2014 now officially declared as an "annus difficilus"
Luckily I am a dual citizen and, in one of the two countries I'm entitled to live in, race is not a factor when seeking employment. Of course I am still middle aged and male, not to mention obviously weather-beaten and sartorially challenged, but at least I can compete on a relatively equal footing with the other HR and OD job seekers in the UK. So, after some lukewarm efforts at peddling my services around Gauteng, I packed up and split for London in January 2014 to find a job and a home for my long-suffering and much-relocated family. Given that the kids were well set in their schools, and that Marcela is much more organised and hard-working than I am, I decided to once again go ahead and blaze the trail (or, less kindly, duck all the packing and associated trauma!).
So far the adjustment back to Old Blighty has been reasonably easy; not surprising given that I first moved here in 2001 from Johannesburg, and then again in 2005 from Riyadh. Socially all is much the same, with a more positive atmosphere than in 2009 when I packed for South Africa and all was doom and gloom in London. The infrastructure and systems are still the same mix of relative sophistication undermined by short-termist thinking, underinvestment and woeful customer focus and the return to the tender mercies of the National Health Service has been a shock, about which more later. But all in all a good thing; the weather was kind at least and I recall a long and mild summer with temperatures occasionally exceeding 30 degrees.
|Car thermometer - north of London|
In fact, the endless daylight and mild temperatures prompted me to spend quite a bit of time in the gym adjacent to the refurbished Victorian lunatic asylum where I was renting an apartment. After a month in a "Comfort Inn" at a motorway service stop I was delighted to move into something quite luxurious, and the old Three Counties Asylum, now re-branded as "Fairfield Hall" was just the ticket.
Sadly the first project I worked on was not appealing, and after less than half a year I jumped ship and moved across from the chemicals industry to some short-term HR transformation stuff in the financial services industry. At the same time I needed to find a suitable landing zone for the family - not only a house that wouldn't feel claustrophobic after our big African open-plan, but of course schools that would handle the kids being completely out of chronological alignment with the UK system. That proved the most difficult part of the exercise, and I spent many an hour playing the catchment area game with the multiple, un-coordinated and often very unhelpful educational authorities in each county. For those of you in large countries, a county can sometimes be pretty small and in fact the first role I worked on was in a little town in Hertfordshire, and the schools in a ten mile radius fell into Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and even Suffolk - each with their own application criteria, forms, procedures and even variance in the number of tiers of schooling they offered. Of course it is not so simple as pitching up at a school and saying "Have you got any places?" The immediate answer is "Who wants to know? Are you living within half a mile of here?". My charming attempts to explain that I would happily buy or rent a place anywhere I could get my kids into a decent school were fruitless; there is bitter competition for places in schools with a good OFSTED rating and you're supposed to pick a home first and then take your chances. Given that there is a high probability that the nearest good schools will be full, you will then end up spiralling outwards in an ever-increasing search for somewhere else, with the added complexity that in some counties Lily and Henry might be accommodated in the same school up to age 11 before heading to high school; in other counties they'd be together until Lily turned 9 and had to go to Middle School for 3 years and of course in the smaller villages, just finding two places in the same school is a challenge of its own.
And it is necessary to begin with the end in mind; even though our Harry is just turned six and Lily not yet eight, I need to be thinking of where they might go to high school. In a very few counties, or even parts of counties in England, grammar schools still exist (despite the Labour Party's phobia about academic selection) and so returning to my 2001 roots of Buckinghamshire was an easy decision. And, thank God, we've managed to get both kids into the lovely little school in the adjacent village to the tiny hamlet we're living in, even if they both ended up being propelled forward some considerable time to adjust for the different academic years, Effectively, Henry went from term two in Reception Year to term one in Year One and poor Lily ended up skipping from term two in Year One in South Africa to term one in Year Three in the UK, so as to align both of them with their respective age groups.
But I digress - before the family landed in the UK in early September 2014 they needed to stage themselves in Eastern Europe a wee while, to synchronise their arrival and that of our enormous 40-ft container of household effects. And, fatefully, I took the decision to have some minor elective surgery to investigate a pesky lump in my thigh muscle a couple of weeks before starting a new role with a major transport group in London.
I'm going to spare your sensibilities and gloss over the quick and easy removal, under local, of what turned out to be a completely innocuous lymph node; the subsequent bouts of cellulitis that had me hospitalised (the first of which was on my second day of the new job I had just started in the passenger transport industry); the fact that the delightful old surgeon who did the work inevitably managed to sever a cluster of lymph vessels and then the slow realisation that I had swapped a grape-sized and harmless node for the grapefruit of lymph fluid now resident, despite two further operations under general this time, in my upper thigh. I got out of the last hospital at the end of November, having used up pretty much all the goodwill at my place of work, only to find that the damn reservoir has re-filled and will likely continue doing so no matter what we try.
My Speedo days are mercifully long over, and so the cosmetic aspects of this are less devastating than if I were David Gandy. Even the intermittent nerve pain due to damage from the last incision is bearable. But what has really put the difficilus into the flipping annus is spending the entire tiny 2-week Christmas break (which is all I get in this land of dark Decembers) poleaxed with viral bronchitis. O me miserum! Eheu fugaces etc etc in the words of old Horace! So I am up at 02h00, dosed to the lethal level with anti-tussive codeine and wheezing like a walrus. And the blessed NHS advice is "Try to get some rest, there's nothing we can do". And the poor kids, wanting their first White Christmas since 2009, all brim full of energy and excitement, have to deal with a miserable and limping lump of brick-dust, barking like a seal.
But on the positive side I have discovered a forgotten box of Christmas Toblerone, the kids are infinitely forgiving of their ancient dad's foibles and we have two more days of watching DVDs sprawled in front of our enormous fireplace before it's back to school for them and back to work for me.