Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hit the road Jack: Getting my Florida driving license

There comes a time in every expat’s life when he needs to stop driving around on his British driving license and get a Florida one.  Technically, I think I should have done this much earlier, but hey… 

Basically, you can drive here for a time on your British license, but the insurance is ridiculously high.  Plus a Florida driving license is used a lot for ID purposes.


I have also been cycling around quite a bit too.  We live way out on the edge of town and since the public transport here is virtually non-existent and my wife often has the car, there aren’t really any other options.  It takes me about 25 minutes there and back by bike to the gas station for basics like milk, and 40 minutes to the off-license/liquor store and back for booze!  It isn’t much fun cycling on a main road (what would be called a “dual carriageway” in the UK) with cars and trucks racing past at 60 mph. 

There are also other hazards too, such as the dead animals by the side of the road – armadillos, raccoons, even deer...  My main concern is encountering a living snake while cycling, however, which hasn’t happened so far, though there have been dead ones – see pic (extra kudos if you can identify the type of snake!).

I am told that as Gainesville is a liberal, college town, the cycle lanes/paths are particularly good, by American standards.  They are fairly similar to UK facilities, I’d say – which in some ways is a disappointment, as there is generally lots of space here, so it wouldn't be so difficult to build a separate cycle lane here which is physically separated from the car traffic, rather than just a white line painted near the edge.  I tend to want everywhere to be like Holland, however, as far as cycling facilities go.

My Florida Driving License

Each state has their own rules, procedures and laws for driving vehicles.  After spending ages trying to work out the procedure for getting my Florida driving license and spending 45 minutes on the telephone to an advisor (40 minutes waiting in the queue, 5 minutes talking to the advisor), I arrived at the driving place to find that the procedure was actually different to what the website implied and the advisor told me.

Anyway, there’s two parts to the test I’ve got to take – a written element and a “road test”.  I took the written test on the spot which was split into General Knowledge and Road Signs.  I needed at least 15/20 and scored 18/20 and 19/20 respectively, so that was good.  I’ve not booked the road test yet, as our car has a dodgy rear light, which needs fixing.  But I’m looking forward to it.

(I will write up a full account of my driving tests on my visa site: My K1 Fiance Visa Experience, when I eventually get my license.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

The London Olympics, Mitt Romney, and the world’s opinion on the games

I must admit, I was one of the cynics beforehand, but from the moment that Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony of the Olympics began, I have been enthralled by the whole sporting event.  As a expat Brit in Florida, I have been experiencing things from across the Atlantic in the USA, of course – but judging by the mixed, but overall favourable viewpoints expressed in the BBC’s article that I read on world opinion, it has been a great success.  It hasn’t all been plain sailing though, of course, though.

The Mitt Romney faux pas

Before the Olympics even began, there was the Mitt Romney faux pas on his trip to the UK.  My wife told me Romney committed the sin of not recognizing the fact that the Brits can criticize the Olympics but foreigners should stay out of it.  I can see her point, but I think that there are also other factors at play.

Yes, there were definitely problems with security and travel strikes in the run up to the start of the Olympics, but I think there was a cultural misunderstanding at the heart of the Romney faux pas.  Brits love to moan about things, we know that we are an organized country, but playing up problems into virtual epic calamities is almost a sport in itself and is seen as a strange sort of fun on some level – at least when expressed as a talking point: “Isn’t it terrible, you’ll never guess what’s happened now…” type of way.  The British media, politicians, and general public all collaborate. 

In the upbeat and optimistic US, the Olympic security and strike problems, rather than being played up, would’ve been handled as a “We’ve got it covered, it’s all going to be awesome,” situation.  Romney’s problem was that he interpreted the British moaning literally and then was shocked by the response he got.  Moaning can often be a casual thing in the UK, like talking about the weather and people will even invent stuff just to moan about – it’s a totally different mentality.  In the US, a positive attitude is de rigueur and every problem is there to be solved.

Then again, Mitt made his remarks in an NBC interview, maybe he just didn’t expect them to be reported by the British media…

The opening ceremony

It was just amazing.  I couldn’t believe the Queen’s parachute act.  I was worried that the ceremony might be too traditional or pompous, but if anything it was the other way - modern and full of humour.  I keep meaning to watch the whole thing again as there was just so much in there.  Some of it was pretty obscure unless you are British – the first lesbian kiss on Brookside, Ken Loach’s “Kes”, other classic quotes and clips from film, books, TV and radio through the decades.  It is incredible how much culture, be it pop music, Shakespeare, or Mr Bean(!?!) we have brought to the world!

World opinion on the Olympics

As I mentioned, it was interesting to read some of the feedback from other countries in the BBC article.

The criticism from the Russian reporter that "The average Londoner doesn't make a big deal about food - feeding the kids chips, pizza, toast and sandwiches…  cannot even begin to imagine what would happen to Londoners and city visitors if it wasn't for Chinese and Indian takeaways," is true in my estimation. 

There is lots of good food to be eaten in Britain, but the British public generally has no passion for good food and tends to prefer crap.  Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much different in the US – but they do know how to do customer service, at least.  Plus the US has the advantage of not having France next door, reminding them of their inadequacy.

Some of the other criticisms though, I take with a pinch of salt – biased refs (sour grapes!) and people not being interested in the games outside the Olympic Village - I mean you have to respect the fact that a lot of people just aren’t interested in sport, whether it’s the Olympics, the football World Cup, or the Wimbledon Finals.

There aren’t that many complaints though, it seems.  I know that the London Olympics have gone down well in America from noting the reaction of the media and my friends. 

Whatever its downsides (dirty, overcrowded, expensive, grumpiness, etc.) London is a world city and an iconic one.  Things generally seem to have run very smoothly and the staffing has been cheerful (which is an achievement).  Even the weather has been good by British standards and Team GB have won a few medals (Yorkshire did so well they would have made it into the top 10 if they were an independent country). The BBC also have impressed me with their coverage - every sport shown live on the internet!

I can’t wait for the closing ceremony now.  Apparently the Spice Girls are going to perform…

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Atheism in the USA (British and American differences)

If you didn’t know it already, I am an atheist.  Non-belief is more common in England where I am from, and the culture is generally a more skeptical one.  So it was definitely a culture shock coming to the US where Christianity is still going strong and being religious is to some degree very much part the norm.


This post was partly prompted by a survey recently done by Gallup in the US (June 7-10 2012), where they asked people if they would be prepared to vote for a politician who was Catholic, or Jewish etc. and as you can see from the figures below, atheists ended up down at the bottom of the pile below Muslims, with just under half of Americans saying that they’d not be prepared to vote for someone who was an atheist.

The poll asked Americans if they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate who was black (96% would), a woman (95% would), a Catholic (94%), Hispanic (92%), Jewish (91%), Mormon (80%), gay/lesbian (68%), Muslim (58%), or atheist (54%).

Several of my American friends actually expressed surprise that 50% of Americans trusted atheists – they thought that the number would be much lower!

Back in the UK, religion has been in steady decline for 200 years, but the process accelerated somewhat in the latter half of the twentieth century and by the time it got to the post-1960s generations most people stopped going to church altogether.  Here, where I am in Gainesville, North Florida, such are the numbers of church goers that there is actually a  rush hour when church ends on a Sunday morning and the congregations turn out.

American atheists

The core of atheism in the US, as you would expect, is probably in academia and the scientific community.  I think the American scientist, Carl Sagan, has often summed up best for me why I put my faith in science and reason and believe that God and religion are man-made phenomena. 

There are also quite a few atheists on the political left in the US, although nowhere near as many as you’d find in the UK, or Northern Europe generally.  Rightwing American atheists tend to be rarer in my experience. 

Probably one of the most famous atheists in American popular culture is Bill Maher, although there have been plenty of non-believing US comics in the past – W C Fields being maybe the most notable one.  My favorite US satire of American Christians is probably the Ned Flanders character in The Simpsons.

Religion and politics

Although the post-revolutionary founders of the US wanted to keep religion separate from politics and the state, fearing a single religion becoming established like in England, where the Church of England was and is still the official religion (at least nominally), they were only partially successful, in my opinion.  Issues of how much religion should feature in political life and what its role should be are very much a hot topic of debate in the US.

Whatever the debate over the relationship of religion and the American state, the involvement of religion in everyday party politics is without doubt huge compared to the UK.  American politicians on the left and right will often claim divine inspiration, but it is probably fair to say that it is those on the conservative right who mix religion and politics the most.

In the UK, religion is generally seen as a private matter of personal conscience for politicians, as well as the general public, but Americans wear their faith on their sleeve and will often define themselves by it.  It never occurred to me not to vote for Tony Blair because he was a Catholic, but Americans take religious belief (or the absence of) into account much more.  I think it’s also fair to say that for many Americans, being a Christian is associated with being a respectable, upstanding, ethical person – whereas the image of Christians in the UK is far more mixed.

The Practicalities of being an atheist

Just as the politics of the US is skewed very much to the rightwing from a British perspective, the secular/religious attitudes are very much skewed towards religion (especially so where I am in the South).  Although I’d say that without doubt most Americans are tolerant, there is also a devout minority of Americans who see Christianity as being completely tied up with US values and culture and by extension, all non-belief and non-Christian religions are therefore “otherly” and a  threat.

Just being an atheist can be perceived by some as being quite extreme here where I am (rather than being fairly mundane, like in the UK) – atheists are not uncommonly portrayed as being unreasonable absolutists, with agnosticism seen as a more moderate and acceptable form of non-belief.

(I should add that although I would describe myself as an “atheist”, my assessment is that God [or gods] *very probably* don’t exist, but it can never be fully ruled out.  I therefore see religious people who claim that their belief system is definitely the one true faith and their holy book is *the only* one that is divinely inspired as being far more absolutist than myself).


On a personal note, one thing that is strangely liberating about being an atheist in the US for a mischief maker like myself is that I feel able to be critical and satirical without experiencing much guilt about it.  Back in the UK, religious belief can seem so beleaguered at times that poking fun at it can seem like kicking a person in a wheelchair.  In the US (certainly down here in North Florida) you definitely have the sense that you are the one who is part of an underdog minority as an atheist.

Related blog posts by Brits in the USA

Iota Quota writes about how refreshing she finds attitudes, as a British Christian in the US. 

Eve, a non-believer, posts about her frustrations with religion in the US.