Category Archives: Before the move

The highs, lows, and absolute depths of leaving London.

Here.

Well, we’ve done it.

We’ve eaten ice cream, paid too much for groceries, and driven dangerously close to opposing traffic. But now we can finally declare ourselves expats. The adventure starts here.

Before we left we’d read and heard a lot of horror stories about long-haul flying with kids. For a while Alex and I were junkies on the stuff, binging on epic tales of tears and vomit. But we were ready. We packed spare clothes for all of us. We brought enough food to feed the whole plane. Our iPad was bursting at the seams with new apps, games and films. Moments before we boarded, I found Alex in a trance-like state, banging her head repeatedly against the wall. We even created fake birth certificates so we could publicly disown them if all hell broke loose.

But the flight was a doddle. The kids were great, and we didn’t receive a single dirty look from anyone the entire flight. Apart from Ava of course, but she’s been pissed off ever since I revealed that Kinder Eggs aren’t sold in the US.

Little-known fact: Kinder Eggs are illegal in the US. They’ve had a ban on candies with embedded toys since 1938, due to choking/health concerns. Which is an interesting priority, given the number of people in the US accidentally shot by a toddler with a gun. I digress…

To be honest, I am a bit concerned that this move is sending Ava off the rails. Take a look at the displays of rebellion below, first in Heathrow and then on the other side in California. The kid is just a year or two away from a DUI and her own reality show.

We arrived two days ago. On our very first morning, I witnessed a car break-in in broad daylight, right outside the local Starbucks. I thank my company for arranging this on my behalf, which I suspect was part of the planned orientation.

So far we’ve been fairly productive. We picked up the rental cars, set up a bank account, did a food shop, and were given a tour of the surrounding areas. When you throw toddlers and jet lag into the mix, all of the above become extreme sports in their own right. But here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Even when people are under pressure, the customer service out here is second to none. At Hertz they were short-staffed and there was a queue outside the door. The guy in charge passed out an enormous box of cookies for waiting customers, to apologise for the wait. In the UK, you’d consider yourself lucky if you got as much as eye contact in that scenario.
  2. American banks love paperwork. Just to open a single account, I spent an hour solidly signing my name. This explains why woodcutters in California drive Bentleys and not trucks.
  3. Navigating the supermarket requires a satnav and superhuman will power. The place is enormous, and I reckon 85% of it is bad for you. On the plus side, we can buy one sandwich and it will feed the four of us.

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Today is July 4th, which is when Americans celebrate the time Will Smith saved them from aliens. My boss has kindly invited us to a bbq and pool party, ending in a fireworks display. Alex and the girls are all pretty excited about it, mainly because they get to spend the day with people other than me. Based on her performance so far this morning, Daisy is planning to mark the event by crying all day.

Happy Independence Day, people.

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Time.

In 12 hours we’ll be on a plane, bound for San Francisco.

It’s been over a week since my last update, and in that time, we’ve covered a lot of ground. If I had £1 for every task completed, document signed and goodbye uttered in that period, I’d have enough cash to pay for the professional hair regrowth and colour treatment I so desperately need.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Because unless you’re my mother, you don’t really want them. Instead, I’ll just add a gallery of images and leave you to figure it out.

Tomorrow is exactly 24 weeks – 168 days – since I first discussed the relocation opportunity with my boss. Countless people have played their part in the journey we’ve been on ever since. Tax advisers, immigration attorneys, relocation specialists, shipment packers, recruitment consultants…

But an honourable mention goes to Simon.

I met Simon last month. He was the guy with the words “Love Love” tattooed across his knuckles, and a haircut befitting the wildest of rock stars. Except he wasn’t a rock star. He was a depressive cashier at the US Embassy, who – when I asked him the meaning of his tattoo – told me it reminded him of something, before falling silent and crying. He cried to himself right there in front of me, behind a glass window! Poor bugger. I was only being polite by asking. I actually thought it looked crap.

So now I call time on our pre-move journey. Tomorrow we leave Barnet, and head to the Bay.

See you on the other side.

Moving the posts.

Two days until our non-departure, and there’s still no sign of our visa. 

We’ve reported it missing to the Police, placed ads on the side of milk cartons, and even developed a Twitter handle to get the word out. You can follow it at #givememyeffingvisa

I’m constantly thinking about the whereabouts of my visa, so much so, I’m starting to see things. Just the other morning I could have sworn I saw it doing the walk of shame along Barnet High Street. 

Remember that ad with Usain Bolt – the one where he runs around effortlessly and it ends with the tagline: “Life flows better with VISA”? False advertising, that. If I were to bump into Usain anytime soon, I’d give him a piece of my mind. Except I can’t. Because he’s in Jamaica and the Embassy has our bloody passports. 

In a burst of productivity I phoned the Embassy’s call centre and told a sob story to get the guy to reveal classified information, but he didn’t budge. Obama must have warned him about me. 

So I’ve spent the past few days scouring the US Embassy website for vital clues and information – anything to make us believe our visa delay is actually for reasons more solid than a dodgy printer. Over the weekend the official message on their site was basically: “we’re having trouble”. Yesterday it was updated to the effect of “yep, still having trouble”. But just this morning, this cryptic message appeared:

As of noon yesterday, 22 posts have been reconnected, representing about half of the global nonimmigrant visa volume. We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored.

At last, golden information, about posts!

Now, if only they’d thought to shed some light on WHAT IN GOD’S NAME A POST IS, perhaps the message would have actually served a purpose. Are we talking goalposts, bed posts, or Facebook posts? 

And when they say “about half”, they really mean “less than half”. Because if it was half, or more than half, they would say so. The sentence isn’t quite so strong if you say “we’ve fixed less than half of the problem”. 

But wait. The message continues, and this time I see a glimmer of hope:

There is a large backlog of cases to clear, but we have already made good progress. We are prioritizing urgent medical and other humanitarian cases.

Things are looking up. 

I’m taking my brood overseas to bring British culture to the American people. To educate the US population about Steak & Kidney pie, Cilla Black and Eastenders. To demonstrate how an overcast day is reason alone to stick on a bikini and hit the park with a picnic. And to help them understand what it feels like to rally behind a sporting nation that nearly always fails. 

I’m pretty confident that classifies as a humanitarian effort. Right?

Footsteps. 

Father’s Day has always been a token gesture. 

Ignored by almost everyone except retailers and those blokes who scale Parliament in Batman outfits, its true significance has always been proven by its visibility in Clintons Cards. 

For Valentine’s Day the whole store turns pink. Every shelf is stuffed with heart-shaped tat and teddy bears, and you can legitimately grope an employee without risk of legal action. 

Mother’s Day is worse. You can’t leave the house without being bombarded with guilt adverts on billboards, radio and TV. At shopping centres, every store finds a way to work the event into a sales pitch. Clothes shops, jewellers…even cobblers get in on the act:

“Give Mum a good night’s sleep. Get new keys cut.”

And then there’s Father’s Day. 

Where cards are tucked away in the shop somewhere between family birthdays and bereavement condolences. And they’re never sure what sort of gift to suggest either. Just yesterday I saw this Father’s Day promo in the local supermarket: 

 

Yes, that’s right, because a Dad wants nothing more than to wash his face while reading a novel. 

Today is my fourth Father’s Day. This morning I got the gift of two kids screaming in my ear at 7am, and one foot right in the testicles. I’m still unsure if that was the kids or Alex. 

When I was a kid my Dad was up and out of the house before most of us were awake. He worked hard during the week, but was always home for dinner, when we’d gather at the table and find out which members of his factory staff were having it off with each other. On a Friday night he’d bring home magazines for me and my sisters, smuggling in chocolate contraband under my Mum’s nose. And the weekends belonged to us. He was our taxi, our climbing frame, our playmate…he managed my sunday league football team, and even made me captain. Despite the fact that a dog amputee would have been a more effective choice. 

As I got older, he taught me some of life’s most important lessons:

  1. The value of money. When I was old enough to work, he stopped my pocket money and only reinstated it when I had a weekend job. 
  2. The importance of keeping a low profile. In the swimming pool on holiday he taught me the art of ogling holidaymakers while underwater. 
  3. How to keep things quiet. Usually when an extravagant purchase was concerned – a new car, an electric golf buggy – he would give me a sneak preview so I could share in his short-lived excitement, right before Mum found out and hit the roof. 

Thank you Dad. For giving me the same myopic view of my kids that you’ve always had of us. For helping me navigate some of life’s toughest decisions. And for being the father I aspire to be. 

p.s. For a slushy view on Father’s Day, check out this ridiculous Toyota ad. Then watch this one. 

Limbo.

Stop the clock.

The US Embassy would like to make the following announcement:

We are currently unable to print most nonimmigrant visas approved after June 8, 2015. If you attended a visa interview on or after June 9 and were advised that your visa was approved, we are currently unable to print that visa.

So what does this mean?

Well, despite the US having the world’s largest economy, and Americans spending $1.5 billion each year on teeth whitening products alone, they don’t have a printer that works. And until they do, we’re here for an indefinite period. I believe the kids would typically end this paragraph with “FML”.

All in all, things are just a little awkward.

Take yesterday for example, my supposed last day at work, when I was presented with a gift from everyone in the office. I then cleared my desk, said my goodbyes, and some of us went to the pub down the road to toast my onward journey. Next week, I’ll be back in the office again.

And then there’s tomorrow night, when our friends and family descend on a bar in the local area for our leaving party. Except we’re not leaving.

And, for those of you who read my previous posts, it also means that I’ve been needlessly hugging that homeless guy up the street.

Our flights have been released, corporate housing contract cancelled. All we can do is wait.

So if you need to reach us in the coming weeks, you’ll mostly find us in a darkened room, listening to American folk tracks and crying into a cheeseburger.

Long live the American dream.

Things we’ll miss about London – chapter 2

1. The chippy. When Londoners look for a place to live, they search against 3 key criteria: local transport links, quality of schools, and proximity to good fish and chips.

2. Middle-class rebellion. This is rife in North London. Parking your BMW defiantly in a no parking zone, and – horror of horrors – leaving a coffee stain on the counter top, right beside the designated dirty spoon receptacle.

  

Soon after the above photos were taken, a middle-aged lady sped away from her local Waitrose in a Range Rover, with excesses of free samples from the cheese counter.

3. Celebrities. London is home to some of the most famous faces in the world. And some other randoms who look just like them. I call this one “Micky Gervais”.

4. Bagels, from a handful of bakeries across London. Perfect for Sunday lunch or at 2am, when you inexplicably find yourself on Brick Lane, overly drunk and an expensive cab ride away from home. Get them when they’re fresh and your teeth will sink right through. Eat them the next day and it’s like biting into a rockface.

5. Jay Z has 99 problems, but Mr Whippy’s flake ain’t one. Nothing says 80s childhood more than being enticed from your house by the tinny sounds of Greensleeves, and then narrowly avoiding an oncoming car as you run across the street. The taste of ice cream was always that much better right after a near-death experience.

Countdown. 

10 days to go.

Last night I went with some friends to clueQuest, a live escape game in London. We were thrown together in a room, and given 60 minutes to uncover clues, solve puzzles, and generally run around like a bunch of crazies shouting obscenities until we found our way out.

We’re all dads of kids under 5, so we find ourselves shouting an awful lot. The most frequent things I holler at my two are usually “No, your sister’s head is not a tambourine” and “For the love of god, stop licking your shoes”.

With that in mind, it made a refreshing change to instead shout and scream about how little time we had left, and then shove as many four-letter words we could think of, before and after the phrase.

But it didn’t start like that. We entered the room in a relaxed frame of mind, excited about what lay ahead. Then the clock starting ticking and all hell broke loose. We left the room exhausted, clutching clumps of each other’s hair in our hands.

It’s a lot like what we’ve been through in the last 6 months.

The process was gentle enough to begin with; a general chit chat with my boss about opportunity and lifestyle. Then, before we knew it, we were hit with an onslaught of tax, immigration, education, healthcare and household obstacles to overcome. And now, with 10 days to go, we’re staggering to the finish line.

When you land at San Francisco International Airport, you soon find yourself in the immigration hall, usually in an epic queue. Which is always exactly what you want, straight after a 10-hour flight. So by the time we get to the desks at the front, we’ll be on the floor dribbling, dragging our weary bodies towards them. I can just imagine how excited those Immigration Officers will be, when they welcome us to the USA:

“Crap. The embassy in London screwed us over again.”

Yes they did, America. And now here we are – with our sarcasm, posh accents, and a Vitamin D deficiency.

And we pledge our allegiance to changing only one of those traits while we’re here.

Wimp. Out. 

12 days until we fly. 

This morning, Ava went to her local swimming class for the last time. Which is just as well, because she’s absolutely hopeless at it. Just one of the many underwhelming DNA traits she inherited from me. 

There’s a guy who takes his daughter, Wimp, to the same class. I don’t know or even care what her real name is. She’s a decent swimmer, but cries non-stop for the full lesson. 

Each week I sit in the viewing gallery and watch with frustration as Ava is taught for the 15th time how to kick. But I am comforted by the sight of Wimp screaming for 30 minutes. That makes me feel better. 

Her Dad seems like a nice bloke, and makes jokes with Ava when he sees her. Obviously I don’t speak to him – we men don’t do such things. Rather than chat directly to one another, we can have a conversation through our kids. Example, I’ll say:

“Look Ava, that little girl has a Frozen swimming costume. I bet she doesn’t have a tantrum if her Daddy doesn’t play the soundtrack in the car.”

To which Wimp’s Dad will say to Wimp:

“Oh I don’t know about that. We love a good screaming fit in the car, particularly if Daddy gets the song words wrong, don’t we?”

You get the picture. 

But today, something strange happened. As he and Wimp left the changing room, he patted me on the back, and said “see you next week”.

The nerve of the guy, talking to me directly! This was a flagrant contravention of the unspoken agreement between us. I had a good mind to turn to Ava and say:

“Ava, that Daddy has a bloody cheek speaking to me like that.”

But I didn’t. 

Instead it struck me as weird that he would choose today as the first time to say that, and a little sad that we won’t see him next week. Or maybe ever again. So as he walked out, I found myself saying a silent goodbye to him, inside my head.  

How many other unexpected goodbyes will there be, and from where?

I’ll try to take notice and appreciate the characters who play a background role in my life in London, because they won’t be a feature very soon. 

Outside my nearest Tesco there’s a red-faced drunk who growls at the locals. If you’re driving through the area, and you happen to catch me full-on embracing him, this blog post will explain all.

But please bring a tetanus shot in your car, just as a precaution.

What the L. 

Approved!

8 sets of passport photos, 6 document copies, 4 expensive application fees, 2 late-night online applications, and 1 embassy appointment later, our VISA has been approved. The US journey starts here. 

America may be the home of the brave, but land of the free it ain’t. One hour inside the embassy cost me $800. 

It’s a good job I did all that prep for the VISA interview. I read up on the process, swotted up on the company’s history, memorised the attorney’s description of my job role, even brushed my teeth. I was psyched. 

But it lasted all of 5 minutes, and consisted of gruelling questions, like “Can you confirm your full name please?”, and, “Will you pay the issuance fee in cash or by card?”. Seriously. Parting with the money was probably the hardest part. 

Daisy and Ava deployed their biggest fight of the morning right after the interview began, which may explain why the interview was so short. 

Highlights of the experience came courtesy of two employees. The lady on the coffee stand, who answered in broken English “the coffee is brown and tastes great” when I asked her for directions to the toilets. Can’t blame her for the sales pitch, I suppose. And then there was the weirdo on the reception desk, whose job was to check we had the right papers and issue a number for the queue. Which he did, while stroking the forms suggestively, biting his bottom lip and using his lisp in the most seductive way imaginable. 

Net summary: we have an L visa, valid for up to 7 years. 

By that time, I expect Daisy to be a child TV star, Ava a young developer with an academic scholarship paid for by Google, Alex a soccer mom with a face full of Botox, and me the driver of a vintage Cadillac. Possibly with implants in my backside, too. 

That is the American dream, right?