The World at Large

Moving to the US

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Jet Lag and Resolutions

We've been back in Chicago for a week now, and it's interesting to view this place again from the perspective of having spent a month in Australia.

Towards the end of our trip I started joining Luc in a desire to get back "home" to Chicago again. This is partly because I didn't feel like I had my own space (or the option to just jump in a car and go do something on my own), but also because I've genuinely started to feel affection for this place.

Anne commented that the taxi trip back from O'Hare didn't give her any sense of familiarity, but I found the opposite. On the other hand, I've also gone out there several more times, traveling for work, and meeting family out there. I'm starting to get to know the big brick smokestack you see by the expressway, and where you get those first glimpses of the Sears Tower (America's tallest, and Luc's favorite building, though I still maintain that the John Hancock Center is more iconic).

The second last time I came in along the Kennedy Expressway from the airport, it occurred to me that I hadn't driven along this road in some time. This led to me reflect that I was unable to see much of outer Chicago, and indeed the rest of Illinois, since the 90 days I could use my Queensland driving license elapsed last year. Without realizing it, this had become a nagging form of stress for me: There were many things I wanted to see and do that I really could get to.

Sure, Chicago has fantastic public transport. I can (and do) get to every place of interest with ease. However, the further afield I want to go, the more time it takes, until it reaches a point where the trip becomes infeasible. For instance on a simple trip to the Science Museum we spent a great deal on a taxi getting there, and a couple of hours with buses getting back home. The children are too young for me to take a few hours extra on an outing because public transport demanded it of me.

There is also the issue that I can't leave the city at all without flying or driving my own car. I've been invited down to the University of Illinois in Champagne, and until now I haven't been able to do so.

On top of this, everywhere wants to see a drivers' license as ID, and not having one is a real nuisance. It's possible to get a State ID, but that doesn't make sense when I should really just be getting the license.

With all the inconvenience of not having a license, I realized that I have to stop procrastinating, and just get it. This was in the back of my mind, when the topic of New Year's resolutions came up a few weeks ago (as it does), so I made an Illinois driving license my resolution. It also took the onus off me from making the resolution I should have made: progress my thesis. (Shhhh! Don't tell anyone).

I had started reading the road rules early last year, but I got halfway through and put them down. I kept meaning to pick them up again, but it had been so long ago that I figured that I probably needed to go back and start from the beginning. Besides, with a few (occasionally notable) exceptions, everything made sense, and conformed to the rules I've seen in various places around the world.

So yesterday I decided to just do the test. It only cost $10, and if I failed then the sting of the loss would make be actually bother to read the book all the way through. I decided that just doing it was more important than anything else.

The Test

It would be really tough to get a job in the USA which required a lot of driving. To get a license requires a utilities bill (to show your current address), a birth certificate or passport, a credit card or out-of-state license (I figure that a Queensland "licence" is as out-of-state as you get!), and your Social Security Card. That last one can take months to acquire, and in the meantime Illinois only lets you drive for 90 days before you have to get a local license!

So I packed all my ID, and showed up early for work yesterday, so I could drop into the Thompson Center and do my written test. I'd need to borrow a car for the driving test, and there was no point in inconveniencing a friend with this if it turned out that I wasn't going to even make it past the written part.

After some time of waiting in line, I presented my relevant ID, paid my money, and did the test. I was a little surprised to discover that almost none of the questions were related to driving. Instead, they concentrated on things like the penalties applicable for DUI (Driving while Under the Influence), who must be sitting next to a driver aged 17 or under, whether or not a headset could be worn while driving, and so on. I took the most conservative guesses I could ("All of the Above" when discussing penalties, and saying "no" to anything that looked a little unusual, such as wearing a headset). I got all but one of these right. I think I guessed too conservatively for something involving refusal to submit to a drug test.

The relevant part of the test was asking for labels to be assigned to 15 different street signs. The trick was that most signs were unlabeled, and were instead just a shape of a particular color. It turns out that a no passing is a long yellow triangle pointing right, and a train crossing is a yellow circle, but I got all the others.

I also had to do a vision test. Usually this would be worth a comment, but in this case I'll make an exception. I'm used to the standard eye chart that most people would have seen at some point, but this was a little different. On the counter was a visor that you had to place your eyes against in order to look through. One I looked into it, I realized that there were letters inside the box, but I was looking through lenses designed to make the letters appear a long way away. The hardest part was that each eye appeared to be looking at a different scene, and yet I had to make sense of the composite scene that I saw with both eyes. They finished by asking which side I saw a flashing light, but the pinprick I thought I saw was so fleeting (and I think it was only in one eye) that I was scared I must have failed the test somehow. Nonetheless, I was passed.


The Illinois rules require that a licensed driver accompany you to the driving test with a fully insured car (proof of insurance required). There was no way around this, so I sent a email two of the friends that we've made here (well, Anne made them, and I've inherited them by virtue of marriage. I don't credit my wife enough). Both couples responded that they could help (showing just how good Anne is at finding friends), and so early this morning Allen and I drove for the nearest center.

Allen is quite an interesting character, and I was pleased to have the chance to spend some more time in conversation with him. Little did I know how much I would come to rely on this.

After dealing with breakfast for all of our children, Allen and I arrived at the center at 9am. The place was packed, with the line extending something like 50m (or yards) out the front door. This might seem inconvenient, but neither of us had thought to bring hats, and it was really cold. By the time we made it half way to the door I couldn't feel my ears any more.

Inside wasn't too bad, and I was given all the paperwork to do the test. We then went back to the car, and drove around to the test area. It was now about 9:30am, and the center was due to close at 12pm.

At about 10am, we noticed there were very few people behind us. The line was moving very slowly, and we started wondering how long it would take, and if they had stopped serving people inside because they wouldn't be tested in time.

Sure enough, 2 hours later we made it to a point (only 3 more cars in front of me!) where Allen was told to get out of the vehicle. After that, I had to endure another 30 minutes until I got to my own test. Did they think they could eliminate "nerves" in the kids doing their tests by making them too bored to care anymore?

The test itself was an anticlimax. I did 2 silly things, probably because I was a little nervous (hey, it's been 18 years since I last did this!). I immediately stopped about 2 feet after a stop sign which had no corresponding line on the ground. This was one rule I did read, which said to stop before sign if there was no line. Secondly, I was asked to pull over (what, no parallel parking?!?) and pretend I was parking the car pointed uphill (I was actually pointing slightly downhill at the time - remember that Chicago is FLAT). I turned the wheel right (toward the gutter) when I should have turned left. Doh!

All the same, the transgressions were minor, and now I have a state issued ID. Yay!


My first act upon getting home was to enroll with Zipcar. These are in Australia too, but for those who don't know, Zipcar owns a fleet of vehicles parked all across several major cities. In our case, we live about 100m from 3 of them, so they are very convenient to us. Anyone enrolled with them can hire the cars by the hour or day ($9 an hour, or less for bulk rates). They also have an annual fee of $50.

This sort of thing might sound expensive at first glance ($9 an hour), but in reality it isn't. Parking near us costs $200 a month. Purchasing a car would cost another $200 to $250 every month. Fuel costs $50 a tank (I bought 3/4 of a tank for Allen today, and it cost $42). Then you have insurance, and maintenance. It doesn't take much to make a car cost us over $500 a month! (No, we do NOT have that kind of money! I'm still paying for the trip to Australia!)

When you consider that we can get almost anywhere we need to go by walking and/or bus/train, then our need to use a car is diminished considerably. (If this were LA, then I'd be whistling a different tune, but it's Chicago, so cars aren't such a big deal). Put it all together, and Zip sounds great.

Frustratingly, when I tried to enroll, they told me that I needed to be driving at least 1 year! Argh! At least they offered the option of putting in the details of a license from elsewhere (including Australia). They'd like a copy of my driving history (something that Queensland Transport seem to want a lot of ID and money for), so I may have to wait for a while before my membership comes through. Oh well, I've waited a year, I suppose I can wait a little longer.


After registering with Zipcar, I remembered a similar group called I-Go. These guys are a non-profit organization who are specific to Illinois. They're much cheaper for shorter trips, but I have to walk a lot further to get to the nearest car. (About 10 minutes walk from here).

I-Go cost $25 annually, and charge less per hour on the simpler plans. They sound much better for us, but the longer walk makes it a little less attractive. All the same, I couldn't argue with the numbers, and so we should probably join here too. Unfortunately, they require a 5 year clean driving record, and they have no option to mention an overseas license. Consequently, my application will be knocked back. However, I do have a number I can call to discuss overseas licenses, so all is not lost. I'll just have to wait some time before I can enroll with this group. In the meantime, I should get that driving record. Hopefully Queensland Transport won't decide to cancel my license when I get in touch with them. I'd hate to return to Australia only to discover that I had to do a driving exam again.


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