Moving In

Ten days ago, we moved into a pretty four-bedroom house in west Houston, near the Energy Corridor. At least I think that is how you would describe the area. It’s a “gated” community which means that you need a special key to enter the estate and all visitors have to enter via a security check point. This estate is dotted with pretty lakes and fountains. The reason for the lakes is that Houston, as I mentioned before, is very flat and built on a swamp so there is a lot of standing water. In the lake estates the run off is funneled into the lakes and the fountains keep the water aerated so it does not stagnate. The upside is that there are heaps of water birds and turtles in the lakes and pretty walking paths around them.

Welcome Home

We took one of these paths for a short walk with Ben and Maddy last Saturday. It was a warm day. As we passed over a small bridge we looked down and noticed a large snake on a rock at the creek edge. It was brown and black striped and, if we were in Australia, I might have thought it was a tiger snake. As we watched it, we saw that there were in fact three snakes in that little part of the creek. Of course, I checked on line, and they are diamond backed water snakes (I think) which are not venomous. It reminded me that this is an environment where I do not really know the rules of thumb that we follow “downunder” to stay safe in the great outdoors.  New learning!

The estate is just lovely, and we have been thoroughly welcomed. Our next-door neighbors introduced themselves on the first day and welcomed us. The estate social committee run a social evening on the first Friday in the month, which just happened to be our first Friday in the house. We went along armed with wine and food (it was Friday so there was cheese involved). When we arrived at the clubhouse there were only about four people sitting in a huge room on lovely overstuffed lounge chairs. Anyway, we went in and introduced ourselves. Fairly soon more people started to arrive and by the end there might have been 20 or so. The food was on a huge dining table but well away from where everyone was sitting. I had brought a baked Camembert and it was still hot in the lovely baking dish that Cathy Back gave me a few years ago, so I moved the food to the big padded foot stool in the middle of the chairs. In no time the food and drinks were being suitably consumed and I was being asked if I wanted to join the social committee(!) All of those years of Friday night drinks with the BFFs has paid off by the looks of it. Cheese boards have just become THE Thing here as far as entertaining goes. The pre-super bowl discussions around food on the TV often involved the how to put together a good cheese board. Again, I feel like I have had some good training in this area, so feeling quite comfortable.

However, today a lovely neighbor from over the road popped in to introduce herself and she turned up with a packet of cakes. She is from Belgium and said that in the US, when people are going to visit their neighbors, they usually bake homemade cookies. She apologized for bringing a packet! We sat down for a cup of tea, but I realized later that I had not offered her anything to eat, including the yummy cakes she had bought. It looks like I need to relearn some baking skills. The trouble is we do not really eat much of that sort of thing, and with only the two of us, it might prove detrimental to our waste lines.

The Texans are very polite. With tradies coming and going and having to deal with utilities agents over the phone, I have really noticed how helpful and courteous they are. I haven’t been called Ma’am this much since I took the Knox boys to Cambodia. The other thing I get is Miss Melinda. When people ask my name, I say Melinda Wilson; from there it becomes Miss Melinda, not Mrs. Wilson. It feels a lot like “Driving Miss Daisy”-southern drawl and all, y’all.

Our yard has some well established trees and outside area. We have the cutest little family of squirrels in our backyard. I asked the neighbors at the social evening about them. They were not too complimentary about squirrels. I’m not sure why? We think that they are really cute. They run along the fence every morning and up and down the two big oak trees in the backyard. I’m pretty sure squirrels communicate through tail gestures and they wriggle their tails at each other up and down the tree. Then at about 10am they are gone. They are not nocturnal but I guess tall that wriggling makes you tired and they need to stay out of sight of the big black hawks roaming around.

We have four bedrooms (lots of room for visitors) and we bought another bed before Ben and Maddy arrived. I will make one room a study and the others will just be vacant. Despite the number of bedrooms, the living spaces are not too big, so we don’t feel too much like we are rattling around in a huge house without any furniture. The kitchen is a nice size, but it has one of those glass cook tops which I’m a bit paranoid about scratching. There are quite a lot of cupboards, but without stuff to put on the shelves there are lots of voids. The major appliances (fridge, washer and dryer) are all part of the house. It actually says in the lease that you will NOT hang clothes inside to dry them. There is no outside clothes line. I think they worry that hang drying clothes rather than putting them in the dryer might cause mold.

It was so fun having Ben and Maddy here. It was a great excuse to try out some of the local specialty food restaurants. In Houston, it’s Mexican, BBQ and steak. Fried chicken and seafood are also popular. The first night the kids were here we went to a Mexican place called Guadalajara. You cannot book so we just rocked up having phoned ahead to put our name on the waiting list. When we arrived, the place was packed and lots of people waiting in the reception area. Anyway, we confirmed we were there and asked how long the wait was. The waitress said about 40 minutes, so we made our way to the bar for Margaritas. The drinks always come with corn chips (real ones) and guacamole so we settled in. We had barely been served our drinks when they called our names. It must have been 10 minutes at most. As Ben said, better to tell you the worst then deliver better, than the other way around. The food was really great but looking around we figured we were not likely to actually eat the portion size being presented to other guests ordering a’la carte. We decided to share some lime beef fajitas- we ordered the amount to share between 2-3 people. Our waitress said that we could order more if we needed- we could not even finish what we ordered. It was really delicious but so filling. There was no way 2 people could have eaten all of that food. Fortunately, most places are happy to wrap it up for take away.

BBQ tasting plate

Our BBQ experience was lunch at a terrific BBQ place called The Pit.  We sort of judged how good it would be by the size of the pickups in the car park. Yummy, melt in the mouth food but I couldn’t eat Texas BBQ every week. It is quite fatty (I think). The steaks, however, are excellent. Rob and I have been to steak restaurants twice already and have not been disappointed.

On Wednesday Ben, Maddy and I went to Galveston. I made them listen to the Glen Campbell Galveston song on the way down. Unfortunately, it was so foggy we could not see anything. We had lunch in a seafood restaurant across the road from the beach and could not actually see the water. The people I have met here from other sates say that the beach is nothing to write home about; muddy colored water and dirty sand. I couldn’t tell you because I really could not see it. It would have been 20 meters away at the most. It was fun to go there though, and I am sure we will give it another go when the weather improves.

We also have been to Brenham in the next county over. It is known for Blue Bell ice cream. Texas’ favorite apparently. It is excellent. even though it was a very cold day we went to the ice cream factory and ate lots of yummy Blue bell ice cream.

Galveston Beach. The beach is just there behind us….the top of the picture is just fog…

We are starting our weekend trips this weekend. Austin should be the first stop we think. Looking forward to it. I’ll let you know how it all goes next time.

PS I’ll be back in Australia in April.

Driving me crazy

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Houston is very flat and on a clear day you can see so far. It is also built on a swamp, according to the mattress sales guy who is a native Houstonian. For this reason, according to my source, the roads are elevated.

Rob had told me how incredible and huge the road system was, but I thought he was just exaggerating. When we drove from the airport that first night, I just couldn’t believe it.

The motorways/tollways/freeways weave around each other like cooked spaghetti. These roads are 5 or 6 lanes each way with exits and entrances coming on and off every half mile or so. I was on a section of the Sam Huston tollway last week and it was like getting to the top of a roller coaster. It was so high.  I could see for miles and I got that funny feeling in my stomach like just before the roller-coaster heads down. A bit scary when you’re the one driving. People are very polite (so far) about letting you move between lanes, but forget the 3 car spaces. I know that this is the same in Sydney, but the sheer volume of traffic and the speed makes it seem really crowded and scary.

In truth I have only driven on the wrong side of the road twice. The first time was the very first morning I was in Houston and Rob insisted I drive. Luckily it was Sunday morning and there was virtually no one on the road. That was part of the problem- when there are other cars its obvious where you should be… There was a bit of yelling and tears but we continued on. Rob is right, I have to drive here so its have a go or go home.

Car parks take particular attention as the lanes are not so defined but at least everyone is going slowly. The second error was really weird and quite recently. I pulled onto a road from a service station and the car ahead of me went left and I was going right but for some reason (not concentrating) I pulled onto the opposite side of the road. I realized immediately but there was that moment of total confusion. A car came around the corner to see me on the wrong side. He was going slowly thank heavens. I gave him a wave as I pulled onto the right side then pulled over to gather myself. It still gives me chills when I think about it.

I just try to remind myself every time I get in the car that the driver sits in the middle of the road. the problem is that there are so many one way roads. Fortunately you are rarely on a road by yourself in Houston.

If you miss your exit there is usually an alternative one at the next exit. I love WAYZ. I could not have left the hotel for the last few weeks without it. Not only does it show me the best way to get anywhere but it changes as the traffic conditions change. This is really important because the traffic is unbelievable. There is not much public transport; there seems to be a metro in the downtown area and a few buses, so everyone drives. And fast. The speed limit on the tollways and freeways is between 60 and 65 mph and 45mph on the side link roads. However,the speed limits seem to be voluntary.  I mentioned this to the hairdresser on Friday and she laughed at me. If I drive at the limit, which seems very fast in heavy traffic, I am often one of the slowest cars. Speeding drivers weave in and out of lanes at much more than 70mph. Yesterday when I was stuck in slow traffic, a motorbike sped past weaving through the traffic at a ridiculous speed. I fully expected to see him plastered to the back of a truck around the corner.

The news has reports of road fatalities every morning. There was an electric sign on the freeway yesterday that declared the state road toll for 2018 was more than 3500 (I think it said 3547). It was about 13.1 per 100,000 population in 2017. Houston has the highest number of fatalities per head of any city in the US. Now, it is one of the biggest cities in the US and the population of Texas is about 28 million but compare those statistics to Australia (population around 25 million) where the 2018 statistics for deaths per 100,000 population is 4.6. According to Nathalie, our relocation agent, Texas allows texting and holding your phone while driving. Seatbelts are mandatory, just like in Australia but again it does not seem to be something that people do. For the last few days, I have noticed the car fatalities, often involve unrestrained children. I vote for the nanny state on this 😊

We are moving into our new place next week and I am excited to say that Rob will be back for the move! As I said in my last blog, I have been keeping busy organizing the utilities and my social security number. The last utility to do was the water utility which had to be done in person. The office is way out in the north west of Houston about 40 minutes’ drive. The office is just in a workshop aluminum (spell check changed this from aluminium) shed. Very inauspicious. Anyway, in I go, there are two windows, one for paying and one for organizing a new service. The lady was very friendly and told me that her daughter was in Sydney for the new year. So nice, people want to chat when they know I’m from Australia. Pay the deposit and charges in cash (or bank cheque) and there you go. Drive home. Seems so inefficient. I’m hoping when I get into it there are online options that I just haven’t found yet.

I have found something at Starbucks that works for me: spicy cinnamon tea. Its really yummy and I don’t feel at all self-conscious about not ordering a coffee. I have become used to having filtered coffee in the morning, but I have not quite got it right in restaurants yet. Coffee doesn’t come with milk unless you ask. The locals are really quite generous. I went into a breakfast restaurant last week while waiting for the bank to open and just ordered a coffee (with milk) when it came to paying, I was waved away because “you don’t need to pay for just having a coffee” (at that place anyway). I would really like a proper flat white but I’m too chicken to try. I have been looking at buying a coffee machine like ours at home. It’s on the list- we have to replace all our appliances because the voltage here is different to Australia.

The generosity of locals was also evident yesterday when I drove into the museum area to check it out before Ben and Maddy arrive next week. I went to the buffalo soldier’s museum, which documents the history of the African American soldiers since the civil war. I reached into my bag for the $5 to pay the entrance fee and discovered I had come without my purse. The lovely lady at the desk said, you can come in (there was no one else there) you don’t want to drive all the way home for $5. I will certainly be back with the kids next week.

The time finally arrived when I had to get my hair done again. For me this was a bit scary because I have been going to my friend Nic for at least ten years. I thought I would go big first and try to work it out from there, so I booked into a salon in the Memorial City Shopping Centre (one of my favorites). The first difficulty was explaining to the receptionist over the phone what I needed. Did I want a color or highlights? I said no highlights I needed my roots done. I needed to have the same color to cover the grey roots that were showing- that explanation meant that she booked me in for highlights(?); And a cut- just a trim of my fringe. Anyway, so I turn up and its huge. Two rooms with an adjoining corridor with the barber’s chairs. Do I want a coffee or water (you get water everywhere; So much for plastic awareness)? Water. Have a seat in the chemical section (!). My colorist Pricilla comes over and I explain what I think I actually want. She’s all over it and we are underway. It was a massive salon; maybe 30 hairdryer hoody thingies (sorry not very good with this type of thing). From there I move to the getting your hair washed area and a new person who just specialized in washing your hair. It was so good I nearly went to sleep. The best part was when she put a nice hot towel on my head, so soothing, like a massage. Next stop the cutting area. Again, this was enormous with lots of people moving about. Lauren, the cutter was expecting to cut my hair, as in really cut it. I put that aside for another day and just got my fringe trimmed and lots of sales pitch on products to keep my hair smooth and curly and shiny and…… In the end it did not cost much more than I pay at home + tip. The tipping was scary, but I just screwed up the courage to ask what the protocol is and was given a fairly sensible answer. You must pay the tip to the actual person in cash, so I added it to my bill and was given the cash which I then took back to each of the people I had been served by. It’s complicated.

I’m still loving the experience, but I think this coming week might bring the realization that we are not just on holidays; we are moving into a house, with our gear and school goes back at home.

Thinking of you all as you get back into routine.

Meeting the Serious people

So we have been in Houston for about 2 weeks now and I must admit, I really like it. There are certainly cultural challenges but the the locals are so happy, and polite its hard not to bathe in the positive vibes.

This week has been a journey through the bureaucracy. The positive nature of Houstonians is still shining through even in a time when most of the people I have been dealing with are NOT being paid…

We have settled on a house to rent and, despite a few concerns with the 24 hour industrial workshop behind the back fence, we think we have a winner; Even more so today when our relocation assistant, the lovely European Nathalie, informed me that her friend, who lives opposite is in-charge of Friday night drinks for the expat community. YAY!

Speaking of Fridays, today, I glimpsed the Texan version of my dear friend Sharon. As I have been so good , yet again organizing the entire moving process ALONE, I decided I should reward myself with a nice glass of blush bubbles. So, I was standing in the refrigerated drinks section of the HEB supermarket, an enormous well-stocked version of Woolworths with a built-in Dan Murphys, trying to locate a Piccolo pink bubbles when I noticed this cute blonde pluck a four-pack of pink mini cans from the shelf in-front of me. She must have noticed my consternation because she turned to me with a big smile and said in that singsong Texas accent “Can I help you with something?” I explained that I was looking for pink bubbles in a small bottle and she said that she recommended this four pack of “Bollincini” -(could it be Little cans of pink Bolli?) and that she bought them all the time because they were so good and just the thing. She was so chirpy, I nearly asked her if I could join her and her friends to help them drink it. I thanked her and walked away with a four-pack, which is excellent I might add, and hoping that she lived in the same estate as us and that she might also be part of the Friday night group. Those of you who know me will understand the importance of Friday night drinks.

This dedication to Friday nights took me to the gym again today. I have joined a mixed gym for the first time in many decades. It’s strange being in a gym with men again. I have to remind my competitive self that it is not OK to look over and check out the pace of the treadmill beside you anymore. It is better to first determine if that person is a 6″+, 20 something male. It is not OK to quietly compete with the person on the treadmill next to you anymore. People watching at this gym is fun. There are literally all types. The young woman doing weight work with long long black hair, loose down her back and a baseball cap on backwards. Old guys sweating it out in long baggy t-shirts, young kids playing basketball in the court room, racket ball, swimming and LOTS of cardio equipment. Everyone watching everyone else but not making eye contact. It is huge; but again everyone is polite and friendly. I rarely have had to open a door for myself. Its a real old-fashioned politeness.

I have been organizing the utilities for our new house this week- rarely a fun task, but people are so helpful. So unlike our experience in New Caledonia 15 years ago. I spent about 40 minutes in the internet, cable phone provider today and the young salesman worked hard to deal with our issues; difficult while Rob, who has a social security number, called a social, is away and I don’t have mine yet. Everything requires a “social”. The other essential thing is a credit rating. We don’t have one of those yet either. One strange thing though is the obsession with cheques, or as the Americans like to spell them “checks”. Electronic transfers seem to be viewed as a bit too GMO to be trusted. I actually have to go to the water utility office tomorrow to present them with my form and either cash or a teller cheque to pay my application fee. I do find that rather backward.

I did go to the Social security office today. But first, I had to get a form called an I-94 from the customs office. Most people can access their I-94 online. However, there are apparently a few lucky ones, like me, whose information has been uploaded by customs incorrectly. The only way to deal with this is to go to the customs office near the George Bush airport (about 45 minutes drive- even at 65 mph). This office is only open for 2 hours a day. There was a public holiday on Monday so it was not open then. I had to go on Tuesday and take all of our documents to prove that my visa was valid. I was quite anxious about the queue and not wanting to miss out, I arrived about 40 minutes early. The foyer of the customs office is a sparse room with about a dozen chairs around the walls which are adorned with signs forbidding moving the chairs and importing of contraband fruit and vegetables. to one side was a wooden lectern with a paper sign saying that the line started here. The very helpful (of course) customs man told me I should go have some lunch and come back. As this seems to be the only building in all of Houston with no public restroom, I decide to retreat to the garages nearby, as every service station has somewhere to eat and a rest room (I love America). When I returned about 15 minutes later there were two people ahead of me on the seats.

At 1pm two customs mean came out and we began the process. We were called to register our names in the order we arrive. As Americans are so polite the even can work out at crossroad who should go first, this was nt a problem. we then sat down again and waited for our names to be called. the fellow nest to me was an immigration lawyer who seemed to spend a lot of time in this office. He gave me a skeptics view of what was really going on, laced with apologies that their government was so underfunded. I assured him that it was probably no better in Australia. It was quite brutal though. when you were called to make your case it was at the lectern in the middle of the room with your fellow aliens as an audience. those without the correct visa or who could not be helped by customs were advised that they had to leave the country. I thought it was quite ironic that they were advised to go to Mexico as it was the closest foreign border and then apply for reentry- they had better hurry or they might miss out. the whole endeavor, not including driving took about 2 hours: I spoke to the customs officers for about 2 minutes and the rest was waiting.

Anyway my experience of the social security was pretty streamlined by comparison. the room I was in while I waited held about 60 people. I went around the corner to get out and entered another room; there must have been 200 people waiting there. I was lucky I was only applying for a card.

the incredible thing is that the people manning both customs and social security are federal workers who are NOT being paid. Its remarkable that they can be so polite and helpful. Good training to still smile in the face of what’s going on in their government.