Sunday, April 29, 2007

Peace Train

I took my first proper US train ride this weekend. I've been on various trains in America: the Subway, commuter trains to Newark Airport and so on, but no proper long distance adventures.

There were a few things that struck me about the experience.

1. It was quite a slow ride, and the track was pretty bumpy. The train didn't get up to any major speed at all and the track was sometimes so squiggly that I nearly spilt my tea. So far not too dissimilar to the UK. But wait...

2. The train was very punctual, both in terms of departure and arrival. We're starting to see the differences...

3. It wasn't dirt cheap, but it certainly wasn't expensive.

4. You had to sign the top left of the ticket. And provide ID if required. I found this part quite strange until I was reminded of the obvious security threat as trains disappear into tunnels under the Hudson to reach New York.

5. The mainline stations are quite dramatic. You're probably aware of the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, but Philadelphia's principal station is another art-deco wonder, too.

It looks like a reasonable way to travel short-ish distances. But I think anything over three hours and it's probably worth negotiating the perils of domestic flight instead.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Go Now

Toilets in America are a world apart from what I am accustomed to in the UK.

The principle difference is the minimal use of walling material to enclose the particular hole in the ground. There's normally a good 12-18 inch gap at the bottom, and, for a man of my height, it's very easy to see over the top if I'm standing even vaguely straight.

There is also quite often a reasonable gap between the door and its frame, and a very flimsy lock to keep intruders from your privacy.

I've heard of a number of inventive solutions to the problem, leading from jamming toilet paper in the crack by the door, to walking into the trap with a pronounced stoop to protect your identity.

It all seems a little "public" for my liking. Bring back the hermetically sealed rooms of my youth.

Monday, April 23, 2007

It Only Takes a Minute

It rained pretty hard last Sunday. It was actually the second wettest day in New York since records began. Central Park saw a whole 7.5 inches that day.

It was quite a sight. We hunkered down in the apartment and whiled away the afternoon watching movies and surfing the Internet, occasionally looking out the window to marvel at the spectacle. There were times when you could hardly see the building across the road there was so much water in the air.

Whilst fiddling on the web I remembered we had run a little low on wine (always a bad place to be). I pointed my browser at the local wine store's website and found an intriguing mixed case of reds for a reasonable price. I clicked the links, tapped in my payment details and thought nothing more about it.

57 minutes later there was a knock at the door and a very wet man delivered our booze.

Now that's what I call service.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Two by Two

Now that the great British pound is nudging two dollars, calculating how much things cost has become really easy. I still find it hard to think in dollar terms and perform the calculation frequently.

There are other factors of two in my financial life. I get paid twice a month, and I've noticed that a lot of things in America seem to be roughly half price (however it should be noted that rent definitely does not fall into this category).

So, I get paid in a currency that in numeric terms is twice the UK figure, I get paid twice as often, and consumer goods can often be considered half price.

I certainly feel better off, even if I'm probably not. God bless America.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Even though I spent only 42 days of the 2006 tax year resident in the United States, I still had to file a full tax return. Actually, I had to file two returns: one for Federal Tax, and the other for State and City Tax. Oh, and I'll have to submit a UK Tax return in due course as well.

Part of my relocation package gives me the "benefit" of having my tax return prepared by one of the Big Four consultancies. This involved them sending me a letter requesting that I fill in all my relevant information on their specially developed website, and then they would do the rest.

I dutifully did this by the deadline they had imposed and then everything went quiet for about six weeks. Three working days before the Internal Revenue Service deadline I received a FedEx package with my completed return, all ready for me to sign and dispatch.

I noted a few things:
  • I wasn't convinced that the numbers were correct. It's too late to delay sending the forms back, but I may have to file an amendment after the fact.
  • Given the very tight timescales, what would have happened if I was travelling in the days before the 17 April deadline?
  • Best of all, the boxes I filled out on the website seemed to map almost exactly one-to-one to the boxes on the form!

It would appear that tax does indeed have to be taxing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

King Size

I had a very odd experience the other day.

I received a letter from the UK. When I opened it and looked at the piece of paper inside I thought to myself, "My, what an ugly shape and size that piece of paper is."

It was an A4 sheet: something I had previously thought was rather aesthetic.

Constant exposure to US Letter paper has made me grow quite fond of its slightly shorter and fatter aspect. It stacks well, fits easily into my bag, and seems just a little more... I don't know... sturdy.

Which is of course complete nonsense. Any well read person will tell you that the ratio of the sides of a sheet of humble A4 is 1 : √2, meaning that when you fold it in half it retains exactly same aspect ratio (hence A3, A5 etc). Altogether more pleasing to the human eye.

At least I still think US Legal remains much more unpleasant that foolscap.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

We took a flight last weekend from New York's domestic airport, La Guardia.

The car we booked from TriBeCa to the airport was a pleasant enough ride, and cost a remarkably cheap amount. However, as soon as we checked in and went airside it became apparent how desolate the airport really was.

The departure gates were slung out along a long, lonely corridor, and when it was announced that the flight was delayed by an hour we were faced with eating chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks at a crappy sports bar as there was nothing else even vaguely edible in sight.

Once we were herded onto the flight the food had to be paid for, and the folk in front took great delight in reclining their seats into my knees.

Domestic flights in the US are not a pleasant experience.

And to cap it all, we returned from 90F Miami to be faced by a holding pattern over New York due to none other than snow showers.