Category Archives: Immigration

The story of a Belgian in America: Company Blog Post

We’ve published 4 blog posts about my expat experience the past weeks. Please follow the following links to read the 4 posts.

I’ve had generally very good feedback on these, and many LinkedIn requests. However, I’ve also had some remarks that I’m not very positive about the USA in my writing. I’m sorry to say, but the people who understood that from the blog post, completely missed the point. The blog was not meant as a glorification of America. It is about the experience, the transformation, of a person moving abroad and integrating/assimilating into the “foreign” society. It is not meant to be about America, it is meant to be about the expat, the person. Things you experience, things that are different, roadblocks, etc. Immigrants are a different breed. It is something people that never lived abroad for an extended period of time will never understand. I’m not asking for understanding or (dis)approval. My intention is to give people who are willing to take the jump, an idea what to expect. Do not give up while waiting for your visa, do not stop your life while waiting. Pay attention on remuneration, comparing is difficult, it is OK to miss things, but don’t get homesick. Understand you will change as a person in every way possible and understand the people around you will most likely not understand. Just like Steve Jobs was nervous every time he had to go on stage to show the latest Apple product, so does the expat feel nervous every time he/she ends up in a new situation. And just like Jobs, the expat will come out of the situation stronger and a step closer to perfection. But, and this is a big but, it is not for everyone. You need to be the type of person who wants to be nervous about things, who wants to be put out of your comfort zone. THAT is the point of this 4-series blog post.


1) How it all started
2) The paperwork struggle
3) Discover the people, discover yourself
4) Atlanta is Home


Visit to the motherland 2015

I have been postponing this trip a very long time, but I now I did not have a choice… my visit to Belgium was a mandatory one. I could either go to New York, get myself registered with the Belgian consulate (which is located in NY for Texas), or I could go to Belgium and renew my passport with the Province, or so I thought…  I made it into a family trip, covering my passport renewal and two family reunions. Just because I can.

I did not visit Belgium for over a year. It was interesting to see the differences: new roads, windmills, buildings,.. people driving much slower than I remembered. It was kind of interesting to see all the new faces in our office. Many of which had never seen me before, and could not figure out how this weirdo that comes in at 11 am (I had appointments in the morning) , seems to know so many of their colleagues. Funny. We had good food, visited most of my friends (not all unfortunately, sorry guys!), drove over 1,000 miles in 2 weeks crossing the country. My company gave me a company car for 2 weeks (thank you Delaware Consulting!) and I must admit this is probably what I miss most here in America: a shift-stick car. Driving manual feels so much better than driving automatic, and driving an Audi -just like the one I drove before I moved- is just an unbeatable feeling. Relaxed driving over the highways at ~120 KM/H, keeping right. Waiting at the red light, just feeling awesome in my car.

My main priority was to renew my passport. So first Monday I drive to Brugge to find the Provincial service who is supposed to do this for me. I’m there, and it turns out that they changed the law a few months before, and now I must be registered in the consulate in the land I am living, to be able to get my passport renewed in Belgium. That kind of sucked, since the whole point for me was to renew this, without needing to register in NY. I do not care about registering as such, it;s just that with a move planned to Georgia within 2 months, I does not make a lot of sense for me to register in NY and then move all that stuff to Atlanta. Anyhow, after the civil servant told me that “You do not pay taxes here, so I do not need to help you”, and made it clear that he was not going to do anything without the NY embassy giving me permission to get my passport in Belgium, I felt a bit depressed.  He said that without permission he had no idea where I lived (which is false, since he had my US address displayed on the computer screen and I gave him my US drivers license showing the same address). So, I drove to Kortrijk, to the office to meet with some colleagues. Then called the NY embassy during their opening hours to get everything resolved. They were very helpful and all went very smooth. 3 days later, the provincial services had confirmation that I could go renew my passport.  Conclusion: Belgian abroad: you must register with the Belgian government in order to renew your passport.

Lots of other things going on during my visit, just life. But one little anecdote I do want to share with you: In Antwerp, I was visiting a friend. I arrived around noon, and did not have lunch yet, so I figured I should order some food with my beer… ask the waiter/bartender/owner (still not sure) if the kitchen is still open (it was after 1:30 pm after all, and this is Belgium…). His answer: “Maybe”. At this point, I think he is just joking, so I figure to just play along and ask him: “Ok, when do you think you will know for sure?”. “In 20 minutes”, he answers. I’m not sure how I looked at that point, but I’m pretty sure there is no emoticon to capture the sight. 30 minutes later, I ask the waiter again and he answers that he will check. At this point, I do not feel like fooling around, so I just order a pasta. He looks at me, and asks “are you sure?”, and I confirm. At this point, the guy turns around, and instead of walking into the kitchen disappears outside of the bar, onto the street. I’m not sure at this point what to think, but since nobody else seems to actually work in the bar, I decide to just stay and drink my beer, see what happens. About 15 minutes later, the waiter returns with a bunch of pasta boxes under this arms. French food, indeed…

Big Bend National Park

This Memorial Day weekend we took the trip from Dallas, TX to the far South of the state; to the Big Bend National Park. An 10 hour drive, including some gas & food stops, through the heart of Texas oil country and through largest Texas wind farm. 380 miles straight on highway I-20. Its the type of road trip I really like.

The Big Bend National Park is an amazing place. Desert land, mountains, cliffs, valleys, some rivers (including the Rio Grande, the boarder with Mexico), sand, rocks,… On top of that, plants and wildlife are amazing. Cactus in the wild. It is still something amazing for me. But the cherry on the cake is without doubt the wild snakes we saw (and a crazy Texan pulling the Rattlesnake out of a hole, and his teenage son playing with it using a stick (WTF?!), the wild Black Bear passing by our car (I lack webspace to load the really cool video I made) and the Vultures, eating the roadkill rabbits in the morning. Certainly worth a visit!

Tip for immigrants: Having just your US drivers license/ID with you is apparently not sufficient. Going to Big Bend national park, chances are nearly 100% for you to be stopped by the US boarder patrol on your way out. You will need your official ID’s (passports, I-94,…) to show them. I speak from experience, they did not like the fact I only had my Texas drivers license with me. “This shows me you are allowed to drive in Texas, but it does not prove you are allowed to be here”, the officer told me.

I was taken apart and had to read a paragraph of the law that basically said that the officer in charge could fine me up to 100 USD, put me in jail for up to 30 days and even deport me if he wanted to. Thankfully I got off with a warning, and have now printed my I-94 and take it with me at all times. Just so you all know…

Going to the dentist in the USA…

Aaaah, May 1st. A national holiday in all socialist loving countries such as Belgium, France, Russia and North Korea. Funny enough, it actually commemorates something that happened in the USA, in Chicago (although, what happened was not funny to those it happened to! – See wiki link at end of this post). A holiday in Belgium means that, if you are working with Belgians on a daily basis as I do, no work will come form over the Atlantic and you have a nice quiet day (but not a day off!). So I decided to work from home these 2 days and schedule a dental appointment. Here is my story.

In the USA, healthcare is connected with your job, your employee health care plan. Step 1 into finding a dentist is to go to your healthcare provider website and find a dentist that accepts your dental plan. In Belgium, you just go to the dentist, nobody thinks about checking ‘coverage’ first. I needed a ‘normal’ cleaning and checkup, so I choose to find a ‘general’ dentist.

Found one walking distance, so called to schedule an appointment. First thing they ask is my coverage ID number, which I give. We schedule an appointment and I return back to work.
5 minutes later, they call me back that the number I gave is not valid. I apologize, say this is the first time I use a dentist in the US, and promise to check with my provider. I call to my provider and they figure it out pretty fast, give me my number and I’m good to go. There is no such thing as a ‘works from the first time’ for immigrants :-) .

Anyhow, my actual appointment… Usually this takes about half an hour in Belgium. You get a teeth cleaning using some kind of sand and water brush and the dentist checks for cavities. Everything is done by 1 person, the dentist. My visit to the dentist here, was quit amazing. First there is the secretary desk. 2 people working there, then there is the dental assistant who first checks your blood pressure (wtf?), then cleans your teeth (no brushes, very time consuming). You also do not have a cup with water to spit and rinse. In America, they suck the fluids out of your mouth with a machine! This took about half an hour. Then they moved me into another room. Walking through the building, it looks like a factory where patients are treated ‘en mass’. Then I get into a special room where an assistant takes 18 (!) X-ray pictures of my teeth. Apparently they do this every 5 years, and ‘only’ 4 pictures every 6 months with the check up. For a Belgian this is insane. X-rays are pretty dangerous toys. Of course, the X-ray is very powerful in finding cavities and discovered 4 of them. I only had 1 filling when I was 13 years old, none for the past 14 years and now 4. Danm X-ray :-) .

Now the funny thing is that, In Belgium I pay 48 EUR (65 USD) for this checkup. Here in the US, my dental check up (including X-rays) was free. All covered by the dental plan. Pretty amazing.
Now the fillings will cost me 554 USD, of which 330 USD is covered by the insurance. I have no clue how much this costs back in Belgium. Fun-fact: there is also a ‘regular’ price listed (understand: for the non-insured): this i 980 USD for the same thing. Almost double!

Another experience. And I will be back in a few weeks for my fillings.

Oh yes…
Want more info on May 1st labor day? See Wikipedia

1 year USA

I am here for 1 year now. It is still fun and exciting, for example this month I got my first credit card approved (party!), I renewed my vehicle inspection sticker, I visited the DMV (changed the address on my car, they did not even ask my ID… I must have a very trustworthy face),…. yes, I do find those things fun and exciting! It is part of life here, and it is fun to feel part of life. The holiday feeling I’ve had the past year, is starting to fade a bit. Perhaps it will come back with the heat, we will see.

Some news in Dallas this week! The city council is banning free plastic and paper bags starting Jan 2015! This means we all have 9 months left to stock up on bags!

Dallas City Bans Free Bags

Also see 6 months in the USA


Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season in the USA.
The great American holiday celebrating the first harvest in the New World; is probably the holiday of the year. It is the most important family day in the USA and it is the busiest day for traffic (air, train and road).
Turkey is the national dish that marks this holiday, pretty much like Christmas back in Europe. Americans love traditions, much more than the average European, so almost everyone in the entire country is having Turkey.

Being here for the first time, my mother (back in Belgium) was kind of worried about me spending the holidays alone. I have to admit, this was a concern to me too before I moved. Would America and the American people accept me in their lives? Living here now, I know Americans are very friendly and open people. Several people have invited me to their homes to celebrate all the major holidays; including Thanksgiving.

So I went to the parents home of some friends I made here in the past months. All the people (family and friends) were really nice and friendly. The food was… amazing. The common perception back in Belgium that Americans never cook and cannot cook food, is just plain wrong. The picture below, was the best turkey I ever had, and without doubt one of the better meals I’ve had since moving to the USA.


It was a really good experience and I want to thank my hosts for the invite! Another great American tradition I can tick off my to-do list.
Thank you!

Credit Card Issues

By now most frequent readers of my blog know that one of my biggest frustrations in this country is related with credit cards; it is impossibly hard to get a credit card, which is an issue because america runs on credit. It is hard to imagine for Europeans, but literally everything here is paid with credit cards. It does not matter whether you are paying for a “$4,00+tax sandwich” or a “$1200-20% clearing discount + tax HD-TV”; you pay everything with credit cards. This includes the drinks you buy on Friday evenings.

Last Friday, I went to my favorite bar -The Old Monk-, met some new people of which I forgot most of their names (sorry!), had some fun. Around midnight we decided to go the another bar and ended up at the Dram, a fancy lounge-bar across the street. All good, met some more new people; had more fun, all was good… until the waitress came back with my bill… and a blue MasterCard -which did not have my name printed on it-…

I knew right away this was not good. I have only one credit card, and kind of have a lot of things to purchase the next weeks, so I could really not have the very hot blonde waitress loose my card right now. Unfortunately she did. They ‘looked’ for it, but did not recover it by the time the bar closed. As with any major crisis in the USA, the manager took action and came to apologize with me. They had reversed my last drinks (sadly I closed an earlier tab already) and gave me her number in case something was wrong.
The people I just met did the same; gave me their number in case I needed help with something, and I went home. Slightly drunk, but seriously frustrated.

I called the bank, locked my card. Refused to pay $16 to get my card within 3 business days. It takes them 7-10 business days to send a card someone else lost for me. Then I realized that all my utility bills get paid trough this card too, so I had to cancel all my recurring payments and replace them with other payment methods. It is kind of a miracle I thought about this at 4am on a drunk morning, but it probably saved me hundreds of dollars (in fees, un-reimbursed security deposits and interests) and a credit history hit that would take months to recover from.

Other than that… not much happened the past weeks. Or nothing I want to share with the internet anyway :-)

Edit Aug 3rd: I received a letter from the bank asking to call them about my credit card to verify account activity. I call, telling them all is OK, I’m just waiting for me to receive a new card. Funny thing… apparently no new card was on its way. They only locked it. So now they blocked my account and I will need to wait another 7-10 days to get my card… I thought I was pretty clear on that last week, so now I just lost another week. I really need to get a backup-card somewhere for when something like this happens again. Maybe I should try Macy’s again… although that didn’t work out too well last time :-) !
… aaaah credit history, it is a funny thing.

On general request

The past weeks several people have spoken to me in real life about my blog. Most comments were good and fun, but some people seem to have been misinformed about my feelings and ideas reading trough my blog posts.

I have been told that the atmosphere of my blog is kind of negative, that I seem “grumpy’ and some very drunk american even told me that ‘I hate America’ and that the way credit history works is ‘how god wants it’ and I should not question that. Sooooo just for clarification…

I am not negative about my experiences in the USA. I only live here for 2 months now, but I love it. I love the fact that shops are open 24/7, I love the fact people are extremely friendly and helpful, I love meeting new and different cultures, I love living in another country where everything I do is different from what I have known and I certainly do not hate America or Americans; I see no reason whatsoever to do so and I have absolutely not idea what made this drunk american make such a comment. Noting differences, making jokes about how things are different or appreciating certain things you had, but never noticed (CHOCOLATE!!!); does not dismiss all the good things you find in your new home.

Additionally, I must also note that this is a blog. As most things on the internet, blogs only show what the author wants you to read. Differences and weird experiences are easier to write and create a much more amusing story for you, the accidental visitor.

So in conclusion, I believe the stuff written on this blog is useful for new immigrants and is amusing for many people, but please do not think this blog represents my feelings about any place I live of have lived.

Thank you,
And enjoy!

Traveling for work

I cannot count the number of times I traveled abroad for work the past 4 years and this has never been a problem for me. I had my credit card, my passport and cellphone with me and never had issues.

So some weeks ago I am told I need to travel to Belgium for work. I think: cool, visiting my friends and family and getting paid for it. However then I start to think about what I need; my basic travel-kit: credit card, passport and cellphone. I cannot see the passport being a problem at all, but I start to wonder about the credit card. Credit cards need to be activated abroad before you travel. I’m sitting at the bank, using the clerks phone to call customer service and get the card activated for my travel destinations in Europe for the travel period. As everything in America, you cannot call the customer service without them activating all kinds of new programs for you. This time I apparently qualified for 1% cash-back on all my credit purchases. Fine, activate it (one wonders why they did not activate this before). This was not a very difficult task.

Then I figure, I cannot even call foreign numbers, so I need to get that fixed and activated too.
Now, Americans reading this should know the following: When you have a phone contract in Belgium, and you want to go abroad, all you need to do is not forgetting to take your phone charger with you. You just call and text and use roaming all you want. It may cost you a lot of money (especially the data), but everything simply works. If you are travelling a lot you can get special plans at reduced prices. Here I start chatting with one of the AT&T employees (they have some kind of weird messaging system, they sometimes feel like talking to bots) on how I can activate this stuff: Calling foreign numbers from the USA, calling US and other numbers from abroad. Now she transfers me to the ‘international calling’ department (the what? ok whatever…) and this guy explains to me that he cannot do this online and I need to call the customer service because my account is not active for more than 90 days. (eh what now? Well duh, I didn’t even live here 90 days ago)!
Now the customer service department can only activate this using a “special procedure”. He goes trough some security questions and at the end he said the result turned out false. So according to the ATT system, I am not me, which is very interesting given the questions he asked me. I also wonder who I am and who is supposed to pay that insane high bill I get from them every month.

Anyhow, I gave up and decided to go to Belgium without my phone. I guess I can still activate my old Belgian number again once I arrive and pretend not to have a US phone.
Why is this country making it so difficult for people to just do what they need to do? What can go so horribly wrong by activating a phone?
Every day is an adventure…

Driving Japanese in Dallas

The insurance I talked about in the previous post is now cancelled. I got the papers to sign and I discovered new errors. I called 21st century insurance directly explaining them what happened. They changed my information and gave me a new quote. This was too expensive, so I asked them to cancel the policy. Too my surprise they said they understood but could not give me a better quote given my in-existent driver history and 3 minutes later everything was done. I would definitely consider 21st Century to insure me in the future, based on this experience.
Today, however, Progressive was 40$/month cheaper; and paying a rate for a 16-year old I do not want to pay even more.

I could have gone cheaper, using state farm. But according to my colleagues they are difficult in paying out if something happens. If that is true (I cannot verify, and hopefully will never need to verify), than what is the point of having insurance in the first place? I told this exact same thing to the State Farm guy on the phone and his reply was, “That is not true, you can check the internet and you will see State Farm is one of the best paying out.” That is pretty funny, especially considering State Farm is running a tv commercial warning people not to believe everything they read about State Farm on the internet (For the Americans reading this, I’m referring to the one with the hot blonde dating a ‘french model’).

Anyhow. Now that I got my insurance done, I got my car and drove it to my apartment complex. It is pretty cool to finally have a car. I bought a Japanese car, which was not liked by one of the employees at my client stating “You come to America and drives Japanese, what are you thinking?”. When I got home, there was another surprise waiting for me: my Texas drivers license arrived by mail. It is cool to hold it in my hand.

My blog has been referenced on our company blog, and I have had many reactions from colleagues all over the world. I want to thank you all for your messages!

Week 3 & 4: Drivers license, car, insurance, furniture and a Stetson

I’m finally getting the final pieces of the puzzle in order. My furniture was delivered last week, it fits perfectly into the little apartment I have. It really feels like home now.

I got my drivers license, theory and practical. Using a fully insured rental car. If you want to use a rental car, make sure they actually write the car details on the papers, or you could end up waiting 45 minutes, frustrating all the other 16 year old kids doing their license test. I got 7 points deducted (you can have 30 points deducted before the test ends in fail here). Some minor stuff. I don’t think the practical exam makes much sense to do, but I do understand why the government makes us do the theoretical test. Even though you can perfectly function on the road, it is good to know the different rules.

While getting a drivers license is not so difficult as one might think, getting a car it really difficult. All the great commercials on TV are suddenly gone, all because you do not have a credit history. The way the american system works is they do not really give a shit about how much money you make, or the value of the car. They only look at your ability to pay back credit and this is calculated 100% based on your past repayments of credit. When you just enter the country, you do not have the worst possible score, you are way below that; you are officially a ghost. “A ghost” is the actual word they use for people that do not exist in the credit system, I have heard it many times the past weeks. The result of being a ghost is that your best finance rate is 18%. It does not matter if you take a loan with the car dealer or with the bank. They always come back with 18% (Trust me, I tried). For European immigrants there might be a possibility with BMW, Audi or Volkswagen because they use a European financing firm. I did not check that because maintenance costs of European cars is too high here in the USA (Although I will miss my little Audi A3 very much here).
I ended up transferring money from my Belgian bank account (it is being transferred as we speak). En expensive joke, but not 18% expensive. And will pay my car cash. This potentially saves a bit in insurance costs too.

Last weekend I went out car-shopping. I ended up finding a nice pre-owned certified car. One previous owner, a leasing contract. In theory the best type of previous owner you can get. If you buy a used car, always ask for the “Carfax”, this is a paper that shows you all the registered actions on the car (first time sold, miles at maintenance, accidents, type of contract,…). Most decent dealers will give it for free. If you go shopping yourself, you might want to get the carfax app and pay 50$ for unlimited Carfax checks on used cars.
Anyhow, I found a car and gave the dealer a deposit to keep the car for me till I have the money on my US bank account and started making insurance quotes.

Insurance is a bitch. It is far more expensive than Europe is… Painful. Most quotes I got are between 200 USD and 320 USD a month for 6 months. State Farm seems to be cheaper, but everyone keeps telling me not to go with them because they are very difficult to pay out. Geico and Progressive were close to each other, Progressive being slightly less expensive for me. Just before I wanted to sign up, I got a call from an insurance broker who helped me get a quote at 160/month with a subdivision of Farmers (Not to be confused with State Farm). It seemed allright, but about everything that could go wrong actually did go wrong. On the first documents I received, my Address was wrong, my car VIN number was incorrect (I know I have a funny accent, so I check everything 3 times; a habit I am trying to force myself in but a habit I really really REALLY dislike I need. Then once that was fixed I found out that the guy put me as a first drivers license on 16 instead of 20 (BE)/26 (US), as I told him. This immediately explains the difference. Since I do not want wrong information, I am not getting the car before it is changed and I have the new price, if any. It is starting to stress me out because I really just want to get my car and have it all over with. My conclusion: Stick to the online forms, or force them to send you all the input information before you give your credit card number to pay. Learning money I guess. At least I got the guy to confirm by e-mail that all is OK and I can legally drive the car without problem. And he is going to fix the age thing tomorrow.

Let’s get back to Credit History for a second. All of the credit history stuff you will read tells you not to have too many credit cards because that lowers your rating. However, in order to raise your rating you must show to use different types of credit and the ability to pay those back. If you are not willing to pay 18% interests, there are 2 other possibilities:
You can get a “secured loan”, Basically that means you pay the bank -for example- 10,000 USD in order to get a 10,000 USD loan (no typo). The 10,000 USD depost goes to a blocked savings account that does not generate any interests. On the loan you pay the “normal” interest of 3-4%. Basically you are paying the bank 400 USD (+opportunity cost) to build credit history and you get nothing in return. Needless to say I did not go for that option.
The other option is to build credit history using credit cards. Yup, do exactly the opposite of what you are supposed to do to get a good credit score. Because, the easiest way to a good score is to have a score in the first place. It takes 6 months to get a score, according to what people tell me. I’m curious what that will do…(my guess is not much, since I don’t need credit once I have everything).

Anyhow. It have been rather nice weekends since I arrived in Dallas. There was the Saint Patricks day parade, where I got sunburn and talked with an Irish guy who thought I was Irish too. Not sure if it was because of my accent or the amount of alcohol in his blood. Last weekends I went car hunting in beautiful weather and I enjoyed reading a book at the swimming pool (I got it as a gift from a friend for moving to the USA, it is pretty cool, I’ll write a blog post about it when I finished it -Warning: I read slow and unfrequent-). The water is still too cold to actually swim in it, but sitting in the sun gives me a vacation feeling. Happy times.

Talking about presents I got from friends and colleagues. To celibate that arrival of my furniture we enjoyed beers and went to Arlington to buy a real cowboy hat (a gift from my Belgian colleagues). I wore it for fun at work today and made everyone laugh wearing my cowboy hat in meetings.

I guess that is about the most important things that happened the past weeks in my USA adventure. I’m still cleaning up my room getting trough all the papers. I’m getting tired of all the stuff that is involved with moving to a different country (this has been going on for 8 weeks now), it is time for some rest and time to actually meet some new people here. Start to learning how to play golf.

Week 1 & 2, in the USA

My colleague and team lead always said that “a hotel is the worst place to be sick”… but I trumped that during my first week in the US of A.

It all started fine on monday morning, slept well, got up at 5.30am (CET), my dad took me to the train station in Lille and I took the TGV to CDG airport for my ‘moving flight’ to the USA.

Took a taxi from DFW to the rental car office downtown (If you rent long term, it makes sense not to rent from the airport rental, since it is a lot less expensive; also it is cheaper to rent a car with a Belgian Drivers lisence, than it is using a US drivers license… A difference of 300$ for 25 days, weird). Anyhow, I cannot remember whether I paid the taxi using my Belgian credit card or cash, (see below why this matters). I got in the rental car office, used my Belgian credit card (the only one with enough credit limit -or so I thought-) and drove the car to my new apartment. Got the keys, checked the room, liked what I saw, tried to picture the size of everything and drove off to Best Buy a bit down the road to buy a GPS. Then got to the Hotel to check in (I took a hotel room for a day, because my apartment is empty at this point and I do not feel like sleeping on the ground/carpet). I have spend 60 days in this hotel in 2012, so the people at the reception recognized me and welcomed be back. I asked the receptionist if the ‘Full Breakfast coupon’ from last year was still valid, and she confirmed. I was happy, already thinking of the good food that awaited me the next day.

I took the day off the first day planning to get furniture, a mattress and other necessary stuff. I had a good breakfast and took off to the closest Target to buy basic stuff like toilet paper and forks, knifes,…
Got back to the apartment and suddenly started to feel sick… really sick… To cut a long story short, I spend the first 3-4 hours in my new home no further than 3 feet from my toilet. Then I fell asleep on the carpet (remember, I still have NOTHING whatsoever, except for -thankfully- toilet paper and some basic stuff like a glass to drink some water. I feel like shit and all I really want at this point is the comfort of a bed or sofa, a blanket and a pillow. I have none of that. My colleague and team lead always said that “a hotel is the worst place to be sick”… but I trumped that during my first week in the US of A. Being sick in an empty apartment, trumps everything and I do not wish it to anyone. After laying on the carpet for a few hours, I get a call from the rental office. Apparently there was a problem with my credit card and they needed me to get that fixed asap. I get up, walk around a bit, feel slightly better and decide to just go to the rental car office and get things over with.
We try several cards, none work (or better; none have sufficient credit limit). We decide to make the renting period shorter, and now it works. I promise to get back to them one of the following days once I have the credit resolved. It is now about 5pm, Needless to say that my objectives for buying furniture were not met. I do not want to go back to the hotel, and decide to go back to Target and buy a (camping) air mattress, pillow and some blankets to get trough the first days. I am going back to work tomorrow.

On Friday, I called my bank to raise the limit on my debit card (yes, there are limits on debit cards!?), and plan to go to the rental office in the weekend. Also, I got myself a contract with AT&T. I was expecting a huge discussion, but I just went into the shop at NorthPark, explained the situation (just moved here, already have an Iphone, want minutes, messages and 3gb of data on a monthly contract). In half an hour everything was fixed, including the transfer of my prepaid card to a monthly contract. I pay slightly below 100$/month. It is still crazy expensive compared to europe, but taking into account the regular contract is 240$/month I’m fairly happy with the monthly rate. Basically every half year I ‘save’ a new Iphone by using a monthly contract on an unlocked phone. I still wonder why so little Americans take this option. It is not that hard!
On a funny note, while I was walking to the shop, my Belgian service suddenly stopped. Perfect timing is what that is called! ( And again, many will wonder why I would take a contract with AT&T, well yes they are expensive but they are also to only one that allow you to surf and talk at the same time, and they have an extensive and reliable network).

Weekend! I get up early to go shopping, spend hours at several stores (Ashley’s, Rooms to Go, Ikea, Mattress Firm) On Saturday I actually left my apartment at 9: I go back to the rental office to extend my rental again to the original request. Weirdest thing, I have to pay a 10$ extension fee, but for some weird reason the total is suddenly less than the original request. I check everything, seems all OK so I just walk out again, happy this is resolved, and ask my GPS where the closest furniture store is. A nice salesman shows me around the store, explaining me all kinds of things, helping me choose the mattress I need. But, I cannot buy here just yet. That would be wrong, I need to check more stores. He understands, gives me his card and tells me that if I decide to buy there, I can get discounts up to 20%. Sounds good, but I forget to make notes of prices of the furniture; a rookie mistake I will not repeat. I check out several stores, all of them have huge sales. Basically everything is a reason for sales in the USA: Valentine sales, birthday sales, presidents day sales, Christmas sales, summer sales, special sales… you name it.
I left my apartment at 9am, and only got back at 10pm. I was in shops all day trying out, getting info, trying to get discounts (What? 0% financing, but no discount if I pay cash!? Are you trying to rip me off? -salesman looks weird, repeats: “no discounts for cash”, and I decide to leave the store-). Another funny comment a salesman gave me was: “look how strong this is! This is real wood, directly from the Indonesian rain Forrest! Cheap and strong, not like the European stuff!”; There is no way a comment like that would ever sell anything in Belgium, and I didn’t know if I should be amused, or ashamed for even considering that furniture.
I checked out 2 different Ashley stores, their prices were the same, but the type of discounts you could get was very different and made things hard to compare. At one shop I got free delivery and 10% discount, the other gave me 25% discount. My advice: Really do check several stores, even from the same brands; they might be operated very differently.
When I got back to my apartment, there was a huge storm, I have not seen many storms like that and it was pretty scary to drive. When it rains in Texas it rains like there is no tomorrow. Even a week later, some lower-grounds are still full of water.

I did not fall for the sales, I did the calculations and ended up buying at Ashley (bedroom, mattress and living room). I got a 25% discount from my salesman Scott (if you are in the Dallas area and want furniture, let me know I will give you his contact details, refer to me and you might get a discount like that too!). I paid cash in 100 dollar bills, which made people look funny at me. I had to explain to them that it is extremely difficult to get a decent limit on your debit/credit cards as a new immigrant in the USA. They thought it was pretty funny when I said: “It is more difficult to spend your own money here, than it is to spend money you do not have.” Funny, but also true.
The delivery of mattress was done a few days later. The other stuff is going to be delivered by the end of the month.
The next week my colleagues (they seem the closest to family I have around here) were so nice to drive to Ikea and help me buy a dining table, chairs, desk chair and some lamps. Too much stuff for me to carry on my own, and too much for my rental car to carry. It took me 4 days to build all the stuff and I am now really happy I did not buy everything at Ikea (they did not seem very cheap anyway compared to the other furniture stores).

I had to buy a TV, vacuum cleaner, iron, washing machine and dryer. I am still not convinced I actually need a dryer, but there is no possibility of a decent conversation on the topic, talking to Americans (I mean that in a very nice way), so I just bought one and got it over with. I bought all this stuff at Fry’s, their in-store service is -to american norms- horrible; I think I used an entire tree on papers to fill in between the departments. They also refuse to ship everything once you pay for shipping, they actually wanted me to pay twice because I had to many items! After threatening to just leave some of the items in the store if they did not deliver it, they proposed to get everything nice and save into my car. That was fine with me. (Dryer and washer were still delivered). Mediocre service, but comparing the prices of the stuff I bought on the internet and other shops, they were always cheaper. Sometimes small savings, sometimes huge. Still worth the trouble of filling in a zillion papers in the store.

To end my 2100-word post of the week (yes, you have been reading a lot if you got here!), I want to end with something typically american: My (Belgian) credit card got hacked and was used for all kinds of internet purchases. 1400 EUR (1800 USD) of sales I have nothing to do with. As I said in the beginning, I do not know if I paid the cab driver with this card. If so, he did it. If not, it was the rental car service. I have not had any issues for almost a year and I thought the chip would help, but as I found out just yesterday, you can actually purchase stuff on the internet with just your credit card number. Pretty scary. I hope I will get that money back, it is a lot of money… and I’m still wondering if I should go to the police office and file a complaint. It MUST be either one of these purchases, and the more I think about it, the renting office makes more sense given the dates and the ‘problems’ I had there.
Fraud happened between March 7th and March 13th. on the 13th my card was automatically blocked, a new card and code was sent to my Belgian address, but I only found it there was a fraud problem on March 19th. Why would the credit card company block my card, send a new one, but not inform me about what happened??? FAIL to BCC corporate, you should at least send me an e-mail and let me know. Calling Belgian card stop 070 344 344 was an awesome experience with a phone contract that does not allow you to call foreign numbers. I still need to fix that (and thank you again to my colleague who helped me out in the time of need!).

Many experiences… many more to come. Next big thing is getting a drivers license.
Oh, and last weekend was Saint Patrick’s day. The day religious Irish people celibate the extinction of snakes on the Irish Ile, and Americans celibate Irish culture with huge amounts of green beer. I will try and post something about this phenomenon some time later.

Location, location, location

Looking for a rental apartment turned out to be a lot more difficult then I expected.
Not because of the american system (at first sight this in fact seems to make things a lot easier), but because of my personality.

You would not expect there to be many different ways to rent apartments (americans call renting leasing for a reason I still haven’t figured out), but some very small differences in (national or state) law can make huge differences on the field.
For example, in Belgium every contract less than 3 years is considered “short term”, in the USA a year is considered long term. The reason for this difference is the fact that in Belgium contract prices are “indexed” based on official inflation figures. In the US, prices cannot be changed during the length of the contract.
Anothing thing I found very weird, is that in most cases, the leasing offices usually show you a “model apartment”. They give you a floorplan of the apartment you are going to lease and then show the differences with the model apartment (this floor will be covered with carpet instead of hardwood, the kitchen is on the right, your balcony is rectangular, your bath room is about half the size of the model, your kitchen will be dark-wood instead of light-wood color, y and your living room has a fireplace while the model does not… any questions?…). It is not possible to visit the apartment you are actually paying for because in most cases people are still living there (extremely fast turn around!) or they are refurnishing/rebuilding the apartment.

I could not put myself over the fact that I had to sign a 13-month contract without seeing the place I will lease, and this caused me to loose several opportunities. Eventually I found -what seemed, and turned out to be- a nice place using a “housing locator”. Housing locators in Dallas work for free, you simply contact them, tell them what you are looking for and they go house-hunting for you. This system exists in many cities in the US, in Dallas they are free and get a fee from the leasing offices if someone (like me) signs a contract. I can surely advice you to use people like this (in fact, if I recommend you my housing locator, and you lease trough him, I will also go a referral fee!). Some of the locators will give you a part of their fee if you lease trough them, others will pay for your moving truck, others are just free and give good value. Contact me if you want me to send you my locators contact info.

Some info for immigrants coming to the USA: if you rent trough a leasing office and they show you a model apartment, the quality of the model is exactly what you will get. Every room can be switched or be slightly smaller or larger (check the floor plan and your leasing officers instructions), but in terms of quality, what you see is what you get.

Some advise for Americans leasing an apartment somewhere outside of the USA: NEVER sign a contract without visiting the actual apartment you are going to rent. Even if people still live there, they will provide a tour if you insist (and you must!).

Price-wise, Dallas is supposed to be reasonably priced. Just remember that in the USA, you get what you pay for. Cheap apartments will be very small, low quality and/or bad location. Location is extremely important! When you look for an apartment in the US, there are only 3 rules according to my team-lead at work: Location, location and location. I’m starting to understand that too and am very happy with the decision I made: close to everything, nice neighborhood, and no traffic jams going to work.
Next to location, there are the amenities such as pool, gym,… some apartments even have their own golf-training course (and are not more expensive).
I have visited about 15 different apartment places (of which 12 showed me model apartments). Take your time, visit a lot of places on your own and share what you are looking for with a locator (if they are free in your neighborhood). It does not harm to have more eyes and ears open to find a good deal, at a good place!

Telecom in the USA

I was thinking about buying an Iphone5, so checked out some stuff about this and what I came up with was bad… really bad.

I’m used to having an Iphone with Belgiums largest provider Proximus. Now, to begin with, Phones in Belgium are -as far as I know- never locked. You buy a phone and choose a provider. Although you mostly buy them together, they are in no way connected to each other.

In the USA, phones are rarely sold without contract. In fact, the Iphone5 is usually sold with a 2 year contract (!!!).
You have the “choice” between AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. And the non-difference between the 3 options is astonishing. They all basically force you to buy a contract including minutes, text messages and data. AT&T and Sprint actually force you to pay for Tethering (a standard feature of the Iphone!!!) and the only reason Verizon does not make you pay for that is because they had a federal case against them which caused them to include it in their data plan.
The difference between the 3 are in the details… Please note, that what follows does not come from my personal experience, but from what I have learned visiting and reading internet (including the provider their sites).
First of all, there is Sprint, they are the cheapest of the three. But the price is still FAR above what you would pay in Europe. But their service is apparently not so good. They have a lot of drop calls (for those not living in America, drop calls are calls that just “drop”. A significant percentage of calls actually get dropped around here) and do not have very good coverage. Now to be honest, I’m not sure if the coverage would be an actual problem for those basically never leaving a big city like Dallas, but I wanted to share all info I have (if I’m wrong, feel free to comment).
Then there is Verizon. They are supposed to have the best and most extensive 4G network in the USA and do not charge you extra for tethering. They are also the most expensive.
At finally there is AT&T. One of the top 10 “most hated” companies in the USA. (Fun fact: I’m a customer/user of numbers 1, 2 AND 3. HA!) AT&T actually has a faster 3G network then any other company, their customer service is terrible (as the article above explains) and… they are the only actual choice you have. Seriously! AT&T is the ONLY of the three alternatives that gives you the possibility to surf the internet while you call. WTF? Indeed. This feature is so basic in Europe, that nobody even thinks about it. Here in the USA, only AT&T gives you the possibility to do that. What is the use of a smart phone if you cannot even update your calendar while a customer is calling you?
My advice: check, check and check again before buying something in a country you do not know. Many Americans will not give you this information because they do not even know it exists! And when you sign up for a contract like this, you pay a 350 USD cancellation fine.

Oh, and did I mention you actually have to request being able to call foreign numbers? :-)

Almost there?

Step by step, we are getting there.

Last Friday I went to the Social Security Office to apply for my social security card. I had my SS-5 form ready, so armed with and all my papers (passport, I-94, employment contract proposal and my tablet) I went to the SSO. I expected this to be a pain, because that is what people told me it would be. I walked into a room with a lot of people speaking all kinds of languages, took a number, and sat there waiting for my number to be called. I started my tablet, to learn for my Texas drivers license while I was waiting and was ready for a few hours of waiting-game.
However, only 27 minutes later, my number was called. I gave the nice lady my papers, she typed everything over into her computer program (which is why I recommend filling in the PDF form before you print it, just like I did! It saves on spelling errors) and I was gone in 3 minutes.
I’m supposed to get my papers within 7-14 days. I just wish everything was as smooth as this process. *touch wood*

The past days, I also received my bank debit card, a nice letter asking me for my social security number in order to complete my credit card application (which I not have at the moment) and a weird letter about Debit Card Overdraft Service explaining to me that my debit card actually allows me to spend more then I have on my account and using this “service” will cost me money if I do not make a covering deposit the same day. Well duh.
The banking system in Europe and the USA are very different, yet both seem to have a weird need to send as many separate envelopes as possible. I guess it is a hidden subsidy to the national postal services.

The above reminds me of the letter a Belgian bank sent me last year to get their 43 eurocent of interest. The funny thing was that a postal stamp costs 56 cents and the account I was supposed to pay the 43 cent for was blocked and in debt due to their own miscalculation of value dates. They fixed it (for free), but I thought it was pretty funny they paid a 56 cents postal stamp to get 43 cents of income (and I’m not even calculating the cost of manpower, paper and ink).

Anyhow. The really weird thing -for me as a foreigner- I received from Wells Fargo is that my debit card comes with a “POS limit” (POS = Point of Sales) of 1500 USD. Basically this means I can only spend 1500/day with my debit card on sales. (Any European will find this extremely weird, as far as I know my Belgian debit cards limit is the amount of money on my checking account, I certainly have never had a blocked debit card). So , I send my personal contact person at the bank a nice e-mail asking him how they expect me to pay for furniture, electronics or a car with a 1500 USD limit debit card and no credit card at all (remember, the US uses credit history, which I do not have yet since I have no US history at all). He came back to me that I can simply let him know I’m planning to spend “a lot” of money and they will make sure it is OK. I understand why. If you steal my debit card in Belgium, you really cannot do anything with it without my pin-code. However, in the USA while you actually do have a pin-code (used to get money from ATM’s), you never need your pin when buying things at a random shop. Consequently, you loosing your debit card is a big deal. It’s funny and weird, but OK. If this is how it works, I’ll join this game and let the bank know when I go out shopping.

For your information (especially if you are also an immigrant like me), when you call Wells Fargo to active your debit card, at some point they ask you for your social security number (which you might not have at this point): Simply press start (*) and the voice message will just continue and not care that you didn’t enter it. I do not know whether this is a bug or a feature, I just pushed anything I could think of and it worked. :-)

Totally unrelated note while writing this post: Why on earth is Geico changing their cool green salamander (or whatever that thing is) into a pig???

On Edit 01/31/2013: Social Security Card is in!!! Next: Drivers License. I also found out that paying by Debit Card generates a direct update from your checking account here in the US. In Belgium you need to wait till the next day to see the changes, since the store payment terminals are updated “in batch”, in the USA it seems to be real-time. Kinda cool.