Feeling hot, hot, hot… and other Things I’m Getting Used To.

Well, apparently it’s going to hit 32 degrees celcius outside today (which is probably some impossibly high number in Fahrenheit – it makes me quite faint even to think about it.) This, I’m told, is a but a curtain raiser for the searingly hot and sticky, humid summers this place endures. As a fair strawberry blonde, I have managed to get sunburned in Iceland. So this will present something of a challenge – not only for my skin but also for my personal comfort and general mood…

So I suppose that’s my number one ‘thing I’m getting used to’ here…

1. Weather.

Actually, when we first arrived, the weather gods obviously decided to ease us in gently. Our first Saturday here was beautifully sunny but not too hot, with plenty of breezes and blue sky – perfect for a sightseeing stroll to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Then on the Sunday, it was grey and wet, just like London is all the time! I wouldn’t say I enjoy that kind of weather, but it presents no hazards to my health and wellbeing and I’m very used to it. However, after a week or so of fairly grey, nothingy days, spring, along with the cherry blossom, has arrived with a vengeance in D.C. Well, it’s what they call spring here. It’s already as hot as a good English summer to me, and altogether brighter, fiercer and more full-on than anything I would call spring – yesterday, I had to put on sun cream! I’m rather dreading the true heat of the summer… but there is one good side to it. In the UK and to some extent France, a bit of sun such as we’re experiencing today would have everyone dashing to the beach and the terrace, desperately sunbathing in parks and holding barbecues. I am the only one limply moaning about perhaps finding some shade… Here, certainly in the summer if not the spring, Americans try to avoid the heat as much as possible, air conditioning Everything, Everywhere, and dashing from one cool interior to another without hanging about in the glare. For once, I will not be alone in craving shade! 

 

Spring daffodils on Capitol Hill behind the Supreme Court

Spring daffodils on Capitol Hill behind the Supreme Court

2. Turning up the Volume 

Just as the weather seems turned up to the max here, so perhaps are people’s voices. Now, I should start by saying that I’m quite loud myself. My school friends used to say they would hold the phone away from their ear and still be able to hear me talking. My job involves communication. I don’t shy away from raising my voice and enunciating clearly. But in the U.S, everyone seems to talk loudly! Walking through a crowd of people or sitting in a restaurant is like having a special superpower where you can hear everyone’s thoughts, except it’s not their thoughts, it’s just their conversations. I used to think, when living in Paris, that the reason I always seemed to be able to overhear Americans talking to one another was because they were speaking in English, and my brain automatically tuned into that. But now I realise they were just louder than everyone else. I don’t know why it is, and I even rather like it – it certainly livens up what might otherwise be dull walks through town. Here are some things I’ve overheard (and once had to stop Husband joining in with… I’ll leave you to guess which):

 

Woman into mobile phone: ‘Tell him no! Tell him no! I JUST. WON’T. DO. IT!’

 

Woman to group of friends standing outside restaurant: “And, like, HE was nice…but the SEX was godawful…”

 

Man to woman, walking along the Mall: “How’s your BUTT doing?”

 

Woman to friend: “Yeah…MY Dad was EXACTLY the same…always in his MAN CAVE…”

 

And, my personal favourite – Girl to her friend after I’d walked past: “Hey! She looked just like Reese Witherspoon!” (I hasten to add that I’m not sure how they drew this conclusion, because I doubt Reese Witherspoon often allows herself to be seen, as I was at the time, struggling, red-faced, down the street attempting to carry a 30 litre metal kitchen bin she’s just bought from Bed, Bath and Beyond.)

3. Sadverts

The French are a nation of hypochondriacs. They love pills, creams and potions, have the most over-prescribing GPs in Europe and never allow themselves to be more than 100 metres away from any pharmacy (don’t believe me? Go to Paris, there is one on every street corner.) I thought I’d left that behind, but either people in the US are just as bad, or PR companies think they must be. Because the number of TV adverts we saw, while staying at the hotel, for various kinds of remedies was amazing! (I should clarify that we don’t yet have a television in our flat, so I haven’t been able to study this at greater length yet.) But in general, the quantity and the content of the ‘commercials’ was fascinating. Firstly, they seemed to come on every 3 or 4 minutes. A news channel might play one report and/or have one guest, then go to a break. And secondly, even on something like CNN, at prime time, the adverts seemed to be for all kinds of really quite awkward and embarrassing conditions. Erectile disfunction? Fungal growths? Snoring? All covered. Thirdly, some of them sounded downright UNhealthy…my personal favourite being for heartburn tablets that, and I’m not making this up, ‘allow you to KEEP EATING THROUGH THE PAIN!’ Others had disclaimers that went on longer than the actual commercial and included caveats such as (totally genuine) ‘May cause disturbing dreams and suicidal thoughts’. WHAT?! Fourthly, and this is just something about the US I’m going to have to wrap my head around at some point but can’t yet, they have adverts for HOSPITALS. Including ‘cancer hospitals’. Mind boggling.

 

4. Signs and wonders

 I mentioned this in a previous posts, but it seems D.C sure does love its sign-age. Pavements and roads are covered in them, for pedestrians and motorists alike. It’s actually very helpful, if a bit cluttered sometimes. More generally, though, there are a couple of non-traffic-related signs I’ve seen here that you just wouldn’t find in Europe. The first seems to be in the loos of every restaurant or café. ‘Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work’. I really can’t work out if it’s genuinely there for the benefit of the staff, to REMIND them to wash their hands after going to the loo (if they need that little aide memoire, though, they really ought not to be working there anyway, surely?) or for the customers, to reassure them that employees will indeed have thoroughly abluted before serving their cappuccino. Again, though, I rather hoped I could take that for granted. The other sign that amused me was at Ikea, which was in every other way exactly like a European Ikea. This one, in Maryland, had a sign outside with a picture of a gun crossed through, saying ‘Ikea Is a Weapon Free Environment’. I’m not sure that’s a reminder the shop’s Swedish founders ever originally imagined they’d need in one of their branches…

 

So reassuring...

So reassuring…

 

5. Divided by a common language

Well, you knew I had to get to it eventually. American English. In actual fact, this hasn’t been as much of a shock to the system as I thought. It’s only occasionally that it hits me that I am very much a British speaker as opposed to an American speaker; I think it’s partly cultural. For example, the week we first arrived, people were talking about ‘March Madness’ and how their ‘bracket’ was doing, which was utter gobbledeegook to us. Restaurants had signs saying ‘reserve your seat for March Madness!’ and we wondered if it was some kind of all-you-can-eat extravaganza It turns out, in fact, to be a college basketball tournament, and your ‘bracket’ is the collection or slate of teams you’re supporting. The other day, meanwhile, I was walking past a big building on Capitol Hill that proclaimed itself to be the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. An international brotherhood of anything sounds quite nice but I genuinely had no idea what a teamster is. (Now I do – just in time to hear them referenced in an episode of ‘House of Cards’, so that was convenient.)

 

Then there are just some aspects of American use of language that I find quite fun. There are abbrevations everywhere: ‘E-Z’ for easy (which I have to keep reminding myself is ‘ee-zee’ not ‘ee-zed’, which makes no sense), ‘LA-Z’ for lazy (same) and – my personal favourite, seen on a police car, ‘K-9’, which means the dog unit. The fact that ‘K-9’ takes up exactly the same amount of space as ‘DOG’ didn’t deter them from using this abbreviation, and I think that’s super.

 

Some words used regularly here I’m pretty sure were originally formulated to make the speaker/writer sound more important or formal, such as ‘transportation’ (I cannot think of a single instance of this where ‘transport’ wouldn’t do just as well) or ‘utilize’ (ditto with ‘use’.) An example of this is a sign I saw on the metro last night which warned users to ‘expect high ridership Wednesday’. Ridership?! It sounds like a Jilly Cooper novel set in space. What’s wrong with ‘heavy usage’ or ‘high volume of passengers’? But it’s also quite innovative!

 

And finally, one thing I am TRYING to get used to but keep forgetting is the phenomenon of ‘y’all’. I always assumed, in as much as I thought about this at all, that ‘y’all’, short for ‘you all’, was used to reference a group of people. Three, at the very least. But after a couple of weeks of Americans looking at Husband and me and saying ‘y’all’, and turning round to work out who else they are talking to, I now realise it can be used for two people or even for one. ‘Y’all’ just means ‘you’, and y’all better just get used to that.

 

High ridership...

High ridership…

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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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9 Responses to Feeling hot, hot, hot… and other Things I’m Getting Used To.

  1. Jayne Mottram says:

    Hi Lorna. That post made a very welcome break in my otherwise tedious day! Love the overheard comments…we’re enjoying learning all about the American way of life. Can’t wait for the next article. Hope you’re both settling in OK.

  2. Haha, this made me laugh! Here are my things I’m still getting used to, after 5 months in the US:
    1. No washing machine in the apartment. I really can’t get my head around this – laundromats are expensive, and while they provide excellent people watching, it’s not really worth it when you have to push the laundry in a cart up the hill in the snow.
    2. Bed linen. It’s really hard to buy duvet covers! Also, the pillow cases don’t have the envelope things which stop your pillows falling out, which is just weird.
    3. Supermarket layout. For one thing, there is just so much STUFF. For another, they put the stuff in weird places. Say you wanted to buy some capers. There would be capers from one brand with all the other products from that brand in one place, and then other capers from another brand somewhere totally different!

    Completely agree about the signs and the sadverts. And a note about y’all – I am reliably informed by a friend from Texas that y’all refers to one or two people, as you say, and that were you referring to a group, the correct term would be ‘all y’all’. Who knew?

  3. Aparatchick says:

    I hope you’ll forgive a comment from a complete stranger, though in my defense (with an “s”) I came upon your blog after reading your interview with Simon at Stuck in a Book.

    I had a British friend who very kindly would explain things I’d read in British fiction (I believe I started by asking him what mushy peas were and why on earth anyone would eat something called that). If I can return the favor by explaining any American customs, I’d be happy to. I can start by telling you that we think the drug ads are inadvertently funny/horrifying/embarrassing to watch. My husband and I mock them relentlessly (as does Stephen Colbert – by the way, you’ll find plenty of sarcasm if you watch his TV show). Y’all is a regional expression; you won’t hear it in most of the country. Plural is “all y’all.” And finally, heat and humidity. Sigh. I live in Florida where it’s even worse. Let A/C be your friend!

  4. Claire says:

    Oh my gosh, Lorna, love this. So true. Also watch out for the American words that you think are the same, but are not- e.g. ‘quite’ as an intensifier, rather than a qualifier, and ‘earnest’ being synonymous with ‘sincere’. Also @sarahpantcheff, so true about the bedlinen, but do quite (qualifier) like the American Way of putting a sheet under the duvet (as well as one the bed) so you don’t have to wash it every time! Genius! Probably has something to do with the dearth of washing machines, and the fact that American washing machines are terrible! ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’ are not temperatures- I want that in degrees! And WTF is permanent press??
    I shall expect a post on the complete and utter ridiculousness of the health care system to be forthcoming because it is WAY more insane than you could even imagine…sadverts are the least of it!

  5. debbierodgers says:

    I might add that if you call something ‘brilliant’, an American will think you mean ‘genius”..

    I suspect “March Madness’ means the basketball tournament in Washington, but might refer to something else entirely in another city or region. In Canada, it usually refers to sales of household items and electronics.

    I’m pretty sure the use of ‘y’all’ doesn’t extend to the New England area, upper NY state or northern Maine. Y’all are getting just that far south there in D.C. – borderline? (Must be – we had snow on the ground today and a high of 2C, definitely NOT hot, hot, hot)

    I know that in Canada we have lots of language differences with the British -but we have in common the alphabet that is “eh” to “zed” .

    Anyway – best of everything in your new life and all the adjustments, cultural & otherwise, you’ll be making.I’m glad Simon introduced us!

  6. Moira says:

    Hello. I came on a blog visit after Simon (stuck in a book) mentioned it and have added you to my blog feed because I enjoy your writing and love tales of settling into a new land. I am also very fair-skinned so would share your concern about the summer weather. I love your “eavesdroppings”. As someone with gradual hearing loss, this is one of the things I miss most, so maybe I should try living in the States! The frequency of adverts thing would be an annoyance after a while. Here in the UK when we occasionally watch one of the commercial channels I have to put up with my husband shouting and raging about every adbreak!
    Looking forward to more.

  7. Stopping over via Stuck in a Book also and had to laugh at the notion of volume in speaking, you’ve left a nation of quiet speakers, whom I have also listened to speak on the subject of the importance of speaking quietly, to a nation of what appear to be loud speakers in comparison.

    Keep the notebook handy, I am sure many of these new linguistics will soon become absorbed into your norm. Love all your observations, bonne continuation!

  8. Washington Wife says:

    Hello all y’all, and thank you for all your comments! I’m very new to this blogging malarkey and it’s so nice to have your encouragement and feedback.

    @ jayne mottram – Thanks, glad you’re enjoying it! I feel a long way from Salford Priors…

    @sarah pantcheff – Fortunately, we haven’t yet had to buy bed linen as ours (wedding presents from John Lewis, no less!) is coming over from the UK, but it sounds like the pillowcases could be pretty irritating… As for the supermarkets, I think part of the ‘cheese’ problem was that we only found the aisle for one SORT of cheese. There was, in fact, a different brand (that imported fancy ‘European-style’ cheeses) elsewhere in the supermarket, that we never even found til several visits later. As for all y’all – duly noted! Very good to know.

    @Aparatchick – Thank you! And thanks for making the trip over from Simon’s blog. Yes, there are lots of things here that need explaining. I still remember my confusion at a lot of words and phrases in ‘Little Women’ when I was younger. I can imagine that the concept of mushy peas must still be baffling! I think you’re right that the best way to deal with the ads is just to laugh at them… And yes, we have already discovered how to work the – fortunately, very effective – A/C in our apartment (and call it ‘A/C’ and not ‘air con’ as in the UK!)

    @claire – Oh my goodness, the washing machine! Sooo strange. We have one in our apartment (along with a tumble dryer… oh bliss!) but at first I thought it must be a crappy cheap one, because of the silly ‘hot/cold’ buttons with no temperature settings. I’ve only since discovered that this is standard. Most odd. Interesting what you say about the duvet thing – they did that in our hotel when we first arrived and I just thought the maid didn’t know how to make a bed and had put an extra one on by mistake! 🙂 And yes, Husband is in the process of sorting out health insurance with work and it is all SO alien to us… I’m not sure whether to blog about it for fear of getting Too Political! 🙂

    @debbierodgers Thanks for coming over from Simon’s blog! Didn’t know that the Canadian alphabet was pronounced the same as the British one. And interesting to know that ‘March Madness’ is something else for you guys. I think, from what I’ve heard from friends who’ve been there, (I never have) that in general Canada ‘feels’ more British than the US – I’m determined to visit, and have relatives in Vancouver, so I’ll let you know what I think!

    @moira – hello, fellow fair skinned one! And thank you for clicking on Simon’s link. As I said, we haven’t got a TV yet so it hasn’t been TOO irritating… IF we get one (by no means a certainty!) we’ll have to find a way of coping…

    @claire ‘Word by Word’ – merci de m’avoir rendu visite! Yes, I hope I didn’t come across as too ‘lecture-y’ – most of the time I enjoy not having to ask people to speak up, and overhearing people’s conversations is very amusing. I just wonder if I’ll ever get used to it… and occasionally, one does hear just a little bit TOO much information!

  9. Y’all is a southern thing for sure. March Madness is national but it is specific to basketball, not necessarily something we are weaned on, similar to talking about the FA Cup–even people who don’t follow the sport know what it is, but don’t necessarily use it. And bracket seems to have become more popular in recent years as something we all know about even without the “NCAA Men’s Basketball Playoffs” in front of it.

    Utilize is bad American English and is becoming far too common–and often the sign of someone trying to sound more important than they are. The 50-year old gem of a book The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (as in EB White of Charlotte’s Web fame) takes readers to task for using “utilize”.

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