Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mark Does Minneapolis

And I choose to recount my time there in the form of pictures!



I'll slam the rest under links as not to clog up your page with pictures.

Skyscraper #1

Walk

Nature & Commerce

Spoon & Cherry

Skyscraper #2

Crossing

Love

Next stop - Boston in mid November. Then Chicago for Thanksgiving. And I arrive home on the 24th of December.

When I put it like that, I don't really have that much longer here. I'm going to make sure I enjoy it, I'll tell you that. School is going okay - some subjects I'm acing, others I'm not as well. It's taken me a while to get used to the system here - for my first year of university in England, I had to write essays. Lots of them. And I got good at it. Here, there's more of an emphasis on testing, which I haven't done since I was sixteen, and then barely. I can make up anything next semester back in England though, which is reassuring.

All in all, I am enjoying my time here.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Long Overdue Photo Post

Flying over Iceland. This was the second leg of my London-Reykjavik, Reykjavik-Minneapolis flight. The sky just looked beautiful.

The Chippewa River. I walk past this thing every day now, and it's beautiful. It's got a lot fuller now it's Autumn. Here's a view downstream.

Downtown Eau Claire. Just your typical Midwestern town.

Did I mention I went up in a plane over the town? I stayed with some Host Friends a few days before starting school, Mark and Liz. Mark works is a doctor at the local hospital, and his partner Perry owns a light aircraft. So we went up for a spin! Here's a view of the river again. I even got to fly the plane for a little bit! That was awesome. Don't worry, I didn't touch any of the TEN THOUSAND SCARY CONTROLS. Here's Mark and Liz, though that's probably not the best picture of them. Mark, as well as sharing my name, likes to take a lot of pictures too. These are my favourite of the many photos he took: The river, crop circles, and downtown EC.

L-R: Perry, Mark and me.

(This is me indulging my arty side.)

My dorm room! Yeah, I know how to make a bed.

The apparent cleanliness of my desk belies the terror that resides behind!

Oh, you want some photos of me? Alright. Here I am playing with all my new toys, and riding in the back of a pickup truck. Truly, I am living the American Dream.

This really was overdue. Rest assured, I'm going to take a lot more.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Well, It's Certainly Been A While.

Yup. I've let this thing slide, I know.

School has been crazy busy. I've had reports, assignments and papers being written left right and centre. But the work's interesting, so that's good. The campus here is pretty huge, and pretty pretty. So to speak. I still haven't investigated everything it has to offer. Socially, I've been hanging out with some good friends I've made, which has been good. I'm planning on doing updates more often, now I'm into the general swing of things here. So fret not! I will be updating.

Tomorrow, I'm going to have a go at using the bus system here, what with it being free and all. Maybe see some more of the town. The weather has been really weird - torrential rain one minute - humidty the next. And I'm assured it's going to get cold. Really cold. Stupidly cold. So, I'm cursing the weather with one hand and also enjoying it while it lasts with the other, if that makes any sense.

And I will post some photos on here. When I get a chance, and I figure out how to deal with them in Windows 2000.

But yes, I'm alive! And all is well. More coming soon, I assure you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Ice

I've noticed more than a few things different from the UK in this country. For this blog update, however, I've chosen to concentrate on ice.

Now, I don't know how it is in other countries, but we don't place a lot of importance on ice in England. Over here, it appears to be a big deal. Pretty much everyone that gets a drink from one of the machines in the cafeteria fills the glass half full with ice. Which I don't really get, seeing as how the drink's freezing to start with, and you're going to drink it in less than fifteen minutes anyway. The thing's not going to boil up, for crying out loud. I went out to eat in a restuarant last week, and whilst the food was good, they filled my glass of water pretty much to the top with ice. I tell you, it was weird.

Perhaps it's because I don't have much experience with ice machines, and as such always approach one with trepidation. I made the foolish mistake of putting the ice in after the drink the first time I had a go at it. SPLASH CITY! Ah well, I'm foreign, I can get away with that sort of thing. On the other hand, this my be indicative of a deeper difference between the UK and the US, that how in one culture you can get anything you want, but less so in the other.

Far more likely is that I just wasted a few minutes of your time with an pointless update about ice! Hooray!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Great Postcard Caper of 2005

I need help from all of you. As you can imagine, my dorm room is looking more than a little bare. Right above my head, however, there is a pinboard just waiting to have things stuck on it. What sort of things, you ask?

POSTCARDS.

And thus begins The Great Postcard Caper of 2005!

If you can spare the change for a postcard of your town - the lamer the better - or of anything at all, please send me a postcard to stick on my wall! I need your help to decorate my room. In return, I will either send you a postcard from sunny and beautiful Eau Claire, or something else that I haven't quite decided on yet. On top of this, you will receive my eternal gratitude and hugs. I will post a picture of the finished pinboard when I've got all the postcards, and I'll update as to the progress of the board as and when I add things to it.

The best postcard will win a special prize. Quite what determines best is entirely in your hands, so go crazy.

My all-important address is on this page somewhere, but here it is one more time:

Mark Higgins
301-B Governors Hall
640 Hilltop Circle
Eau Claire, WI
54701-6196
USA

I can't wait to get what's coming to me. As long as it's postcards.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Change of Contact

After it's little excursion into the Chippewa River, my cell phone has given up the ghost. However, I now have a landline in my room! So if you feel any sort of need to call me, it's:

+1/001 (715) 855-4136

grey for international callers

I had my first classes today, and they're all going pretty well. Just introductions, etc. I expect it'll get more interesting in the next week or so, but I'm not complaining. In fact, I have to dash to one now!


Monday, September 05, 2005

I Knew There Was Something I Meant To Do

<natali> mark, so why no blog posts?

A question posed to me but minutes ago by a friend. And it's a pretty good question, I'd agree. I've been here a good week, and a great deal has happened, and I haven't had the decency to update my blog! The shame! THE HORROR!

I've been so busy this past week it hasn't even been funny. I won't bore you with the myriad details of my flights (Norwegians everywhere, Iceland is vast and empty, my feet got cold). My experience with my host family can be summed up in one word - amazing. My room was sparse, but with the arrival of my room mate - and a vast quantity of stuff as well - it's beginning to look a lot like home for the next four months.

Class starts on Tuesday. I've been here since Friday last. So, here's a brief list of things I've done.
  • Been to a bar (or two)
  • Shaken more hands than I ever have in my life
  • Forgotten pretty much everyone's names instantly
  • Been to a keg party
  • Been canoeing
  • Removed a virus from my computer
  • Capsized a canoe (that was today, and it was awesome.)
  • Got lost in the Mall of America and bought far too many things (I don't know how that happened.)
  • Slept. Briefly.
Aming other things. But those are the main ones.

So, I keep getting asked what my first impressions of America are. Firstly, it's big. It's somewhat cliched to say that, but it's so true. The people are friendly to the point of being creepy. People are punctual, and woe betide you if you arrive three minutes late, because you've missed the boat sonny jim. On the whole though, it's been more than awesome. I've been a little homsesick at times, but I've been emailing and phoning my family regularly which has been really helpful. The food's alright, I'm able to eat vegetarian quite easily so far. I've made several acquaintances, which has been cool, and I'm looking forward to meeting more when my course starts.

So. All downhill from here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hit Me Back, Just To Chat

Postal Address:

Mark Higgins
301-B Governors Hall
640 Hilltop Circle
Eau Claire, WI
54701-6196
USA

Cell Phone Number:

(715) 864 3807

Sunday, August 28, 2005

I'm Here.

For now, that's all. I'm healthy, happy, and in America.

Proper post coming when I'm actually online.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

All Packed Up, With Somewhere To Go

So. It's come to this.

My case is over in the corner, heavy enough to kill a man, packed and locked up. Save for my MP3 plater and phone chargers, my bag (complete with giant bottle of water) is ready to go. I've even got clean clothes and everything.

My new laptop is loaded, charged and ready to go. I've got my passport, ticket, visa, forms, everything all sorted on the table, ready to pick up and grab. First flight is at 1300. I arrive in Minneapolis at 1755. Eleven hours and two flights will pass between these two times.

I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Two Days To Go

As you can imagine, getting everything sorted is a fraught and amusing process.

- I've said goodbye to pretty much all my friends, which is why I've been so busy jetting around the country. It's been hectic to say the least, but there was no way I could go without seeing them.

- I have a pile of papers on the table that I need to go through/photocopy/take with me. I'm bound to lose something, I just know it.

- Because I'm a sensible lad, and because several people have been getting on my case about it, I'm going to the chiropractor tomorrow in order to work out just what is wrong with my back. Hopefully, he won't crack it about too much. I've probably just got a couple of bones out of place.

- I'm being forced to get a haircut before I go. I hope you're happy now, Jill!

- I need to reconfirm my flight. Hang on a sec.


...


Sorted! And I don't have to re-check in my baggage at Reykjavik, which will hopefully give me time to nip outside and take some photos. The landscape around the airport is supposed to be stunning, and I just bought a stupidly awesome camera for my trip, and hopefully a great deal beyond.

- And then there's packing. Oh my, there's packing. I don't even want to touch on that right now.

Other than all that, I'm pretty sorted. And it's finally kicking in that I'm moving for four months to another country. Which may seem like a short time, but I've never lived away from home before. And this is going to be away from home. A small part of me doesn't want to go. Fortunately, that part of me is being crushed by the rest of me that's extremely excited, if a little nervous. I'd say it's all come on too soon, but it really hasn't. I just haven't been paying attention.

Friday, August 19, 2005

This Time Next Week

…I’ll be on my way to America. The enormity of this has not quite sunk in yet, you’ll all be pleased to hear.

As such, this week has entailed me running up and down the length and breadth of this country to say hello and goodbye to a good number of my friends who I won’t see until my return, quite possibly until the New Year. I realise it’s not actually a great deal of time, but I feel the distance and six hour time difference will play a large part in my feeling disconnected. I don’t doubt that at several points, I will feel very homesick. However, I’m always going to have in mine just what a fantastic opportunity this is for me, and I’m going to damn well get the best out of it.

As for preparations, I have to buy a suitcase. That’s fairly urgent. All my papers are in order, but I need to get some American currency to last me until I can find an ATM, or whatever else I need to do. I’m hoping pretty much everywhere will accept Visa, really. Right now, it’s a case of tying up loose ends, and making sure I don’t forget anything. Which I will.

I’ve already forgotten what I was going to post here. Hmm.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Check One Two

Since this whole shebang got started, I’ve been looking back and forth at my by now well-thumbed American Exchange Student Handbook. I was given this at the very first meeting, and it pretty much has everything I need to know about the exchange in it. At the back, there’s a checklist of everything I need to do before I fly to America. If I can check everything off on that, I’m sorted. So with less than a month to go before I land in Minneapolis, I thought I should probably go have a quick look it.

I can pretty much check everything off on there, but there are a few things I can’t.

10. Spoken to Catherine Bedford in Finance and arranged to pay your accommodation/tuition fees to The University of Winchester during your absence?

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. This exchange is bed-for-bed, which means that I pay for the American exchange student’s bed in Winchester, and they pay for mine at UWEC. However, as I live at home and commute to university, and don’t normally pay that sort of fee, it’s an extra thing to remember. I also need to work out how and when they want paying. I was told they’d get in contact with me, but I decided to fire an email off anyway. They told me they’ll get in touch soon. Sorted!

14. Ensured that you will have adequate funding for your time in America and have evidence to support this?

Hmm. I’ve been doing a lot of overtime lately, meaning I should have an extra £700 (roughly $1200) in my August pay packet, which will arrive just before I head off. That’s going to help. I also have about £3000 ($5300) in savings. Plus student loans, coming in September I believe. So yeah, I think I’ll be okay.

16. Checked that your cash/credit/debit cards can be used in America?

Totally. Now, this might look like a shameless plug, seeing as how I work for them and all, but Nationwide Building Society are the only UK financial institution that won’t charge you to use your card abroad. Most banks will charge a commission for any cash withdrawals made abroad, typically 2.5%, but Nationwide doesn’t. Of course, the individual machine might make a charge, but at least I won’t be paying any commission if I want to get cash out. Though, as I have a Visa card, I’ll be using that as much as possible. I can manage all my money online as well. The only problem would be if someone tries to give me a cheque in dollars, but that’s not really very likely.

21. Checked your luggage allowance with your airline or travel agents?

This I haven’t done either, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. I wasn’t planning on taking a lot of stuff – just the essentials, and I’ll buy anything I need over there. Like a stereo. And a cheap acoustic guitar, probably, because I doubt I’ll be able to go four months without being able to pay music.

So that’s that. Just a few more things to do, but mostly I’m set.

Actually, where on earth are my tickets?

Friday, July 22, 2005

A List Of Updates

Much like Ronseal, this post will do exactly what it says on the tin.

- I know where I'm going to be living next year on campus - Governors Hall. I can't remember if it was my first choice, or second, but I'm not really fussed. I'm in room 301, which looks a lot like this. Fairly sparse, but it'll be home for nearly four months. I'm sure I'll learn to love it.

- On top of this, I know who my roommate is. He emailed me earlier in the week to say hi, and ask if I needed anything for the room, had any questions. I'm planning on purchasing all the necessary big things when I'm over there, and travelling as light as possible.

- I know what courses I'm going to be doing. To whit;

North American Indians
Structure of the English Language
The Vietnam War
Social Class and Inequality

Not a bad lot, really. There's something of everything there, so I'm sure I'll be busy. I have a long list of books I need to rent/purchase, which I think I sort when I'm in America. My timetable's not too bad either: 4:30-5:45 every Monday and Thursday, and 9:30-10:45, 11:00-12:15, 4:00-5:15 every Tuesday and Thursday. Which means I've rather handily bagged Fridays off. Awesome.

- I just called the Student Loans company to make sure I'll be getting my loan in the right place come September, as it's all being paid directly into bank accounts now rather than cheques. This is good, because I’ll be three thousand miles away from a paying in slip at the time.

- I also dropped my phone company a ring, and gave my thirty days notice to cancel my contract. I'll probably buy a phone out there, and use my UK number for emergencies, and keeping in touch while I'm between airports, etc on the way over.

I will be in America in thirty six days. That's five weeks, today.

Eeps.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Done And Done

I am now in possession of a US visa. The final stage is complete.

I’m coming to America!

Following my friend Celia’s instructions (who had been there a few weeks previous), I was able to find the US Embassy in London without too much hassle, despite both of my trains being delayed. So that was a little panicky. But no, I made it in time to stand in a queue outside the Embassy itself for about half an hour. Rather inappropriately, ‘American Idiot’ by Green Day came on the radio I was listening to, just before I headed in to get my bag x-rayed. I’m still not sure whether that was good or bad omen, but it made me laugh anyway.

Once inside, I took a number and sat down for about half an hour again, until my number was called. I then went to a window, thrust all my forms at the man, and was fingerprinted. With that much excitement, I needed a breather, which was just as well considering that I had to wait two more hours for the second part of the interview. After that eternity of trying and failing to understand the Su Doku puzzle in the paper, I presented myself at another window, where I was told everything was fine and my visa was sorted.

Phew.

Despite the waiting, it was all very organised, and sorted relatively quickly. Some people with more complex applications were there all day, I think. And it was a lovely day in London as well.

So that’s that. Now, I just have to think about getting to Eau Claire. I’m going to book my place on the shuttle from Minneapolis in a minute, and email my host family when I’ll be arriving.

Friday, June 10, 2005

A Sudden Sense Of Enormity

That's right. I'm going to America in but a few short months. So what's been happening since my last post?

Not a lot, really. Forms are all in, I've had my final meetings with the people at Winchester, and that's it from then. It's all on me from now on. There was a professor from Wisconsin at my university, so I met her and discussed things I'd been thinking about - campus life, how close it is to major cities, transport and so forth. Which put my mind even more at ease. I also found out who my host family are going to be! I’ll be staying with them for a few days in Eau Claire before I start school, so it was nice to find out who they were. Mark & Elizabeth are a doctor and a nurse, with two dogs and no kids. Rather marvellously, they’re vegetarian. I’m going to try and eat as vegetarian as I can in America in a desperate bid to stay healthy. Plus, I’m not a huge fan of red meat.

Other than that little lot, it’s all about the visa interview. I’ve nearly got everything together – just have to get some photos for the visa itself, which are a very odd shape. 2” x 2” doesn’t seem quite normal to me, but apparently that’s the standard size for American passport photos, so that would make sense. My interview is on Monday the 20th at 11.00AM. I am prepared for a lengthy wait, but it should all go according to plan. I’ll keep you informed of the events. I'm sure they'll be scintillating!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Somebody Ring The Alarm, A Fire In The Room

It was all going swimmingly well. Interview booked, forms filled, sorted. That is, until I find out that one of my end-of-year exams is on the very same day… that I had booked my visa interview. Seriously, that’s stupidly coincidental. To make things worse, I found this out on Monday, but wasn’t able to do anything about it until today because I was away, and all the forms were at home.

So I ring them up today (at £1.30 a freakin’ minute), press the buttons to get through the menus, until I hear this:

“I’m sorry we cannot answer your call at present, but the Embassy has been evacuated because of a security alert.”


I’m not sure whether I was more disturbed at the fact that there was a security alert, or because they have a special message for that. I guess it must happen a lot. Anyway, I called back later, and got through to yet another Scottish woman, who was able to book me another interview on the 20th of June, after I get back from holiday. Which is plenty of time, seeing as I don’t set sail (metaphorically speaking) until the 26th of August. It takes about five days for it to come through, so I’m set. Which reminds me – I have to nip along to Barclays at some point and pay the £60 visa charge. Evidently, they want to make sure only people with money (or disposable student loans) get into their country.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Snowballing

Right. I've recovered form the madness of last week, and have decided to update this thing. I'm quite certain you've all been waiting for that...

First things first. Before I could do anything, I had to pay a mysterious SEVIS fee of $100. I'm still not entirely sure why, but hey, who am I to argue with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department? Certainly not someone who wants a visa. So with the under my belt, I phoned up the US Embassy in London to book my visa interview appointment. The earliest I could get was June 2. And even then, I have to sit around for four hours or so, as they give the appointment to a load of people at once. Again, who am I to judge the logic in this? Recommendations of good books below, please…

After this, I was free to fill in a couple thousand visa forms, all of which were extremely inflexible PDF files. Filled them online, printed them off, ready to go. I do need to get a 2x2” photo at some point, a size I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. Need to look into that. Oh, and I have to pay £60 for the interview. And another tenner on top of that to get my passport back, once they’re done sticking things in it. I’m telling you, they don’t make it easy.

That’s the visa side, anyway. I don’t have to worry too much more about that until June, when I assure you I will not be this calm and collected. Rather more interesting are the UWEC forms I had to fill in. Well, aside from the meal plan form. That wasn’t very interesting at all. But, I did get to choose my accommodation! Technically, we could pick anywhere, but only two sets of halls are open during holidays. Now, I have planned to go to Chicago at Thanksgiving, but in the unlikely even there’s a problem with that, I’d prefer not to be living on the street. So, I present my first choice for accommodation. It looks pretty cool, the rooms are alright. Perhaps most importantly, it has a nice fast internet connection. I expect my views of it are going to be shaped more by the people there, though.

So it’s all coming together, slowly but surely. As a random aside, I’m going to France for a few days at the end of July. All I had to do was buy a plane ticket, and I’m sorted. If only getting into America was that easy.

Friday, April 29, 2005

It Never Rains...

Just got a pack from UWEC.

I-20 forms.

Visa forms.

Residence Hall forms.

Meal plan forms.

After a month of nothing, I am officially snowed under. And I've got a week to get all this sorted. No pressure... First thing to do - pay a SEVIS fee of $100. They seem to like $100 payments in the US, for some reason. I suppose I would too, if I was given the option.

I'll do a proper update when I'm not IMMERSED IN A SEA OF FORMS.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

All Quiet On The Midwestern Front

I’ll let you revel in the wittiness of that title for a second. Okay, that’s probably too much.

The reason I haven’t updated since… however long ago it was, is because nothing much has happened. I handed in all my forms, went off on my Easter break, and… nothing. I can’t apply for my visa until I get the forms back from UWEC (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), so that pretty much means I have nothing to do except twiddle my thumbs.

Until last night! When I received an email from UWEC, about the Host Family/Friend Program. For a few days before I start school in America, I can go and stay with a family to get acclimatised to America. Here’s the form I had to fill in. For ‘special interests, hobbies’ and ‘talents you’d like to share’ I put down my musical leanings. I also requested a large family, if possible. I think it would be fascinating – or mildly diverting, at the least – to stay with a large American family, see how they interact. Probably not a lot different from my own, family, I imagine. But, it’s something I think I’ll enjoy taking part in.

And now? You guessed it. Back to the waiting. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I promise you, I’ll update this every day when I’m in America to make up for the chronic lack of updates.