Saturday, May 10, 2014

I'm 42 and I Just Passed My Drivers Test.


When last we left our hero, he was concerned about moving back to the US after so many years without a valid US drivers license. How would he get around? Would he be able to rent a car with his Italy license? Does anyone care? For answers to these and other burning questions, stay tuned...

...And we're back. I had last taken a drivers test as a high school junior, 26 years ago. My New Hampshire license had expired in 1999 while I was deployed to Kosovo as a soldier in the US Army. NH has (or had, at least) a three year statute of limitations on renewing you license after it expires but I didn't make it back in time so for the next 15 years I drove on my US Army Europe or US Armed Forces Italy drivers license without issue. 

Now I have friends who have been in similar circumstances as me and who have told me that the state that they moved to simply swapped out their USAREUR or AFI license for a state license so I was hopeful that South Carolina - being a state loaded with military bases - would do the same for me. I went to the local DMV with my license, my military ID card and my orders and hoped for the best...but it was not to be. The nice woman actually started to give me the documents needed to do a direct swap and I was thinking I was going to get lucky when she took my AFI license, looked at it with a funny look, and then took it into her supervisor who apparently informed her that it was not one of the licenses that they accepted for a direct swap. My heart sank as she informed me that I would have to take all the tests all over again, the eye test, the written test and the road test. She actually asked the woman next to her if, because I was such an experienced driver, they might possibly waive the road test but the woman (best described as an old curmudgeon who was seemingly not happy with her station in life) shook her head and said no, absolutely not. So the woman helping me gave me the website for the drivers manual to study and instructions to just come back and see her with all my documents when I was ready to test. 

Now, at this point I was worried because one of the needed documents was my social security card and I was sure that it was packed in my household goods. She said I could substitute my DD214 (military discharge papers) since they also have my SSN but those too were in my household goods. I was getting stressed out by this point because my car is slated to arrive any day now and I can't register it without a US drivers license so I had to wait for my HHG, I could have trouble. So imagine my elation when I got back back to the hotel and looked in my suitcase and found that I'd had the foresight to pack both my social security card and my DD214 in my checked bags. Things were starting to look up for a change.

I got to work the next morning determined to spend the day memorizing the SC driving manual because I had to make sure that I passed my test on the first try. My new coworkers all got quite a laugh at my predicament and the parallel parking jokes were flying. I opened the manual and pored over the various speed limits, traffic signs, parking distances to different obstacles such as railroad crossings, fire hydrants and intersections - things I had not thought about since I last took my drivers test 26 years ago. They have a practice test on the website and I figured I'd take it to see how I was progressing. It was surprisingly easy, almost embarrassingly so. I ended up taking it five times to chart my progress and I got a 93, 100, 100, 87 and 100. I felt ready. 

I girded up my loins and departed the office to the sounds of good natured heckling from my new coworkers reminding me to keep my hands at 2 and 10. I returned to the DMV with all of my documents and a confident air that belied the nervous feeling I had in my stomach. The woman remembered me right away. We had spent so much time together at her window that I found out more about her life than I ever wanted to know. I heard all about her father who she was estranged from: (You have to imagine the following part in the voice of an angry black woman...) "He lives in Connecticut but I don't see him anymore because he just can't seem to make the effort to come see me or his grandbabies and if he don't wanna try then I ain't got no time for him. He done nothing but turn his back on us his whole life and I don't care what he do no more." For a minute, I actually started wondering if I was getting Punk'd. Her personal issues notwithstanding, she was really nice and certainly helpful compared to her coworker, the curmudgeon. I passed the written test with flying colors and was passed over to the curmudgeon to process my stuff for the road test. The curmudgeon told me she needed my vehicle registration, I told her I had a rental, she said fine, then she needed my rental agreement ("to prove that you are the driver of the vehicle"). Of course, for some reason, I did not have my rental agreement in the car and I could not locate it in my folder that I put all of my important documents in. I had to go back to the hotel to get it but it was not there either so I had to call the rental car office to ask if they could make me another copy. They asked what I needed it for and I tried to explain it to the guy but he ended up laughing loudly at me having to take my driving test at 42 years old. It was a bit emasculating actually. He apologized for laughing then said come down and he'll make me a copy. I got back to the DMV and sat in front of the curmudgeon's window and waited patiently. They informed me that she was out on a road test and I was instantly terrified at the thought of having her as my road test instructor. She returned and stood at her window, glancing at me occasionally but not acknowledging my presence. Eventually the woman with the estranged father said "He's back with his rental agreement..." and the curmudgeon replied that she wasn't processing my documents, someone else was. I wondered to myself how long she was going to let me sit there waiting for her before she said anything. After a bit, she just told me to go wait outside in the waiting area for my road test.

This pretty much sums up how I felt on this day.
I waited. And waited. And waited. Suddenly a woman - who was not the curmudgeon - came through the door and called my name. She did not look very happy either but at least she was not the curmudgeon, I reasoned. I had kind of though that when the tester found out my circumstances, that I as only taking the test as a formality and that I've been driving all over the world for the past 26 years, they would just be lenient and not really have me do anything crazy. Unfortunately my worst fears were realized as the first thing she did was a thorough check of the rental car - lights, blinkers, horn, brake, everything - and then told me there would be NO conversation in he vehicle as I would need to concentrate on the road 100%. This woman did everything completely by the book, as if I were a high school kid fresh out of drivers ed. It's funny how difficult it is to drive in a situation like that. Something I've done with no problems for 26 years suddenly becomes laborious. I was taking no chances with this woman because she meant business. I kept my hands at 2 and 10 the whole time, I constantly glanced at my speedometer to make sure I wasn't going one mile over the speed limit and I kept my mouth shut and did everything she told me to. At one point she asked me to identify the sign we had just passed; luckily I had looked at it and knew it was a speed limit sign. Later she asked the same question but I was not so lucky this time as I was looking at my speedometer and missed it. She said "ok..." and scribbled in her clipboard. I was tense, nervous. She had me do a three point turn on a small rural road. Then she had me drive backwards on the same road for about a quarter of a mile which is more difficult than it seems. More scribbling. We got back to the DMV and she pointed to a set of big wooden barriers and it was time for my old nemesis: parallel parking. I have never been very good at parallel parking but the good Lord must have been my copilot that day because I completely nailed it on my first try. More scribbling. I sat still for what seemed like an eternity and then I heard the magical words I'd longed to hear for the past several years: "You passed." I paid my 25 bucks, smiled for my picture and walked out of the DMV holding a brand new drivers license.  

And for a brief moment, I was 16 again. 


Monday, May 5, 2014

Let's Talk About Racism...

How could anybody have a problem with this beautiful group?

I know this is a sensitive subject here in the US but let's talk about it anyway. When I found out I would have to relocate to the US, the entire US was open to me even if I knew there were only a handful of places that we had a decent chance of ending up. However, I immediately started receiving warnings from friends from different parts of the US that I would inevitably encounter racism because I am married to an Asian woman and my kids are "Amerasian".

Well, this completely floored me. Now admittedly, there are not a lot of black people where I am from. But, in my experience, I can never remember any incidents or problems of a racial nature. As far as I can recall, people were people regardless of what color they were. I had black friends growing up and never thought twice about about it. When I went to college, I met a black guy from the inner city my freshman year and we got along so well that we chose to live together for three and a half years. The point is, I know there have always been racial problems in the US but I've never witnessed them firsthand. The one and only time I actually came face to face with it was back in 1991 during AIT (job school with the Army) in Augusta, Georgia. We had a guy from rural Mississippi who took me aside and told me "Man, there sure are a lot of niggers around here...". I was 19 years old at the time and scared to make a scene or get in a fight so I just sort of moved away from him and shunned him the rest of the summer. Truth be told,  I was a bit freaked out because I'd never met anyone like him before and I didn't know how to react.

So anyway, we found out we were going to South Carolina and people really started warning me about it. "South Carolina is the south, you're going to have trouble...they are still fighting the war down there!" But I've gotta be honest - at least here in Sumter - I have not found a single hint of racism. Now, I'll preface this statement by reminding you that I grew up in New England; that being said, I've never lived anywhere where there are so many African Americans (I'm sorry, I don't know what the proper PC term is these days, I'm sorry if I offend anyone).  It honestly seems like there are more black people than white people here and yet I've really not noticed any difference in people I've met than anywhere else I've lived. People are people, it seems, no matter the skin color.

See, when I hear the stories of friends who are in "mixed" marriages and encounter problems, it honestly shocks me. I just can't believe that in 2014 there is anyone who has a problem with a black person married to a white person or, in our case, a white guy married to an Asian woman. And thankfully I have not personally witnessed it yet. But the fact remains that several friends have warned me about it and swear that we will be subjected to it at some point. Some have even warned that my kids will have trouble in some of the schools here because they are "mixed". This is something that I honestly never considered when moving back to my home country and I hope to God that I am right in my naiveté. I just can't imagine that after 25 years of service to my country, that ANYONE would have a problem with who I married or what my children look like.

I mean, seriously, in this really a problem?!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Adjusting to Life in Sumter

It’s really hard to describe to people who have never lived outside of the US for any lengthy period of time what being back here is like; to them it just seems like I’m complaining about every little thing or that I hate America.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I love the USA. Truth be told, although I miss Italy tremendously I am actually really happy to be back here in my own country. I remember when I left back in 1998, all I could think about were all of the things I would miss living in Europe but I quickly learned that even though you miss certain things, they get replaced by other things that you didn’t have in the place you left. That’s sort of what I’m experiencing now – rediscovering things about the US that I love but had forgotten about or otherwise learned to live without. Sometimes it’s the little things, like turning on a TV and having every single channel in English. And sometimes it’s bigger, something you can’t quite quantify like just the general feeling you get when you suddenly realize you’re actually back in the US - I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life feeling like a guest in someone else’s country but suddenly that feeling has been replaced by the feeling that I’m finally home (such as it is anyway). 

There are still adjustments though and I am occasionally experiencing bouts of culture shock here in Sumter. I think the biggest shocker for me so far has been this one: you cannot buy alcohol here in Sumter on Sundays. At all. Not in a grocery store, not in a bar, not even in a restaurant. That one was quite a shock to my system. Everybody I talk to seems embarrassed by the law and several tell me that it is coming up for a vote in November and will probably get overturned but it floors me that in this modern day, I can’t go to a restaurant on a Sunday and get a glass of wine with my meal. Or go to a bar to watch a game and have a beer. Apparently it is only Sumter County as I’m told most people just go to Columbia on Sundays. I can’t even imagine what it must be like during NFL season here. Just shocking.

Speaking of alcohol, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I am not going to find decent wine anywhere close to Sumter and so far that has pretty much held true. In many of the restaurants we’ve eaten at so far, I’ve sampled some of the wines on offer and haven’t found anything remotely resembling what I would consider decent vino. Now, coming to Sumter, South Carolina and complaining about the wine selection would be a tremendous exercise in futility so I just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut because a wine snob in Sumter probably has a very short life expectancy. That being said, I have discovered a small oasis in my vino-less desert. There is a wine and spirits specialty store very close to the house we will be living in that features a halfway decent selection of wines from various countries around the world (decent for Sumter at least). The prices are high which is to be expected but there are some decent options at decent prices so at least I know that life will not be completely barren in the wine department.

Not on Sundays...

Food is quickly becoming one of the biggest disappointments for us. We had thought that being in the south and in a somewhat rural area would mean that we would have a plethora of fresh produce and such. Sadly it seems we were mistaken, at least so far. We haven’t found a single farmer’s market, Whole Foods or anything else along those lines here in Sumter. Even the grocery stores’ selections are lacking. It seems like everything here is deep fried or otherwise prepared in the least healthy way possible. Virginia plans to start her little vegetable garden when we move into the house, hopefully that will help. I worry about my kids’ diets living here, quite frankly. 

Fish and seafood - if food in general has been a big disappointment so far, then fish and seafood are right at the top of the list. Sumter is roughly two hours from the coast but we’d been told by a few people that the fish and seafood here was really good. That may be true but unfortunately we have not been able to find any of it. I’d done my research online before we got here and found a place called Liberty Seafood downtown that got rave reviews from people about their fresh fish and seafood so we were very anxious to check it out. We found it on our second or third day – it is a tiny little run down shack of a place that is actually an eatery in a predominantly black neighborhood serving all manner of fried fish but they also sell “fresh” fish. However, by “fresh fish”, we’re talking fish that they must have pulled out of the local creek (or is it called a crick?) - a whole bunch of dirty looking carp-like trash fish. I walked in and immediately felt like I didn’t belong there. I asked the 400 lb guy covered in fish guts if they carried any saltwater fish, seafood or shellfish. He gave me an angry look, cocked his lip and said “naw man, just what you see here, bro.” I beat a hasty retreat filled with bitter disappointment. Even the grocery stores feature terrible selection. Most of what passes for fresh seafood here seems to be farm raised catfish, farm raised salmon and more farm raised catfish. A couple places do have lobster tanks but they charge almost 20 bucks a pound for them. For those who don’t know us, Virginia and I are HUGE fish and seafood eaters. I would give up red meat before I ever gave up fish and seafood. Things have gotten so bad that we actually went to…*shudder*…the Red Lobster the other day.  It was “meh” at best and extremely overpriced but I needed fish so bad we had no choice. It was not my proudest moment. I felt like I needed a shower after we left. It looks like we’ll be relying on frozen fish as long as we’re here. Big disappointment. How big? Huge.  

Oh how we miss you...

Shopping, while not disastrous, is certainly not what I’d hoped or expected. One of the things you miss most about the US when you live overseas is the shopping. You have a small department store on base called a PX that has a limited selection of American stuff and you learn to live with it but you dream of the day you get to go back to the US and have an unlimited selection of American goodies at cheap prices. One of the things I’d sold the X Man on to get him excited about moving here was the huge selection of toys he would have to choose from rather than the one tiny aisle of toys he had at the PX which was always missing the stuff he liked. Unfortunately for us, Sumter is far from a shopping mecca. There’s a super Walmart but their toy section is not much bigger the PX and I’ll never forget the look of utter disappointment on poor Xavier’s face when he saw it. There is the Sumter Mall but it’s so small that you can almost throw a rock from one end to the other. I’ve quickly learned that you want decent shopping you have to drive 45 minutes to either Columbia or Florence. There’s a Toys R Us in Florence so we’ll be taking the kids there to pacify their youthful cravings. There’s also a Target and – my personal favorite – a Barnes and Noble. To put it in a way that the folks back home will understand, there are more shopping options in the Pheasant Lane Mall than in the entire city of Sumter put together. And don’t get me started on the sales tax…

Anyway, those are a few examples of some of the bigger adjustments we’ve had to make so far. There are plenty of other things both good and bad we are finding here and I’ll try to cover some more in the future.