Arrival – ‘A Shining City on A Hill’ 

A land of the free, a nation of opportunity, the land of the American dream… so many people have waxed lyrical about the power of the US to sweep you off your feet and turn your life upside down that I suppose I’ve rather set myself against it over the years. The country of George W. Bush and waterboarding and Newtown couldn’t possibly surprise me. But I had forgotten about the SIZE of it. The grandeur that gives such a sense of possibility. As I flew into Dulles airport, the sun was setting, casting the landscape underneath us in a beautiful golden glow. There was the Potomac, surrounded by dense looking forests – all looking so much wilder than anything in Europe. It made me realise why America must have seemed such a land of opportunity and space to those first Europeans.
And then, there were the edifices that tried to speak of those possibilities in stone and marble – the Washington monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol building itself…. all of them bathed in a glinting evening warmth, the shining city on a hill. During the flight, I had been thinking mainly about the difficulties and problems our move to the US has brought and might bring – cancelling utilities, setting up new ones, finding somewhere to live, getting a bank account, getting a phone, getting a JOB. When once asked what I’m scared of in life, I said ‘acceleration’. At the time I meant on fairground rides, in cars, on the Paris metro… but it’s not an easy thing to deal with in life either. Nonetheless, those vast expanses seemed to put it in perspective a little bit more. I suddenly found myself a little bit more excited.
Needless to say, after coming back down to earth physically, it didn’t take long for this to happen mentally either, thanks to the good offices of the US Customs. Acceleration is clearly something that worries them as well. The, shall we say, genteel pace with which they processed our snaking queue of Schengen Zone devotees was only underlined when a small Icelandic child was loudly and very messily sick into his father’s cupped hand. (That family, at least, was allowed to go to the head of the queue – I don’t know whether anyone pondered trying a similar trick just for the same privilege…) Upon reaching the immigration desk, I was anticipating a lengthy interrogation involving many questions to determine why a mere European such as myself should dare to presume the US might be somewhere I could stay – but Mr Fun behind the counter merely jerked his head and said curtly ‘Four fingers’. It turned out he meant I should place four fingers of my right hand on a fingerprinting machine… This was followed by ‘thumb’, ‘fill in here’ and, after a rifle through my passport and an unhelpfully stapled cardboard strip on the page opposite my visa, ‘good to go’. They clearly don’t mind wasting your time, but they won’t waste any words while they’re doing it.
Nonetheless, once our hotel was duly reached, the welcome we received was as American as they come – all ‘how was your trip?’ and ‘where you guys from?’ (it’s interesting that people can’t immediately place a British accent, or at least feel they need to check first) – which continued during our late supper at the lovely sushi restaurant downstairs. That was when we first had to make use of the Tip Calculator app… all seems to have been in order, phew! The complexity of tipping here, after our relatively tip-free existence in Paris, scares us a little bit. Perhaps I will save my full feelings about the relative tipping cultures of Europe and the US for another post…
On Friday, there were many Tasks To Be Accomplished, and I doubted very much that we could tick them all off. But fortified by – ironically – French toast (for Husband) and fruit and granola (me) we set out to conquer D.C Admin. One small problem was that for once we were TOO efficient… our accelerated jet lagged body clocks saw us up at 6.30am and out of the door by 8.15 – but none of the banks (our first port of call) opened til 9. So we headed for the White House for an obligatory tourist shot by Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden… before finally making it to the grand surroundings of Bank of America on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The echoing neo-classical edifice hung with huge chandeliers looked like a train station, but was in fact an ordinary branch, with no customers except us. So its lovely staff helped us open an account with a speed and efficiency that, after three years in France, I had forgotten was possible, let alone required. No apartment address yet? Not a problem, give us your work address. No phone? Don’t worry, we’ll take your UK one for now. No social security number? Oh well, we’ll take a copy of your passport and visa. No money? Ah, well, nothing we can do about that…! Still, we walked out not only with a joint bank account and a joint savings account but also temporary debit cards to use until our real ones are sent. HSBC ‘you’ll just have to wait til they’re sent to the branch and then you’ll have to come and pick them up’ France, you have a lot to learn.
I got the same sense of efficiency and order walking around the city this morning. The big, wide boulevards are covered in signs of all shapes and sizes, telling drivers and pedestrians what they can and can’t do so the big, wide boulevards all run smoothly. There are notices about parking times and tariffs, sizes and shapes of vehicles, when to stop and when to go… it made me wonder how drivers and pedestrians in Paris or London manage without them all! One baffling notice concerned ‘lane for slug pickup’ which conjured an image of uniformed men with buckets carefully lifting small gastropods out of the road and out of danger… Another informed drivers they had ‘three minutes waiting time only’ but ‘five minutes if below freezing’ – which I thought was considerate, but also made me shiver in anticipation of the cold, cold winters to come.
Still, by the end of one day walking around D.C – with just one metro trip – we accomplished three tasks which would have taken months in Paris. Within 24 hours, we had a bank account, mobile phone contracts and had found a flat – sorry, apartment – we liked and whose management seemingly liked us too, saying we could move in tomorrow if we liked it. All of these tasks would have taken anything between several weeks or even months in Paris. For someone who doesn’t like acceleration, these are big achievements. And such efficiency really did give a sense of possibility almost as great as a beautiful aerial view of the Potomac or the sun glinting off the Capitol.
An aerial view of D.C from our plane

An aerial view of D.C from our plane


About wash01

I'm a British broadcast journalist, whose British broadcast journalist husband has just been posted to D.C. I'm along for the ride! Both of us have just spent three years living and working in Paris and are keen to see how the American Dream compares to La Vie Française.
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One Response to

  1. Simon T says:

    I always think people’s first posts should get comments welcoming them to the blogging world… so welcome, welcome! 🙂

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