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…
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!
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.)
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…
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.