Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where are your papers?

When you enter the United States on a visa, you have to fill out an I94 form on the plane. At immigration the officer tears off a portion, adds an exit date and staples it into your passport. Getting a visa is a long-winded process, and yet the visa only sets the maximum possible date for the immigration officer's decision. He or she can choose when you must leave and it can be any time up to the end of your visa, including (if they don't like you) that very day.

Before we first entered the US on my work visa, I was given a large bundle of forms and letters from my employer. These detail at some length how important I am to my employer and why I'm no threat to the US. When we first presented ourselves at immigration, the officer looked through them, asked some questions and finally gave leave to stay in the country for three years. And that was that.

Last week I had to fly to the UK for a week. After checking in at JFK, I noticed that my I94 form was missing from my passport. Disaster! I spoke to the US embassy and they told me it is normal for the person at the check-in desk to remove it as I'm terminating my stay. (I'm not altogether reassured by the people on the phone at the US embassy, as they all have Scottish accents. I want to get my definitive advice from someone who speaks like George Clooney, not Ewan McGregor.)

So I was outside the US, going back in five days and I had no papers to demonstrate my reason for a three-year stay. I rang my wife and asked her to courier all the papers to my UK hotel, so I would have them upon entry. She went to the local DHL desk at Office Max, but they didn't do overseas shipping, so they sent her to another location, which she couldn't find, but found a Fed-Ex instead, but they couldn't send the papers faster than three days. However, the nice Fed-Ex lady let my wife use her phone to talk to DHL who said if she went home someone would come out and pick it up by 2pm. She went home and after three phone calls, the courier arrived at 7.30pm. The courier didn't understand the English address, so my wife had to fill it in for him. A bit of a palaver, but in the end and with the application of a sixty dollars she got the paperwork sent off to my hotel, where it arrived a couple of days later.

When I got to the immigration desk, the officer looked at my visa and said, "This isn't the first time you've entered under this visa?" I replied, "No, I first came in January. Would you like to see my supporting paperwork?" "That won't be necessary," he said, and gave me leave to stay for three years.

I didn't tell my wife.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Back in the UK

I am in the UK for a few days and a couple of things struck me...

In the US I'll button my coat up against the cold whereas here in the UK I'll walk around without a coat. My American colleagues say its cold here, but its English cold so I know it's not too bad. Does that make any sense?

Food in the UK is incredibly expensive. Whether eating out or buying snacks, £1 of food = $1 of food

There are no flags in the UK. In America you see the Stars & Stripes everywhere. I must see 40 or more on my trip into the office each morning. In the UK I have seen three British or English flags so far, a Union flag on an American colleague's cashmere scarf (which she bought in the US) and crossed Union and St. George's flags tattooed on the arm of a taxi driver. In fact, the only real flags I saw were outside my hotel. There was a French tricolor, a German flag, one I didn't recognise and a Stars & Stripes. Why foreign flags but no British flag? Ask Holiday Inn at the Pear Tree Roundabout, Oxford. It's bizarre that even in the UK I saw more US flags than UK flags.

British roads are great. Fast dual-carriageways, roundabouts, no stop signs. Fantastic. Except... speed bumps. God, I'd forgotten how unremittingly evil speed bumps are. One trip to a village pub now equals 30 jarring bounces. I don't understand the thinking here, if you want to slow people down, why not start by lowering the speed limit? Is that really such an unsophisticated idea? It would cost the price of a few 20mph signs, instead of the hundreds of thousands of pounds our councils love to spend on these hulking ridges erupting through the road surface, like reefs jutting out of the sea ready to break the back of the unwary. If people ignored the speed limit change, then you could try the two dozen road hazards. But why not give a speed limit reduction a try first?

Anyway some American opinions of Oxford in March:
Referring to the prices, "I can't afford to eat"
Referring to the food, "I can't find anything I like." (This was prior to discovering British beer, meat pies and Thai food.)
Referring to Little Chef pancakes, "They were frozen, then microwaved!"
Referring to the countryside, "It's soooo beautiful!"
Referring to the cars, "They're all so new - no one has a car with cardboard covering a broken window!"

Easter morning

A conversation with my son...

Me: "This is your Easter egg, that one is for your sister, and this one is for Mummy and Daddy to share."
He: "To share with us?"

Friday, March 14, 2008

Undersea travel

I took my first trip under the East River to Brooklyn yesterday on the subway from Manhattan. Unfortunately what I meant to do was go about 3 stops in Manhattan.

Must learn to use the damn subway!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Colds or what the world needs now is Vicks VapoRub

Here's something that never occurred to me before we moved countries. People always say the common cold has over 110 variants, and that over time you are exposed to and contract them one by one. Each time you come through a cold you gain a certain amount of immunity to that strain so gradually your cold-catching frequency should diminish.

However, while there may be 110 different strains of the cold virus, they are not likely to all be equally prevalent throughout the world at the same time. It stands to reason that some strains are better represented in a given area than others. I imagine that several strains becomes common in a certain area at one time then gradually die out in that area to be replaced by a different group.

Hypothetically speaking, there may be 20 variants of the common cold that are working their way through the UK population right now. Gradually the people will build up resistance to them and stop becoming ill. However, at the same time there are 20 other variants infecting Americans and making them ill. Because I've moved countries, I am now exposed to a whole host of new colds.

Which explains why I and my whole family have been sick ever since we got here.

That's my thesis, can I have a PHD?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


In New York there are several place names that are abbreviated versions of the original name. So you have SoHo which is short for South of Houston Street and TriBeCa which is the triangle below Canal Street. Marketing departments have latched on to this as a trendy way to promote residential developments, so you have SoHa and SoYo (South Harlem and Yonkers respectively).

I think we should use this in the UK. We could have:
  • WeHa - West Ham
  • HaFu - Hammersmith and Fulham
  • NoYoMo - North York Moors
  • YoDa - Yorkshire Dales
  • NoNo - North Norfolk
Of course, anyone who's spent time in Great Yarmouth would agree with that last one.

New York Bingo #1

An occasional series listing things that are specifically American or New York.

Last night I bought some girl-scout cookies.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


America is a curious place. It is the world's largest, most developed market. No other country provides access to so many people with cash to buy your particular product.

Americans have traded their way to pre-eminence in purchasing. If you want something in the United States, someone will sell it to you. It's easy to slip here from truism to fallacy by assuming that because everything is available, everything is readily available. For example, although Americans have access to a huge variety of cheese, 90% of the cheese that is sold will be either American, Swiss or if you want something exotic, Monterey Jack.

However, New York is something a bit special. It seems that if you cram eight million Americans together tightly enough and sprinkle enough money around, they will open up shops selling everything. I work in Midtown Manhattan which is all office blocks. The ground floor of every office block and skyscraper is let to stores and sandwich bars. Even with two sandwich bars on every block, that's still a lot of shops. So after a bit of wandering, I have now discovered Murray's Cheese Shop. There is a market in Grand Central Terminal and in that market is a cheese stall that sells Cheddar, Stilton, Double Gloucestor, Wensleydale, Shropshire Blue, Lancashire and that is just the English cheese. They also have lots of French and Italian and other European cheeses. And they have as much again of American cheese with names like Black River Blue, Sartori Stravecchio and Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

If you take a wander to their web-site you will see that alongside Cheese of the Month (March is Formaggio di Fossa) and the monthly basket of cheese you can have delivered, they also have a university of Cheese. You can enroll in courses and attend lectures on the making and tasting of cheese. I may be feeling a little light-headed after a large portion of Shropshire Blue, but at the moment spending a few days of vacation at cheese school sounds like a fun idea.