June 11, 2007


Well…I am finally in Chicago. I can’t quite believe I am saying that, following the endless stream of preparations and the laborious visa application process, but yes, I am finally in the Windy City (which is, by the way, not all that windy) and am engaging in some incredibly hard research at the Newberry Library. All seems to be going relatively ok so far. I have not been robbed, murdered or deported, so I think things are progressing quite well…

Preparing for the trip proved somewhat time consuming. I had thought, rather naively, that I would not require a visa, as I’m only going to be here for 2 months. It transpired, however, that I did require one, as I am studying rather than simply traipsing about as a tourist, so I had to organise this before I left, in addition to filling out a couple of indecipherable US tax forms, booking my flight and sorting out some insurance.

In order to acquire a visa, I visited the US embassy website. Upon doing this, I was immediately greeted by a grinning picture of George Bush, proclaiming proudly that ‘America is not a fortress’. I then went on to see the many forms and documents I had to present to the nice people at the US embassy for the visa application process, which included 2 online forms, a receipt to prove that I had been registered on an online student exchange data base, a form that I had been sent by the library, several passport photographs, proof of income whilst in the USA, and proof that I would leave the country at the end of my visit. I thought that my chances of getting a visa were reasonable, as I did not plan ‘to engage in commercialised vice’, was not ‘a significant trafficker of people’ (I have always confined myself to insignificant forms of people trafficking) and had not, to be best of my knowledge, committed ‘a crime involving moral turpitude’. I did, note, however, that the requirements for my passport photo were quite stringent; I discovered, to my great disappointment, that I could not wear tribal headgear, a traditional facemask or an eye-patch in my photo (I was gutted). I also learned that my face needed to fill at least 50% of the picture, and that my ears needed to be ‘exposed’.

Having more or less negotiated these obstacles, and paid $200 dollars for the privilege, I phoned up the embassy to book an appointment. I then received a nice letter instructing me on how to behave myself when I arrived at the embassy. The letter informed me that the embassy staff would want to take digital fingerprints of all my fingers, and that, should I cut my fingertips in the weeks leading up to the appointment, then I would have to cancel it. It also informed me, helpfully, that there was nowhere to wait inside the US embassy, as a result of which I would have to queue outside, ‘even in inclement weather’, though I was of course not to loiter in the vicinity of the embassy, or I would be moved along. It was not entirely clear from these instructions where exactly I was supposed to stand, but I hoped that this would become apparent on the day. In the event, it did, as the queue stretched all along the side of the embassy. My appointment was scheduled for 12.30, and I was briskly processed in a mere 3 and a half hours, having had a stray battery confiscated in the security hut. I then paid a further £14 for my visa to be sent by courier to my home. It eventually turned up, and, after these minor inconveniences (I will not even go into the 6 separate trips I went on to university house to get them to suspend my PhD funding whilst I am away), I was ready to go…

The Journey:
The flight over was a bit of a marathon. I naturally got selected to be x-rayed and have my hand luggage searched twice on my way to the plane (I would like to extend my special thanks to the nice people at Heathrow for this privilege). Then, when I thought we were good to get underway, the pilot announced that there was some kind of problem closing a door after loading the cargo and that we had to wait on the plane for 2 hours at Heathrow before they scrambled an engineer to fix it, news that did not all please me, as 10 hours is slightly longer than I am comfortable sitting still for, especially as I had to sit next to someone with unnecessarily long legs. On the plus side, I did enjoy seeing the rather spectacular ice-sheets on the north-eastern corner of Canada – one of the small compensations for being squashed next to the window – though this did not make up for the miserable excuse for a curry with which I was fed or the general discomfort of the seat.

When I arrived in Chicago, things got immeasurably more alarming, since my bag was about the last one to arrive in the luggage carousel. I forced myself to stay calm (after all, people hardly ever lose their luggage on flights, do they?) but I started to get seriously worried when the normal sized suitcases stopped appearing and they began unloading large boxes marked ‘fragile’, and, bizarrely, an ironing board from the plane – because obviously they don’t have them in the US. Luckily my bag turned up in the end – even if I was a nervous wreck by that time – and the immigration people let me through with only minor disapproval and glances of suspicion (I had reluctantly decided not to take any explosives munitions or radioactive materials in my hand luggage, which I think speeded up the process).

I am staying in the Seneca Hotel. It is sandwiched between the John Hancock Tower (one of the highest buildings in Chicago) and Lake Michigan, and my room is on the 16th floor, which I’ve just realised is really only the 15th floor, as there is no floor 13. I think I would have quite scenic views from my hotel window, if only I could work out how to open the blind…

My hotel room is kind of ok, though I’ve still not mastered how all the US appliances work. There are a couple of bedside lamps that seem to be devoid of a switch, and that I have to unplug in order to make them turn off. There’s a strange contraption that might be a tin opener, which seems to require electricity in order to function (I have been reduced to buying a manual one), and the shower is one of those funny joint tap/showerhead ones, where you have to experiment with various levers in order to get water to come out of the shower. Most worryingly, when I plugged in my computer yesterday I saw sparks between the adapter and the socket, which I don’t think can be good. I’ve tried to solve these technical glitches by looking at the little instruction booklet in my room. This is, however, of limited help – there’s lots of stuff on ‘places to worship’, ‘limousine services’ and local florists, but nothing on basic electrical problems – so I might have to use my own initiative…
On the plus side, the TV does work, which is obviously the main thing, so I have access to around 100 channels of really tacky US programmes. I’ve found one channel devoted entirely to poker, another to diagnosing people with mysterious illnesses and another that that concentrates mainly on Pokemon, so it’s all very educational. More productively, I found a channel that televises Formal 1 races in time to watch the carnage of the Canadian grand prix, plus another channel with multiple re-reruns of ER, and another with a good smattering of Friends episodes, so I should have some entertainment whilst I’m here. I also watched a programme about a volcano near Seattle which is apparently going to erupt at some time and obliterate vast numbers of people and, less reassuringly, a CNN report on gun crime in Chicago, which luckily seems to happen on the other side of the city…

To be continued…

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