On dogs, road crossings and sliders…
Apologies for the delay since my last post… It’s not that my encounter with Barack Obama made me decide to hang up my blogging hat in despair that anything as interesting could ever happen to me again. It’s more that we’ve been rather busy settling in… it turns out the business of settling in IS quite time consuming. As well as putting together Ikea furniture (and I wish I had some comical stories about our ineptitude in this regard, but Husband did pretty much all of it competently, quickly and without complaining. I just watched and screwed together one lamp. Division of labour according to talent. Adam Smith would be proud), Husband has started his new job, which seems to be going splendidly, and I’ve been doing Wadmin – Washington Admin – including sorting out electricity contracts, moving expenses receipts, mobile phones etc.
But all of this activity, as well as some lovely meetings with friends old and new, have enabled me to get a better idea of what it’s actually like LIVING in Washington. There are some things I have already decided I like very much, and others I am still getting used to (or ‘to which I am still getting used’, as I ought properly to say)…
So I’ll start with things I like and in a later post I’ll give you the lowdown on things that I still find strange! Both lists will, I’m sure, be updated as time goes on!
1. The Cherry Blossom Festival – or more specifically, the Kite Festival that was part of it.
This, as I very briefly mentioned, took place last Saturday, one of those gloriously sunny days that makes you realise spring really is here (sorry, English folks, your time will come eventually…) We have three lovely big windows in our flat and the sun was streaming through them on to us, attempting to put together an Ikea coffee table. We eventually decided that this was ridiculous as, like the poor, the coffee table will always be with us – but not so the sun. We headed down on to the National Mall, which is but a few hundred metres from our front door. And we were met with a beautiful sight… hundreds and hundreds of colourful kites, against the beautiful backdrop of the Capitol (if you looked one way) or the Washington Monument (if you looked the other). There were families with children, young couples, serious adults… all involved in the kite flying fun, the entire length of the Mall. What was especially nice was that there genuinely seemed to be a real mixture of backgrounds there – so many things in D.C do feel segregated. Not deliberately, but it seems to be the way things are. But with this, everyone was getting involved. It was a really lovely way to start spring and celebrate the Easter weekend – as we walked all the way down to the Monument (where they had professional kite flying demonstrations) I rather wished we had a kite too! The Cherry Blossom festival seems to be a big deal here – it runs for four weeks and there are all kinds of events, including a fireworks display tonight on the Tidal Basin. Slightly awkwardly this year, there still hasn’t been much blossom appearing yet. But today is gorgeously sunny so hopefully it will soon!
After my anguished cheese-related outpourings, many people got in touch to tell me to head to Wholefoods Market, which seems to be the Waitrose of America. (Their website actually reveals they have shops in London too, and you can tell what kind of shop it is from the areas of London it’s in – South Ken, Clapham Junction, Stoke Newington and Piccadilly…) We made a pilgrimage to their shop on P Street last Saturday (right after enjoying the kites!) and were very excited. Lots of fresh local produce, incredible salad/deli sections – all full to the brim, which made me wonder what they did with all the mounds of leftovers every night – , exotic items like couscous that we hadn’t found elsewhere… but sadly, prices to match. I have to say though, despite what is written about America’s obesity problem, it is VERY easy to eat healthily here if you want to. At least, it is in D.C. Everything has a ‘light’, ‘no mayo’, ‘skinny’ option, lots of places tell you exactly how many calories are in their products, and there are some beautiful fresh fruit and veg and salad options if you know where to look. The problem is that it’s all too easy to be incredibly unhealthy too – when things are bad for you here, they are REALLY bad – loaded with sugar, covered in sauce, drizzled in bacon bits or cheese… You just have to avoid such options! Anyway, Wholefoods was great, and LOOKED beautiful, I must say, with mounds of Eastery blooms being sold outside, alongside a charity barbecue. I don’t think it’ll be our everyday grocery but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. A lot.
One of the things that made me sad in Paris was the lack of Proper Dogs. I grew up with a huge black labrador, now sadly deceased (Husband says my family talk more about said canine than some living relatives) and this left me with a taste for a good sized hound. Parisians, perhaps down to their bijou living spaces, do not seem to share my appreciation. Most dogs there, just as the stereotype would have it, are handbag sized. The sort that look like overgrown rodents. (I still remember my alarm on the metro when a man’s backpack started moving across the floor of the carriage of its own accord… it turned out to have a tiny chihuahua inside it, sneezing.) It was a rare and lovely event in Paris to see anything bigger than a Westie or a Jack Russell. But here, they have Proper Dogs. And they are everywhere! I have seen so many gorgeous labs, golden retrievers, alsations, setters, staffies…even, at the kite festival, an Irish Wolfhound. Not only that, but unlike in Paris, their owners seem perfectly happy to clean up after their pets. Parisian dogs may have been small, but they certainly still, er, made their mark. And there their mark would stay, eventually covered by fallen leaves, until you came along in your nice new heels and stepped in it. Not so here. Gleaming pavements… and it’s not because council staff come along and pick it up. I have spotted many dog owners conscientiously removing the evidence. Hoorah!
4. Crossing roads
This is not to say that crossing roads as an activity is a particular favourite of mine. I don’t really have any feelings about it one way or the other. BUT in Paris I often felt like I was taking my life in my hands trying to do it. There WERE white striped markings on the road that resembled zebra crossings, but no motorists seemed to treat them as such. Even if drivers were stopping for lights, they would often start zooming off on orange, and have no qualms about driving straight towards you when you clearly had a lot of road still to cross. The necessary tactic seemed to be fixing oncoming motorists with a thousand yard stare and stepping out very deliberately. This wasn’t the case everywhere, but we lived near the Place de la Concorde which seemed to have no discernible rules for pedestrian/motorist behaviour. It was every man for himself. Here, it couldn’t be more different. Firstly, everyone drives a lot slower. When we rented the car to go to Ikea, the speed limit on a really big A road was 55 miles an hour! Nobody was keeping exactly to that, but they weren’t far off. In downtown D.C, the traffic is even slower. AND so much more generally respectful. As with much of American life, rather than starting with the aggressively chippy Parisian (and to some extent London) assumption that everyone else in the world is out to make your life difficult, they seem to begin with a measured, reasonable approach to others that involves starting any interaction in a friendly way. So drivers begin with the premise that pedestrians need to cross the road and they will have to stop at pedestrian crossings to allow this crucial activity to take place. In addition, road crossings have a very handy countdown telling you just how long you have left to cross. So if it’s a particularly wide road (and lots are) and there’s only 5 seconds left on the countdown, it’s best not to attempt it. (Although I have a feeling that if you did, the nice patient American drivers would simply wait for you to finish crossing anyway.)
5. ‘Sliders’ and other substantial snacks
We have spent the past week meeting up with friends, friends of friends and useful contacts, and this often involves meeting for drinks. The trouble is, being European, we tend to schedule these for 7/7.30pm, which is when Husband finishes work and is the usual ‘just drinks, not eating’ time in Paris. But here it is very much dinner time and everywhere is packed. Another Washingtonian custom – at least in many of the restaurants/wine bars we’ve visited – seems to be that you can’t sit down at a table unless you are eating. If you just want a drink, you have to stand at the bar, which isn’t ideal if you want a proper chat. But a way to get round this is to get a table and then order what are labelled here as appetisers/tapas, but are often substantial enough for a whole meal. I still don’t know why mini burgers with interesting fillings are called ‘sliders’, but they seem to be a growing phenomenon. We have had several evenings now where ‘dinner’ ended up being a selection of delicious bar snacks – as well as the lovely ‘sliders’, we have enjoyed crab-stuffed mushrooms, crab cake burgers, parmesan and truffle sweet potato fries, chicken liver pâté and toasted bread, among other things.
So there we have it! Watch this space for the things I’m still adjusting to….