Day 1: Welcome to America!

In which Ed runs around like a headless chicken

I had wanted to book a car service to whisk me from JFK to my hotel in Melville; the company was allowing me to expense my taxi fares so I figured doing it ahead of time would make sense. I also didn’t want my girlfriend, AJ, to come pick me up and risk waiting forever. I reached out to the folks on BritishExpats.com (http://britishexpats.com) to get some estimates for wait times at Immigration, with the expected wide variety of responses. The conclusion was ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and I decided to just wait and get transportation myself once I was through.

Immigration itself was actually a painless affair – just lots of queueing. It took about an hour from debarkation to baggage claim, which is really good considering I couldn’t join the usual ESTA queue. Ironically, considering the mantra ‘Everything is bigger in America’ (which I’ve found to be almost universally true), the baggage carts were smaller than the ones at London Heathrow, resulting in my luggage departing from the cart into the path of someone else. Thankfully it only happened once.

Once out, I joined the chaotic mess of travellers awaiting transportation, but managed to get myself an Uber after a few minutes of swearing at my phone’s inability to pick up a good enough data connection to pinpoint my location, and I was underway.

I was sweaty, and I was tired. I was also definitely sick; my nose was stuffy and my throat and chest were congested. I was also still wrangling with feelings of utter sadness at having left my friends and family behind, but knew that there was no time to deal with that. It took an hour and a half for me to get to my hotel, where my girlfriend met me with two cartons of ‘Emergen-C’ that she’d picked up from the pharmacy to try and stave off my illness. A porter helped me with my bags – the airline had helpfully wrapped ‘HEAVY’ tags around them to warn off any good samaritans – and finally I was in my room. I could rest.

No, I couldn’t. I needed to generate my I-94 form – a form that the US Bureau of Customs and Immigration generates each time you enter and leave the country – to send to my immigration attorneys, as well as sign and print a copy of my employment letter, which had been generated spectacularly late by my company. I literally didn’t get it until after I’d arrived in the country. Either way, it was there, which was important as I needed it to finalise my new bank account the following day.

Unfortunately, whilst the Hilton Long Island/Melville is well equipped with Apple iMacs and a printer, they are not kept up to date. The browsers were so old that I couldn’t access the documents I needed from Google Drive. Dinner was called for, so AJ spirited me away to an eatery called ‘Way of Life Healthy Café’, where I obtained a very filling chicken wrap, and the tastiest butternut squash soup that I have ever eaten. We ate at her office – allowing me to print my documents – and then headed back to the hotel.

I slept alone at about 11pm – having been up for about 23 hours by this point – with my alarm set for 6am the following morning. I was in America, but I still couldn’t relax.

Friday

I woke at about 4am; proper sleep evaded me further, so I dozed until almost 6am before rising, noting that my sink appeared to have leaked during the night, and taking a nice hot shower, hoping to blast away the ill feeling.

Having showered, I started getting ready and it was a mere five minutes before I walked back into the bathroom, slipping on the wet floor from the leaky sink and plunging straight downwards, landing on my arse, kicking the toilet bowl with my left foot, and smacking my left knee on the floor. Swearing ensued. I needed to get on with things. I got up, packed once more, and went down to arrange a late checkout. 1pm was the latest they would go, but I took it anyway, knowing that I would never make it back but … well, I’m not really sure what I thought but the idea of bringing all of that luggage back down was just a thought too far for 6:40am.

I called a Lyft (Uber’s not-horrible competition) and made my way to Farmingdale train station where I was to board a train for Penn Station, NYC. There was a trestle table outside, where volunteers were giving away free water, granola bar, and bags of chips (crisps) to commuters. It was produce from local companies. I thought it was a lovely touch, and particularly well received as I hadn’t had breakfast yet.

I waited about 15 minutes for a train, hopped onboard, and settled down with the soundtrack from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ in my ears and the morning sun beaming in through the window. It took about an hour to get to Penn Station. I was heading to meet a representative of Dwell Works, a company that assists in the relocation of company employees from around the world into the United States. She had warned me that Penn Station at that time of the morning was crazy, and had asked if I wanted her to meet me there, instead of outside the Social Security offices in the Financial District – an offer that I had declined.

As expected, Penn Station was busy, but no busier than a commuter station in London at 8:30am. If anything it was slightly quieter. I made my way to the 2/3 line of the subway and hopped aboard.

The tube this ain’t.

For starters, the New York Subway is more like the Overground or cut-and-cover tube lines like the Circle, District, and Hammersmith & City lines. That is – full size trains with some form of air conditioning. They’re old though. Everything about the system screams ‘old and underfunded’. There’s an episode of How I Met Your Mother that deals with ‘Speaking Conductor’ which riffs off the fact that the NYC Subway conductors / drivers are unintelligible. It was funny when I watched it years ago, and now I know that the adage of ‘It’s funny because it’s true’ fits. I could barely make out what they were saying, let alone names of stations. Either way, I got to where I was going thanks to the amazing power of Citymapper – the app that every major city dweller needs in their lives – and was in and out of the Social Security office within 15 minutes.

My contact at Dwell Works sat me down for an orientation of the city – a point at which I really should have ordered breakfast – covering all manner of things about NYC. I shan’t go into them here – I need plenty more material for future posts – but it was helpful. An hour later we went next door to HSBC, where I sat down to open up my new bank account.

This is another process that is too boring to go into, but suffice it to say that if you’re moving abroad and need an account opened in your destination country, HSBC are brilliant. I had already spoken to a company representative via Dwell Works, submitting ID information and so on. It took an hour and a half, but by the time I left I had a checking account (current account) opened, along with a digital application for a credit card and a savings account in my inbox ready to complete.

At this stage, it was 11:30am. I was struggling a bit – having been mostly awake since 4am – but the day was far from over. I needed to make my way to Midtown (about 3.5 miles north from the Financial District) to get to one of our offices, and collect my new laptop and phone. Did I mention I also had my backpack with me, replete with two laptops already?

Citymapper told me that the 4/5 lines were the fastest way to the offices, delivering me to Grand Central in about 25 minutes. I made my way (somewhat slowly, as I was with my Dwell Works person still) to the station, and stood and waited on the platform for 10 minutes, whilst competing announcements told us all that, due to a passenger requiring medical attention, trains weren’t running between certain stations.

Unfortunately, thanks to a) my unfamiliarity with New York subway stops, and b) the competing announcements, it took me a while to figure out that my train was never going to come. Swearing ensued. I needed to get on with things. I headed back to street level, frantically searching for a yellow cab. Taxi after taxi swept past, full of people getting where they needed to be. Finally I stumbled on one that was just letting its fare out, so I jumped in and headed uptown.

It took about 30 minutes to get to the office, whereupon I grabbed my phone and laptop and headed back out again for Grand Central, bag even heavier with three laptops. It was now midday and the summer weather was in full swing. “Moist” is a good descriptor for my general composure at this stage.

Citymapper told me that I needed to board the 7 which, as it turns out, boards from the seventh level of Hell beneath Grand Central. I descended stairwell after stairwell – surroundings becoming more and more grim as I went – before finally finding myself on the platform for the 7. I squished myself aboard, heading out to Queens once more, where I could board a Long Island Rail Road train back to Farmingdale.

Thankfully, AJ was there to meet me at the other end. My arms were falling off at the shoulders, I hadn’t had more than a granola bar to eat all day, and I had lost significant body weight in sweat. We headed for Flushing, where we left the car, bought a few snacks for the trip, and I found myself once again in a cab headed toward an airport.

JFK Terminal 2 is less glamorous than Terminal 4, but it sufficed. iPads were everywhere, allowing you to order food and drink and have it delivered to your table. Apparently this is taking off in Canada, but I hadn’t seen it before and it was pretty cool (though the card scanners didn’t actually work so the act of paying for the food wasn’t such a success …).

The flight from New York to Miami was fairly short at just over two hours. AJ watched Guardians of the Galaxy whilst I watched A Dog’s Purpose, which is not a good film to watch if you love animals and are in a fragile emotional state. Either way, it was a good film, and we touched down in Miami around 11:00pm. All that was left to do was stand in the sweltering, stormy Miami night until another taxi arrived for us, taking us to our hotel.

That night and the following day, I literally slept for about twenty five hours. In fact when I woke up, it was 1:45am on Sunday morning. That day would find us boarding the Celebrity Equinox, bound for our first stop at San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is where this is posted from. I wrote the bulk of it sat on our balcony as we sailed through the Caribbean Sea … not a bad way to start the week!

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