looking at DeepMind co-founder CV, it seems it didn’t impede his chances either, and he even made it to Cambridge.
We were happy to receive our #1 choice, in a school again very close to our house. It’s a Protestant school, which might seem odd from atheists like us. But around 30-40% of the school pupils are selected on non religious criteria, and as such can have any religion. They have no mandate to “convert” kids, even if they do speak about all religions as part of the training.
I will probably make a post one day about the life at Google. It’s VERY different from my previous employers, and it’s really a nice change.
Life in the UK
Catching up with the 21st century
To put things in perspective, London population itself is 1.5x bigger than that of the whole of Switzerland. So many things that are not viable at the scale of a Swiss city are totally OK in London. As a result, everything exists in London : it’s an Amazon Prime country, so ordering online is super easy, with a large inventory available. There are probably 5 or 6 different food delivery services, taping into one of the world’s largest food diversity. Apart from the ridiculous amount of single use plastic it generates, it’s an amazing service. As opposed to Lausanne where going to an Indian restaurant meant having the choice between 2-3 that are sort of OK, we now have the choice between dozens, several of which are absolutely amazing.
Shopping is amazing : shops are opened all the time, including on Sundays. As a result, a weekend is like a real set of two viable days to do shopping, which gives absolute freedom on how to organize one’s weekend. This is nice coming from Lausanne where shopping had to be completed by Saturday 5pm, ready for the no-man’s land that are Sundays in Switzerland. We even got pieces of furniture delivered on a bank holiday, this city never stops.
The cultural offering
I remember my friends living in large European capitals bragging about the “cultural offering”. Theatres, large concert venues attracting the world’s biggest stars, you got it all. All of this is true with London, that has an absolutely outstanding cultural offering. So far we have mostly visited the museums, and a few concerts. Theatre has escaped us so far, due to a combination of long term planning requirements (6 month anticipation to book restaurant + theatre + nanny). I guess it’s a goal for 2019-2020 😄.
We have settled quite quickly in London (I think that by September we were already fully in our daily routine), and the life there has a lot to offer. I read that by 2050, they expect that London will have the climate of Barcelona. I guess I will never see that proverbial rain then.