Being driven crazy

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There are two reasons right now that are driving me crazy. Don’t worry, by crazy I mean both befuddled and angry.

The first is the totally unfair way in which we treat people who, like my wife Lisa, come to this country and within one year of driving on their driving licences issued by their home countries have to gain a provisional licence then arrange to get through the UK test.

Not unfair in itself, I am sure you will agree. But wait, there are a total of 48 places that enjoy simpler arrangements. Anyone arriving clutching one of their driving licences can just get it swapped for a UK one, no questions asked.

These 48 include all 27 other European Union members, four parts of the British Isles that have their own licences and a further 17 ‘designated’ countries that have exchange agreements with the UK. You will find a complete list as an addendum to this blog.

Now, unless you are reading my blog for the very first time, you will know that Lisa is from the United States of America. Not just the USA, Lisa is a proud New Yorker having been born and brought up in the Bronx.

Anyway, a quick look at the list of 48 countries shows that the USA is not one of them. Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea? Yes. USA? No.

I have no idea why there is no exchange agreement between the UK and USA, despite the so-called ‘special relationship’ we are supposed to enjoy, yet we have one with South Korea. That sounds crazier than me.

The lack of any UK/USA agreement is why Lisa, who has been qualified to drive in the US for 38 years, has been taking lessons to learn to pass the UK practical test. She has already passed the theory part, no problem.

Talking of the practical test brings me to the second of my two reasons that I mentioned earlier.

Lisa’s was booked for 1.08pm last Thursday (don’t ask, I am sure there must be a very good reason why tests are arranged for such peculiar times) but was cancelled by the test centre on Wednesday, with it being rearranged for four weeks’ time. Still Thursday, still 1.08pm.

As if that was not bad enough, we then found out the reason. The examiner due to handle Lisa’s test had not been struck down by a sudden illness. No, the fact is that she is pregnant and was advised to start her maternity leave earlier than planned.

To me that sounds like her management was poorly prepared. They knew the examiner was pregnant and should have been ready for such a foreseeable eventuality as her needing to stop work earlier than had been scheduled.

That way, neither Lisa nor 13 other people would have had their tests delayed.

ADDENDUM

Driving Licences that can be swapped for a British one

EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden

British isles places with own licences: Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man

Designated countries having exchange agreements with the UK: Andorra, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.

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Dream the impossible dream…..but sometimes our dreams do come true

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Left: The beautiful Na Pali coast, Hawaii in December. Right, reindeer in Norway, in July.

Dream the impossible dream? Ok, ok, what’s he rambling on about now?

To tell you the truth, my dreams only really started to come true after I met Lisa. Let me explain.

I first married in 1977. It was on 26th February to be exact, I was 24 years old. Over time, the relationship deteriorated until we were finally divorced on 5th September 2011. Somehow it had managed to last nearly 34½ years. It should have ended years earlier but inertia kept it going.

It was not a life in which I was happy. Of course, there were good times but overall neither of us were enjoying the marriage.

My earliest dreams that I never, ever thought would come true were as a youngster. My mum (who would eventually become a top breeder, exhibitor and international judge of Pembroke Welsh Corgis) sold a couple of dogs to someone in Honolulu. It sounded so exotic but was so far away, so out of my reach.

Australia was another country on my dream list, also sparked by mum exporting dogs there.

Similarly, at high school there was a trip to the USA but it was expensive and I thought it was too much money to ask my parents to find. So I said that I didn’t want to go but, in reality, I would have loved it.

During my first marriage, I wanted to go on a cruise but that was not to be. In fact, I had dreamed of crossing the Atlantic on a liner since that form of travel caught my attention as a child watching television.

Then it all changed. I won’t bore you with exactly what happened and when; it is enough to say that Lisa and I met virtually at first, playing a computer game. That was in October 2009 and after two years, and two divorces, we married.

married2  Lisa and I on our wedding day at sunset.

Not any old marriage ceremony for us though. We married on a beach in south western Florida, where Lisa then lived. It was at sunset on 31st October 2011, it was attended by Lisa’s mom, sister, brother in law and two of our friends whom we had also met online. That was my very first trip to the USA. A dream wedding in a dream location, with dolphins playing just off the beach.

A cruise holiday was next on my list and that came true in 2013 after I received a £1,200 grant from the short break fund of the UK’s Multiple Sclerosis Society. It was great, two weeks on board with various shore visits in and around the Norwegian fjords. That was on Lisa’s dream list too as her dad’s family were from Norway, so she is half-Norwegian.

A second, week long cruise, followed a few months later. This time we few to Milan for a circular cruise around the Mediterranean. A day on Sicily ticked off a second dream on Lisa’s list as her mom’s family came from there, making her half Sicilian.

Last year, we enjoyed an absolutely magnificent holiday. In December, we flew to Honolulu (childhood dream) and enjoyed three full days there visiting a luau and Pearl Harbour– among other things. After that we boarded a ship for a seven day cruise around the Hawaiian islands, with shore excursions every day. The whole trip was warm and sunny, even in December.

We then flew to New York (high school dream) and spent three full days there. My ex had never wanted to go to NYC but Lisa was born and brought up there and so I was given my own personalised tour with a very special tour guide. Highlights were riding to the top of the Empire State Building, going to the famous Radio City Music Hall to see its Christmas Spectacular, Times Square, Central Park, the 9-11 Memorial which I found very moving, the Rockefeller Center and store windows all decorated for Christmas.

Added to that, we travelled a little outside the city to meet up with Lisa’s other sister and her husband, plus their children and grandchildren.

Needless to say that the weather in New York was more wintry than in Hawaii but we went prepared for both.

This year, we are in for quite a busy time this autumn. In October we are sailing on an eight-day Atlantic crossing (childhood dream) from Southampton to New Jersey, then spending nine days touring several north-eastern states. We fly back – and then we are moving to Spain. There we will be able to escape the rainy British climate and be able to soak up sunshine for much of the year. And that is fulfilling a dream that I only had early this year.

Do I have dreams left on my list? Oh yes, a cruise taking in Australia, an African safari (photos only, no shooting), a Caribbean cruise and a second trip to Hawaii are all high up there.

But my biggest dream has already come true and I live it everyday. I am talking about meeting and marrying Lisa. She is the one true love of my life, my soulmate, my lover, my best friend – my everything. We make each other so happy and so full of life that my illness, my multiple sclerosis, pales into insignificance. That’s what dreams are made of.

 

 

Access for people with disabilities. What is ‘reasonable’?

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For the disabled, particularly anyone in a wheelchair, gaining access to buildings and all their facilities can still be more than a little difficult in the UK. The situation in other countries may be similar but, from what I have seen, Britain seems to be lagging behind other westernised countries.

True, we have the Equality Act 2010 that followed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and this legislation is supposed to make discrimination against the disabled illegal. But the trouble is that the law contains the word ‘reasonable’ and that term is subjective – what is reasonable to me might be unreasonable to someone else. Just who determines what is reasonable?

So, as far as access to a building and its facilities such as toilets, the owner of any commercial business otherwise known as the ‘service provider’ is required by law ‘to take reasonable steps to remove, alter or provide a reasonable means of avoiding a physical feature which made it impossible or reasonably difficult for disabled people to use a service.’

Hm, one sentence with reasonable twice and reasonably once; room enough, in my view, for said ‘service providers’ to avoid doing anything.

Of course, most shops, restaurants, offices open to the public and so on do have level entrances or have alternative means of access, such as ramps or lifts but some still need improvement.

Over the last year, Lisa and I have eaten out at several restaurants in Colwyn Bay, the town in which we live. All the meals have been enjoyable but the facilities for customer with disabilities have been a bit hit and miss.

Pen-y-Bryn bar and restaurant is in its own grounds with a large car park but, disappointingly, has just one bay bearing the wheelchair symbol. Access to the building and the necessary facilities is trouble free.

Dolce Vita Italian restaurant has an on-street location with a level entrance. It has its main seating area and facilities upstairs but when I telephoned to make a booking and mentioned my wheelchair, I was guaranteed a table in the small ground floor dining area and was assured that I would be welcome to use their staff restroom on the same level. The owner also told me that he had plans to put in new customer facilities downstairs.

Vergilio’s Pizzeria and Portuguese Grill also has an on-street location and when I phoned to book I was told that my wheelchair would not be a problem. Well, true the staff were attentive and most willing to help me overcome the step into and out of the building as the entrance is not level. However, the bigger problem is that the restrooms are upstairs and so beyond the reach of people like me.

The Venue @ The Clockhouse Indian restaurant is another on-street location with a step to go in. Once again, the owner and manager together made short work of helping me both in and out of the building. Inside, everything is one level but facilities for the disabled do need improving. I discussed the issues with the owner and was pleased to hear that he already had plans to address both of them.

In the past year, my wife and I have also dined at more than 10 restaurants in Honolulu, New York City and Spain. All had level entrances or gentle ramps, the ones with dining rooms not on the ground floor had elevators. All washroom facilities were perfect. A lesson worth learning.

Back in Colwyn Bay, The Toad restaurant is in a prime location with sea views from its first floor restaurant. But there lies the problem, access is by external stone stairs while inside there is a staircase going down to the toilets on the ground floor. When I asked about facilities for customers with disabilities, I was told nothing could be done as it is a Grade 2 Listed building. That’s a building of special interest.

However, to say nothing can be done to such a property is not true. Any alteration would need listed building consent but even if such consent was denied a service provider would still need to take whatever other steps that are reasonable to provide the service.

And to underline that, Planning Policy Guidance Note (PPG 15) issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions makes it clear that “it is important in principle that disabled people should have dignified easy access to and within historic buildings” and that with a proper approach “it should normally be possible to plan suitable access for disabled people without compromising a building’s special interest”.

So, alterations should still be possible – even to listed buildings.

Access laws in America seem more strict than in the UK. Lisa told me about a Florida restaurant that had an upstairs bar and entertainment venue with no access for people with disabilities. The owners were told to make such access available or to close their business. No messing.

Stopping abuse of parking bays for disabled people

Not all physical disabilities, let alone the mental ones, are necessarily apparent to other people – and by ‘other people’ I include those of us who live with more obvious physical disabilities.

As just one example, let’s look at car parking bays denoted by the well known wheelchair symbol that are reserved for people with disabilities – and by that I mean people possessing the relevant document to allow them to use one of those bays. In the UK these are ‘parking cards’ but are popularly referred to as ‘blue badges’, in the USA they are generally known as ‘parking placards’ while in Canada they are called ‘parking permits’.

Different rules exist for each country, so users have to know where they may and may not park, but I am sure similar issues exist all over the world.

So, let’s look at the country I know best – the UK – and the use of parking bays for disabled people. These are reserved for blue badge holders who only obtain those by receiving one of a certain range of disability benefits or have gone through a pretty rigorous application process for the badge itself.

Now imagine this scene. A car pulls into a parking bay reserved for a person with a disability, the driver puts a blue badge on display and walks away from the vehicle without a walking aid and without any obvious sign of a disability.

Of course it is possible that another member of the family is improperly using the blue badge but is it possible that the correct person, the one with a disability, is whom has just walked away? Well, not all disabilities are obvious, some are known as ‘invisible disabilities’ and a person walking without a mobility aid of some kind might still be in considerable pain.

If someone is not receiving a benefit that automatically entitles him or her to a blue badge, that person has to undergo a walking ability assessment. In general terms, such a person will only be able to get a blue badge if he or she can walk only with great difficulty, at an extremely slow pace or with excessive pain.

Remember, though, anyone who is used to living in pain is usually very good at hiding it.

I have to admit that, in the past, I have on occasion been guilty of making rash judgements relating to someone’s walking ability on leaving a vehicle in a blue badge bay. Fortunately, my misguided comments never got outside my car and were quickly countered by my wife Lisa who, quite rightly, pointed out that all disabilities are not obvious just by looking.

It is more important to trust those who assess people’s abilities before issuing blue badges and to ensure that parking facilities provided for the benefit of drivers or passengers with disabilities are not abused. We need to protect our parking bays from abuse by anyone without a blue badge or by someone misusing a badge issued for a family member who is not in the car at that time.

It is not our, or anyone else’s, place to cast doubt on another’s right to have a blue badge or whatever the parking permit is called in any particular country.

 

 

12 weeks until we leave, the countdown has begun

Our flat (or apartment) is well into its “We’re moving” feel. Many drawers are already empty, wardrobes are no longer bulging at the seams but hold only the clothes we will be wearing now and during our cruise across the Atlantic and our holiday in the USA. It most definitely is wonderfully exciting and the beginning of an exhilarating adventure.

Almost everything going direct to Spain is already packed. It certainly needs to be as, for various reasons, our limited number of crates etc are being picked up from North Wales during the middle of this month and are being delivered to our new home in September – a full two months before we will be arriving.

Where we live now has an integral garage that we have used to store any items that left no room for a car but that is already changing. All the large items have been sold off, most through North Wales Auctions, and a few via Ebay. So far sales have brought in more than £900 with more due to come. Apart from an old Indian sword being offered in an antique sale, when we leave in October the flat will be cleared by the auction house and the furniture will be sold in its next general sale.

Lisa is already saying “There is so much to do” but, really, what needs to be done is all well in hand and a vast amount has been accomplished.

De-cluttering is very much a word of the times and it is very good to do from time to time. We did ‘de-clutter’ before we moved to our current home back in 2012 but there is a vast difference this time.  Three years ago, we hired a van and got friends to help us to move two miles to somewhere with a garage to hold all those things y0u really should get rid of but don’t. This time we are moving not just two miles but more than 1,600, we need to pay for whatever we want to take with us to be delivered – and limitations about how much we can take with us certainly focuses the mind on the need to de-clutter.

Fortunately, furniture itself is less of an issue. We are taking no furniture with us as we have bought our new home more or less fully furnished. Of course, there are a few items we do need to buy and others we want to buy but there are many more that we neither need nor want as we are happy with what is already there.

Lisa and I are both finding it hard to wait until our October holiday and our November move to Spain.

 

Times, they are a-changing

It’s official. At last the money – from the sale of the home I used to share with my ex-wife – has come through. That’s it, the final link between us is now finally severed.

It would be time to pop the cork from a bottle, or two, of champagne but Lisa and I just don’t have time to spare right now as we have just completed the purchase of our new home in the south of Spain. Now, there is so much to do as we prepare for the move.

Oh, great times ahead.

We are not actually flying out to Spain until November but before that we are heading to the USA for what promises to be a super holiday. It all starts with a luxurious cruise across the Atlantic – hey, cut that out, stop singing the theme to the Titanic film. After that, we will be spending nine days touring around several states.

Finally, we will return to the UK, staying for just two nights, collecting our two cats from the cattery and sending them on their overland journey to Spain before we fly out to welcome them to their new home in the sun. Actually, both Pooka and Prissy were born, and lived most of their lives, in Florida; I am sure they will welcome the hotter weather.

Now, though, there is much to be done.

We have already started, of course, and have sold lots of bits and pieces through Ebay and North Wales Auctions in Rhyl. Most of our furniture will eventually go that way as we have bought our new home already furnished, although we will be buying a few new items.

Unwanted clothes and books have been sold to specialist companies while other fabrics such as duvets, pillows and curtains are being recycled.

Lisa has been a tower of strength through all this and has so far packed three 110 litre plastic crates, with an outsize suitcase to go – alongside a weekend bag full of shoes, a bundle of my walking sticks and shepherd’s crooks and my essential over-armchair swivel table (disassembled and strapped together). These are all being collected in early September and taken to our new home by road.

Once they have gone, if I know her (and I most certainly do) Lisa will begin packing for our trip to Spain, via America.

We are actually moving out of our current home, a rented flat in the North Wales town of Colwyn Bay, before we go to America. On the day we move out, Darren from North Wales Auctions is  coming back to clear the house. Perfect.

I’ll let you know how things progress.