Posted in Los Angeles

Californian adventure begins

Our time at Harvard has come to an end. After a rocky start I ended up really enjoying our time in Cambridge. A few features stick out: the extreme seasons, the battleaxe local women elbowing each other out the way in the supermarket, the general shabbiness of the whole place, the hundreds of international wives of students and scholars with nothing to do, my sub-2hr half-marathon, and of course, the three times the city was completely closed down in those two years (hurricane Sandy, snowpocalypse, and marathon manhunt).

But now we’ve arrived in California. I have no doubt that the West Coast will have a range of equally interesting quirks to get used to. The freeways, for example: they have to be experienced to be believed, but that’s a story for another day.

Pasadena City Hall
Pasadena City Hall
Caltech campus
Caltech campus
Freeway pain
Freeway pain

Moving thousands of miles requires a list, and this was ours:

We have to:

1. pack up our apartment

2. say goodbye to everyone

3. apply for new visas

4. fly to London to have an interview for said visas

5. get at least one car

6. find somewhere to live (preferably to buy – so add to the list ‘buy a house’)

7. I have to get a job

The only good thing about this list is that we’ve done most of it once already – a mere two years ago – and that time we were moving from Australia and had to add to the list things like getting a US bank account, US cell phones, social security numbers, not to mention making friends and making sense of a new country, all with absolutely zero assistance, and often outright hindrance, from others.

As of today we’ve done the first four things on the list.

Packing up

Packing up the apartment was relatively easy, because all we had to do was supervise the movers who came and did everything. This was completely luxury.

The three men (Jay, Mike and Mike) tore through our apartment packing all our stuff into boxes. The air was full of the sound of tape being unwound and wrapped around things, and the rustling of paper being scrunched up. The whole process took about four hours from start to finish. One slight problem – they forgot to take my bike in the basement… oh well, a lucky spouse got to take that away for free.

Men came to pack!
Men came to pack!
Packing in progress
Packing in progress

Farewells

Saying goodbye to people was much harder of course. We had a work farewell dinner and afternoon tea for my husband, which included an amazing cake by chef Ben and a gift from my husband’s boss. Our French friends outdid themselves with a lobster dinner. My good friend from the Museum took us to ‘her’ restaurant for a spectacular evening where we were treated like royalty. My friends from the spouse group wished us well through the traditional means of Facebook. Our neighbours downstairs had us for dinner and then kindly took all the food from our fridge so I didn’t have to chuck it out. And our little group of Cambridge Aussies consumed many beers.

Ben's cake: a Roach board (don't ask) and a Go board - wow!
Ben’s cake: a Roach board (don’t ask) and a Go board – wow!

Visas

The most painful part of anything to do with the US is always the visa. Even doing the application form, which has all your details still in it from last time, took us an hour. Each.

One wrinkle in the process was the expiry date of my husband’s passport – 18 months away. Would they put a two-year visa in his passport? There was no information on the web, and no-one was confident of the answer. We tried to renew the passport twice but the photo kept being rejected, then we ran out of time.

We had our visa interview in London, so we could combine it with a visit to my parents on the south coast. For London I booked a ‘cheap’ hotel half a mile from the embassy – the Park Mews (my review was mixed).  This was also walking distance (sort of) to the location of the Sherlock’s flat in the BBC series (actually at 187 N Gower St) so we went for a look at that too…

The Isle of Wight polar bear from Hengisbury Head.
The Isle of Wight polar bear from Hengisbury Head.
Sherlock!
Sherlock!

I’ll outline the full visa process in another post, but needless to say we got our visas – and the full two years in both. We were so happy about this, until we arrived at LAX, at 5am body-clock time, to be told by the nice immigration man that the stamp in both our passports can only be until the expiry date of my husband’s passport. Trying to keep a pleasant demeanor at this point was a challenge.

Car, house, job

Getting a car: We have a rental for a month, so there’s less urgency to solve this than you would think.

In terms of finding a place to live, we had a small headstart on this thanks to a house-hunting trip here before we left Boston. We talked to the local credit union, we found ourselves an agent (Noushine from Coldwell Banker in Pasadena), and set ourselves up with a mailbox. We also joined the Huntington Gardens on the recommendation of several people and spent a pleasant afternoon there.

Japanese garden at Huntington.
Japanese garden at Huntington.

So when we arrived earlier this week, jetlagged and strangely hungry, our agent took us around many, many places. We saw about four that were ok but each had different problems (renovations required, dodgy selling agents, too small, next to a freeway). We’ll keep looking.

Finally, getting a job for me is so far down the list, it’s not even funny.

Hotel

So meanwhile I’m holed up in a hotel in Burbank, doing a minimum of four trips a day on the freeway, and itching to explore every corner of LA. I’m really excited to be living in a place that is so famous and where people actually want to visit (hint – it’s warm all year round!), I love that there are Jacaranda trees and jasmine bushes everywhere, and I love that the San Gabriel mountain range dominates the skyline. I look forward to exploring the area over the next few years.

Posted in Life, Writing

Snow, Massachusetts style

I started this piece on February 18th, 2014 and it’s now time to post it. I wanted a reminder of all the ‘fun’ of snow in Boston for when we’re no longer living here!

I’m writing this as snow is pouring, wait, is that the right word?  Does snow pour? Does it lash?  Whatever it does when it’s falling hard, that’s what it’s doing now.  It’s the third snowstorm for Boston in the space of a week, and frankly I’m getting a little sick of it.

Coming from two countries where snow is uncommon, I was captivated for the first winter. It was fun to see snow falling, to put on my snow boots and crunch through it, and to see the buildings and open spaces transformed.  In February 2013, when Boston had its snowpocalypse, two feet of snow fell.  Cars were buried, and you could sink up to your hips in the drifts by the side of the road.   It was very exciting for us Boston newbies.

Now, after suffering two Boston winters, I’ve noticed some customs and challenges Bostonians face when it’s snowing.

Firstly, The Weather gets top billing on the news. The Storm Team is there to tell you all about it, to show gratuitous images of cars slow-motion crashing, people with umbrellas tilted against the wind, and children sledding and making snowmen.  The forecasters can barely contain themselves as they give snow depth predictors and estimated length of the storm.  This occurs as soon as the word ‘snow’ features in the long range forecast.  “Are you sick of the snow? Well, there’s more on the way,” they say with glee. “Say it ain’t snow” was one of the more amusing headlines I saw.

Aside from entertaining weather reports, the main good thing about a snowstorm is the prospect of a snow-day.  The city managers will not hesitate to pull the shutters down on schools and offices if it looks remotely like the commute will be affected by the weather.  Native Bostonians seem to live for snow days and the school calendars have contingency for a certain number each year.

The next thing that happens when it snows is that everyone forgets how to drive. There are two types of drivers in the snow (not including the ones that refuse to drive).  There are the people who insist on going at 10 mph everywhere – the hybrid-car drivers, those without four-wheel drive, for example; and there are those who insist on still going at the speed-limit (+10 mph of course, this is Boston after all).  The latter group includes the larger vehicles: buses, trucks, articulated lorries, utes, and snowplows.  The faster drivers spray sheets of brown muddy slush into the windscreens of the slower drivers, and so the roads become a battle field.  Drivers in this state are not known as Massholes for nothing.

Bostonians also never clear their cars of snow.  It’s apparently illegal to drive with any snow on your car but that doesn’t stop locals only scraping off one half of their windscreen and part of the back window and driving around with inches of snow covering the rest of the car.  It’s common to see mail vans with six inches of snow on their roofs all winter.  It’s when the snow suddenly dislodges and falls into the path of the car behind that it gets interesting.  Massholes indeed.

There are rules in Boston and surrounds about clearing the snow in front of your property.  It has to be done within a few hours of the snow stopping or by lunchtime if it stops snowing overnight.  This highlights the next custom of Boston snow – the tools people use to move it. There are your standard snow-shovels – with a much bigger scoop than ordinary shovels, and often made of plastic.  There are your machines that suck up the snow and shoot it out of a funnel to the side.  There are the bobcat snowplows to clear long footpaths, and the machines that look like a roadsweeper with a brush from a carwash at the front, which somehow brushes the snow aside.

And then there are the snow-plows proper.

It never occurred to me that plowing the snow as it’s falling, rather than waiting for it to stop, was a good idea.  In Boston, the snowplows work continuously – once the snow is about an inch thick.  The snowplows are not necessarily custom vehicles; they are often just a ute with a plow on the front.  They race (see above) up and down the main streets, sometimes in convoys of up to three, pushing the snow to the side of the road.  You can easily find yourself under a shower of snow, slush and grit if you’re on the footpath when they go past.

Snowplows, while a great idea, have some drawbacks.  Because the road is covered in, well, snow, it’s impossible for the driver to see potholes, manhole covers and any other dints or uneven places in the road. This means unless the road is billiard table smooth (i.e. never in Boston), the plow blade regularly crashes through the tarmac.  You can hear the characteristic rumble of the plow approach – followed by a bang as it hits a bump.  As a consequence the roads are completely ruined each winter.  If you’re unlucky, like us, and live opposite a parking lot, you will also find yourself listening to a chorus of reversing-beeps day and night as the plow tries to get into every corner.

Which brings me onto the next challenge of snow: what happens when it melts.  The snow invariably starts melting to some extent within 48 hours of falling.  Puddles form in several places – in the aforementioned potholes, and in the places where it is backed up by drifts of snow, usually at dropped curbs. The drains of course are all covered with, you guessed it, snow.  So, great lakes form, and when I say lakes, I mean wide areas of slushy, wet, brown water that are impossible to jump and are at least calf-deep.  Snow boots or rain boots are essential.

When the potholes are full of water, walking on the footpath again becomes hazardous.  The roads are narrowed because of the snowdrifts, so cars often cannot avoid the potholes. If you see the characteristic brown spray pattern on the snowbank by the road you’d better wait for the cars to pass unless you want a brown-ice shower.

The sign that winter is nearly over can also be found in snow. According to a long-time Boston resident, when the Storm Team first get their snow prediction wrong – i.e. an anticipated snowpocalypse turns out to just be a light dusting – this is a sign the weather is improving.  Gradually the weather forecasters temper their enthusiasm for snow storms and before you know it, spring is on the way.

Thankfully we’ve had our first false-prediction of the season so I’m hoping winter will be over soon!

Posted in Life, Reviews

Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of Science

On Tuesday, bestest buddy and soon to be leaving Boston (sob!) Helen, and I went to the Museum of Science to (a) cross it off Helen’s Boston bucket list and (b) make use of the annual membership I was given for volunteering there for a year.  Love free stuff!

Museum of Science, Boston.
Museum of Science, Boston.

We decided to go in the afternoon because I know from experience that mornings are completely crazy with school groups.  So we met at 1.45pm and went straight into the Lightning show.  This is indeed, as advertized, very bright and very loud but the kids in the audience were really into it, and it contained good material for adults – for example, why does being inside a car protect you from lightning?  Hint – it’s not the tires!

MoS Presenter at the Lightning Show.
MoS Presenter at the Lightning Show.
Sparks from the Van De Graff generator!
Sparks from the Van De Graaff generator!

Then we moved onto the main attraction for the afternoon – the “Dead Sea Scrolls – Life in Ancient Times” exhibit.

Enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see fragments of the priceless Dead Sea Scrolls and a collection of antiquities from Israel!

Fortunately again I had free tickets (full price $32 per head – ouch!). The exhibit was quite amazing – once we got past the detailed history of the region and saw the millions of broken pots.  I know it’s very interesting and everything, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t absorb the information in this first part.

Lots of pottery.
Lots of pottery.

However, once we got into the area where the scroll fragments were on show everything was suddenly so much better.  We learned that the scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and then treated very casually by the scientists working on them (selotape anyone?).

The exhibit also had an interesting feature on the Wailing Wall.  An apparently real piece of the wall was on show, alongside a replica of a larger piece.  People were invited to write messages on slips of paper and put them into the wall, just like at the real thing.  The messages, the Museum said, would be taken to the actual wall.  There was also a live feed of the Wailing Wall on a big TV.

It was all pretty impressive stuff.

After we had tired ourselves out with all this learning we headed for coffee (discount again – yay!). Selfie time!

I'll miss you Helen!
I’ll miss you Helen!

Then we lay on a bed of nails and didn’t die (check out the new Conserve @ Home exhibit). Bonus.

I realise I’m biased, but I think the Museum is an excellent place to visit in Boston, and the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is incredible.  Go there. Now.

Posted in Resolutions, Writing

Film Night with John Williams – review

What could be better than hearing the Boston Pops, conducted by John Williams, playing classic movie themes?

John Williams walking on stage to conduct the Boston Pops.
John Williams walking on stage to conduct the Boston Pops.

Williams was in fine form on Friday night at a packed Symphony Hall in Boston.  The performance, and the first half, started with The Cowboys Overture and over the next hour Williams led us through three pieces from Lincoln and onto Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Random youtube clips of music in this post — not taken by me.  This one – Marion’s Theme.

The highlight of the first half was the flight-themed movie-clip-coordinated Flight to Neverland from Hook. Williams directed the Pops with precision as we tried to name all the clips – our tally was: ET, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Star Trek, Up, Wall-E, Superman, Iron Man, Star Wars, Hook, and Dragonheart. There were, of course, many more. Looking over his shoulder, as we were able to from the second balcony, we were given a glimpse of how Williams operates: he has his own personal screen of the movie with an added sweeping vertical line to count down when the picture is about to change.

Flight to Neverland.

The second half was even more spectacular.  The opening piece was entitled A Tribute to the Film Composer, another clip montage with brilliantly familiar themes. It was a little strange to hear the 20th Century Fox theme whilst not sitting in front of a TV. We heard snippits from Titanic, The Great Escape and The Godfather, among many others.

Williams then gave the audience a masterclass on how to score a movie scene.  The clip was The Circus Train Chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  He talked us through the clip without music, pointing out where he decided to change the feel of the music, where he inserted pauses and where he introduced the first hint of the Indiana Jones theme.  He then conducted the Pops in the actual score, alongside the clip. Amazing.

The Circus Train Chase – you can see the sweeping line prompt Williams uses.

The Duel, from the Adventures of Tin-Tin, followed — a sword-fighting mélange of epic proportions. In my view this was by far the best coordinated music-clip piece of the evening.  Naturally the piece ended, with second-perfect timing, on the clip from The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones dispatches the sword-wielding samurai.

When Williams introduced the final (minus two encores) pieces – from Star Wars – he noted that since a new addition to this movie set was being planned for 2015 he’d “better eat my wheaties”.  The Star Wars themes Throne Room and Imperial March were magnificent.

Williams left the stage and was given a standing ovation, but of course he came back for an encore.  The Pops played a crowd-favourite: the theme from ET.

Again Williams left the stage and was given another standing ovation. From our high vantage point we could see he had closed his music folder on this stand, but this still wasn’t the end.

Out he came again to what we can only assume is a Pops tradition: Stars and Stripes Forever.

Stars and Stripes Forever.

The audience enthusiastically clapped along and Williams barely did anything as conductor, keeping only a cursory rhythm with his baton.  As the music continued he turned to the audience and suddenly we were being conducted.  He motioned for the audience to cease as they came to the middle of the piece. As the end approached the clapping resumed, and the flag was (literally) unfurled. Williams turned to the audience again and with a flourish signaled the end of the piece and the end of the concert.

We had a fantastic evening and it’s one we look forward to repeating this time next year.

Program and ticket

Posted in Half-marathon, Resolutions

Race Recap – Boston’s Run to Remember

I’ve been training for the Run to Remember to fulfill one of my 2013 Resolutions… here’s what happened!

My alarm woke me at 5.10am and I saw the day had dawned rainy and cold.

Great - rainy and cold

Google weather
Google weather

At 5.55am I jogged to the train station to catch the first Red Line train of the morning and pretty much the only people I saw were runners.  It was drizzling a bit but the rain wasn’t too heavy.

I met Hélène on the train and we walked together to the start – and immediately found Helen and Geoff.  Score.

We lined up for the abundant portapotties then went to drop off Helen’s bag.  The hall of the World Trade Center was completely packed and we could barely move.  When we finally emerged we saw we were at the 10.30/mile pacing point and couldn’t do anything about it.

While the drizzle continued there were speeches, a minute’s silence and the national anthem, then at 7.10am the horn sounded and we were off.

The route as per my Garmin (from connect.garmin.com)
The route as per my Garmin (from connect.garmin.com)

Of course, when I say “we were off” I mean, we shuffled forward for a few minutes before it was possible to break into a walk, and then into a ‘run’ – I did the first four km of the race at 7:24/km, 6:26/km, 5:48/km and 6.07/km.  I was getting really angry at this point because the runner traffic was so heavy – my goal of a sub-two hour half seemed impossible and now I was just going for a slow run in the rain.  It was at this point that Helen caught me up – we were just crossing Longfellow Bridge.  She told me Geoff was way ahead and this gave me hope – maybe it would be possible to fight my way through the crowd and make some progress.

So after that 30 minute warm up I decided to get on with the race.  We ran along Memorial Drive – we gave hi-fives to the police officers at MIT, I tried my first ever water stop and managed to inhale half of the cup and spill the other half on my shoes and down my leg.  (By the third water stop I’d go the hang of it).

At the turn-around point at Harvard (and please note, about half a km from my house) my husband was waiting for me and snapped this great picture! This was at about 10km.

At the half-way point.
At the half-way point.

Then it started to rain quite heavily.  I didn’t mind too much though – I had a fantastic view of the city across the river (it reminded my a lot of certain parts of the Brisbane skyline (circa 2002)).  I broke out the GU I had brought with me – just as well as it turns out: the GU table that was supposed to be at mile 8 was nowhere to be seen (it turned up at mile 11).

My splits for this section (5km – 15km) were mostly in the 5.20/km area. I honestly thought there was no way I could keep that up for the rest of the race, but I kept pushing, telling myself to “go hard or go home” (corny, I know).

As we got back into the city – crossing Longfellow again – we passed the 10 mile marker and I looked at the gun-time clock – 1hr 33 mins – and I realised I was in with a chance of a sub-2hr race. All I had to do (ha!) was pull out a 27 minute 5km and I’d be there. My pace for 16km-19km slowed a bit to more like 5.30/km, but I only needed about 5.40/km to make it inside the goal.

As we reached Downtown Crossing T station and I was on very familiar ground, I just started flying. I did the 19th km at 5.01/km and the 20th at 4.39/km. And as I approached the finish line I saw the gun-time was 2:00:30 or so and I knew I’d done it.

Immediately after the finish line we were funnelled into the World Trade Center hall which was completely full again and all I wanted to do was faint/throw up/lie down. The crowd pressed me forward and I got water, a medal and a bagel.  I fought my way outside and ran into Hélène who had finished about 1 minute before me.

Medal and T-shirt.
Medal and T-shirt.

We walked to our meeting point where my husband (bearing the most important post-race food product) and two friends were waiting:

mmmm donuts.
mmmm donuts.

When Helen and Geoff arrived – they had done a 2hr 6min – we discussed what we thought of the race.  We decided:

1. It seemed poorly organized (too many people for the size of the streets, missing GU stand to name but two problems).

2. The race packet was just plain weird  (a single advil, some cereal, and some athlete’s foot powder?)

3. The race t-shirt was pretty crappy – cotton and essentially see-through.

4. The entrance fee was very expensive but the medal was excellent.

BUT we were all extremely happy to have met our goals and run the race so overall we really didn’t care.

Final result:

Place      Div /Tot  Div     Nettime   Pace
2544/6389  383/1286  F3039   1:57:17   8:57
Helen, Geoff, Hélène and me.
Helen, Geoff, Hélène and me – victorious!

[The training plan I used is this one, and my training updates are here].