Sunday, October 16, 2016

My first 2 months in America - part 1

It's been 2 months since I left Melbourne, Australia and moved to California, USA. 2 months is not enough to fully understand and get a feeling of a new country but it is certainly enough to make some observations. I wanted to capture these first impressions while they are still fresh.
California (Bay Area) is surprisingly very similar to Melbourne both from the climate and landscape perspectives - very similar temperatures, drought-like conditions during the summer months, ocean proximity, hills surrounding the area.
But there are certainly some differences too. For some reason a large part of these differences revolves around cars and driving for me. So let's begin:

After 12 years of driving on the left side of the road in Australia, I am back to driving on the right side. It is fairly easy to adjust, just need to keep thinking when making turns for the first couple of weeks. What made it easier for me is that I was driving a European car in Australia with controls (wipers, indicators) already in the same arrangement, so I avoided the usually inevitable wipers instead of indicators when making a turn.

Petrol stations!
First of all, it is not "petrol" anymore. It's "gas". An engineer in me cringes but I do realise that it is a contraction of "gasoline".

Octane numbers are different. And the reason for this is that Australia uses RON (Research Octane Rating) while in the US it is (R+M)/2 (an average of RON and MON). In Australia we had 91, 95, 98 (plus you could get a 100 racing grade up until recently). Here in the US it's 87, 89, 91.

The actual process of how you buy petrol is different too. In Australia you put the nozzle in and start pumping petrol straight away. You can either fill a full tank or use one of the presets. Then you go inside and pay to a person. In US you can pay to a person too but the usual way is to swipe your card right at the pump. And the biggest surprise - a requirement to enter your postcode (at the pump!) when using a credit card (even when using a debit card in a credit card mode). Apparently this is to reduce the amounts of fraud and stop people from using stolen credit cards but I found this unusual. For a debit card you will just be asked for a pin number.

Driving style had its own share of surprises. It is very common here for drivers to change lanes and turn without signalling. They just turn. Speeding is another common issue. As an example - the speed limit on the freeways is 65mph but hardly anyone drives at that speed. I estimate that on average people will exceed this limit by 10-15mph (driving at ~75mph or ~120km/h).

The Stop signs are there but the vast majority of people don't stop. They just slow down and roll through. This is called a "California stop".

Another mildly confusing finding was how the right of way is implemented in California when crossing an intersection. The rules are similar with one exception: "yield to the vehicle or bicycle that arrives first". This is so arbitrary and quite confusing to me. I am used to certain road rules. And here you need to pay attention to who arrives to the intersection first (even by a second or two) because some of the car moves may surprise you. People may turn in front of you even if you are driving straight.

I liked the idea of slip lanes in Australia that allow a car to turn without entering the intersection. Slip lanes do exist here in US but they are not very common. Instead, there is a rule that allows cars to turn right on the red signal. So far I have to overcome a sort of psychological barrier every time I execute a turn like this.

Carpool lanes - or officially high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes - are very similar to transit lanes (T2, T3) in Australia. You can use these lanes during the certain (peak) hours if you have 2 or more people in your car. And unlike Australia, there are special overhead cameras that monitor all passing cars. Another difference is that there is also a possibility to pay a fee to use these lanes if you travel alone and require faster commute (similar to the paid roads with the eTag). And local version of the eTag is called FasTrack.

When I first saw Australian roads I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the road surface and the surrounding infrastructure. I can't say the same thing about the roads in California. The road surface on the major freeways is uneven, with patches and cracks. And there is rubbish on the sides of these roads.

Many people use an app called Waze to navigate around. It's based on a crowd sourced model with the actual drivers providing updates about police sightings, objects on the road and various other hazards.

The fuel economy is measured in miles per gallon (MPG), which is an inverse approach to the usual litres per 100km.

And speaking about "strange" measurement units - cars' power is measured in horse powers (HP) - not kilowatts but it was OK for me because the same unit is used in Russia. But "pound foot" (lb·ft) used to measure torque instead of Newton meters is a complete mystery for me. I don't "feel" these values.

I guess that's enough talking about cars.

Let's talk about finances. Credit rating(s) is such a visible and important part of one's financial life. These ratings do exist in Australia too and are used to assess the borrowing power (creditworthiness), various risks etc but it's all kind of hidden. But not in the US. There are credit bureau agencies that keep track of your credit history, there are apps that can display your credit score, every time you do anything remotely related to money/finances you can be sure your credit score will be examined at that point. This leads to situations, where people actively working on improving their score. This also created a bizarre (in my view) type of a credit card called "secured credit card". In Australia usually you can have a bank (debit) card (where you use your own money) or a credit card (where you use bank's money for a period of time for free - 44 or 55 days - and then you need to repay money back or you are going to incur some interest on the amount owed to the bank). Both types do exist in the US too but you cannot get a proper credit card if your credit score is low. A secured credit card can be used in this situations as a way to repair/improve your credit score. It uses your own money under the hood but acts as a credit card. E.g. you can put a $500 deposit and the bank will issue you a secured credit card with the same amount allocated to your "credit line". So how is it different to a standard debit card (which also can act as a VISA card)? Apparently the difference is - when you use your  debit cards it only affects you and your bank. It helps building your relationship with the bank but this is where it stops. With the secured credit card your activity (late or on-time repayments, the amount owed etc) is fed/reported to the credit bureaus, which directly affects your credit score. So the theory is that if you need to improve your credit score then it's a low risk for the bank to issue you such card (afterall it's your own money) but all sensitive operations are tracked and it allows you to demonstrate that you are sensible type when it comes to managing finances and ultimately improves your creditworthiness.

Well, this is it so far. I will continue writing about my US experiences as I tackle and learn new things.
Stay tuned!