Rock the vote.

Are you a U.S. expatriate who wants to vote in this year’s elections? If so, check out the following information sent to me about voting via absentee ballot.

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In transit.
In transit.

Are you a U.S. expatriate who wants to vote in this year’s elections? If so, check out the following information sent to me about voting via absentee ballot. For best accuracy, I’d suggest checking with your home state and your local embassy in your resident country for details, as it’s possible (I’m not sure, don’t wanna give out incorrect information) that different embassies in different countries have different instructions.
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Absentee ballots already delivered to overseas voters: Every U.S. citizen who requested an absentee ballot and selected the fax or email delivery option should have received it by now. Please cast your vote and take steps to return your completed ballot promptly so that your vote will count. See instructions below.

Returning your ballot by mail: Place your completed ballot in a U.S. postage-paid envelope containing the address of your local election officials. Place the completed ballot in a sealed envelope and take it to (my local embassy). We will send it back to the U.S. for you without the need to pay international postage. If it’s easier for you to use the (resident country) postal system, be sure to affix sufficient international postage, and allow adequate time for international mail delivery. If time is tight, you may want to use a private courier service (e.g., FedEx, UPS, or DHL) to meet your state’s ballot receipt deadline.

U.S. citizens can submit their completed ballots to the (resident country) Embassy’s Consular Section between the hours of (check yours locally), Monday through Friday, with the exception of (resident country) and U.S. holidays. No appointment is necessary. Please bring your ballot in a sealed envelope, and your U.S. passport. Your ballot will be sent to the United States via pouch, which takes approximately 10 working days.

Returning your ballot by email, fax, or upload: Some states allow these options, but may also require you to mail in the signed paper ballot. To find out more about your state’s specific requirements, visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program website at www.FVAP.gov.

Haven’t received your ballot yet? Use the emergency write-in ballot: U.S. citizens who requested an absentee ballot but haven’t received it should go to www.FVAP.gov to complete a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot. Follow the above guidance for returning your ballot. If you later receive your regular absentee ballot, vote and return it immediately. Local election officials will count just one ballot per voter, and will use the regular ballot if received by your state’s ballot receipt deadline.

Forgot to register or request an absentee ballot? Act immediately! There are three options:

Option #1: Register and request a ballot today using the Federal Post Card Application form at www.FVAP.gov. Select the electronic ballot delivery option, include your email address (and fax number, if applicable) and send it to local election officials in your state. Almost every state lets you submit a ballot by email or fax. Once your application is processed they will send you your ballot via fax or email depending on your state. Vote as soon as you receive the blank ballot. Registration deadlines vary and some are as early as October 7, so check your state’s requirements carefully.

Option #2: Follow the instructions in Option #1, but also complete and send in a Federal Write-in Ballot at the same time to make sure your vote is counted. This option may be the best one for first-time voters if your state requires you to submit your Federal Post Card Application by mail. Vote and submit your regular absentee ballot if/when it arrives. Local election officials will count just one ballot per voter, and will use the regular ballot if it’s received by the ballot receipt deadline.

Option #3: Voters from the following states can use the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot as a combined voter registration form, absentee ballot request, and absentee ballot: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington. (NOTE: This form must reach your local election officials by your state’s absentee ballot request deadline or voter registration deadline, whichever is first.)

Returning your Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot by mail: Follow the guidance above for returning your ballot by mail.

Returning your Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot by email or fax: The following states allow voters to email or fax their signed, voted Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots back to local election officials: Arizona, California (fax only), Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia. (NOTE: see instructions at http://www.FVAP.gov for faxing or emailing your voted ballot.)

Confirm your registration and ballot delivery online: Learn more at the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s (FVAP) website at www.FVAP.gov.

Bristol Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2012.

I went to Bristol, United Kindgom for the first time with a photography Meetup group to see the Bristol Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

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08.11.2012

Well, we didn’t see any balloons. 😐

I went to Bristol (Wikipedia link), United Kingdom for the first time with a photography Meetup group to see the Bristol Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. There were 6 of us – 5 of us went in the group leader’s car, while another member drove there on his own. Group leader let me sit in the front because of my injury, and on the way there, all of us (except group leader of course) fell asleep. It was a nice day as far as the weather & temperature – nice, sunny, blue sky, pretty warm. There were thousands of people, plenty of amusement park rides, and lots of food trucks & vendors all over the grounds.

Unfortunately, the wind was an issue. The Royal Air Force (RAF) did a group skydive, and it was obvious that the wind was quite strong. As a result, the organisers decided to cancel the hot air balloon part of the fiesta. We were very disappointed, and since none of us wanted to get on rides since we specifically came to photograph the hot air balloon evening/night programme, we decided to leave early.

So unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the fiesta or Bristol proper. I did, however, get a few shots of the RAF parachuting down. Check ’em out.

2 of the balloons that never were.
2 of the balloons that never were.

Bom dia: Lisbon, Portugal – day 1.

This was the day. I’d been excited about it for a while. I don’t know about any of you, but when a trip is coming up, I don’t get excited about it until the last minute.

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04.06.2012

This was the day. I’d been excited about it for a while. I don’t know about any of you, but when a trip is coming up, I don’t get excited about it until the last minute. I might have fleeting moments of excitement in the days or weeks beforehand, but the excitement always grows at the last minute. It’s surreal – I know that I’m going somewhere but it doesn’t feel real until I land in my destination.

I made sure to get enough sleep to manage the trip on public transportation the next morning. I didn’t feel like paying for a cab this time around, at least for the trip to the airport. It went well overall; it took 90 minutes to get there, which isn’t too bad for a major world airport like Heathrow and on a holiday weekend. The only thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the price for the Heathrow Express – £19.00 one way.

I got to the airport before the rest of the group. Oh, I forgot to mention the group…

I joined Meetup about 3 months ago as a way to get out a bit more, as a challenge to myself for 2012 and beyond. (I may write a post or two about how that’s going in the future.) Among other things, I looked for traveler groups and sure enough, I found one that caught my eye: Solo Travelers. As someone who likes traveling solo, this group and its description sounded perfect. This group already planned its 2012 trips, and while I’d love to go on each one of their trips, I’m not rich. But there were a few that appealed to me, and Lisbon caught my eye first – affordable, 2 hour plane ride, long weekend (I hate very short trips). A few days after joining the group, I paid a deposit and secured my spot. While I prefer traveling solo, traveling with other solo travelers made sense to me for a couple of reasons:

1. While we arrived & departed together from each airport, staying together was optional. If we didn’t vibe together, or wanted to do our own things, we could always split up.

2. This was another way to challenge myself to more & make new potential connections.

So there you have it – I traveled with other solo travelers. How did that go, you ask? Stay tuned.

The group went to the wrong gate because of a mix-up, so the group leader sent a text message on my way to the airport and I met the group at the correct gate instead. They arrived 10 minutes later, and the group leader introduced himself & the other group members. We checked in, got our boarding passes & went through security together, but split up until we got on the plane. While we were split up, I tried getting some cash out of my account, but the ATM declined my card . No sweat, though… I’d try when we arrived, and at least I had enough elsewhere.

I should have sat next to a group member, with whom my intuition sensed good vibes, but she was gracious enough to allow a couple to sit together. That was very nice of her… but not for me because the woman in the couple was so annoying that I wanted to punch her in her jackass face & throat. 😐 Lucky for me that I usually fall asleep on flights because I slept for at least half of the flight… which meant that she annoyed me only half as much as she would have if I was awake for the full flight.

When we landed, it was a nice surprise to disembark to nice weather since the weather authority predicted rain in Lisbon for most of the weekend.

Not too bad.
Not too bad.

Before we took our taxis to the hotel, I told the group leader about my ATM issue and he said “No problem, I’ll cover you until you get access to your account. These things happen.” Quite embarrassed – it’s my issue and I take ownership of it – but relieved that it wouldn’t be a huge issue. Our hotel was a short distance from the airport, and the taxi fare was pretty cheap for European standards – well less than €10.00 for each taxi.

We arrived at the hotel, and I was quite impressed. I should have shared a room with an older British woman, but she must have made a good connection with another group member because upon hotel check-in, she said that I was sharing with someone else instead. (That turned out to be a good thing. Stay tuned.) New roommate & I went to our hotel room; were we impressed again. I forgot to take a photo of the outside & our room, but check out the view from our window:

Taken as soon as we got into the room.
Taken as soon as we got into the room.

We settled in, chose our beds, got some help with our TV & internet settings from hotel staff, and relaxed (except for contacting my U.S. bank) until it was time for dinner. For the first night, we all dined together. We weren’t sure where to eat, but at least there were options within walking distance of the hotel. We walked a bit and I spotted an ATM – perfect time to give the group leader his money back. I inserted my card, figuring that there was something wrong with the ATM at Heathrow since the bank didn’t see anything wrong with my card during our phone call.

Of course it was my card. Cash machines in Portugal are pretty damn good because unlike at Heathrow, the ATM flashed the following words on the screen:

Your ATM card has expired.

FUUUUUUCK. 😐

Sure enough, I checked the card and it’d expired 6 days before the trip. I was even more embarrassed. I told the group leader and he was fine with it. He asked if I was alright for dinner and I assured him that I was. Unlike a few years ago, I didn’t throw a temper tantrum or cry or hide away in my room for the night. I just kept calm and thought about what to do next.

We decided on a restaurant across the street from the hotel; unlike a few of the other restaurants in the vicinity, this one was more affordable and there were locals eating there, which signaled to us that the food was probably decent.

Sete Mares.
Sete Mares.

Since my money was funny, I ate within my budget.

Cheese omelet with chips (French fries) & salad.
Cheese omelet with chips (French fries) & salad.

It was very good – no need for condiments or seasonings, it tasted good as shown in the photo. The restaurant specializes in seafood, though.

Yes, they're live.
Yes, they're live.

Some of the group members liked their food, while others could have taken or left it. The main complaint for those who could have taken or left it – the food was too oily. Thank goodness that mine was good.

We stayed for 2-3 hours, and some of us were tired so we went back to the hotel afterwards to get some rest for the next day. I called my family to tell them about the money situation, and my aunt said that she’d wire money the next afternoon. That was fine with me, as I wouldn’t be spending much money anyway, even after getting her money. It was quite annoying to know that I had money that was inaccessible, but it wasn’t worth turning the trip into doom & gloom. Thank goodness for age, wisdom, growth, and back-up plans. New roommate & I chatted a bit, then watched some TV and settled in for the night.

Stay tuned, everyone.

Boa noite.
Boa noite.

Day 2 ahead…

Customer service.

One of the best inventions known to man is online grocery shopping. As someone who has a hectic job, no car (yet) or energy sometimes, this is a (lazy/tired/exhausted/working) woman’s dream come true. So once I got settled into my own flat, I took full advantage. I pick up items from the big-box versions of (online & non-online) stores when basic items run out or I need something quick, but most is online.

Most people in the United Kingdom get paid only once per month, so we’re careful with grocery shopping. While I don’t have a family to feed, I make sure that I have enough cash to buy food along with paying annoying bills. So I was quite annoyed a few months ago when I missed my grocery delivery from a certain store because of its terrible customer service.

I’d just been paid and, as usual, placed my grocery order. I thought that everything was fine until I received a text message from the grocery store (something to the effect of)

Please contact customer service as soon as possible at (phone number), otherwise today’s order is canceled.

Again, I don’t have a family to feed, but I have to eat just like everyone else. So even though I was on public transportation and hate talking on the phone in public, food is important so I called back. The customer service representation, a woman, said “We’re having trouble getting your payment for your order.” I said

Alright. I’m on my way to work, so I’ll go to the bank and see what’s going on because I know that the money is there. I’ll call back afterwards; maybe there’s an issue at the bank.

So instead of going to the office, I went to the bank first. After waiting in the queue for a few minutes (rare), the bank teller (known as “cashier” in the United Kingdom) was ready for me. I explained the situation, she checked my account and said

Everything’s fine. You have more than enough to cover the order.

I said

Would you mind if I called (grocery store) in front of you to see what happens? For some reason, my order isn’t going through.

There were very few people in the bank (rare) so she let me go ahead.

I called customer service & spoke with a different representative. I explained the situation, requesting that he attempt the order again. He tried it and the order didn’t go through. He said (something to the effect of)

It’s isn’t going through. You don’t have enough money, so you need to go to your bank and see what’s going on.

I said

Sir, I’m in the bank now standing in front of a cashier who already checked my account, and there’s more than enough to cover the order. Please try again.

He tried again and said

It’s not going through. You don’t have enough money. It’s not a problem on (grocery store’s) end.

I repeated myself again and added

It has to be on your end. I’m telling you, the cashier is showing me the computer screen with my account information as we speak and there is more than enough to cover it. You can even speak to her if you’d like.

(By this time, she was speaking loud enough for him to hear that the account is fine and that it has to be on [grocery store’s] end and not the bank’s end.)

He stated that it wasn’t necessary because it was the bank’s fault and “the bank needs to fix the problem, not (grocery store).” I asked to speak with a manager or supervisor, and he said that no one was available (liar).

By this time I was late for work, annoyed & hungry since I didn’t have breakfast, and pissed that I wouldn’t have groceries because my refrigerator was close to bare. I also had a strict exercise schedule after work so if I had to go to the store myself, it threw a wrench into my after-work plans. So I let him have it nice & loud. (That’s also the day that I realized the strength of my New York City accent and boy, did it come out that day.) I can’t remember every word, but it went something like this:

I’ve lived here for a year. I’ve ordered groceries from this store ever since I moved here. I’ve given you my business each month without fail, and this is how you wanna treat me? I told you for the hundredth time that I’m in the bank in front of a cashier and the money is there, I asked you to let me speak with a supervisor and you said no, and you refuse to bend. You refuse to consider that (grocery store) have the issue, not me. So you know what? Cancel my order and my account. I’ve had it. You’ve lost another customer.

He said “Okay.” and I hung up on him. Friggin’ jerk.

I thanked the teller, apologized for being loud in the bank (she understood), and went to work. I told my co-workers what happened and while they found it amusing, they also found it annoying. I didn’t know that customer service in this country was so… lacking.

Coming from the United States, I’m used to better customer service overall; some representatives even brown-nose when it’s unnecessary. I salute good customer service representatives because I know the nonsense they have to deal with – rude & downright disgusting customers, terrible pay, sometimes no health or vacation benefits & terrible bosses/employers. I’ve worked in customer service as a teller & in other capacities and know how bad it is. I’ve walked away from a few customers in the past – didn’t wanna catch a case. 😐

So, I “get” it. Customer service isn’t the best job to work in. Been there, done that, the customer is not always right. I also understand, having been to European countries, that Europe’s overall culture isn’t into customer service that brown-noses like the U.S. But no matter the country, representatives should offer a level of service such that the customer is helped as much as possible. That level of service is lacking here overall; even native Britons complain about it. (I’ve heard that France is worse.)

I doubt that it’ll ever change and that’s fine. I don’t have to like it but I’m used to it. I’ve written this rant for wanna-be expatriates and/or travelers: no country is perfect, including so-called First World countries. You’ll run into annoyances like this sometimes. You don’t have to totally assimilate into the adopted country’s culture, but understand that some things are standard & may never change. Figure out ways to deal or return to your home country.

Epilogue: I e-mailed a complaint to the store. A woman e-mailed me and her response was utter garbage – no apology for her colleague, no request to stay with the store, no offers to make me reconsider leaving the store – nothing. That evening, I skipped the gym and went food shopping at another store. I order online from the new store instead & haven’t had any issues since. I also found out that the former store is a Wal-Mart affiliate. Now it all makes sense. 😐

Does anyone have any annoying customer service stories? What’s customer service like in your adopted country? Do you prefer customer service in your home country, or is it better in your adopted country?

Home (sweet home).

Happy holidays.
Happy holidays.

It’s that time again…

I’m heading home for a little more than a fortnight and will be on a plane by the time you get this. I’ve got a couple of posts scheduled to keep you reading whilst I’m away, so please stay tuned.

This time will be a little different, though. This will be my 2nd Xmas at my 1st home while working in my 2nd home. Many of my insights are the same, but there are some that are definitely different. I don’t know how these new insights will affect my time back home, but I’m anticipating the outcomes once I return to my 2nd home. Here are a few of my new insights:

– My friendship group has gotten smaller. It comes with the territory of being an expatriate. Rather than mourning the losses, I’m gonna try appreciating the ones who are still around.

– My definition of friendship has changed. It’s hard to explain and, therefore, I’ll test things out while I’m home.

– My definition of family has changed. A wise friend told her husband that “there is a difference between family and relatives”. That’s one of the best insights I’ve had this year and goes with my edited version – “blood is not (always) thicker than water”. Contrary to popular belief, one can choose one’s family, and that’s powerful.

I almost stayed here for Xmas for financial reasons. But I decided to break away from the usual Spinster and take care of my Self first. I can’t control everything, so I’m allowing the universe to take its course for once. I wanted to go home, so I made choices to make it happen, and I think that that’s what the universe wanted. I’m looking forward to seeing my loved ones & getting some rest/recovering from jet-lag because things are hectic at work & I haven’t had a proper vacation since June. With so much vacation time in Europe, that’s a long time to go without self-care and time off. Perfect timing from the universe.

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays, no matter what you celebrate (or don’t). To those of you traveling, I wish you a safe journey to your destination(s) and a wonderful time when you get there. Be mindful/careful and have fun. Relax, take a chill pill… whatever you do, just enjoy.

Not your typical tour.

I receive lots of travel e-newsletters & have quite a few blogs in my reader. They inspire me to travel the world (or at least imagine doing it) and give me ideas about things to do in my neck of the woods.

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I receive lots of travel e-newsletters & have many blogs in my reader. They inspire me to travel the world (or at least imagine doing it), help me refrain from moving back home, and give me ideas about things to do in my neck of the woods. One of the e-newsletters that I receive is Time Out, a great resource worldwide for things to do in some major cities across the planet. Prior to the riots, I received my usual Time Out e-newsletter and a free walking tour caught my eye. A few words stuck out:

Alternative.

Walking.

Free.

Those words, to me, meant that this was a different way to see the area – not your typical (double-decker) bus tour with a bunch of annoying loud American (or insert other country here) tourists and a tour guide holding a megaphone while reciting the typical boring basic (insert any city here) facts. Most importantly, this is free. In a world where the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer every day, anything free is a godsend. And finally, I like learning about places on an intimate level. I appreciate the good, bad & ugly about places: history, culture, architecture, art, future urban planning, and quirky facts that most others aren’t interested in and/or won’t know.

So I looked at the website listed in the e-newsletter and contacted the person (or people) who run the tours. After a few snafus that were out of my control, I finally got a chance to take the tour. Luckily for me (and you), the tour occurs year-round.

I’m glad to say that I enjoyed myself and wrote a TripAdvisor review about it. Check it out in the link above, as well as a few of the many pictures that I took during the tour below.

Tour guide.
Tour guide.

Shadows.
Shadows.

Bangladesh's national bird.
Bangladesh's national bird.
Jimi.
Jimi.

Local man, aged 90 something.
Local man, aged 90 something.

Burden.
Burden.

If you want a down-to-earth, unpretentious, interesting & (maybe) fun way to explore just one area of this large metropolis, take this tour and my word for it. Enjoy.

The Alternative London Tour
http://www.alternativeldn.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/alternativelondon
https://twitter.com/#!/alternativeldn