Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Chippies

It seems that on every block of every street in Edinburgh you can find at least one chippie. Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify; the term "chippie" is commonly used to refer to a fish and chips shop and not so much to a "loose woman".

I have yet to find a chippie that only serves fish and chips. In fact, my local chippies (there are two within a block of me) serve a bewildering variety of food, both fried and otherwise. Chippies these days are your one-stop fast food shop. You want fish and chips? Go to a chippie. You want fried haggis? Go to a chippie. How about a deep-fried sausage? Chippie. Mars bar, deep fried? Black pudding, White pudding or steak pie, all fried? How about chicken, nuggets, mushrooms, onion rings fish cakes or even pizza, deep fried? You guessed it, go to a chippie.

But lest you think that all they do is fry foods for a living, your chippie also offers foods cooked in other ways. Most of them also offer "American food"- burgers, cheeseburgers and chicken burgers. Nor does their international fare end there. You can get kebabs, pakora, doner, and wraps. Most even serve pasta and pizza.

So far, I have sampled food from four different chippies. I've had one bad pizza and from another place two very good pizzas. I had some really disappointing fish and chips (although there was enough there for two mediocre meals), some very tasty fried mushrooms (with garlic dip) and a pretty reasonable hamburger.

So, wrapped up in one shop, you have a peculiar mix of Scottish, British, Turkish, American and Italian food. What more could you want for a truly intercontinental meal...except maybe some veg?

Turkish Carry Out, the local Chippie

Friday, September 28, 2012

Getting Situated in Edinburgh

So, you've managed to find a flat. Like I mentioned previously, it took me a good week and a half before I found one that fit into my price/preference range.  While looking, I also spent time getting myself set up  here in Edinburgh. Here are some notes on some of the other things you need to do to survive here.

Of course, in order to actually come to the UK from the US, you need to make sure you have a current passport and a visa. I renewed my passport and then applied for my visa over the summer prior to moving here and had no problems. Read the documentation and follow the instructions on these websites:

Better people than I have explained that process in depth, so I will not go into it. Suffice it to say that if you don't have both of those items, you will be turned away at Customs (and possibly arrested, deported and humiliated).

If you're going to stay for any length of time, you will need a bank account, a phone, and some form of transportation. In fact, without these things, flat hunting will be very difficult, so you may want to take care of these things as early as possible.

Bank Account

There are a number of different banks here in the UK and some have branches in the US. If you have an account with one of these banks (Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds come to mind), then it is possible you can easily transfer to a UK branch--I really don't know; talk to your bank. My expectation is that nothing in banking is easy, so there is probably some hidden catch or it will involve hours on hold with customer service. Or both.

If you choose to wait until you have arrived to open an account, you shouldn't have too many problems. As with most other official functions, you will need to show your passport and often, something that explains why you are in the UK. This might be a letter of introduction from your university or employer. Some banks require this, others don't. Do your research.

Transferring money from the US to the UK is a pain. Not only is there the conversion rate (roughly $1.60 to the £ at this writing) but you can't simply write a check from your US bank, you need to do an electronic transfer of some sort. depending on your US bank they may or may not charge for this, but will probably charge around $60.00 per transfer. In addition, there may be conversion fees, bank fees, and other miscellaneous fees that will make your seemingly substantial deposit diminish before your eyes.

Another option is to use a Western Union wire transfer. This will cost $50.00 for up to $10,000 but may still be subject to other fees. Often, these will be less than letting your bank handle it, though. The major drawback of Western Union is that you need to pick up the cash and bring it to your UK bank. This may not seem like a problem, but not all Western Union offices can handle large amounts of cash. It can quickly become uncomfortable when you're carrying £5000 in £20 bills through a dodgy part of town.

Once you have some money in your bank account, then all is well. You are now able to start paying your long term bills like rent, power, telly and so forth. Most of these things can actually be paid online, and most companies would prefer that you set up an automatic payment when you start the service.


In the UK, cell phones are commonly called mobiles. If you already have a mobile, you can probably get a pay-as-you-go SIM only plan. This only requires you to swap out your old SIM card for a new one, unless your phone is locked. In that case, you need to contact your US wireless service and convince them that you are worthy of having your phone unlocked. If you are out of contract with ATT, for instance, then they will barely resist your request. If your phone is still under contract, then they may require you to pay a penalty.

Once you get that sorted out, you can go to one of the many mobile phone dealers and get yourself a plan (and a new phone if necessary). Shops like Carphone Warehouse are sprinkled up and down Princes Street (The main shopping district in downtown Edinburgh) as well as in malls throughout the city. The staff will hopefully listen to your needs and get you the best plan available.


Edinburgh and many other UK and European cities have excellent public transportation. I find that they are also very easy to get around on afoot. In Edinburgh, the bus system ( seems to be very reliable and runs all over the city. There are several rail stations where you can catch a train to another city, as well as an airport where you can fly virtually anywhere.

Unless you are currently a hard-core biker with experience in big city biking, I would not suggest leaping onto a bike right when you get here. Things are likely to be a bit disorienting, and the fact that they drive on the left is just one of many adjustments you'll need to make. Wait a bit until you're used to the traffic patterns and maybe get hooked up with other bikers before venturing onto the roads on a bicycle.

Buses currently cost £1.40 for a one-way adult single or £3.50 for am adult day-ticket. You need the exact amount when you get on, since the driver cannot make change. Just drop your coins into the fare box, tell the driver what kind of ticket you want (i.e. Adult Single), and he will generate your fare. A paper ticket will then pop out of a printer near the driver (either next to the fare box or behind him in the corridor). Take your ticket and find a seat.

Seating on the bus is variable depending on the time of day, but here's what I've observed is most common:
Front of the bus: Reserved for the elderly, infirm or handicapped. Often taken by tourists who don't read the "Priority Seating' signs, and by people who just don't care.
Middle of the bus: Here you will find the people who are on the bus simply for transportation, going to/from work, uni, shopping, etc.
Rear of the bus: This is where the dodgy people sit. Schoolchildren and teenagers mostly, who seem to think that they are on the party bus and by sitting in the back, the driver won't stop them from being rowdy. Which is true. They usually come aboard and disembark in packs. 
The upper floor of the bus on the double-deckers is often divided similarly, save that the front is full of tourists, usually with cameras.

Walking is another great way to get around Edinburgh, especially after you have a phone with a mapping program on it. You can easily walk from the City Centre to the Ocean Terminal in Leith if you are reasonably fit and have the time. It's about a three mile journey, and you pass some wonderful shops and buildings along the way. If you're planning on simply hanging around the City Centre where Edinburgh University, the castle, the museums and the main shopping district is, then plan on walking. Everything is within walking distance, usually just a matter of a few blocks.

I think I've gotten this blog up to date on the how-to aspect of getting to Edinburgh. With luck, my next entries will deal more with the city itself and my own experiences.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Arriving in the UK

This blog is intended to be a journal of my stay in Edinburgh. I am here specifically to get my postgraduate degree, a Masters of Fine Arts in Contemporary Sculpture from the Edinburgh College of Art, part of Edinburgh University. Originally I am from the US, and I have lived up and down the west coast all my life, most recently in Anchorage, Alaska.

I've been living here now for a month, and will use this first few entries to try to bring you up to date. One of my goals is to help future expats understand what they're getting into when they come to Edinburgh (and by extension the UK) and hopefully make the transition easier for them.

I arrived in Edinburgh in the evening of August 22, a Tuesday. Since I had dealt with the AirLink bus service on a previous visit, I knew I wanted a taxi. I had two suitcases and one backpack, all filled with things I thought I might need in my two year stay in Edinburgh. I did not want to wrangle these around on the streets or the bus, so a taxi it was. I was booked in a hostel (single room, en suite) near the City Centre. The taxi cost £18 or about $27.

I checked in and settled in for the evening.

You might be wondering why I didn't have lodging set up for me upon arrival and there are a couple of reasons. First, although I was heading to University, I was not interested in dealing with unknown roommates. I had enough of that in undergrad, and didn't feel like I wanted to do that again. If I got to know someone and wanted to share a flat with them, that was different than the system of having the university pull names from a hat and put them together like some bizarre social experiment. Also, I was thinking of getting a pet down the line, something I could not do in university accommodation.

In the UK, the process for getting a flat usually involves a Letting Agency. The Letting Agency acts as an intermediary between the landlord and the tenant, much as a realtor does for house buyers in the US. The Letting Agent shows the flat, runs background checks and deals with the paperwork. It is possible you could never meet your landlord during your entire stay.

A responsible Letting Agency will not let to anyone who has not physically seen the property first. This makes it nigh to impossible to rent a flat before you get here. There are also plenty of internet scams out there that makes this a bad idea in general.

The flat hunting process goes something like this:

First you look for a flat that fits your needs (location, price, number of rooms, etc.). There are a number of internet sites as well as newspapers and Gumtree (the UK's version of Craigslist) that you can check. Here are a few:,,, and

Once you find a couple of flats, you call (or email) the Letting Agency that handles them and set up an appointment for a viewing.

The viewing is designed to be convenient for the Letting Agent, so it is probably in the morning or late afternoon. Everyone who is interested in the flat will be there at the same time, so you can size up your competition. It's a good idea to listen to the questions and answers from other viewers, since they may have more experience renting than you.

When you find the flat you want, you will apply to the Letting Agency who will then have you fill out the paperwork and do a background/credit check. If you are new to the UK and not an EU citizen, then you effectively have no credit history as far as they are concerned. This means that you have two options, either using a guarantor or supplying rent up front. The first option works only if you know someone in the UK who has good credit and trusts you enough to essentially cosign your lease. The second means that you provide 3-6 months rent up front, which the Letting Agency will distribute to the landlord over the term of the lease. This is, of course, in addition to the security deposit.

Whichever way you choose, you will eventually end up with a flat of your own.

For me, it took almost two weeks before I found my flat, mainly because of the delay between the discovery of the listing and the actual viewing. Since viewings are on the Agency's schedule, I found that I could only view a couple flats a day because of the times the Agents were willing to show them.

A Hostel is budget oriented establishment that provides a variety of accommodation types, from 10 or more beds to a room to a single bed to a room. Rates can be incredibly low compared to a full service hotel, although you may have to share your room with several strangers. There are similarly priced accommodations in some Private Hotels, which are usually converted multi-level dwellings which are similar to B&Bs.
En Suite refers to the location of the bathroom being in the room. If the room is not listed en suite, then you are probably sharing the bathroom with the rest of the floor. This can be inconvenient if there is only one toilet or one shower. By the way, there is a distinction here between toilet and shower, because in older buildings they are often in different rooms, so if you are looking for the toilet, don't be afraid to ask for the toilet.
A Flat is what we in the US would consider an apartment. An apartment in the UK appears to be what we could consider a condo (although I could be wrong).