The Grumpy Brummie Awards, Because the World Isn’t Perfect

Good and bad experiences happen everywhere. Overall, I have found the people of Birmingham (Brummies) to be exceedingly friendly and polite. But, bad apples are found in every bushel and I decided to separate the few bad apples from the many good. So, here are some stories about rotten apples in Birmingham. To be fair, the main cause of any discontent I experienced in Birmingham came from someone who grew up in a family of another culture that is not necessarily known for it’s warmness.

NOTE: Scroll Down to read about my experience with UK Car Rentals
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The full address was Teensy Street 99, Globe, Birmingham. A black cab pulled-up to my hotel and I loaded my considerable luggage, nearly doubled by traveling with a folding bicycle. The driver knows Teensy Street, as do I. Quite nearby, I only take a taxi for the carriage of my belongings.

The taxi metre is still just at £4 as we make our way along Teensy Street. The numbers on the left of the street ascend and contain both odd and even numbers. The numbers on the right descend. We get to the end of the street and have not found a 99. It’s a one-way street so we reverse, this time focused on the numbers on our right. Still, there is no 99.

“You must have the address wrong,” my driver, a small man in his 40s with a very long beard, suggests. I pull out my iPad to look at the address exactly as given rather than looking at my written-down version. No, it really is number 99. I show the driver. “Globe must mean something,” he comments, “Globe is the key to finding this address. Ask the landlord if it is supposed to be Teensy Street North or Teensy Street South rather than Teensy Street.”

I text the flat owner to ask for clarification.

My text: “Hi, taxi can’t find 99, is it teensy st n or s?” (11:40)

Reply: “It’s apt 99 3 Teensy street and entrance is on Britain street” (11:44)

Well the entrance not being on Teensy seems like a detail that should have been shared before. Why would I have assumed the entry was not on Teensy Street, and if it wasn’t, how would I know where it was? I get out to find the entry on foot, easier than having the driver manoeuvre his cab. Around the corner on Britain, there is no obvious entrance. I pass a beauty salon and see a door, but it doesn’t look like apartments. The driver has also come out of the taxi to look about.

“Is it marked 15?” I text, looking at the only possible door. (11:46)

“No it’s 3” (11:47)

The two of us continue to look about.

“It’s not marked anything I’m confused as to where you are. Taxi takes you to Britain street and the entrance is there where you input the code cheers” (11:50)

With this I continue walking down Britain. Nearly at the corner of the next street there is a large car gate with no markings, beside it is a gate door with two different keypads. I call the flat owner after it doesn’t accept the code. I had followed the instructions written above the pad which tell me to press “b” followed by the number. “Use the keypad on the right, and key in the code exactly as I told you. hash – etc.” Okay, now I understand, the number sign is part of the code. She had texted the code as #1234 (except different numbers). I key in the number pressing “#” first and the door opens so the driver goes back to bring the taxi over. By this time the metre has risen to £10.

Inside the gate there is a car park surrounded by structures with various different entrances. I leave my things in a heap to wander about, the signs are small and I need to approach each door to be able to read which flats it leads to. I find my grouping and enter with my belongings. In the elevator I hit the 9 button.

The doors open onto a worksite, builders renovating the hallway. “Is number 99 on this floor?” “No mate, I don’t know where number 99 is. Is it it this building?”

I press the 8. Nope, but the numbers are high enough that now I can guess what floor it might be on. I find the door that is marked 99. Thank goodness.

“Hi did you get in all ok?” (12:18)
(Note: I of course did change the address details so don’t bother to look for it!)
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I set-out to visit the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter only to discover that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Instead, I decide to go for coffee at what has become my daily haunt, Costa on New Street. It is a different walk getting there now and I enjoy taking photos on the way. I am getting used to ignoring the intermittent rain, life must go on.

Approaching the coffee shop it becomes readily apparent that it is undergoing major renovations. A construction crew use power tools in what was the front seating area. I’m disappointed, this was the one place I kept constant and intentionally visited at some point every day. I end-up at my last resort, Starbucks. There I meet a friendly gentleman who is on business from Germany. He is stunned that I have chosen the UK as a travel destination, it is his first time. He’s not interested in sight-seeing, but he does want to visit the Chinatown because he likes Chinese food. He doesn’t catch my love for the UK during our brief discourse. Mostly we chat about cars, I had been researching my car hire possibilities before he sat beside me in the window overlooking New Street. He wouldn’t try to drive on that side of the road, he can’t imagine it. For me it’s only odd for the first day. Traffic is also on the left in Japan, where I spent two years, so I have an accumulated 4 years of interacting with left-driving traffic.

After coffee I head out in search of getting my hair done, it’s getting long and there is too much white showing. “We don’t dye hair,” a large American woman tells me at a nearby drop-in hair salon. “Try Snow Hill.” (Snow Hill is a Station and probably also describes the area of the station’s surrounds.) In the end, I do not get my hair coloured or cut. Another day.

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I was sad to find that the one place I visited everyday, Costa on New Street, was suddenly closed for refurbishment.

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I was even more surprised when only 48 hours later it was completely finished and open for business again!
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First impressions are often correct, often not. After experiencing what felt like a lack of consideration, it seemed like if she cared at all about making my arrival smooth she would have provided adequate information. Of course perhaps she did in her mind, she provided the mailing address, but since that address does not provide useful information for entry and she knew I would not be arriving by post, she should have provided the required information instead. The apartment does look out onto Teensy Street, but that street should not be mentioned since one does actually step foot on Teensy to access the flat. Given this direction, not long but containing the needed information, I would have had no problem at all finding the flat, “North side of Britain road, second entry from Hacker Street.” It’s not the mailing address, but it is the location of the entry. That kind of thought seems so obvious to me, I fear my new host is perhaps not too very thoughtful

I meet Helbi when she returns from work around 6:30. I had invited her to join me to a group dinner but she never replied. Brief hellos and she turns on the tele and props herself in front. I attempt to make some conversation, I hope to be friends with someone I will be sharing a space with for the week, but she is not interested. Her eyes on the tv, it doesn’t seem to be on anything in particular, she occasionally looks my way. That’s fine, she wants some space after work. I get that, but I also think one should make an effort for a few minutes when meeting someone who you have rented your spare bedroom to.

It’s awkward so I decide to depart early for my meet-up at a nearby restaurant. Too early to go in, I go across to a pub to while-away my spare 30 minutes.

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I know one girl at the meet-up from bowling on Saturday. I sit at the end of a table with her on my left and a boorish man on my right. “Can I see the wine that comes with the steak deal?” he asks our server. Everyone at the table had started with red wine as a pre-drink and the server returns momentarily with a bottle of red wine to show what will come free with every two steaks. “Is there not white wine as well?” he asks the server. “Yes, would you like to see that too?” “Yes please.” She returns to the bar and comes back with a bottle of white. “We’ll all have the red,” he informs without bothering to look at the bottle.

“Did you make her get the white wine for no reason?” the girl to my left asks. “Yes, we’re all having steak, aren’t we.”

What a twat, I think. My impression of him strengthens throughout the meal. This is not a high-end steakhouse by any stretch of the imagination but he acts so incredibly pretentiously. “Do you have the cote du boeuf tonight?” No, sorry Sir, that is not one of our specials today. “Can you ask the kitchen anyway?” “Yes, Sir.” She returns with the same answer, which she already knew. “Can you try again?” He is such an idiot, I want to slap him. “Is Tony here tonight?” “No, Sir, he’s off today.” He goes on to tell us that he has eaten here twice before and that Tony is very good. Playing the regular at a run-of-the-mill restaurant after two visits. Such a full life he must have.

The meal completed, I move to the other end of the table just to meet the people when someone goes to the loo. “Could I please have my seat back!” an indignant woman gripes on her return. She is one of the organisers. Apart from thinking that after the meal perhaps she wouldn’t mind chatting to the other end of the table for a moment as well, I am taken aback by her harsh tone. I go back to my seat and give the woman from bowling too much money for my share so that I can just leave. I do not want to speak with that bore a minute longer and now I also also feel embarrassed by how I was just spoken to. In my haste to put the group behind me I leave my fleece behind. I hope the group leaves it there for me to pick-up later.

Back at the flat I talk a few moments to a still unconversant Helbi before going online to un-join that particular meet-up group. I see that the woman who was protective of her seat is the person in charge. An automatic form asks why I am leaving the group. “I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I’m leaving the group,” I key in and press send.

I email the lady that I had known from a previous meet-up. She’s quite nice. “I left my black fleece jacket behind, do you happen to know if it was left there for me to pick-up or if someone took it?” Three days later she has not made the effort to reply. I go to the restaurant. Yes, they remember my group. No, the group did not leave anything behind, someone must have taken it for me. How thoughtful. Too bad they didn’t go the next step and actually let me know who had it. I hate shopping to replace things that were just right already.

Perhaps it’s good I’ve had an off day. No where can be perfect and now my experience in Birmingham has more balance. Lots of great, warm people and a few cold ones. It’s a real place after all. Downside is, I have rented this flat-share for 7 days and it wasn’t cheap. It’s a decent flat and costs about the same to share as a hotel room. Not finding the host to be friendly is not reason enough to cancel for a refund either, although it could be reason enough to walk away from it. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe she just gives poor first impressions. I need to allow myself to have a change of mind.
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The Flapper is a low-end student bar that sits on the lovely Cambrian Wharf. It has nice outdoor seating areas and the view of the quiet canal where domestic barges are moored is pleasant to behold.

“Cocktails £3.50, two for £5,” listed on a chalkboard with Mojitos on offer. I love Mojitos, rum, sugar water, lemon, and lots of muddled mint. The cheapness of the drink has me assume the portion may be lacking. “Can I get a double mojito for £5 rather than two?” I’ve noticed that most people take the offer and carry two cocktails with them to drink one and then the other. “No.” “You can’t just make me a special Mojito and I’ll pay for two?” “You’re better off having both of them, mate. You’re just throwing a drink away.” “Never mind, I’ll just have one then.”

“What do you have for food?” “Pizza.” For a self-appointed “gastro-pub” that is not a lot of gastro on offer at 7PM on a Thursday. I planned to eat before coming, but since I am hungry and will be here from some time joining a group for a pub quiz, I will eat whatever they have. “Okay, I’ll have one of those, please.” “What kind?” “I don’t know, what kind do you have?” He is not pleased with this question, such an annoying customer I am, I should inherently know what they have on offer even though he doesn’t know himself. “Just a minute,” he complains with a sigh, “I’ll go check.” He returns with a list of what he probably scanned the freezer for. When it does arrive it is clear that it was some sort of brand-less frozen cardboardy food-like item for £5.

I watch in dismay as he prepares my cocktail. He puts some ice in a glass into which he dumps a pre-made UHF packet of mojito. It’s coloured a light yellow-green.

I take a sip when I return to our picnic table outside. It tastes like lemon-flavoured toothpaste. The chemical alternative for mint tastes more like spearmint. It is acidic and too sweet and gross. I wish he had explained why he was unable to make a special mojito rather than just being defensive about it, I would have had a pint.

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Cambrian Wharf is lovely to behold. Just make sure you keep walking and save yourself the trouble of visiting The Flapper, pub. There are countless pleasant pubs to visit instead.
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UK CAR RENTALS – UK CAR HIRE – UK CAR RENTALS – UK CAR HIRE
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I spent considerable amount of time researching how to best organise my rental car. I am well-aware of the insurance scams and I don’t want to be gouged when hiring a car for such a long duration.

I research the idea of buying my own insurance coverage, separate from the car. All I could find was excess insurance. (In North America we call this deductible. This insurance reduces your deductible.) Perhaps it was poorly worded, maybe the deductible covers the value of the car? If your deductible is $35,000 it would cover that? I don’t think it does, anyway this was not presented as a product that would do what I wanted it to. Additionally, not all companies accept this insurance, so check with the company.

I found an insurance website through which one can purchase insured rental cars. The cars come from 3rd parties but include this company’s insurance. Now that I have ascertained that it is not easy for me to travel through Central England without, I’m looking to rent a car for 7 weeks. I’m not a backpacker so it’s awkward to transfer from place to place by train or coach. I can’t sling my bicycle, suitcase, and carry-on onto my back and walk away. Additionally, there seem to be many day trips that are easily accessible by car. Castles, towns, villages, museums located outside of the city centres where public transport is plentiful. Trains and buses mostly go where people live and work.

The initial search using this insurance site looks promising. Cars start at less than £800 ($1200). However, most cars here are manual. I’ve not driven a manual since about age 20 when I occasionally borrowed Shanon’s car at uni, and I am not about to relearn driving on the other side, shifting with my left hand, with all the different road signs and rules and roundabouts on unfamiliar roads. When I click on the filter for automatic, the prices double. Ouch. Automatic cars do cost more but they certainly don’t cost double, so this is clearly how they maintain the ability to gouge the North American who most commonly drives with automatic transmission. I find an economy car and click through to rent it from Argus Car Hire. Reading the fine print, they need an international drivers licence. I call the number to verify. Easy to get, you just take your licence into an issuer and they issue you one, when you’re in Canada. It’s purpose is for countries like Russia and China, when people travel their licences are not readable. I didn’t need it last year when I rented a car in Dover. Regardless, this path to getting a car is over. They do require me to have an English translation of my English-language drivers licence which I don’t, I only have the original.

I continue my search and eventually choose Hertz via Hotwire. This rental is only about £900 ($1431) for a mid-size car and includes insurance. Seems like a great deal, even if I do end-up deciding I need more insurance when I get it, it couldn’t be that bad.

Yes it could.

The only location I can visit to get this deal is at the airport. I’m not sure why the Hertz location downtown cannot do the same, but that is what it says. I make my way to the airport for 10AM on a Friday morning.

“You’re insurance only covers 3rd party, Sir. If anything happens to this vehicle at all, you are fully responsible.”

“So if the car was stolen, I would have to pay the purchase price to Hertz.”

“That’s correct Sir. You can buy theft insurance for £10 ($15) per day, that comes to £490 ($750) but that only covers theft.

“Is theft very likely here?”

“Not really, Sir.”

“So how much is damage insurance then? If I had an accident, what would cover repairs?”

“That is Collision Damage Waiver, it’s a flat rate of about £20 ($30) per day sir. Actually, a bit more than that, for 49 days you would be looking at £1293.60 ($2600).

“Does that insurance also cover the theft?”

“No Sir, you would need the theft insurance separately, Sir. That’s £1783.60 for the insurance.”

OMG. How did I let this happen! I read about it, I researched it, and now I’m falling into it! I can’t believe it, I am just in shock. Rental $1400, Insurance $3500. Total, $4900. It is unbelievable. It doesn’t create such a shock when renting for one week, but renting for 7 this would be $100 per day which is beyond ridiculous.

“Could you tell me those numbers again.” I am writing down the details so I can write about it. He has noticed me taking notes already. “Writing your memoirs are you, Sir?” he says, flippantly. “No, I’m a travel writer.” “For a magazine?” “Yes, I do have a magazine, as well as a blog and I’m working on a book.” “Oh, good for you, Sir.” “Let me just see what I can do, Sir.”

I have never used this card at a hotel or a restaurant, but now I’m going to tell this story anyway so I might as well try to save some money. As it stands, I am ready to walk away without a car and lose my deposit. In fact, all I want to know at this point is how much I am going to lose by having made the reservation because I have no intention of spending that much on a car. For that much, I could probably just take taxis everywhere I go.

When you pay for Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) you are not actually buying insurance in any real sense. What you are doing is buying the car rental company’s agreement that they will not come to you to pay for damage after a certain amount of excess (deductible). So it is not any real cost to the rental company, it is paying them to assume the risk. There are 3rd party insurers for rental insurance, but CDW is not that.

“You’ll have to go to the office at the car bays, love, I’ll be a while at this,” he says to new customers who approach the Hertz desk. I don’t know what he does but it takes a long time and he finally comes back with a new answer.

“I can give you a free upgrade to an Audi A5 with Collision Damage Waiver for a total of £1873. ($3700) Seven weeks. Just more than double the cost of the car I have sitting at home seems almost reasonable, this one being a rental. I never should have leased a car in Canada. But looking back things are often 20/20.

It seems like if he had told me this figure in the beginning, I would probably have walked away then. Insurance cost the same as or equal to the rental cost when it appeared to be included in the price already? It could truly be the same technique used by unscrupulous shop keepers who start ridiculous high and come down to what would already have been high but in the process making the price suddenly seem reasonable compared to the amount they were initially trying to cheat.

I’ve also made much of an effort coming out to the Birmingham International Airport, so I have much invested in leaving with a vehicle. I would have been more likely to leave without a car had I walked to their downtown branch. I don’t know who would do better anyway, nowhere in my research was I able to uncover an honest and fair car hire company in the UK, I was only able to uncover the countless horror stories and bell whistles.

“So what is the excess with this CDW? How much would I have to pay in the event of an accident?”

“You would still have to pay the entire amount of the repair, Sir. Hertz would only pay you back if the insurance claim is later approved. Then they would pay you back everything except £900 ($1400) which is your excess amount.” So even after paying the steep waiver fees, according to him but I’m not sure he’s correct in his understanding of this procedure, they will still try to not approve the paid-for waiver. “And who does this kind of appraisal?” “Hertz does, Sir.” Well, that shouldn’t be legal. Just saying.

I decide to accept his offer, I don’t want to repeat this process again at another company and I do not have reason to believe that it would be any different. UK Car Hire agencies are known for this.

“Do you need to add a Sat Nav (GPS), Sir.”

“Nope.” I had bought one since the charge for renting theirs exceeded the cost of purchase.

In my car I realise that there is a built in Sat Nav anyway, it is present whether or not I pay the rental fee for it. I wasn’t sure if Audi UK would have these as standard. I spend a few minutes learning the buttons before setting my destination and pulling out of the parking lot, turning the wrong way onto the wrong street when the voice guiding me calls the traffic circle a square. “Turn right onto the square,” would have not turned out well, what was she thinking? She should have told me to enter the roundabout and take the 3rd exit. With telling me to turn right I instead enter the roundabout and take the first exit which leads me to a secured personnel zone. My mind didn’t jump fast enough to translate the circle into a square and go round it as if turning right from my starting position, which in fact involves a left turn after coming around.

Oh, this is going to be fun.

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Staying with Helbi has turned out to be not only emotionally voiding but also very expensive. She is pleasant, but it is painfully obvious that she wishes I were not there. I’m a sensitive guy and I am not good at ignoring that kind of thing. Also, in addition to not wanting to share her space, she often works from home. The first two evenings I eat healthy salads from the supermarket in the living room, but after my initial groceries are depleted I never do again. My room only has a bed and I’m not going to sit on my bed and eat. I was happy to bring healthy food back to my hotel room last week, but here I feel the need to avoid going home. It’s a bad feeling.

I sometimes find myself not wanting to go out, but I also don’t want to stay in feeling like I’m crowding Helbi. The unwanted house guest who paid to be there. Not ideal. I go in search of quiet places and find none. I use my ear plugs often. Days of $20 and $30 spent on food have become days of $60 and $80 when I add extra time working in coffee shops rather than being home for occasional breaks during the day. Being at her house is too awkward so I try to leave in the morning and return after dinner at night. This situation has nearly put me off trying another flat-share in the upcoming weeks. I certainly won’t for a bit, and when I do I will first verify their character a bit by emailing back and forth before just sending my rental request. She’s just not normal in her refusal to converse.

She was deceptive on her listing in saying that she works a lot and even on weekends too. That gives the impression that she is often not at home, not that she will be using the computer and talking on the phone in the one and only open-concept living area where you will feel completely in the way when she is working and also when she is on the sofa watching tv.

“I hate Birmingham,” she has told me, “except for where I live.” This in response to, “What other areas of the city do you think I should explore?”

“I don’t recycle, to be honest. I put all my trash with the recycle bins.” If you don’t recycle with all the damage we are doing to our planet, I do not want to know about it. Seriously.

“I haven’t been to New Street in 5 years.” This in response to me asking her if she had a favourite place to eat or drink downtown. A 10 minute walk to the lovely downtown, how has she managed not to go there for so long?

“I hate pubs, you know how people dress. Why can’t you go to a proper bar or restaurant? And at an Irish pub people might start singing. I hate it,” in response to her mother asking her to join something at a pub.

“I don’t meet people, ” in response to me telling her about meet-up groups.

After a week or awkward exchanges, I have to consider the possibility that she may actually have a mental disorder or two. Her disinterest in the world and in interacting makes me wonder if she might be suffering depression. Her blankness and lack of communication skills has me consider ASD. Whatever the case, she does not make an ideal host or flat mate

For this and more, Birmingham-born Helbi receives my Grumpy Brummie Award. Hands Down.

Runner-Up: Hertz Car Rentals UK. Actually UK Car Rental Agencies in general for having methods and procedures that gouge the non-UK resident, customers they must figure are unlikely to be regular anyway so they might as well try to get all they can anyway they can.

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Here are some more photos around Birmingham’s lovely Jewellery District.

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