Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Taxes Expatria

The United States taxes based on citizenship. While this may sound like a perfectly normal thing, it isn't. Most countries tax based on residency. For instance, if you are British and move to Hong Kong for 3 years, the money you make in Hong Kong is not taxed by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. If you "remit" the money to the UK, to pay for a house or rent or a car--that money is taxed as income. Barring that, money a British subject makes outside the UK while living outside the UK is not taxed by the UK. This is the case in most countries, save North Korea, the Philippines, and the United States.

If you are a US citizen living abroad with no financial connection to the US, no travel to the US, no family or assets in the US, you must pay US taxes as well as taxes to the country where you live, of course. Usually there are dual taxation treaties so that you only pay the amount of the greater tax burden, almost always the non-US tax burden, but the treaty divides the tax between the governments.

On the off chance that some American is reading this before heading to the UN, that treaty is quite complicated. Typically the UN "borrows" citizens from other countries and pays a stipend to their home governments in lieu of the citizen paying taxes. That doesn't happen for Americans so the UN pays your income taxes to the US government for your UN income. It pays the taxes assuming the UN income is the first income, i.e. subject to the lowest tax bracket, and claims all deductions for that first income.

For Americans living abroad, I highly recommend hiring a tax accountant who specializes in issues of dual taxation to do your taxes. The complications are many and varied. For instance, US taxes are paid in US dollars and UK taxes in GBP. Assuming the simplest income, income in all GBP or USD, when do you calculate the exchange rate? Do you do all the math in one currency and then convert on the day you pay the taxes? Or do you have to do the conversions for every payday or every time you remit income to the UK? What about charitable contributions? Since they are partially tax advantaged in the UK, can you still write them off on your US taxes? Does any of this sound easy? Throw in minor differences like the different tax years--the UK year runs from April 6 to April 5 and taxes are due the next November or January (it changed not long ago), while the US year runs with the calendar year and taxes are due on April 15--and I'm betting you already have a headache. Dual taxation is not fun.

Here is a somewhat naive editorial on taxation by citizenship. Read it and at least the comment by American Expat.

By the way, in case anyone has ever heard or wondered about US citizens renouncing their citizenship, it is usually to avoid taxes. At a PTA coffee morning a few weeks ago, I joined a agitated discussion with two moms, each with an American spouse, about American citizenship. One wanted citizenship for her children, but her husband didn't because of the tax consequences. The other's spouse was considering renouncing his citizenship due to tax issues. Neither had any family in the US or plans to move there.

For some final tidbits of interest, even when you renounce your citizenship, the IRS assumes that you are doing so for tax avoidance and considers you liable for up to 10 years. As a practical matter, this isn't a big deal as the IRS would have no jurisdiction over you unless you came to the US or had assets in the US (the IRS could seize those to satisfy back taxes). Individual states also tax based on citizenship and have their own rules that add to the fun. If you are from Massachusetts, for example, and you move abroad and change your state citizenship to another state, usually Texas or Florida, and therefore don't pay state taxes to Massachusetts while abroad, but then move back to Massachusetts when you return to the US, then Massachusetts figures you were avoiding taxes. Massachusetts can charge you with back taxes and penalties for your entire time abroad. That state hasn't earned the nickname "Taxachusetts" for nothing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Hunt for Queso Fresco: Borough Market

Last Thursday, Suzanne Powers and I headed out to Borough Market for Mexican food fixin's.   I was curious why, when I mentioned I was going to Borough Market to look for some Mexican produce, Suzanne, my foodie friend, suggested that we just go to Sainsbury's.   She couldn't figure out why I wanted to go so far.   I thought she was just of over BM.   Turns out though that after 14 years in London she had never been to BM.  I was so proud to introduce someone to something.  Usually it is the other way 'round.

BM was a big hit.  We may turn a trip into a regular thing--though the Italian deli guys that I like aren't open on Thursdays, so it might have to be Friday morning.  That makes it tight for picking up the kids for half day Friday though.  I'll have to sort that out.  

Since Suzanne has a car, we drove.  I have to say, I am not too big on driving in London.  By the time we got there after getting caught in a little bit of obligatory traffic, finding some parking, and then paying for that parking--it didn't double the time to go out to Borough Market but probably came close.   Next time I'll probably take the Tube there and, once laden with groceries, take a taxi back.

We did have an interesting discussion about taxi drivers on the way.  If you aren't familiar with London taxi drivers, they are the best.   They have the map of London in their head.  In order to get a license they have to take an onerous test.   If they don't have another job and can devote all their time to biking around London to study, then it takes about three years before they are ready for the test.   Any taxi driver worth his salt can take you directly to some address without consulting any key map or nav system.  (Some have a nav system for traffic patterns.)

Anyway, the way the Thames cuts thru London, very bend-y, it's hard, especially for someone like me who was not born with a good internal compass, to tell when you are north of the river or south of the river.  So when you live in say Chelsea and you need to go out to Canary Wharf, as a lot of business people do, there's a straight shot right down Embankment as they are both on the same side, but that route is technically longer and about £40 each way.   (Hence, the need for a car for those whose lives aren't within two miles of their house.)   The taxi drivers, even though they know the shorter way by crossing over the river and winding through tiny streets in London, they take Embankment.  One told Suzanne that people who are not familiar with London often accuse the taxi drivers of running up the meter because the southside route involves a lot of sidestreets and odd turns.*  So the taxi drivers use Embankment.

The Mexican place at Borough Market is the Cool Chile Company.  They have dried chiles and powders along with a decent assortment of Mexican spices.  They only occasionally have fresh chiles or produce. I was looking for tomatillos, which look like a cross between a gooseberry and a green tomato, with a lime-y taste.  They have canned tomatillos and a salsa.  Since I was making verde enchiladas, I opted for the salsa.  If I couldn't do fresh then I might as well save myself making the sauce base.  They have a couple of red salsas and a red enchilada sauce, though.  Most importantly, the Cool Chile Company has fresh corn tortillas and their own corn chips.  They are the thicker kind (thin or thick corn chips is a personal preference, and in Texas the stores are full of options--thick, thin, salted, lightly salted, blue corn...).  I prefer thin but these are far better than Doritos, which is the only other option around here.  (Sarah and any other Texpatriates reading: bring your favorite salsas, chili powders, rotel, canned chiles, and black beans.  Those are hard to come by, and expensive when you do.  Cool Chile delivers, though.  You might want to make your own flour tortillas too.  Old El Paso is all I've seen.)

In addition to the Mexican shopping, we got aged meat, which Suzanne was happy to find for another foodie friend.  We got dumplings for the kids for dinner, and some olive oil with crunchy garlic.  (I might eat that while Yasha is out of town.)  We got some yummy brownies (BM is like Central Market where you could eat a small meal in samples) and some delicious shortbread heart cookies for dessert.  I don't like shortbread but ate one of those; it seems that the trick is to undercook them so they are moist.  We bought all that before we hit the produce vendor where we needed 30+ limes.  I had to get avocados too as the "Perfectly Ripe" avocados I had gotten in my Ocado delivery were about 3 days from ripe.  (More on that in my grocery post, later.)

Did I mention that the day was completely nasty?  The clouds spat drizzle all day long.  The trip back to the car was a bit wet.   Nevertheless, we had a fun trip and got almost everything we needed.  Later I took my son and the remaining supplies over to Suzanne's.  Our sons are nursery school friends.  We fed them the dumplings, and they played while we chopped.  I took Christopher Robin home later, so I could dress and collect the margarita mix Yasha whipped up for us. (That's where the bulk of the limes went.)

I went back to Suzanne's, and we, about 6 of us, cooked and drank.  Despite imprecise ingredients, the dinner came together well.  We discussed the difference between Mexican and TexMex.  I was cooking TexMex.  I mixed the green salsa with sour cream, which you can get at Waitrose, to make a decent verde sauce.  I should have purred it as the salsa is quite chunky, but the flavor was decent.  I never found queso fresco, but Waitrose now carries Monterrey Jack, so I mixed that with cheddar.  That worked fine.  We did the 'ritas on the rocks and had to stir, not shake.  It just isn't the same.  I hadn't done refried beans in a while and forgot that you need more than you think.  They tasted fine though.

Everyone ate everything so I think it went well.  I was just happy to do it.  When you cook for young children, even a variety of things, you tend to do a main and some veg.  If it takes more than 30 minutes pantry to table, with little helpers, or if it requires more than 2 pots, it just isn't worth doing daily.  Yasha cooks fancy with the kids on the weekend, but day to day it is just too much work, compounded by the fact that whatever takes you 15 minutes to do yourself, takes at least 25 minutes with little helpers.  As the Things have approached 3, though, home-life has gotten easier.  Only a day or so before Suzanne Powers suggested enchilada night, I had pulled out a cookbook with a mind to start complicated cooking again.  Only few days before that Paola and I were talking at a birthday party, and she asked for fresh ideas because she wanted to really cook again.  'Course I'm typing this post while Vilvy is cooking sausages and frozen veg.  Slowly, I'll start cooking again.

*I hear that it is incredibly lame to repeat taxi driver tales if you are a New Yorker, but I am not, nor have I ever been, nor do I wish to be, a New Yorker.  I love taxi driver tales.

UPDATE: Original typos fixed.  I'm trying to do more dictation while I am walking around town.  When I'm walking the words flow, and then I sit down and nothing comes.   I'd take notes, Yasha even helpfully picked up a few moleskins that I could keep with me, but my moleskins and pencils never stay where I put them, nor do my keys, or my shoes, or my phone...   I'm learning the dictation software, and the resulting text has different editing issues than I'm used to.  Also, Suzanne Powers wants to turn the themed dinner into a regular thing.  She's up next with French cooking.  She is American but her husband is French.  She has picked up some fabulous French cooking skills.  I've requested hollandaise lessons.  So sometime in March, Suzanne will do fish with some delightful green sauce and asparagus with hollandaise.  I've volunteered Vilvy to teach fresh pasta in April.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Hunt for Queso Fresco: Harrod's

A commenter recommended that I try Harrod's when looking for Mexican food.  I don't often think of Harrod's.  First of all, as an American, I'm not used to thinking of food halls in department stores.  Shopping malls have restaurants and prepared food stalls, but not grocery stores.  For my American friends, most of the department stores have actual grocery stores. Harrod's, Harvey Nichols, and Fortnum and Mason have the more famous, fancy ones.

So I often forget about Harrod's even though I live very close and one of my school pickups is almost a stone's throw from the "Jolly Green Giant," Harrod's is a large, beautiful department store with dark green awnings over the doors and most shop windows.  In five years though, I've been maybe a dozen times, and then for the 50's diner with good hamburgers.  I also get Krispy Kremes for school birthday celebrations there, though I don't technically go inside.  KK has a walk in stall on the outside.

This morning's trip reminded me why I don't often go to Harrod's even when I do think of it, besides the fact that I am not a fashionista or even a big shopper.  I don't like going there.

I finished with Cupcake's swimming award presentation (Go Cupcake!), which was nearby, about 9:40.  The Scottish Church is maybe a 2 minute walk from Harrod's.  When I got there, no one was around.  Usually there is a line to get into shops when they open since moms and nannies finish school runs by 9:15 or so, earlier for primary school children.  Peter Jones, for instance, opens at 9:30, so there are people waiting to get in, often with cups of coffee.  Anyway, no one was waiting at Harrod's which means they were either already open, or the posh shopper set starts later.  So I checked the opening hours on the door to the food hall.  Opens at 9, it read.  It was 9:45.  I went in.

The first section of the food hall is the bakery, sweets, and tourist items section.  I looked around for cheese and produce.  They were in the next section, though the doors labeled "Fire Doors;" I thought it strange that they were closed, but I find lots of British health and safety recommendations strange.  About that time a Harrod's guy came through with new baked goods, and I let him pass and went on into the rest of the food hall.

I checked out the produce, which is presented well.  Harrod's has a pretty grocery store.  No Mexican peppers of any sort, though.  I headed over to the cheese, searching for a fine feta.  I need queso fresco, and most feta is too salty and crumbly to be a good sub.  I thought I might find a creamier feta though.  No luck.   I tried the dairy section too, thinking I might at least find Monterrey Jack.  (I found shredded at Waitrose, but wanted a block.)  I walked around the rest of the store checking some of the prepared stuff to see if anything might work.  I was a tad annoyed that of the many workers bustling around, no one had offered to help me, or made any acknowledgement of me at all so I could ask.  About then a lady behind the counter called to me.  She called me over, and I assumed she was going to ask if she could help.  Here is the conversation, not rude, but slightly clipped.

She: "Do you work here?"
Me:  "No."
She:  "Are you a customer?"
Me:  "Yes."
She:  "You aren't supposed to be in here yet.  We are not open."
Me:  "Oh.  I'm sorry.  I checked the door.  It said 9."
She:  "That's just the first section.  We don't open until 10.  Can't you see that we are still stocking and preparing?"
Me:  "Thank you.  I'll go."

Everyone was ignoring me because they were still stocking.  I didn't think much of it though.  Best I can tell, shops don't do inventory or cleaning or window displays after hours.  (Actually, The Gap has their people come in early to do the window displays sometimes.)  All that stuff is often done during shopping hours.  For inventory or seasonal changeout, it isn't strange to have a smaller shop close for a day or two for those things.  What got me though, was that the whole tone of the thing was that it was my fault, that I was encroaching.  Once I got home, I realized that when she did her little 'we're not open bit' it must have been less than 5 minutes to 10.  I'd walked in at 9:45 and managed to look round carefully in the whole place before she questioned me.

This is the kind of thing that Americans simply don't get.  Stores, especially high end ones, don't take the attitude that something is the customer's fault, unless they don't like being in business.  Nothing drastic.  People just won't shop there if they are treated like it is a privilege to shop there.  Think of the Big Mistake bit from Pretty Woman.  I've got a culture comparison to make with that first scene too, but later. Almost time to pick up the Things at nursery.

As for Mexican food, I'll head to Borough Market tomorrow.  AT, the Taqueria guys run the Mexican spice shop at the market.  Sadly they are out of pablanos and tomatillos until next season.  I can get the salsa though and use that.  And decent corn tortillas.  I'm sure I will find a cheese I can use.  A soft asiago if nothing else.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Courtship of Princess Leia

Today, a friend from college who is also an exotic erotica writer (think werewolves, not exotic lands), sent me this book review of The Courtship of Princess Leia.  It is one of the early books from the extended universe (either you know what I mean by that or don't.  If you don't, don't worry.)  It is so terrible that it put me off all of the rest of the extended universe books for years.

Anyway, she sent the review with the note, "There is significant overlap among women who read romance and science fiction." No kidding!  It's geek heaven over there; they make Splinter of the Mind's Eye references.

Here's the excerpt I want to discuss, as the smartbitches website is tagged for content:*
Initially, it looks like this story will deal with the question of how much one can put one’s own personal happiness ahead of the well-being of others.  A character explains the benefit of the marriage to Isolder in this way, “With the wealth of Hapes to help fund the war, Leia could overthrow the last remnants of the Empire quickly, saving billions of lives in the process”.  Hear that, people?  Not dozens, not millions, but billions of lives.  What difference does it make whether Isolder is cute or repulsive?  What difference does it make whether Han is the love of Leia’s life?  Why are they fighting for her affections?  This is a royal, political marriage, like many others, and normally affections would be beside the point.  If the author is going to set such high stakes, those stakes should be seriously debated.  That would make a compelling story about two kids who fell in love in wartime, and now have to make things work as adults with major challenges in their lives.
This is an excellent point about a political marriage. The book's disconnect with reality (yes, I see the irony), this use of what would be real conflicts as mere plot devices is a problem in most of the EU books, and modern storytelling in general.  They use events and facts as catalysts for starting a story without considering the rules they set for the story.

The political marriage issue is not the only disconnect in TCPL.  What always bothered me about this book was that it was set 4 years after the fall of the Empire.  Han is the rogue with a heart of gold who starts his walk to redemption when he decides to go rescue Luke over the first Death Star.  Leia is the duty bound princess who was forced to watch her entire planet destroyed, whose only grip to sanity is the unwavering determination to destroy the Empire that did it.  After all the loss, all the horrors of war, all the loneliness they've been through, they waited 4 years before getting married?  Really?  I thought these issues drove Han and Leia's relationship in the original trilogy.  Both of them had reason to isolate their hearts from loss, Leia by embracing everybody as a whole and Han by shunning every individual.  But they couldn't keep out each other.  That is what was so inspiring to Han and Leia shippers, that even though the didn't want love, they couldn't resist it. (Compare, Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince.  Molly Weasley complains about Bill's quick marriage to Fleur, saying something along the lines of they are just getting married because everything is so uncertain in the world with Voldemort's return to power.  She says that during the First Wizzarding War people were getting married all over the place, too, grabbing what little bit of happiness they could. That makes sense.)

 If CoPL had plied these waters, perhaps with a twist that Leia saw a marriage to Isolder as safer for her heart since she didn't love him, well now we've got a good foundation for romantic tension.  (Tantootine Ghost, a much better EU book, hit this theme though in reference to Leia not wanting to have Anakin Skywalker's grandchildren.) You could tie it in with Luke's increasing solitude and explore how the Skywalkers are coming to terms, or not, with who they are.  I see lots of potential.

But as the smartbitches noted, Leia just blew off her, now extensive, history with Han and considered the proposal without much discussion of why, not even explaining the overwhelming good this political marriage could bring.  It was all plot device.  The writers needed something for romantic tension since they set the story 5 years after Han and Leia actually fell for each other, so they unceremoniously threw in another suitor who's attractive and rich.

I think the writer did this because he was trying to connect Leia and Han to the modern romance, so that women would get it.  Of course Han and Leia would date for years on end.  Wouldn't the modern woman freak out if they got married right after the Battle of Endor?  (That was in the early drafts of Return of the Jedi.)  The stories in the Timothy Zahn novels get better but still make this mistake.  One of the threads in those works has Leia worrying about being a working mother and about Uncle Luke not helping out with the kids.  Zhan and his editors assume that for modern women to relate to Leia, they need her to be like them.

This is insulting pandering, but sadly excusable given the debates among many modern women.   (For example, modern women often equate their struggles as comparable to the struggles of the poor.)  So of course when faced with a crumbling Republic, war breaking out, an increasingly isolated Jedi who is too scared to train anyone, baddies attempting to kidnap your children for their Force abilities...and Leia is worried about Luke helping with the kids more?  It makes no sense.

In case you are wondering, the best extended universe book is Death Star.   When I started to come out of the early motherhood fog, it was Death Star that I first read.  The place Star Wars holds in my life...shame about the prequels.  (See link in third 'graph.)

I'd like to say that I'm a recovering geek, and that this will be the last post like this, but who am I kidding?  I've got a long draft in the works the lack of character consistency/believability in screenplays like the prequels, the Twilight movies, and sadly Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix.

*This post probably won't help with my little surprise audience issue, either. Not the readers I was expecting, but hey...