Friday, May 6, 2011

The (British) Empire Strikes Back

Sorry about that title.  Yesterday was Star Wars Day ("May the 4th be with you!"), so I still have Star Wars on the brain...

Today was an extremely frustrating day spent trying to set up utilities, cable, phone, and internet in our rental house and switch to a better mobile phone plan.  I couldn't do any of these things until I had a debit card for a UK bank account, which I just got yesterday afternoon.

Josh and I had decided not to bother with a landline since we both have mobile phones, but after doing some research this morning, I discovered that very few companies offer broadband internet access without a phone line.  After pricing it out, it turned out to be more cost-effective to sign up for a TV/phone/broadband bundle with Sky, the main satellite TV company here, than to get TV from Sky (or Virgin) and broadband from another provider.  I spent nearly 2 hours online with a customer service agent trying to put together a custom package, and then when I'd finally finished signing up, discovered that while they could install the TV service next Wednesday, the earliest they could set up the phone and internet was May 20!  Now, I can probably survive for a couple weeks without TV, but I don't think I can make it that long without internet access!  The customer service rep, who I was essentially IMing with during the process, suggested I call the installation number to see if I could get an earlier appointment.

I tried calling the number on my mobile, but got a recording saying that I did not have enough credit on my phone to make the call.  I tried calling Vodafone customer service, and got the same recording!  WTF?!  They charge you to call customer service?  I have 297 unused minutes, but apparently I can't use them to call Vodafone to find out why I can't use them to call Sky.  After doing some research online, I finally discovered that the pay-as-you-go deal I had just signed up for did not include calls to any numbers starting with "08."  Why?  Beats me?  Just another way the Brits like to make everyone's lives as complicated as possible, I guess.

Then I tried to sign up with British Gas to supply our gas and electricity.  I got 2/3 of the way through the online form when they asked how long I had lived at the current address.  The shortest possible option was one month.  After selecting that, it asked for my previous addresses from the past three years, or, if I had come from overseas, to call them and complete the process over the phone.  Of course it was a number starting with "08."  FML.

I finally gave up and walked over to the Vodafone store, which is a block away.  The guy at the desk couldn't help me, but suggested I call customer service using the phone in the store.  After explaining the issue to the guy who answered, he gave me a lecture about how of course I couldn't call any "08" numbers from my mobile phone because those are "premium" numbers and you have to pay to call them from a mobile.  It was only recently that it was free to call them from a landline.  OK, so apparently in the UK they charge different rates for different number prefixes depending on whether you are calling from a landline or a mobile?  And most "premium" numbers are used by businesses and government offices -- the types of places people need to call the most?  I asked him why, and he basically said something along the lines of, "that's the way it was set up."  I tried to explain that I was from the US, where you could generally call most businesses toll-free and there was no real difference between calling from a landline or a mobile.  He said he had been to the US and was pretty sure there were premium numbers that cost extra to call.  I told him the only types of numbers you usually had to pay a premium for in the US were sex chat lines, which elicited a nervous laugh, as if I had just accurately deduced that he had called such a number himself.  The end result was that while I learned an important lesson about the bizarre UK phone system, he was unable to help me convert the £20 I'd spent into a plan I could actually use to make useful calls.

So, I marched down the street to the O2 office to inquire about switching to one of their plans, since they had been recommended by several people.  The nice lady there was surprised to hear that Vodafone charges you to call their customer service line, and assured me that theirs was free.  We got halfway through the sign-up process when she asked me for my bank account number and sort code.  Of course I didn't have those with me -- I had assumed the debit card was sufficient.  Ugh.  I returned my DVD to the library and then ran home to get my back account info.  I made it back to the O2 office 20 minutes before they closed and started the sign-up process all over again.  Did it work?  No.  After entering all my bank details in the computer, an error message popped up saying it was unable to process the transaction.  We double checked all the numbers and tried again, but to no avail.  I held back tears of frustration as I dejectedly walked back to the apartment.

I called Citibank customer service -- mercifully, a toll-free number -- and was apologetically informed that this was a known issue.  Many of their customers had been having the same problem -- specifically with mobile phone providers -- but they weren't sure what was causing it or when it would be fixed.  Well, that was helpful!

Then I tried looking into temporary broadband solutions via Virgin Media.  Our landlords mentioned they used them for internet access, and had left the modem behind for us, so I wondered if I could get them to reactivate the service and just sign up for 1 month so we'd have internet access until Sky got around to setting up the landline and their own broadband service.  After much digging around on their website, I finally found a phone number.  You guessed it -- it was an "08" number.  Gaaah!

At this point I was ready to hop on the next plane home, so I took a break and visited this site for some much needed comic relief:

Within seconds, I was laughing so hard I had tears streaming down my face and could hardly breathe.   This has become my go-to site when I need a good laugh (or cry) to cope with the frustrating idiosyncracies of life in the UK.  It's quite therapeutic.

Josh got home from work at 8:45 again, so we had a very simple "clean out the fridge" dinner of odds and ends and then started packing up our stuff for the move tomorrow.  I have to clear everything out of the apartment and be at the house by 1 pm tomorrow, when the delivery truck is scheduled to arrive with a good percentage of our worldly possessions.  Josh was originally planning to take the day off, but his boss scheduled meetings for him from 10-12 tomorrow, so he has to go in to work in the morning.  Neither of us is thrilled about that, so Josh tried to make things a little easier for me by taking a load of stuff over to the house on his bike.
Two paniers, a suitcase, and a backpack.
We miss our car!
I thought for sure he was going to fall over -- he could barely get the bike into the elevator -- but he made it safely there and back again.  That still leaves me with 3 suitcases, a huge duffel, and a tote bag to take over tomorrow morning -- as well as all the food in the apartment -- no small task.  Good thing the taxis here are quite roomy.  My plan is to take all the big stuff over in a cab tomorrow morning, and then walk back and do a final sweep before I check out by noon or 12:30. 

I may not be able to post for a while, since I don't know when I'll have internet access again.  Trust me -- I'll be infinitely more frustrated about that than you will.

Great, it's 1:15 am and they just started doing maintenance on the train tracks right outside our apartment.  It's not only quite loud, but it's shaking the entire building.  That should lull me right to sleep.  Seems a fitting ending to this lovely day...  Good night!


  1. Sheesh!! It took us a long time to get our internet hooked up as well. Until it was hooked up we paid £5 per day (!) to use BT Open Zone. The connection is super spotty, but it does indeed connect you to the internets. We also discovered that you can use the "personal hotspot" function on your iPhone to connect your computer to the internet.
    Also, thank God for DYAC!

  2. Can not wait to hear about your new place! Woman you are a fighter, making strides every day!! And what a husband of yours, moving stuff on his bike -- genius!!


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