Thursday, June 30, 2011

Open wide

"Open really wide."

There are occasions for which such request would lead to great, likely unbloggable, things. This, however, was not one of them. I inhaled and squinted as light bounced from the mirror being inserted into my mouth. It was the day before I was due to leave for a month in Japan and I was having my first tooth filling. 

This rather ill timed event had been instigated by a conversation with my advisors the previous Friday. They had pointed out that since I would no longer be their postdoc once I officially took up my position in Japan, all my employee benefits would cease. The most important of these, my health coverage, was exempt since Canada's socialized medicine meant that it was tied to my residency and not my employment. This would end with my visa in October. I therefore waved the information away... until it occurred to me I hadn't seen a dentist in about three years. 


The reason I hadn't been to a dentist was because I hated them. All of them. They had drills and needles and scalpels and you couldn't even pretend it wasn't happening because they were RIGHT THERE in your face. Literally. What was more, I hadn't really needed much in the way of said drills, needles and scalpels and therefore I was irrationally scared. And there was really no point in trying to talk me out of that.

Prior to this particular Tuesday, the only time I had needed more than a clean at the dentist was when my top two wisdom teeth were removed. That procedure had been triggered by an infection in one of the teeth and --after a transatlantic flight where I failed to perform the extraction myself with Virgin Atlantic's plastic cutlery-- neutralized all concern regarding drills and needles and scalpels. Plus, each tooth only took two minutes to remove. 

I actually needed two fillings. One was so small that no anesthetic was needed. The other was going to require more work. I shuffled along the corridor at work, expressing my highly legitimate concern to those I met.

"It's not really a drill, it's like a sand paperer." One of my friends assured me.

Clearly this was lies. It was going to be a HUGE PNEUMONIC DRILL probably supported by two other dentists as it was lowered into my mouth. 

.... I'd had all weekend to think about this, can you tell?

It was probably a good thing the dental surgery was only across campus. If it had been further I'd probably have run for the hills and even now be living a life as a toothless hermit in the foothills of the Rockies. They were also extremely kind to me. The dental nurse held my hand while they gave me the injection (I might be 30, but at that moment I felt about three) and after that I couldn't feel anything so it really didn't matter what they were doing. In fact, the hardest thing was to hold my mouth open for half an hour, but the dentist gave me a block to bite down on so I could rest my muscles. 

The anesthetic wore off after a couple of hours and the following day I wasn't able to see or feel where the work had been done. Pretty amazing really. 

Oh and the drill? Totally a sandpaperer. Didn't actually require multiple people to lift it. I knew you were wondering too.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This is a Buffalo bound local aeroplane

Our plane touched down in Charlotte twenty minutes late. Fearing another missed connection, I sprinted across the airport and made it to my gate just as the last few passengers were boarding. Taking my seat, I waited .... and waited... and ...

"We apologise for the delay. We're standing by for passengers from a Rochester flight that was cancelled."

That made sense. Buffalo is about an hours drive from Rochester so while undoubtedly irritating, it provided an easy alternative for stranded travellers. After a few minutes, a small gaggle of vexed Rochester-bound people boarded. From their conversation, it appeared that the flight had been too under-subscribed to fly. Still, at only 60 minutes away, there were trains, buses ...

"This flight will now be making a stop in Rochester before Buffalo."

... and apparently planes. Since when did flights make local stops like a weekend NYC subway? There was so much fury at this that one passenger had to be calmed down by the pilot. A young man in front of me was especially put out since he would actually have preferred to go to Rochester, but his bags had been checked through to Buffalo and couldn't be retrieved.

During this furore there was more waiting while we took on the extra fuel needed to make our spontaneous touch down. We were assured that the time on the ground in Rochester would be no more than 30 minutes and our flight time to Buffalo would be a staggering 15 minutes. This just left one very obvious question:


The total delay on the Buffalo flight was two hours. The driving time to Rochester would have been one hour and the fuel costs to bring a plane down and back up can't be low. Perhaps there was no way of getting a bus in Buffalo after midnight. Maybe all the car rental places were closed or only rented out two-seater sports cars. It could be that US Airways only ever thought about planes.

Or maybe the world has just gone completely mad.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Computer says no

I dropped the rental car keys on the counter of the AVIS desk at Gainesville airport. "The gas tank is 3/4 full," I said. "But I'm on the state rate."

Since I no longer worked at the University of Florida, I shouldn't be using the special state rate for car rentals; a discount that gave you a preferable daily rate, removed the hefty excess charge for dropping the car at a different Florida location from where you collected it and gave you a reasonable price for fuel usage, making it less important to refill the tank. However, since I still knew the magic phone number and no one ever asked me directly whether I should be doing this, I remained numb on the subject.

The assistant behind the counter punched in the details of my rental agreement to his computer and handed me the bill. I had been charged $25 for a quarter of a tank of gas. In the UK, this might be quite reasonable, but the gas stations in town were displaying around $3.61 / gallon. I shot the man a peeved look.

"I'm on the state rate," I pointed out. "It's only a quarter of a tank of gas."

He looked at the bill and shrugged. "It's what the computer gave me."

I was reminded unavoidably of Carol from the TV show Little Britain who works as a bank clerk and has the catchphrase "computer says no" which she utters in deadpan tones in response to customers' ever more desperate pleas.

"That doesn't mean it's right." I tried to smile pleasantly.

My unhelpful friend shrugged again and tapped away at the keyboard. This did not look good. But then:

"I could just remove the cost of the fuel from your bill."

"..... Yes, I would find that acceptable."

Hard not to, really.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

(Literal) missed connections

"The flight to Jacksonville has left."

Given the time, this wasn't a surprising statement but I had hoped that my connecting flight had also had been delayed due to the weather in Chicago. Quite how a storm in Illinois came to be my problem on a Buffalo to Florida flight is anyone's guess. However, it was apparently due to this that my first flight had been late departing, causing me to miss my connection at Washington Dulles. At 10 pm, I knew there wasn't going to be another flight that day and I trudged off resignedly in the direction of the United Airlines customer service counter. 

To be fair to them, United were making an attempt to sort everyone out. I had expected to be told that weather was considered 'an act of God' and I was responsible for my own arrangements until the next flight out of Dulles. Instead, I found out that I had been automatically rebooked on a flight the following morning and could have a complimentary a hotel room .... except there were no hotel rooms left.

Slightly strangely, the fact I qualified for a hotel voucher was due to not being a US resident. While I wasn't going to object, I couldn't see why my situation as a Canadian resident was worse than anyone else who had flown in from Buffalo. They couldn't exactly nip home for the night either. Perhaps it was due to a believe that nowhere outside the US had exciting buildings such as hotels so foreigners would be flummoxed. Or maybe it was merely that Americans should be responsible for their own weather system.

Either way, Canadian, American or British, there was no room at the inn so it was rather academic. They did provide everyone in the queue with a $15 meal voucher. The person next to me in the line looked at this coupon before asking;

"Where is the nearest restaurant?"

"Behind you," he was told. "But it's closed."

I was preparing myself for an uncomfortable, hungry night in the airport lounge when a woman in front of me asked about taxi vouchers to take us into Washington DC. Dulles airport is about 30 miles outside the city, so a cab ride wouldn't be an incidental expense, coming to around $60 each way. Her idea was there might be hotels there with free rooms. My idea was that there was a friend there with a free couch. Surprisingly, United bought into this idea. Possibly the line of irate passengers was becoming annoying and sending them to get lost in the city sounded like a great plan.

It's perhaps not conventional to visit someone between 12 and 5 in the morning, but my friend took it well. I rolled into his apartment in the middle of the night and was out before the dawn to catch an early morning flight. Really, when you look at it, these were highly questionable actions. I blame United and that's all I have to say on the matter.

It's now 7:30 am and I'm waiting at the gate. Sadly, I'm now going to miss a friend's thesis defence which is this morning but I'll be there by the time everyone's moved onto the party. And really, I'm far more in it for the after party than the astrophysics in any case.

Monday, June 13, 2011


As my time in Canada was now drawing to a close, my advisor invited our research group over to his house for a BBQ. Among the guests was a Japanese friend of mine who brought along his three year old son. Feeling this was the perfect victim on which to try out my very basic-level Japanese language skills, I approached him holding my advisor's kitten.

This is a small cat. It's cute, isn't it?

It's not cute.


Where does one even go from there?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Too stupid for eggs with toys

While passing through the US border control can be infuriating, it goes without saying that the guards are there to protect us all from something much worse. It is quite understandable that the American government would want to monitor imports such as animals, food that might not conform to US safety regulations, drugs that could be sold on the black market, firearms, suitcases collected from strangers in Japan belonging to someone whom the carrier met on the internet[*], expensive items such as alcohol whose sale could damage the economy and, above all....

Kinder surprise eggs.

These small chocolate eggs that contain a toy are loved by children in both Europe and Canada (a snack, a surprise and a toy; 3 treats in 1!). However, I learnt tonight that the US border control guards are under orders to seize and destroy any kinder eggs that pass through their gates. Apparently, American children CHOKE on the toy and DIE INSTANTLY. ALL OF THEM.

There is really only one word that springs to mind at this news:


[*] If you don't know .... don't ask.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Licensed to travel

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. The concept goes that anyone from anywhere can make it in New World and for centuries, people have entered the country searching for their own 'American dream'. There are many good reasons for this but let me assure you none of them involve visa applications.

To be strictly fair, getting your US visa is not so much hard as long, tedious and expensive. Once you have received your work papers from your employer, you must make an appointment with the US embassy.

In your country of citizenship.

It is impossible to apply for a US visa from inside the US. Technically, you can go to a different, randomly chosen country that might have good margaritas, but the documentation warns that this increases your chances of refusal. The idea being that if you can't stand even a week with your parents, perhaps you'll conveniently forget to leave America once your visa expires.

To make an appointment at the embassy, you have to call their premium rate telephone number. This call must be made up to a month in advance of your desired appointment and ....

.... also from within your country of citizenship.

Because it is charged at the inflated rate of £1 per minute (or equivalent), you can't use skype and it must be from a national land line. The last two times I had to get a visa, I was living in the US so I had to ask my Mum to call on my behalf. It occurred to me recently I probably owe her dinner at the Ritz as a thank you.

After this you receive an appointment letter in the mail with dire warnings about being turned away if you are late. Despite this, pretty much everyone has the same appointment time. You all queue up outside high wire fences and watch the only guys armed with guns in the UK prowl the outside. The documents you must be equipped with include your current passport plus any past passports that contain stamps from the US, a receipt for several hundred dollars worth of fees, a pre-paid recorded-mail envelope for return of your passport and an application form that lists every instance you've passed through US border control.

... Did I mention I was living in the US during two of these applications? That list was somewhat long.

Amusingly, my American friends who have moved to the UK tell me that the fees for a British visa match the ones for the US equivalent to the last cent. The Brits, however, don't bother actually seeing you. You just mail in the money stuffed in your passport like some form of documented bribe. Fair's fair, after all.

Once done with the queue, it's through the metal detectors where laptops, phones and anything fun that might play 'angry birds' is removed from your possession. You end up in a room that resembles an airport lounge and has a ticketing system like a fresh food counter. In one corner there is a small kiosk selling muffins and coffee. It may seem unexciting, but after a five hour wait that snack counter is where it's at. 

Finally, there is a couple of two minute interviews, a finger print scan and you get to leave with a note saying that your passport will be mailed to you in roughly two weeks, barring any unforeseen circumstances such as concern over your second cousin Osma or the playstation IV being released.

It was therefore with a sense of resigned apprehension that I went into Toronto to get my visa for Japan. Japan, in contrast to America, is perceived as a mono-ethnic society so their immigration process had every reason to be difficult.

The embassy building was two blocks away from the bus station. I was there and back in time to get the same bus and driver back to Hamilton.

No appointment was necessary, the paper work was a single page that accompanied my work papers and my passport can be collected on Wednesday in exchange for $35. Where does one even go from here?

Oh right. Japan.

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's cool to be 20

So here's the thing Canada; I feel you're undervaluing the 20s. The positive 20s in centigrade I mean; I know you got the negative ones covered. Weather for you is all about extremes and I've noticed that your year seems to go something like this:

Snow, snow, snow, too cold for snow, snow, snow, frozen snow on ground, thaw, bigger thaw, snow cleared, surprise! snowpocalypse!, thaw.

This is typically followed by two weeks over which the same volume of snow is dropped on us again but in the form of water.

Then KA-BAM! It's the mid-30s and I have to hide in the dark coolness of my basement as if 'Twilight' was my favourite novel. In truth, Canada, I preferred the Harry Potter books and the wizards got to go outside all the time. All. The. Time.

What I am trying to tell you, Canada, is just because I am going to be 31 this year, you don't have to beat me. Perhaps you feel intimidated by the USA working in Fahrenheit? Is Buffalo laughing at you, saying that temperatures over there are reaching 100 and you can't even get mid-way to triple figures? You shouldn't feel bad, Canada. Remember, they have to pay to get their sunburn treated.

So next time you wonder how much water can be extracted through the skin of an average Canadian resident, pause a moment. You don't have to always stay on a trend to the very top; it's cool to be 20.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Late spring

Woman on the bus to a couple of random children: "Are you enjoying the summer?"

Small child #1: "It's not the summer. It's late spring."

Smaller child #2: "Summer doesn't begin until the 21st."

Woman: "Oh my god, you're absolutely right! I was completely wrong."

So all of you get your facts right out there. It may be hot and sunny, but it is still LATE SPRING.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Everybody look at me coz I'm ridin on a segway

"What are those lights between my legs?"

This unfortunate choice of wording was underlined by my friend having to clutch the handle of her own illuminated machine as she doubled over with laughter. Our tour guide made a brave attempt to answer my question straight-faced.

"They tell you the segway is activated."

Yes, I was on a segway. One of those electric two wheeled mobiles that look somewhere between a scooter and a circus act. It was one of the multiple options I had for taking a tour of Chicago; bus, boat, bike or segway. Sorry, did I say this was a choice? Who wouldn't take a segway?!

Segways are operated by touch sensitive pads under your feet. Move your weight onto your toes and you will accelerate, lean back and you slow down. Lean too far back and you reverse; not a good thing. Pulling the handlebars straight to the left or right causes you to turn. After a brief instruction, we were set free to wheel around a small square in Millennium Park. Forwards, backwards, round and round and ... okay, I was good to go!

Our tour guide explained to us that our route would involve many hills and dips and a few road crossings. By the time he had explained what we had to do to handle each of these events (lean forward, back, speed up slight to go over bumps) I was less good to go. Actually, I was quite sure I was going to die.

Myself and a long-standing friend were the only two people taking this particular tour. This situation (me feeling death was imminent while my friend wondered where the turbo-boost button was located) had been mirrored multiple times throughout our childhood. It perhaps didn't help that I had been reminded of a certain horse riding incident from when we were about eight twenty minutes previously. Currently, I was concerned about how I'd explain what a segway was to Saint Peter at heaven's pearly gates.

Evidently, my anxiety regarding this near-future conversation must have shown on my face. Our tour guide kindly suggested I went behind him in our line and my friend behind me. As we reached the road, he put a hand on my segway to ensure I survived the crossing, or at least had company into the afterlife.

After a short distance, I gained more confidence and zipped off after our guide around Chicago's parks. A typical segway has a maximum speed of 12 mph and when switched on, cannot be over-turned. The police, incidentally, have suped-up segways that can travel up to 30 mph, go down stairs and can be over-turned so the riding officer can jump over the segway's handle to bring down a suspect. I tried to show enthusiasm for this information while feeling secretly grateful my segway could do no such thing.

The paths we travelled along where largely very smooth, making it ideal segway conditions. Occasionally, we did go over a bump large enough to warrant me holding onto the segway's handle pretty firmly but the large wheels meant they weren't a real problem.

"Boing." I helpfully supplemented as we went over a particularly big crack.

We saw the Chicago Planetarium, the Buckingham Memorial Fountain (which is one of the largest in the world and is bizarrely operated by controls in Georgia), the spot where Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech for president, the four-story presidential suit on top of the Hilton Hotel (complete with helicopter pad), the building that looks more like a vagina than a penis (apparently an intentional move by the female architect) and the outside of the aquarium and Field Museum where Sue the most complete (and male) Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton is housed.

Our tour guide greeted people cheerfully as we moved around the pavements. This had the combined effect of being good publicity and preventing people from getting annoyed at the more unpredictable driving of the people following him. As we drew level with a runner, our tour guide glanced at the computer on his segway and said casually, "You're going at about 8 mph." He then glanced back at us and shrugged. "I thought he might want to know!"

Finally, we headed back to the rental shop. As we roller over a few cracks in the street, our guide turned to me, looking slightly exasperated;

"Thanks to you, all I can think of is 'boing!' everytime we go over a crack."

My work here was done.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The bordinator

"Nationality?" the humourless US border guard demanded, staring at the cover of my British passport.

".... British."

"Purpose for your visit to the United States?"

"I'm visiting a friend in Chicago."

"What is in Chicago?"

".... my friend."

Ever noticed how my conversations at the US border are highly circular? The guard flicked through my passport, pausing as usual at the two expired US visas.

"You were a student here or something?"

"Yeah, a few years ago."

This was true, but in fact both the visas in my current passport were for research jobs after I'd graduated. I contemplated whether this was going to matter but apparently it went unnoticed.

"I have a recent stamp," I pointed out. "On the back page from April."

The guard continued to look at the centre of my passport. "These are old," he declared.

"Yes, my visas have long expired."

Through the tinted glass, I saw him put my passport in a tube to send it across to the main office.

"Hey, excuse me! I have a recent stamp! I don't need to stop."

I was ignored.

"Excuse me!!"

It was 8 am and my flight was at 10. Technically, I had time to stop if I was forced to go in and get a new visitor visa and passport stamp. The problem was that a delay could cause me to run smack into rush-hour traffic in Buffalo. I also wouldn't put it past the border office to take more than an hour to write out the necessary small green slip.

It is rare to meet a border guard with any care for humanity. This guy was no exception and, should I sound too irritable, I was quite confident would pipe my passport away out of perversity, setting it alight as it flew down the tube.

The guard paused. "It's from April," he said curtly, still holding the dispatch tube like a pipe bomb. "It's expired."

"No, I got it in April," I protested quickly. "It's good to July. Would you let me show you?"

Admire my politeness in the face of obnoxious sadistic border guards. There was more superfluous flicking through the passport. Then a long pause.

Cake or death?

The passport was handed back to me. "I found it," he said expressionlessly.

"Thank you." I flashed him a charming smile. He returned it with a look that made me confident he was the precursor model for the Terminator.  I accelerated hurriedly and scooted off over the bridge.