Posted in Travel

Winter in London

After Geneva and a lovely Christmas at home with the family, J and I got the bus to London for a few days before our flight home to Los Angeles. As with everything London, even the experience getting there was an experience. The bus driver decided to go a different route to normal and we ended up getting stuck in rugby-match-day traffic around Twickenham. Eventually we arrived at Victoria Bus Station, only an hour late, and we decided to act like tourists and get a Black Cab to our hotel, the Marriott off Oxford Street. This proved to be an efficient but expensive way to travel.

Obviously the Marriott is a very expensive hotel but thanks to our rewards credit card we were able to stay there for 4 nights, in a club room, for free. So we checked in, dropped our gear in the small room, and headed down to the club for free appetizers and wine. On the way down we seemed to be constantly getting out of the way of beautiful people and their entourage laden with bags from Primark.

The next day we headed over to Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea. When we are in London we make a point of trying afternoon tea at a different establishment, preferably the place voted best by the British Tea Society. Our first ever time was at Claridge’s in 2006 and that still remains the pinnacle of our experience. At Brown’s we scored a table right in front of the fireplace and over the next couple of hours stuffed ourselves with delicious scones, sandwiches and sweets, washed down with some convoluted but delicious tea. It was an excellent experience and to be recommended.

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Later that day we met up with my best friend from Australia who happened to be living in London at the time. Chantal brought along her two-year-old and we all walked over to the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. On the way we spotted a Bugatti Veyron, a 1-million-pound car, parked in a dark corner with discreet body(car) guards nearby.

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Bugatti Veyron

The Winter Wonderland is basically a fun fair, with carnival type games and activities and some loud flashy rides. Because we had the two-year-old with us, our choices of activities were determined by her, but she seemed to have a good time.

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Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

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Later we took the Tube back to Hackney, where they live, and husband Damo picked us up and drove us back to their council flat, which is now worth about 5 billion pounds in this gentrified hipster suburb. We partook of some adult beverages and opened some Christmas presents and generally passed a pleasant evening.

The next day we had arranged to meet up again, this time at The Shard. Because it was a nice day (i.e. not raining), we decided to head there on foot. After breakfast at the hotel we set out to leisurely take in the sights on the way. We saw part of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, we crossed the Thames by the London Eye and walked along to Borough Market before arriving at the Shard.

London-walk

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People waiting to see the Changing of the Guard
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Whitehall

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We arrived at the Shard and went up in the elevator to the 35th floor. We were booked in for a late lunch at TĪNG, and we were seated on a kind of sofa-table situation – no luck on getting by the window, and had a rather expensive lunch but an excellent chat. We also got the opportunity to check out the view from the same floor. (Top tip if you are cheap: skip lunch and just go to this floor for a look!).

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The Shard
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View from Ting
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Lunch
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Lunch
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Sunset view
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Night lights of London

By the time we were done it was dark, so we took the Tube back to the hotel and collapsed in a heap.

The next day, our last in London, we decided to go out for a full English breakfast. Unfortunately, our chosen location was shut so we had to switch to plan B, which was a Lebanese place – Comptoir Libanais. Breakfast was spicy but delicious.

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Comptoir Libanais

Then, with J ready for some downtime, and me incapable of such a thing, I set off solo for a 5 hour random walk around London with my camera.

According to my Garmin I did 22,000 steps which is about 10 miles. I started walking east-ish down Oxford Street and after a while ended up near the British Museum. I stopped at a café nearby for a ploughman’s sandwich, then continued around to Regents Street then Piccadilly Circus. Then I decided to go to Harrods, so I wandered over and by the time I got there it was dark (4pm). It was absolutely packed inside, to the point where you could hardly make progress, so I quickly gave up and came back outside and spent some time being amused at the ridiculous traffic jam and the two Lamborghinis stuck in it.

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Regent Street
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Regent Street
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Picadilly Circus
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Walking to Harrods
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Harrods

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Then I headed back towards the hotel. I decided to go through Hyde Park because it would be more interesting, even though it was dark. It was also foggy which was excellent and made it very atmospheric. I could see the Winter Wonderland looming in the distance so I knew roughly which way to go. I exited the park at Marble Arch and went across the road to the McDonald’s to pick up dinner (a tradition of ours is to make sure we bring back McDonald’s to any 5-star hotel we stay at). The queue was immense but I got our food eventually. Then I headed back down Oxford Street to the hotel.

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Hyde Park

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Oxford Street

London is a great city to walk in, especially if you want to explore. Around every corner is something interesting or famous, and there’s always a Tube station nearby if you really get stuck. We thoroughly enjoyed these few days in London, even though it was freezing cold. The spirit of Christmas was still in the air which made it extra special. We will definitely be back.

Posted in Life, Travel

Getting an E3 visa

If you’re an Australian applying for an E3 visa, this post is for you. If you’re someone applying for an H1-B visa, this post is probably relevant – it’s a very similar process. If you’re going to a visa appointment at the US embassy in London, this post might be for you. Everyone else: be happy you don’t have this in your life.

This post is partially a whinge, but it is also designed to answer all the questions we had as we were trying to manage the process of Applying for a US Visa. There’s a happy ending, though, I promise.

(Update Feb 2017: here’s a link with a lot of information for Australians applying for this visa: http://ustraveldocs.com/au/au-niv-typee3.asp).

LCA form

Before anything could happen, the first step was for my husband to get his LCA form from his new US employer (LCA = Labor Condition Application for Non-immigrant workers – the same form you need if you are getting an H-1B visa). This wasn’t too difficult – for us, at least. It was emailed to us and we printed it out.

DS-160

Then we had to do a DS-160 each, which is an online form: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/forms/ds-160-online-nonimmigrant-visa-application.html. It’s the usual “put in all of your life history, and tell us if you’re a criminal” kind of form. As a spouse I didn’t get asked as many life-questions (as you’re filling it out you get the impression the spouse is mainly irrelevant, which is a Good Thing when it comes to excessive paperwork).

Once we’d done this form and paid a lot of money (about $280 each), we could choose which embassy we wanted for our visa interview. For our previous visas (J1 and J2) they pretty much insisted it had to be your ‘home’ country (i.e. Australia) but for the E3 we could go anywhere (except Mexico or Canada, of course).

Interview

So we chose London. The website [https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html] assured us that the wait time for a visa appointment in London was a maximum of 1 day. So imagine our surprise when we clicked “give me an appointment” and the first one was more than 10 days away. Luckily it wasn’t the end of the world but it was an unnecessary stress. I note, as I’m writing this, the embassy also seems to post wait times on twitter as well [https://twitter.com/USAinUKConsular] – so who knows what is actually true. We booked the appointment through the website – specifically for non-immigrant visas applying in London [https://ais.usvisa-info.com/en-gb/niv].

Once in London we stayed at the Park Lane Mews, near Hyde Park – and walking distance to the Embassy.

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Not as expensive as it looks.
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Early morning in Hyde Park.

Our appointment was at 8.30am so we got up early and went for a walk in the park. We were just looping round to Grosvenor Square at about 8.15am to see what was what and noticed the queue outside the embassy was about 50 people long. We panicked immediately (and unnecessarily – a familiar theme) and got in the queue.

Then a man came along the queue and told us to go into a much shorter queue, which we did. This, however, was just the queue to be crossed off the list and to make sure you actually had your appointment letter, passport and DS160 with you. We were then told to go back (to the end) of the long queue.

The long queue was for security but it actually moved pretty fast and we walked in the door at 8.30am, right on time (I guess? The appointment time didn’t seem to be set in stone – I’m sure we could have walked up at 8am and would still have been allowed in). The lady on the desk gave us a number then we went into the waiting hall.

The hall was vast – I guess there were 200-300 seats, as well as a little stall selling tea and coffee and snacks, a photo booth (I didn’t check, but I wonder if it just did American style passport pictures?), a water fountain and bathrooms. There was one giant screen showing the various ticket numbers and what window to go to, and another giant screen showing powerpoint slides with FAQs and other information. There were, I think, 25 service windows in total.

(In contrast, the Melbourne embassy had seats for about 10, 4 windows, and a single TV showing US propaganda on a short loop.)

The hall was three-quarters full and I didn’t notice anyone holding a UK passport.

We were called to our first window (you have to go up twice) at 9.05am, and we talked to a British-accented lady for about 10 minutes. We had to show our LCA form, DS160, and passport. We were asked the name of my husband’s employer, whether we were still using our J visas, and whether we were resident of the UK or just visiting. We had to give 10 fingerprints each too. The lady kept all our documents and we were told to sit down again.

We then waited until 9.50am when we were called to the next window (around the corner, out of sight of the masses in the hall). By this time, due to extreme boredom mixed with nerves, we’d figured out how the window distribution worked, and my husband had calculated what time we’d be called to the second window (he picked it to within 5 minutes!).

The second window was where the interview proper happened. The lady we spoke to here had a US accent and she asked my husband where he was going to be working, his job title and his qualifications. She asked whether he’d worked in the US before. She asked me about my dual citizenship and how long we’d been married – I was so surprised to be asked a question I drew a blank, then she asked to see our marriage certificate (the original, of course). She also asked if we had children. Then she announced our visas had been approved. Done and out the door at 10am.

The embassy kept our passports so they could stick the visa in it and then post it to us later.

Passport delivery

The embassy uses a courier company called DX Group, and you can choose your delivery location from a list of distribution points. Our closest one was near Southampton. For a $60 fee (each) we could have had it posted to an address we chose. We decided that a trip to Southampton would be preferable to paying $120 and fretting about being at home at the right time for the delivery.

We were sent an automated email when the parcels were dispatched from the embassy (on Wednesday – our appointment was on Monday), and we used the tracking number to find they were due on Thursday. So Thursday came and went and the website didn’t update. There was no phone number to call – it’s like they don’t want calls. At any rate, on Friday the website eventually updated to say they had arrived, and despite the embassy saying we would get an email telling us, we didn’t.

So we got a lift with my dad to the place on a horrible industrial estate, rang a bell outside a miscellaneous door, told them the name on the parcel then sat at the bottom of the dusty stairwell waiting for someone to appear. After some confusion about how many parcels we were expecting, both passports (each in a separate parcel) were handed over.

The end result

We were happy to get our passports back within a working week, and to see that a two-year visa was put in both passports, even though my husband’s passport expires in 18 months. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, when we got to the border our stamp and I-94 were for the expiry date of the passport. This has consequences for all other transactions with the US government – length of my work permit, probably the length of our California driving license, and all of my husband’s paperwork at work. We discovered, once it really was too late, that you can apparently show up with a different passport number than the one on your DS-160 [https://ais.usvisa-info.com/en-gb/niv/information/faqs#passport_replacement]

My husband and I have had to do this three times in three years. We’ve spent hours on websites, spent a fortune on plane tickets (though it’s not all bad – we do get holidays (blogged in part 1, part 2, part 3)), and stressed out a lot about timing – will we be able to book an appointment in time, will our passports arrive in time, and so on – all so we could come and live in this crazy country. All I can say with certainty is it’s just about worth it.

In the cactus garden at Huntington.
Getting in the California spirit at the Huntington gardens
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.