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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Weather

We love discussing the weather in England, or maybe we are just a bit obsessed by the dullness of it. I know my wife gets tired of hearing her co-workers complain about the heat/cold, rain or lack of it, every morning.

Almost every day in London all year round can be summed up as "dry with scattered showers". Even in the middle of Summer, there hasn't been a dry 24-hour period since we returned from Eugene on 6th July.

It'd be nice to know in the morning whether or nor one needed an umbrella or sunglasses and factor 40, but frankly we have it easy. At least the weather in London is unlikely to kill you, and there are lots of buildings to shelter in.

The US is plagued by hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, monsoon-like cloudburts, droughts, threat of Tsunamis (we saw many warning signs on the Pacific coast), earthquakes, volcanoes, massive snowfalls in northern states, wildfires caused by lightning strikes, or the steamy heat and humidity in some of the southern states.

My in-laws in the Houston area have had to flee or shelter from hurricanes three times in the five years since I've know them, and my own post-wedding plans in Florida were affected by Hurricane Wilma. We saw much damage in Miami still waiting to be repaired several months after the storm, and a hotel we had planned to stay at in the Everglades cancelled our reservation because it was reduced to kindling.

Last year a Houston hotel reservation was cancelled, and only my brother-in-law's thinking to check ensured we had a room to stay in over Christmas. I moan about the rain here, but I've never had a UK Hotel cancel my booking because of the weather, and not even bother to inform me.

We also avoid the Hurricane corridor that stretches across from Texas to Florida, and the cyclones that can build up in the fields of the mid-west.


Part of the answer to the "Why Eugene" question is that the weather there is unlikely to try to kill you, or destroy your house and property. Far enough east of the West Coast not to be affected by Tsumanis, too far north to be affected by Californian earthquakes, far enough south to avoid heavy snow falls in Winter, and far enough west to be out of the "killing zone" if Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park ever decides to turn into a fully fledged volcanic eruption, as Discovery Channel drama-documentaries are keen to remind us is long overdue. If that one goes off, by the way, the ash fallout is likely to land as far away as Washington and Philadelphia if the prevailing Westerly winds are blowing at the time.

In fact we chose Eugene partly because the weather ir pretty much like London's, wtih much the same annual rainfall, except it rains more when it rains, and suns more when it suns.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Sports

As I write, the English nation are basking in a Test Cricket victory over Australia at Lords Cricket Ground, the first time they've achieved this in 75 years.

Bask....

Cricket, Rugby and Football are the three main team sports in England, and I had my fill of all three before the age of 13 through School Games. Very basic (or no) changing rooms, no showers so I went home sweaty or caked in mud, or both, and no explanation of the rules or skills, was not likely to make me a lifetime player of team sports.

Between the ages of 13 and 16 I did the minimum of sport, and no team sport. I swam, and played squash.

At University I discovered a new team sport to watch, American Football. A friend of mine was a fan of the Washington Redskins, so I took up the team they were playing against that first time, the Philadelphia Eagles. My interest developed, along with a large number of other people's across the UK at the time, because American Football was being show on national TV.

So for several years I was able to follow the sport, and even played a little touch football with friends. Alas I was a little too early, a couple of years after I left University it was being more widely played with full equipment, but at least I could follow the NFL on TV.

Unfortunately the powers that be decided that Nicky Horne was too knowledgeable a presenter for the British fans, and substituted a pair of morons who knew less about the game than I did. They soon bit the dust (I was not alone in my relief), and Mick Luckhurst was chosen to present the show for the next few years. He was a semi-Brit who'd actually played, if you can call a Kicker a player.

Then the all-powerful NFL bosses sold the TV rights to SKY, a cable and satellite channel, which meant that a penniless student and generally tight-fisted individual like me couldn't watch the games without stumping up a whopping £30 (about $45) a month. That was that, I couldn't afford it, so I lost track of the NFL around 1996, after being a dedicated fan for 9 years.

Happily I had an alternative sport to follow. During the Summer of 1989 I was on industrial placement year away from University, driving up and down the country for long hours, and I discovered Test Match Special on the radio. This is the BBC Cricket coverage, and that summer Australia were in England playing for the Ashes. This was my first real exposure to Test Cricket, and it was made more enjoyable by the wonderful commentary where sometimes Cricket seemed to be the distraction rather than the focus. If you're on a long car journey and are fed up with hearing the same eight songs played every hour throughout the day, Test Match Special is truly diverting.

Test Cricket is a funny thing. A game is scheduled to last 5 days, with six hours play each day, and breaks for lunch and tea. Also breaks for rain, streakers, finding the lost ball that Steve Waugh smashed over the pavilion, and anything else you can think of. At the end of 5 days the result can still be a draw.

This may go against the American "Winning's the Thing" attitude, but it rather suits the English, since generally our country loses at most sports, especially ones we invented. If we win, then it's because something went wrong for the other team, or the judge/referee/umpire made a bad decision/was blind/was deaf etc.

So a win in Cricket after 75 years has left the nation happy, but also slightly worried and bemused. Can we go on and win the series? What if the Umpires get new spectacles and hearing aids? How can we support the underdog when the underdog is Australian?

When I am living in America I expect to be able to continue to follow both Cricket and American Football, since cricket is played round the world (well, the Commonwealth anyway) and round the year (handy having Summer in Oz and Kiwiland when it's Winter in the UK), and the US coverage of American Football is somewhat better than the UK coverage. We currently get one game a week for the first half of the season, two for the second half, and none of the post-season until the Superbowl (except for SKY viewers).

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Packing

After filing our I-130 Visa application form, and getting quotes from a couple of builder/decorators, our timeline is starting to settle down more. The builder we choose to get our house back up to scratch for putting on the market will (hopefully) start work on the outside of the house on 17th August, and the inside on 31st August.

This means that between now and 29th August we have to reduce our worldly possessions, or at least the things going to America, to 320 Cubic Feet, the size of an 8' x 5' floor and 8' high storage unit.

Ignoring the irony of compressing our "stuff" into this space so that we can later expand into a much larger space, we're well on track to achieve this. We've decided to take very little furniture so we can decorate from scratch, the only things we're taking are a couple of bunk beds which we bought new last year for the spare rooms. We can sleep on these in our rented apartment while we search for a house. Very few UK electrical devices will work in the US, so TVs, stereos, digital radios, DVD players, bedside lamps, fridge/freezer, stove, vacuum cleaner, iron, etc. will all be replaced in the US.

The bulk of the 320 cu. ft. is actually hobby stuff - my Playmobil model collection, my wife's fibre and wool related hobbies, and musical instruments. We've also got DVDs (trusting we can get a multi-regional DVD Player) and books, clothes and some computer stuff, mostly digitalised data and portable computer games.

We had originally planned to ship the stuff to the US long before we go, but discovered this week that we have to be present in the US when it arrives (I guess for customs purposes), so we have to store in the UK, and swallow the higher storage costs. The advantage is that we can keep adding to the storage, and only have it out of reach for the time it takes to ship over, about 35 days. The transport costs door-to-door are about £2,500 ($4000), less than we originally anticipated.

The house is thus filled with piles of boxes and other items waiting for storage, and we have other piles of things to sell, things to give to charity, and things to dispose of. Every time these latter two piles reduce in size is a little celebration.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Paperwork

We've sent in our first visa application form I-130, and I'm now in the process of getting various vaccinations prior to a medical examination, date as yet undetermined. We're also arranging vacciantions for our cat who will be coming to the US with us.


This is my first experience of trying to understand information provided by the US Government, specifically the US Embassy in London, US Customs, and the State of Oregon, and I'm sure all Americans reading will understand that it appears unnecessarily complicated and frustrating.


My own vaccinations required are listed on one form, but then there's another page explaining the age ranges, so that I would seem to be covered for most things either by already having them , or by being exempt due to my current age. The need to refer back and forth is annoying.


There appear to be no restrictions on the cat, other than he is free of evidence of disease communicable to humans when examined at the port of entry.


So far so good, but for every bit of information in one place, there appears to be a contradictory piece of information elsewhere, leaving me once again confused. The fact that I'm not the only person who finds this all confusing and alarmingly disorganised is backed up by the various threads on DiveintoAmerica, an online forum for people trying to immigrate to the US.

Happliy my wife is great at gathering information, so generally I can leave her to do the research (pretending that as she enjoys this I am doing her a favour) and I just act as the pin cushion.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Houses

In my experience, once you get outside the crowded older east coast cities (e.g. New York, Boston, Philadelphia), the average American home is significantly larger than the average British home.


Our London home is a mid-terrace Victorian three bedroom house. Mid-terrace means the two sides of our house share a party wall with a neighbour; good for heat efficiency, but not so good for noise and general privacy. Victorian means it was built during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, but we know it was almost certainly built before 1860. The house is less than 1,000 square feet, and the front door lets directly onto the street, with no off-road parking. Why should there be? There were no cars in 1860!

The house has tons of character and I've loved living here for the past 15 years, but it's starting to feel a tad cramped, and that's before we factor potential children into the equation. We've occupied the two "spare" bedrooms with our hobbies, and the living/dining room can serve only once function at a time, though it does run the length of the house.


In Eugene we'll be able to afford a house at least double the size in square feet, not counting a double garage. That's like knocking a doorway through to the house next door, having their whole house to add to ours, and then borrowing the front rooms of the next two houses along to park our cars in. We'll have a bigger garden too, our current paved yard being just large enough to swing a cat.


It's all a matter of space.

Cars

You can't live most places in the USA without a car. Maybe if you're living in New York or Boston, or a city with a good public transport system, but generally, it's not done. The system is designed around cars and car ownership. I'll go into the pros and cons of US cars another day, but the system works well, and very few people try to live without a car.

In London a car is a luxury for many people, my wife and I included. We could have one, but it'd be expensive and usually unnecessary. Travelling to work, to the shops, or to events within Greater London is cheaper, quicker and easier using buses and the tube network (the underground). That's not to say it's actually cheap, or quick. A journey into Central London from my house in West Ealing, say to Oxford Street (the main shopping street) and back currently costs £5.80, nearly $10, for a return journey using my Oyster Card. Don't take my word for it, you can check here; http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets/faresandtickets/2930.aspx

It also requires setting aside an hour or more for the journey, though it's only seven miles. I would catch a bus to Ealing Broadway Station (10 minutes) , then a Central Line tube to Oxford Circus (29 minutes). That's quite a straightforward journey, assuming no waiting time, but I'd need to allow about 5 minutes to get to the bus stop, 5 minutes waiting for a bus, another 5 to walk from the bus stop to the tube station platform, and another 5 waiting for a tube train. So an hour overall, assuming no holdups. My wife's daily commute to work usually takes 1 1/2 hours each way.

If it takes an hour and $10 to go seven miles by public transport, why not drive?

First there's the basic cost of UK car ownership - purchase, road tax, insurance, MOT (an annual health check on your car), repairs and fuel. Then there's the Congestion Charge, a fee levied by the city for driving into the central area, to discourage drivers (it works). It's currently £8 a day. Then there's the cost of parking. Yes, you have to pay something to park pretty much anywhere in London. As I don't have offroad parking where I live, I would have to pay an annual fee (£25 where I live) to the local borough council to leave a car standing outside my house during certain hours of the day.

So travelling around London costs, in terms of time and money. Assuming no signal failures on the tube, traffic jams, strikes or other holdups.

Now consider travelling around Eugene. We had a hire car and travelled the city North-South and East-West many times over three weeks. Only once was there a traffic problem, which we were able to skirt round. Every other journey took less than 20 minutes to get from start to finish, regardless of our destination. We had offroad parking at our Motel, and would if we had a house or rented apartment. There was always ample parking available at our destination. Parking was always free. Gas is cheap (yes it is, dear American readers, even if you're paying $4 a gallon).

So, all things considered, we expect to travel pretty much everywhere by car when we're living in Eugene, unless we can walk or cycle, and it'll be cheaper, quicker, and easier than travelling round London. Out of a 16 hour waking day, we will be saving maybe 2 hours of travelling time every day.

That is just one lifestyle change we are looking forward to.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Restrooms

Something I've loved about the US since my first visit five years ago is the proliferation of Restrooms, or as we English say, Toilets.

ALL big stores, whether department stores or food stores, have Restrooms. Shopping Malls have them, generally near the Food Court. Rest stops on major roads frequently have them. They are kept clean, and well stocked. There are almost always drinking water fountains nearby.

In London, if you are caught short away from home, your options are often limited to pubs or the occasional public toilet. Neither are usually kept very sanitary, and there is often a charge for a public toilet, especially in a major railway station. If you use a pub toilet it is polite to buy a drink or something at the bar, regardless of whether the cubicle had a lock or any toilet paper. Some department stores have restrooms, but they can be difficult to locate even when you follow the signs, and they are not always found on every floor. Restaurants and cafes (e.g. Starbucks) should always have them, but there may only be one shared cubicle for all customers, so again you are supposed to buy something.

The Victorians, bless their memory, installed public toilets and drinking fountains across the city but they are frequently neglected, vandalised, or locked. How does the average Londoner cope? Planning ahead. How do tourists cope? Usually bafflement followed by panic.

Eugene?

The question I have been most asked so far, by both British and American friends, is not why we are moving to America, but why we selected Eugene as the place to move to.

Eugene is a city with a population of about 154,000, second largest in Oregon after Portland. That makes it a tad smaller than London which has an estimated population of 7,700,000 in the 32 boroughs, or 12,000,000 for the Larger Urban Zone centred around London. The population of Ealing, the borough in which I have lived for most of my 42 years, was 305,300 two years ago. Eugene is thus much smaller and less crowded than London, while still being a large enough city to offer all modern conveniences.

It has a University, The University of Oregon. My wife's employment history is mainly in University Administration, so this provides a potential source of employment for her. My employment has been mostly in Credit Control and Finance, but I'd like to do something more physical and not be stuck behind a computer for eight hours a day.

The population are generally liberal and democratic, with a sizeable "hippie" element. We would like to be as environmentally neutral or beneficial as possible, and that is clearly a focus in Eugene.

Eugene is about an hour's drive inland from the west coast and the Pacific Ocean, and another hour east will get you up into the Cascade Mountains which run north-south through Oregon, splitting it into the more populous west 1/3 and a less populous east 2/3. The Willamette River runs through it, with the McKenzie River splitting off east towards the north end of the city. Eugene has a good network of cycle paths. All this allows surfing, skiing (in season), rock climbing, white-water rafting, canoeing, cycling and many other outdoor activities to be enjoyed with ease. Such activities are hard to pursue in London .

Eugene is reasonably safe from volcanos, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, avalanches, forest fires, and other natural or man-made phenomena which can make life in the US hazardous. After visiting Texas and Florida after recent hurricanes this was important to us. We should also avoid the problems of deep snow in the Winter, and stifling humidity in the Summer. The climate is temperate, not dissimilar to London's, but with the average rainfall focussed more in the winter, with warmer dryer summers.

An Englishman in Eugene

I'm an Englishman, married for three and a half years to a wonderful American, and within the next year we plan to move to from London to Eugene in Oregon to live, work, and raise a family. Our reasons for moving I will go into later, but for now let's say I've lived in London, capital city of the United Kingdom, for most of my life, and I fancy a change.

In this blog I plan to celebrate (or sometimes bemoan) those aspects of American life that strike me as worthy of comment. I'm hoping to complete at least one entry a week, somewhat like Bill Bryson's Sunday Times newspaper column that was re-published as "Notes from a Big Country". I will also be commenting on the move process, and maybe about aspects of British life that I come to miss.

I hope you will find my blog amusing and possibly informative.

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