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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Pik-Nik Original Shoestring Potatoes

One of the processes Beth had to to through, and I am now going through in acclimatising to a new country and new foods, is trying to find things which approximate something you like. This is a process filled with potential disaster.

Sometimes it's just labelling - Orville Redenbacker's Salt & Sweet popcorn in the UK called Kettlecorn here. Sometimes the same product just tastes different due to the formulation. Sometimes a different product is labelled the same - Milky Way in the US is a Mars Bar in the UK.

In trying out various chips (crisps), I recently came across a tube of Pik-Nik Original Shoestring Potatoes. On the back of the pack it says "For over sixty years, Pik-Nik has been making the highest quality, best tasting shoestring potatoes in the world". Well, to save you the disappointment I suffered, I'll tell you now this not true.

They're actually very greasy, and when you open the tube you get a waft of stale chip-fat that turns the stomach. Chomp a couple of mouthfulls, and that taste will be in your mouth on and off for hours. You need an oral antimacassar. Basic Tesco and Sainsbury's equivalents are much nicer.

I'm now on a quest to discover a brand of shoestring potatoes, or potato sticks, that is not saturated in stale grease, so if you know of one do please add a comment or email me.

Measures 66 & 67

Oregon, like most US States, has a budget deficit due to the economic climate, and needed to address it. We've recently had the vote omn the two measures designed to bring in the $472 needed to pay for schools, hospitals and public safety. I don't get a vote, but Beth did as she is now registered to vote in the state of Oregon (previously she was registered to vote in Washington).

Measure 66 deals with personal income, and the proposal was to increase taxes on people earning over $125,000 pa, or $250,000 as a couple, by 1.8% up to $500,000 (per couple), and $2 above that. The increase halves in 2012.

If you're earning $125,000 you're already in the top 2% of wage earners in the country, if you're earning less this measure won't affect you, unless you're unemployed and on benefits in which case your taxes are reduced. I'm prepared to bet that Oregon does not have their full share of 2%, because most of these high-earners will be on Wall Street or in Hollywood, but let's pretend they do, so that's about 75,800 people.

The extra tax burden, if you earn $250,000 a year as an individual, would be $5,000. That's about the same as our property Taxes will be on a 2,500 sq ft house.

You'd figure there's be 2% voting against this measure purely on financial grounds, and 98% voting for? It actually passed by 54% to 46%. Assuming the super-rich voted against the measure, that leaves 44% of voters who voted against the measure even though it would benefit their services and not hurt them financially. Hmmm.

Measure 67 raised the base rate of business tax from $10 a year to $150 a year. The $10 rate has been the same since 1931. Depending on how you measure the real value of money, $10 in 1931 is worth between $118 and $1400 now, so this tax measure is only bringing the base tax up to scale. It also passed by 54% yes to 46% no votes.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Eugene Library

Since the first week we arrived in Eugene we've been visiting the library. Beth is a voracious reader, and can complete a book in less than a day if undisturbed. I'm a slower reader, but enjoy DVDs and CD audio books.

In Ealing there was a small charge for reserving a book if it wasn't on the shelves, about 75p and there was a charge for borrowing tapes, CDs and DVDs, usually 1.50 GBP.

In Eugene, no charge.

Of course the library is funded via city taxes, so we are paying for it really and it's sensible to use that resource, but with no incremental charges we're been borrowing like crazy. There are three library branches round the city, the Downtown Library being the biggest but with limited parking, so we use the Bethel Library, nearer to us and with ample free parking, as our home branch.

Our usual method is to reserve items online, then we receive an email confirming when they are available for pick up at our chosen branch, and we pop along and pick them off the holding shelves. No shelf-searching necessary, though that is fun too,

The Library's online system has a calculator to estimate how much we have saved by borrowing rather than buying. With a standard paperback novel costing at least $8-12, DVDs anything from $3 to $10 for an older title, and CD audio books around $30, we estimate we've saved maybe $1,500 in seven weeks. With limited space, and a desire to keep our apartment and eventually our home more clutter-free, we'll only be buying books we intend to read or refer to multiple times from now on.

There's also the beneft of trying something we might like without the financial outlay, so I'm borrowing CDs sets on various US Presidents to learn some US history, and I've been reading up on the history of Eugene itself in the Downtown reference section.

The staff are courteous and helpful (tip to Ealing Library staff, try this sometime), the checking out systems actually work, and from the busyness everytime we go, the Library services are widely used. It makes a very pleasant change.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Orientation, Shipping, Solicitors

My job orientation which I was expecting to do today is now scheduled for next Tuesday. Apparently they had a lot of new appointees so they split the induction over two weeks. I don't mind, it gives me a little more free time to do things, and the money isn't important so much as actually having a job, but it would have been nice if they had called me with the news instead of me having to call them to find out.

Our container shipping is due to arrive today at Long Beach in Southern California, just south of Los Angeles. Customs will inspect and X-ray it, then our shipping company will inform us of the customs charges (we're anticipating minimum $130 for the X-rays) which we pay to the shipping company via cashier's check. Once they have our payment they'll load our five pallets onto a big truck, and I anticipate a 2 day drive to get them to our front door. Hopefully then we'll have everything by the end of next week at the latest.

That's a little longer than we initially expected, but there's not much we can do with the contents while we're in our apartment anyway, so it's no big deal. Beth has some clothes packed in there that she wants, but the majority of the boxes and bags will just be stacked around the walls unopened. Our home insurance will be altered to allow for the extra contents value.

Over the weekend we contacted several Solicitors in London via email, to choose one arrange the legal paperwork for our house sale. We're not terribly impressed with our agents Foxtons regarding this, as it would have been easier to start while we were still in London, and no mention of this requirement was made until this weekend. Foxtons did a good job on marketing the house and getting viewings, but they haven't been great on communication and explanation. However we have now engaged a Solicitor, and are awaiting the paperwork.

Our new kitten Ghost continues to grow in confidence, spending longer periods in the apartment playing or exploring, but still likes to go outside frequently, sitting on the doormat and watching the world go by.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Spencer Butte

Yesterday was beautiful, dry warm and sunny, more like June than January. We'd been thinking of a car tour as an outing if it was cold or wet, but it was too nice a day to sit in the car, so we did a bit of internet research, and came up with the idea of climbing Spencer Butte.

A butte (pronounced beaut as in beautiful) is a hill or small mountain. I'd climbed Skinner Butte last Summer, one day during our 3 week visit when it was too hot for Beth to leave the air-conditioned motel room, and it wasn't so big, though in the heat it was enough. Skinner Butte is 682 feet, but Spencer Butte, a few miles south of the city, is 2,062 feet.

We drove off guided by our GPS system, but we're coming to the conclusion that it sometimes likes to take the scenic route. The straightforward route to Spencer Butte from our apartment is along Roosevelt Boulevard to Highway 99, along that to Willamette Street, and straight South along Willamette Street to the public car park at the base of the Butte. Our GPS sent us off through a tour of the South Hills, an area we wrote off as a possible home neighbourhood because of the rollercoaster roads that make us both queasy. As a consequence of trusting technology over our own instincts, we arrived at the car park a little nauseous.

However now we were in the clean fresh air, and with the car park already half full it was clear we would not be alone on the Butte. We set off along the clearly marked trail, about a mile to the summit, the second half being more of a climb with some scrambling over rocks. We met a few people going in both directions, some with kids, some with dogs. The climb is mostly shrouded by trees until you get near the summit, so it's peaceful and sheltered. As we neared the top, after a few pauses for breath, the views opened out, and we were presented with a 360 degree vista.

That isn't actually 360, but you get the idea.

There were 20 or 30 people resting at the top, taking in the scene, and what a scene. This is the highest peak near Eugene, giving a wonderful view over the city, and the wide open acres with very little in the way of human interference all round. We sat on the rocky outcrops and soaked it up, then took a few pictures to celebrate our first visit.

Friday, 22 January 2010

House news, interviews, job, music

It's been a busy week.

We woke Monday morning to the news that we had an offer on our London house. It's only been on the market ten weeks, and that includes the deadest time of the year over the Winter Holiday period, but it felt like an eternity to us, so we were very happy to accept the offer.

That enabled us to contact our broker in Eugene regarding the house we have seen and like very much. We had approached the owners with a potential contract to lock us in for four months, i.e if our house got an offer in the next four months we would buy their house, with a small amount on deposit to shown our goodwill.

Understandably that was too risky for the owners, who already had another offer on the table, but with different strings attached. Our call (via our broker) came through just in time, the husband was about to accept their other offer and was literally standing outside their lawyer's office with his hand on the doorhandle.

Maybe that bit of synchronicity triggered some extra luck for us, because the next morning I got a call for a job interview from one of the local retailers. With an hour to shave and dress smartly, I went through two interviews, then a drug test, and was offered a job starting next week with a day's orientation. Our lovely broker and another local friend acted as my references, and they both talked me up a storm which undoubtedly helped my case.

For now the job is only as a part-time Sales Associate, but it's my first experience of work in the US, it's some dollars coming in, and it doesn't require me to sit on my rear for eight hours a day destroying my eyesight at a computer screen and knackering my hearing talking on the phone. It should also give me experience dealing with the Great American Public.

On Wednesday Beth got called for an interview with the University of Oregon. The interview was scheduled for Thursday afternoon, so we had some time to upgrade her interview outfit, and get some work clothes for me.

Thursday was a beautiful sunny day. Beth got ready for her interview and I planned to take a bike ride while she was gone. Off went Beth in the car, and I lay down for a little rest before setting off. By the time I woke she was back, so no bike ride happened. It was still a nice day though, so we had a walk round the apartment complex instead. In the evening we went to a music session at a friend's house, this time a beautiful house designed by the owner and built by her son, right near the Willamette River. Neither of us had had much time for music practise, so I fumbled my way through a couple of jigs when it was my turn to lead, and mostly we passed and just played along with what we could.

Just as we were leaving one of my fellow fiddlers, known as Chico, handed me a business card and asked if he could pick my brains sometime about Morris Dancing. I'd been meaning to get in touch with the Eugene Folkdance Society as I'd heard that they tried to start a Morris side last year but it got shelved. Now here was someone seeking me out for my Morris Expertise! Well, four years playing and dancing doesn't really make me an expert, but it does make me the most experienced Morris Dancer in Eugene.

Finally Friday rolled around, and we went with our Broker to see the house that we are making an offer on, and talk again with the family. We had another viewing, measured a few rooms, determined a few paint colors, and went through the necessary paperwork. We now have a schedule, our own house sale should close on 19th February, we close this end on 15th March and they rent the house back from us for a month while they finish moving out. We move in on 15th April.

While all this has been going on we've also been integrating a stray kitten into our lives. There are several cats we've seen wandering around the complex, but this little creature has been returning to our door every night for about ten days. Returning because we feed her, of course, but we're feeding her because she seems to be abandoned. The mother cat has been around a couple of times and rounded her up, but she keeps coming back. In another week or so we'll be taking her to Lane County Animal Services for registration, shots, and neutering, and after a couple more weeks we can formally adopt her. On Monday she would let us touch her if her mother was next to her, by Thursday she was playing with a toy and coming inside to visit, though she still runs to the door and meows if we close it.

Elbie, the cat we brought from London, is generally accepting of her, either ignoring her or staring at her, but never mean to her. We say her, it's just a guess at present. We called her Clockwork Ghost from the way she flitted about beneath cars and in the shadows, Ghost for short.

New job, new house, new kitten, our shipping soon to arrive in the US, and when we've sold our house, a new car to be thought about. Lots going on, no wonder I'm exhausted.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Oregon Rain

There are many web forums dedicated to helping people move around, from country to country or within the US, with information and discussion on various topics. We found these very useful for Visa information, but I've mostly given up reading them now as they're full of tales of woe, or moaning about various aspects of life in the place being moved from or moved to. One thing that always gets a lot of flak is the weather in the Northwest.

It rains in Oregon, OK? Oddly enough it rains pretty much everywhere, and where it doesn't people wish it did. Somehow though, Oregon and Washington seem to come in for more complaining than other states, or maybe I'm just noticing it more.

The mean annual rainfall in Eugene is much the same as it was back in London, ditto the temperature. In Eugene though, we get wetter Winters and dryer Summers. It's rained a lot in the last few weeks but no more than I would expect in London, and to me at least, it's been less inconvenient. Much of the rain falls at night, all of it falls outdoors, and we've had several dry, warm and sunny days even in December and January. We keep tabs on the weather in London, and this Winter there's been an unusually heavy fall of snow across the UK, which is pretty for a couple of days and then a nuisance until it's all melted and the flood waters have receded.

We also get more daylight hours here than in London, being seven degrees further South, and I did find Winter in London a particularly dismal affair, sometimes not needing to draw the curtains for days on end as it was so dark, and when outside, schlocking about with head down against the rain, coat drawn up around the ears against the cold, and feet constantly cold and damp from the rain, splashes and puddles.

Masybe I'm painting a slightly worse picture of London than it really is, but I'm certainly not missing the weather there, or disliking the weather here.

No Tax to Pay?

Most states carry a sales tax of between 2.9% (Colorado) and 8.25% (California), and sometimes there are County sales taxes or City sales taxes on top. Generally you can add about 6% to the shelf price for anything you buy except a few basic foods.

Oregon is one of only five US states that do not impose any form of general sales tax on the sale or use of tangible personal property within the state. (Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Oregon).

In practise this makes shopping a lot simpler, as the price you see on the shelf matches the price at the till. Why the sales taxes aren't incorporated into the shelf price in other states is beyond me, but they aren't, so you get that nasty and confusing sting at the till.

For an Englishman, used to seeing the price you pay, that makes life much simpler, and as we've been in shopping mode the last six weeks it's also made life quite a bit cheaper. We'll be having another big bout of shopping when we have a house to furnish, but meantime it's still a daily blessing to be able to tot up your purchases as you go along.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Oregon Driving License & Green Card

Today I passed my Oregon Driving Test practical, and am now a fully licensed US driver. Now that we're both fully licensed in Oregon our joint car insurance has dropped about $22 a month.

In theory it wasn't a big deal, because I was driving legally on my UK license anyway, and there's no specified date when that is no longer accepted. In practise, it's a huge deal to me, and one of the hurdles I felt I had to jump to be at home in the US. A driving license is often used as photo ID, so before this I had to carry my passport everywhere.

I did a written theory test a couple of weeks ago, but failed my first practical last week, because I rolled through a red light when turning right. It's one of the differences between UK driving and US driving that catch me out occasionally.

Most States allow you to turn right on a red light if it is safe to do so (i.e. the way is clear and there's no vehicle coming along from the left) but you still have to stop first, because it's a red light. They allow this turn except where the don't, and not all states allow it, so that's nice and clear.

America has a lot more types of intersection than the UK: Four-way stops, two-way stops, traffic light-controlled junctions, junctions with warning lights but no controls, junctions with stop lights but no controls, and probably others I can't remember. There are also a bunch more speed limits posted around town compared to the UK: 55 on the Beltline Highway, 45 on some major roads, dropping to 35 in shopping areas, 25 in residential districts, 20 in business districts and school zones (during school hours). It can be a full time job just remembering what the current limit is. Don't go by the other drivers, they're often breaking the limit anyway.

The second good news today was the arrival of my Green Card. This is the offical confirmation of my right to live and work in the USA, so I no longer need to carry my Visa (which was in my passport). It's like a credit card, with a somewhat distorted picture of me and my right index fingerprint. There's also a bunch of numbers and letters, I'm sure they're important too.

So a double red letter day, and we're eating out tonight to celebrate, probably at Applebees which was the first restaurant we visited when we came over last June.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

American TV part 2: Cop Shows

It's no longer enough to watch actors playing cops. Columbo, Starsky & Hutch, Inspector Morse, Frost, Inspector Wexford, Wycliffe. Yadda yadda, seen that. We need a new twist, an angle, a gimmick....a shtick.

So we now have a generation of Cop shows where the central character is not a cop, but works with the cops each week to solve the crime.

The Mentalist - the central character is an expert in "reading" people, he's an ex conman and hypnotist.
Medium - the central character communicates with the dead. Very handy for solving murders.
Castle - the central character is a crime novelist.
Monk - the central character has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. last time I checked he was working as a butler.

Some of these shows are pretty good, I really enjoy The Mentalist because there's a lot of humor in it, and my wife is a fan of Medium. I'm just worried what's going to happen when they apply the same "when is a cop not a cop?" shtick to hospital dramas.

American TV part 1: Adverts

We don't get cable or satellite, so my observations on American TV are based solely on the terrestrial channels, mostly ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting).

Adverts. We got them in the UK on most channels (not the BBC), and they'd crop up every 15 minutes, so in a 1/2 hour show you'd get adverts at the beginning, middle, and end. We countered this by recording everything we wanted to see and fast forwarding through the ads. The show would actually cover about 25 minutes of the half hour. In an hour or longer show, they might space the breaks further apart but run longer ad breaks.

In the US you get an advert break before a show, then right after the opening credits, a couple of times during, and right before the closing credits, so a 1/2 hour show would have about 21 minutes of actual show.

Perhaps that's not so bad considering we're paying nothing for our viewing. In the US once you've bought the set and the aerial, the actual viewing s free, compared to the UK TV license at a current 142.50 GBP a year.

However if we DID get cable or satellite TV, those extra channels also carry adverts, so you're paying at least $30 a month for the channels, and you still have to watch the ads. Hmmm.

For the ads themselves, there are a heck of a lot of Medical ads, mostly pushing some prescription drug, and urging the viewer to badger their doctor into prescribing the miracle cure. The funniest or perhaps scariest part is the list of possible side effects each drug has, read at lightning speed, and including many things worse than the original problem, including sleeplessness, skin rashes, blindess, severe chest pains, vomiting, hair loss, death, and other delights.

Then there are the beer ads. Bud Light give their adverts titles, which as an Advertising insider I know is so they can be named in award ceremonies (yes, advertisers give themselves awards for their wonderful work).

Pick-up Truck ads are great. There are three major competing pick-up trucks currently being advertised, the Ford F-150, the GMC Sierra 1500, and the Dodge Ram. All are pushed as the best truck of course, for different reasons. The Ford is smart, the Sierra is powerful, and the Ram is... I forget, but anyway, you really need one to go down to the store for your groceries. Well you must, because that's what I see them being used for. The Sierra can tow a Californian Redwood, but I usually see them in parking lots. They have to park a lot, because they only get 12-15 mpg.

Ther are other car ads too, Toyota pushing reliability and fuel efficiency, Ford pushing reliability and fuel efficiency, and Nissan pushing reliability and fuel efficiency.

Perhaps the best adverts are the local ones. Because the channels are National, but audiences are local, you often get adverts for local businesses, from mattress suppliers to bars and restaurants, from Realtors (i.e. Estate Agents) to Dentists. It's actually quite educational. For now.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

I want to ride my Bicycle

I've been cycling as a main means of travel since I was seven years old, when the 1973 Oil Crisis pushed the price of petrol in the UK so high that my brothers and I started cycling to school every day instead of being given a lift by car.

One of the reasons Beth and I chose Eugene for our new home is that it rates in the top ten cities in the US for cycling. There are miles of cycle paths, some alongside roads, but also many dedicated paths that take you away from the noise and danger and along creeks and waterways, through parks, and into a more healthy, safe and pleasant environment.

After three weeks in the country I invested in a new road bicycle, as nice as anything I've owned in London, and started to explore. The first area I discovered was the Wet Prarie, a unique environment which is wetland in the rainy season, and prairie in the dry season. Sadly only 0.5% of the original Wet Prairie remains; like the Redwood forests it was almost destroyed by the advance of the white man, but the area that remains is now protected and managed.

I cycled six miles the first day I had my bike, another six the second, and twelve on my third trip. Cycling here is much easier than in London. The paths are wider, so if you come up behind a pedestrian you can go round, not ding madly at your bell and then stop with a squeal of brakes when they fail to react. The paths are smoother, with no obstructing dog dirt and broken glass that make cycling in London such a joy. The hills, at least the ones I currently need to negotiate, are flatter, barely noticeable. We are in a valley, and only entering the South Hills area takes you up any severe incline.

If you are cycling on a bike path beside a road, it isn't constantly blocked by parked cars and traffic lights. My average speed in London was around 8-10 mph. Here it's been 12-15 mph, with no extra effort involved.

In London the cyclist is an outcast. Roads are for cars, and cyclists are squeezed into the gutter, with, if lucky, a thin white line to designate the area they are permitted to try to negotiate their way between buses, parked cars, tree branches, parked cars, car doors being opened by careless or blind drivers, parked cars and pedestrians who like to hover near the road in case they feel a fit of suicidal blues. Too many cyclists are killed every year on London roads, especially female cyclists killed by lorry drivers who do not see them. Oh, and the ever present dog dirt and broken glass, did I mention that? Occasionally one can ride on towpaths, but the pedestrian, and along canals the fisherman with his necessary tangle of rods and paraphernalia, make progress stuttering at best.

Bicycle theft is a problem in Eugene, as it is in London, and as it will be anywhere where bicycles congregate, so I invested about $100 in a big D-lock and cable, and I can chain up my bike anywhere. All stores and Malls have bicycle racks, and they are common along bike paths at places where you might want to pause and take in the scenery. London is improving, but bike racks in London are magnets for bike thieves.

Overall then, I'm enjoying using a bicycle again. It won't be necessary for shopping trips and other chores unless I want to cycle, but it's a nice alternative, and a great way to explore the quieter hidden corners of this city and its environs, and get a little exercise along the way.