An expats start as a security postdoc at UC Berkeley

What is this blog post all about (aka tl;dr)?

This post covers our first two weeks in Berkeley, California and includes our struggles to find reasonable housing, a car, pitfalls with Visa requirements, how to get a driving license, and generally how to start a new life in the US - if all you have fits into a bag plus 1 piece of hand luggage (per person).

Day 0 (August 20st): flight from Zurich to Philadelphia to Phoenix to Oakland

When planning our emigration from Switzerland a couple of months ago we booked the cheapest flights to Berkeley that were in a reasonable time frame. US Airways had great flights to Oakland (OAK) airport from Zurich (ZRH) via Philadelphia (PHL) and Phoenix (PHX). The flight from ZRH to PHL was uneventful; US Airways is a cheap airline that has no entertainment system whatsoever on the other hand if you carry a good bock or a tablet the time passes quickly. A couple of years ago US Airways decided to remove all the in flight entertainment systems to cut down on costs. In my opinion this was a great idea as more and more people bring their tablets (with preloaded movies and series) and no longer need the entertainment system anyways. Plus on my flight from ZRH to San Francisco (SFO)  with Swiss Airlines earlier this year the screen was broken on my seat and on the way back the entertainment system was not working for the complete economy part of the plane. When we landed in PHL we had to wait around 90 minutes for immigration plus an additional 60 minutes at security; the immigration was smooth but we ended up missing our flight to PHX our bags unfortunately made it to the flight. The transfer guys at the US Airways desk did a great job and rerouted us on the same day to SFO instead. We were told that the bags will be delivered soon - but this is a different chapter. After arriving at our hotel, the Piedmont House we discovered that this hostel has no reception and is basically some sort of frat house for weird people. A bunch of guys and girls are living there together without any organisation whatsoever. When you "check in" you can grab some keys from the key board and then try to find your room. The online advertisement looked good, the pictures were nice, and the self check-in sounded like a great idea (I assumed some online system that would hand us a room card when entering) but our expectations were a bit too high. Just so you can relate: I consider myself a traveler and I have stayed in a fair share of shabby hostels without much troubles but Piedmont House is pretty bad.

The house and the rooms are very old, smelly, and the bathrooms are sub par (i.e., there are two showers for 10 rooms or so but only one shower works, the other shower stall is used as storage for old lamps and stuff). The house features a shared kitchen as well; watch out: if you store food in one of the shared fridges it might disappear plus there are rats (and mouse traps) in the kitchen. Unfortunately we booked a double room for one week. As we were arriving in the first week before the new semester all hotel rooms in the area were booked and the hotels tripled their prices, yet I would still advise you to stay in a different hotel, with a friend, or just sleep in the park! We were trying to get hold of somebody (i.e., the owner or some staff) to tell them that we were expecting our bags from the airline but no luck. We managed to tell them the next day that we were expecting bags but nobody of the staff seemed to care. Later when we were reunited with our bags we found out that the US Airways delivery guy tried to deliver the bags twice and nobody answered the door nor did anybody answer the phone number that is listed on the Piedmont House contact page. That's what I call a shitty hostel!

Day 1 (August 21st): a brave new world (and apartment)

This was the time when Lumi (nickname of my wife Anna Barbara) hit rock bottom the first time: the combination of new country, immigration, loosing our bags, a crappy shabby 'hostel' room, and disgusting shower stalls. As soon as we had breakfast we started looking for an apartment in the area.

The areas we considered were Berkeley (obviously), Emeryville, Oakland, Albany, and El Cerrito. Berkeley is a very vibrant student city and offers everything you need. South of the UC you find all the student housing, fraternity parties, cheap eats, and Telegraph avenue with lots of shops and food options. West of the UC you find the so called gourmet ghetto with even more food options and a couple of hotels and motels along University avenue. Prices for a 1 bed room apartment are around 1300 to 2000 plus there is a huge competition when you look for an apartment (an owner told us that he got 60 calls in 2 hours for one apartment; 10 people would sign the contract without even looking at the apartment). Emeryville is south of Berkeley and a 3 to 6 mile commute to the UC and housing is a little cheaper. If you like an all inclusive resort: have a look at the Watergate community, they offer swimming pools, tennis courts, and whirl pools all included in the rent. Unfortunately no free apartment was available when we were looking. Oakland is even further from Berkeley and comes with a 4 to 10 mile commute to the UC; if you want to live there you should consider taking the BART or the Bus. Apartment prices are even cheaper but the area can be a bit dodgy, so watch out. Albany is a small village north-west of Berkeley and comes with a 3 to 4 mile commute to the UC. Albany offers many shops, restaurants, pubs, and other small village perks around Solano avenue and San Pablo avenue. El Cerrito is a bit further up north from Albany and comes with a 4 to 8 mile commute to the UC.

If you want to find something in the bay area that is not new you will have to check out craigslist. Craigslist is like an online black board with millions of postings and listings. You can get everything on craigslist from second hand toasters, to bikes, to cars, up to apartments. We looked at more than 200 apartment listings in the areas described above, sent more then 20 emails to the different owners, called around 10 owners, got 5 appointments, and looked at two apartments. All on one day. The market is very competitive and you have to sweet talk people into leasing you the apartment right away. We decided quickly to get the second apartment we looked at, stuck around after the showing, and settled the lease with the property manager (including handing over the cashiers check for the deposit and the down payment) before the others could even hand in their possible application for the apartment. The 2 bed room apartment we got is in Albany and the commute to UC is around 3.2 miles plus there is a bus stop right in front of the apartment. Good news: we can move in on Sunday (in 5 days). A note on transportation: public transportation in the bay area is reasonable (good compared to other areas in the US, bad compared to Switzerland). Caltrain (a commuter train) connects San Francisco with San Jose; BART (a light railway) connects both international airports, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond. AC Transit (a bus line) connects the cities on the east bay.

Day 2 (August 22nd): organizing a ride

No matter how good public transport is you'll still need a car in the US. In Zurich we were able to live without a car for the last 10 years but the distances are just longer here in the US and even for basic tasks like grocery shopping, going to a workout, or going to the movies you'll need a car. Our plan was to get the smallest car possible and we set ourselves a budget of 4k$ for a used car with less than 150k miles and not older than 10 years or <10k$ for the smallest new car that we could find. We talked to a couple of friends and I read tons of online posts about the topic and the chime was: never buy a used car at a used car dealer. They basically offer the same guarantees as private sellers but they add 1k$ to the private and they will tell you anything (aka they are professional liars). That's why we started with craigslist. Generally we followed this great checklist on how to buy a used car and we used Autocheck to check the VIN numbers of all the cars we looked at. The VIN number shows the registered mileage, any accidents the car was in, and other general information that helps you make up your mind about the price.

It was actually harder than expected to find a car that met our criteria (<10 years old, <150k miles, <4k$) but finally we found a Mazda Protege from 2001 with 138k miles for 2650$ and a Toyota Corolla from 1999 for 3500$. We called both guys and organized test drives on the next day.

This afternoon our bags finally arrived. I had to call US Airways a couple of times until I got to the right person and I was then told that they already tried to deliver the bags twice but nobody picked up the phone at our hotel and that nobody would answer the door. Luckily I got a very understanding and friendly person on the other end and she organized a third delivery of our bags. I waited on the veranda until we were finally reunited with our bags. Thanks again Piedmont House for not answering the phone nor opening the door when a delivery guy comes by.

Day 3 (August 23rd): banking troubles (1) and meeting our ride Marvin

As we were slowly running low on dollars we tried to wire money (10k$) from Switzerland to our Wells Fargo account and asked a Wells Fargo banker to write down the wiring instructions for our checking account. From an earlier fraudulent charge I ended up with two checking accounts, one with the money and one with 0$ in it. We closed the account with 0$ and found out afterwards that the banker gave us the wiring information for the checking account with 0$ in it. The wire ended up somewhere in the air, Wells Fargo removes 72$ from the 10k$ and sent the money back where we payed the conversion fees twice (CHF to USD and USD to CHF) and we basically lost 250$ in this transaction thanks to confusing information from a Wells Fargo banker. Compared to Europe the US banking system is completely broken; everything relies on checks and money transfers between banks is completely inconvenient and a huge hassle. Another huge problem is that the average banker (at any bank) is just a trained monkey. The bankers will lie to your face and tell you any misinformation they want just to 'help' you. All of them are very friendly and sound kind of competent. But different bankers contradict whatever the previous banker said. As a banker in the US you don't need any training, education, or you don't even need a clue what's going on. For example, I had a life-long-free-account and I got a fraudulent charge on my debit card. Instead of just issuing a new debit card (with a new number) banker A decided to sign me up for a new checking and new savings account that is no longer free as there was no way of issuing a new card with a new number according to her. That's how I ended up with 2 savings and 2 checking accounts in the first place. She told me that the account would be free and she would set up some transfers and get everything ready. Banker B told me that we can close the old bank accounts so that I only have one checking and saving account each left (shortly thereafter the wire arrived and we lost our 250$). Banker C then told me that Banker's A and B were full of shit and that we could have kept the other free accounts. Some bankers told us that we can use our European Maestro (EC) cards to withdraw money, others told us we couldn't. Basically no two banker told us the same consistent story or information. This makes it very hard to trust the US banking system as Wells Fargo appears to be one of the better banks. My conclusion: never leave too much money in the US, transfer as much as possible back to your home accounts where banking is a serious business and not just a joke.

On the afternoon we had our appointment with Jason to test drive the first car. We liked the stick shift Mazda Protege from the start, the car was in good shape and the test drive went smooth. One of the most important things when buying a second hand car is to bring it to a mechanic and after reading the Yelp reviews we decided to go to Steve's Auto Care in El Cerrito. We didn't have an appointment and Steve told us that we were a bit too late and that he couldn't do a full check, yet he looked at the cor for almost 30 minutes and gave us great information about the state of the car and what to expect. That's when we decided that whenever we had any repairs we would go to Steve! In the end we decided that we would buy the Mazda as it was a good deal and we both liked the car. We scheduled to hand over the money in cash on the next day as the amount was low enough not to bother about a cashiers check.

Day 4 (August 24th): happy birthday

Today was my wife's birthday and I surprised here with breakfast in bed with some cake and a nice card. After breakfast I started calling different people. We organized home renter insurance for our apartment, car insurance for our new car so that we could drive from Jason's house to our apartment. Geico was the insurer of our choice for both the car insurance and the home insurance as they offered a reasonable deal and coverage (around 250$ each). After covering the insurance we got ourselves appointments at the DMV for our written driving tests - the international driving licence is not accepted in the US and you need to redo both the written and the behind-the-wheel test. After sorting out all our telephone calls we went on an online shopping spree on Amazon prime and bought router, modem, and other stuff to start up our digital life.

In the afternoon we celebrated Lumi's birthday by going to the movies and watching Brave. Later we took the BART to Jason and finally bought our car - we named him Marvin and parked him in the garage of our apartment.

Day 5 (August 25th): the lush life

In the last couple of days we were able to find an apartment and to buy a car, we deserved a day off! We slacked around for a bit, walked around on the campus, and went to an all you can eat pizza place near Telegraph avenue. Afterwards we went to the movies again. I guess we deserved it!

Day 6 (August 26th): moving in

In the US you can actually move in on Sundays. We were very happy to leave crappy Piedmont House and took the bus to our new apartment. Unfortunately we got quite an unpleasant surprise: the apartment was not cleaned by the previous tenant. The whole place was quite yucky, the kitchen and bathroom floors were not cleaned and very sticky, the shelves very dirty, or there was left over stuff in there as well, the stove and oven were super dirty and sticky. We taught hard what we should do and in the end we decided to go to Target to buy cleaning material and to clean the floor and some of the shelves and cupboards we use. We just put all the baking trays and all other stuff that was laying around into a cupboard and closed it until we move out. That's when Lumi hit rock bottom the second time. For our safety we took lots of pictures so that the owner cannot complain if we do not clean the apartment when we move out.

In the morning we bought a GPS navigation system for our car - these things are so convenient! In the afternoon we went to Ikea and bought all the basic kitchen stuff, a mattress, a table, a couch table and lots of other small things. Until late at night we spent our time building all the stuff we bought and I even managed to wreck our living room table by turning in the screws so tight that they came out at the top end.

First week recap:

We managed to move out of the worst youth hostel ever without getting any diseases (I was bitten a couple of times by something that lived in the mattress), we found a place to stay, we bought a car, we got the apartment cleaned up and made it livable. If you are interested in how much money you'll need for the start: apartment 2000-4000$ deposit and first week, car 2000-4000$, furniture and basic appliances: 1000-2000$.

Day 7 (August 27th): building a place to live

We went to Ikea again to buy a second table plus more chairs. This way we can use the wrecked table as a desk in the second bedroom and if we have many guests we can put both tables together. Our next item on the list was to go to Target and buy all the basic food stuff that we need. We spent the rest of the day building, constructing, and cleaning. The sad part of this day was that our Swiss Mastercard was blocked. The fraud protection kicked in when we tried to buy furniture from Ikea the second time. I had to call the emergency number to get the card reactivated.

Day 8 (August 28th): the written DMV test

We assumed that we have an appointment but you have to wait at the DMV even if you have an appointment (for 30 minutes - if you don't have an appointment than you have to wait up to 3 hours). The written driving exam was a peace of cake. We learned for about 3 hours each and Lumi aced the test, I had one mistake (6 mistakes are allowed).

In the afternoon we went to another shopping spree and bought our couch at Target and a huge amount of other stuff online: a bike to commute to UC, a TV from Woot, and a bed box from Walmart.

Day 9 (August 29th): getting settled and meeting the gang

While I had to attend one of the most boring meetings ever Lumi had fun with the Comcast guy who installed our internet access. As part of the J1 visa I had to attend the mandatory visa information meeting. If you don't attend this meeting then you don't get authorization to travel outside the US during your postdoc. As this was my second time as a J1 the meeting did not yield any additional information for me and I just had to sit it out.

I thought that I could visit the other postdocs and PhD students while I was at Berkeley. During lunch I met with the security reading group and got to know some interesting people.

Day 10 (August 30th): meeting Mario and family

This was the first time we tried to do sports here in the US. We went running but the GPS did not pick up a signal until we finished our track. We found some spots with a great view over the bay area. Later that night we were invited by Mario and his family to have dinner at their place. What a wonderful and chilling night.

Day 11 (August 31st): trying to work

Our last Ikea and Walmart trip. We bought the last couple of things we forgot the last times and completed our furniture.

Day 12 (September 1st): beautify the apartment and checking out the nightlife

Lumi started painting the walls and beautifying our apartment while I tried to work a couple of hours. After almost 1 1/2 months of holidays it's kind of hard to get back into "work mood". After work we went bowling to our local bowling alley. Later that night we found out that it is kind of hard to get food in the US after 10pm if you are not driving around. Sizzlers, Taco Bell, and McDonalds all close between 9pm and 10pm for walk-in customers. On the other hand the Taco Bell and McDonalds drive-ins are open all night long. We actually have to get used to this kind of mentality.

Second week recap:

We started making the apartment livable, built all of our furniture, passed the written DMV test, got internet access, went to the Visa information meeting, and had a meeting with other post docs. This week was kind of productive and we managed to get settled in our new home.

Conclusion: so far, so good

We had a hard start, got lucky with the apartments and the car and managed to play our cards well. Our experience shows that you need at least one week to organize an apartment and a car. The second week is optional and helps to construct all the furniture and to get settled in. During your first two weeks you have to accept to hit rock bottom once or twice - the culture shock combined with a huge list of stuff that you need to do can be demanding and tough, but you'll get over it. Plan well and it will end well.

One of the things we have to get used to around here is that the culture is so different: everything is built on the cheap and optimized for low cost of ownership combined with high current costs. Apartments have no isolation but gas heating, cars are cheap but need more fuel per distance compared to European cars.

We have settled for the next year and we are ready for visitors. We already partially explored the area but there is still lots to see and we are always happy about people who join us!