America hits back…

Well that’s me told! I think Someone, Somewhere must have been reading this. Maybe Barack Obama. Because after yesterday’s posting about the sad state of America’s cheese selection, what should I be faced with this afternoon but a real life farmers’ market literally on our front door step? Oh yes, apparently it takes place in that exact spot every Thursday – win! Not only that, but as well as local eggs, sausages, greens and ice cream (we bought some salted caramel) they also had, yes, you guessed it, several kinds of lovely, normal-coloured Maryland CHEESE. We bought a blue variety, having sampled it, and it was delicious.


In addition, many of you Americans/expats living or having lived here have got in touch to tell me about various lovely establishments where I can find more palatable and less terrifying glow-in-the-dark cheese. Trader Joes and Wholefoods Market are now on our list. In general, we are much comforted. Thank you.


Husband is now in the middle of preparing a curry, so no cheese for us tonight, but maybe some of that ice cream for dessert… We’re off to Ikea tomorrow. I wonder if the American version will compare favourably with my Nightmare In Neasden a few years ago. Watch this space!


Beautiful farmers' market on 8th Street

Beautiful farmers’ market on 8th Street

Bread! (Always good with cheese, I find.)

Bread! (Always good with cheese, I find.)

Every Thursday!

Every Thursday!

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Supermarket – How Much Those Pans? 

Today saw our first trip to a real, American supermarket. I went to one once before on holiday in Connecticut (I believe the name of the establishment in question was ‘Stu Leonard’s’, in fact) but it rather passed me by in a haze of amazement at the concept of ‘half and half’ and horror at the sweetness of American KitKats. I don’t think I took much else away from the experience, except that everyone really did take their purchases home in brown paper bags like in the films.


Up until recently, we’ve been ensconced in a hotel in D.C, on a place called ‘Thomas Circle’ (one of the city’s few actual ’roundabouts’, or ‘rotaries’ as they’re apparently called here) – but have now moved into our very own flat, which is at the moment completely empty as all our things are being shipped from the U.K, and we don’t actually own any furniture to begin with. This will be rectified in due course – it’ll have to be, as we’re sleeping on rollmats on the floor – but one of the first priorities was to buy real food we could cook with, rather than warm up in the microwave and eat from a plastic tray.


It turns out our nearest proper supermarket is Safeway. This took me back to my childhood, when there were Safeways in England and we often went to one. The logo is even the same! Our first feeling in Safeway was one of relief. There were rows upon rows of delicious looking fresh fruit and vegetables. None of the small shops in the city centre, which purported to sell food, had anything that might be termed an ‘ingredient’ or might go off after a few days or hours. Everything was packaged and processed and frozen. Nothing wrong with that. But you can’t live off it. Not if you still want to fit into all your French clothes. So the lovely lettuces and peppers and cucumbers and tomatoes and apples and melons were a sight to see, all beautifully arranged.


Unfortunately, our joy was not to last because next we encountered the cheese section. Not even the cheese aisle, but the few shelves in the dairy area where the cheese lives. I hate to sound European and snobbish about this (oh, who am I kidding, sometimes I like to sound this way) – but I’m not sure the word ‘cheese’ should really be used in this particular context. Everything was a lurid colour, swathed in layers of tightly wrapped plastic – not even that special ‘non sweaty’ plastic they sometimes use in British supermarkets, but just normal polythene – and looked like you could use it to tarmac a road or mend your car tyres. The varieties available appeared to be ‘cheddar’ (very, very orange), ‘Monterey’, whatever that is (white) or mozzarella (off-white and very, very hard.) Then there were just things like cheese strings, cheese triangles and, oh dear, Kraft singles. We left feeling very strange. I didn’t realise I’d become so French. We bought a small packet of something bright orange called ‘sharp cheddar’, hoping that ‘sharp’ meant it had some flavour. I will report back on how that tasting session goes…


Fortunately, though, we chanced upon the small British food section and our weary souls rejoiced. Here’s where I sound like a total hypocrite, because the British foods we were so chuffed to see were all canned and processed and packaged within an inch of their tiny lives. But at least they’re meant to be that way, unlike cheese. There was Marmite (at SEVEN DOLLARS for a tiny pot!) Rich Tea Biscuits! Cadbury’s fingers! H.P Sauce! Heinz beans! (I know Heinz is American, but clearly beans are British). We suddenly felt at home in a foreign land, and bought two tins of beans.


The only problem, once we’d got all this food, was how to cook it. We have nary a pot to piss in. Literally. (Well, obviously we have a loo. But we don’t have any saucepans.) Weirdly, Safeway sold TWO kinds of frying pan – or skillet, as we must remember to call it – but no actual saucepans of the kind in which you or I might like to boil pasta or make a sauce. Do Americans just fry everything? Or is Safeway a bad stockist? We went next door to the ‘Ace’ hardware shop, and it appears frying IS de rigeur here… they had a vast selection of sizes and colours of frying pan, but just one saucepan. In the end, since we wanted two vessels, we decided to go for a set which gave us one frying pan, one DEEP frying pan, and one saucepan. Are saucepans some strange, European notion or were we just unlucky with our shopping choices?


Clearly, though, our purchase was of some interest because as we struggled home laden with bags and a very obvious ‘skillet set’, I was accosted by an old black lady at a bus stop. Without saying hello, she yelled at me “HOW MUCH THOSE PANS?” I stopped in astonishment to check she was talking to me, and she shouted it again. It turned out it was a genuine question, but she didn’t want to buy them off me, as I first thought. “I gotta new ‘partment, I need new pans, how much those?” I explained that the set was 40 dollars for three pans – and lids! “UH HUH! Where you get them?” I said I was sorry but we’d just got the last one from ‘Ace’ round the corner, but I was sure they’d re-stock soon. She seemed pleased enough with this – but it made me wonder if any Brit, or indeed any French person, would stop a random person in the street and ask them how much one of their possessions or purchases had cost. “How much those shoes?” “How much that bag?” “How much that sun dried tomato pasta sauce?” I think Americans are just more direct… But I’m glad to know our saucepan choice is approved by another D.C inhabitant.


Tonight, we used ‘those pans’ to make ourselves that old student staple, pasta and sauce, on our fancy new American cooker – and I’m happy to report that despite the lack of frying involved, it was excellent.


A sad sight... plastic, plastic everywhere, and n'er a hint of Camembert.

A sad sight… plastic, plastic everywhere, and n’er a hint of Camembert.


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Getting to Know Washington 


What makes a city feel like a city? Being in Washington for a few days has started to make me think about how big metropolitan areas are set out – and challenged my European ideas a little bit!


Firstly, it’s a cliché about the US that it’s big… but I don’t think I’d appreciated how different this would make cities feel. Buildings tower above you, vast edifices of glass and steel and concrete. The word ‘block’ really is apposite – these feel like vast lumps of matter, most of them around the same size and shape and colour, that have been arranged on a giant chessboard by a huge designer in the sky… Meanwhile, you make your way between these huge monoliths, feeling rather dwarfed by them.


And they’re all so new! At least in downtown D.C, where we have now found and moved into a new apartment, it feels as though nothing has been here longer than a few decades. This means every shopfront, every restaurant, every apartment entrance looks pretty similar to every other one. It probably makes me sound like a terrible snob, but in Paris and even London to some extent, a strikingly new, colourful, regular-shaped shopfront or restaurant quite often implies an uninspiring chain (be it a bank, a restaurant, a bar, a supermarket)… and if you’re someone who knows the city well, you can probably skip it in favour of somewhere more interesting. In Paris at least, I’m used to tiny wooden shopfronts up winding little alleys, quaint wrought iron tables on a quiet cobbled square, half timbered ceilings and poky staircases. Not everywhere of course, but in lots of places, and often. Here, ‘downtown’ at least, most places are new and colourful and at the bottom of a huge ‘block’ of a building. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no good. It just means I have to adjust my eye a bit…


Of course I’m aware that not everywhere in D.C is like the centre. Up behind the Capitol in Eastern Market, which I’ve already visited once, or in Georgetown (which I’ve seen from a bus!) things get a lot more European. There are beautifully painted colourful houses, of a normal, two or three storey, human kind of a size. There are little pavement cafés and wine bars and places where you can sit and read a newspaper. I think there may even be roads that don’t go in an entirely straight line. But the interesting thing about D.C is because it’s so big, all of these different areas and neighbourhoods feel so far apart. Perhaps it comes of cities growing in an era when everyone drives and space to expand outwards is relatively unlimited. Why put a new building or complex crammed right next to other ones, when someone could just drive a couple of miles extra to find it in a whole new area of town? As a result of this, it feels – albeit to a total newcomer, who’s only been here a few days – that Washington is divided into lots of different areas, with distinct characters, a little like Paris and its arrondissements, BUT unlike Paris, where these different quartiers are all on top of one another and overlapping in a snail shaped pattern, here they’re very spaced out.


And it’s what’s in between these areas that struck me. There seem to be lots of roads and spaces in Washington that are a bit…well, nothingy. They’re just on the way to somewhere else. There might be a couple of apartment blocks here, a takeaway pizza shop there, but there’s no agglomeration of life, nothing to give the area shape or character. There’s shape and character just up the road, or down the road, but right there, it’s no man’s land.


Several of the apartment blocks we looked seemed to be in these kinds of districts. They felt weirdly empty, like ghost towns. I’m sure that’s partly just because of the time of day we were there (generally, in the middle of the afternoon) but overall, it didn’t strike me that there was much going on. That’s why the flat we’ve chosen in the end is right in ‘downtown’. It has lovely facilities, to be sure, but so did some of the others we looked at. But it was the only one we found, in our very limited timeframe, that didn’t feel as though it was stuck on the route halfway through someone’s daily commute, in no man’s land.


And no man’s land seems to be where some people in Washington inhabit as well. As a newcomer, I can’t begin to comment on America’s social structure – what I know about its ‘safety net’, or lack of one, comes from horrified European media, and I’ll be interested to make my own observations as a semi-permanent resident. But one thing’s for certain – there are certainly a lot of poor black people on the streets here. People with obvious mental health problems, people with clear drug addictions, people who obviously don’t have a dime or a cent to their name – these I saw every day on the streets of Paris and to some extent in London. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen these problems so clearly restricted to one socio-economic group. Perhaps this is just a Washington thing? In France, there are a lot of Roma (gypsy) beggars (so much so that President Sarkozy tried to have them all shipped back off to Romania, with limited success.) But they weren’t the only people asking for your euros, trying to steal your phone or shouting alcohol or drug-fuelled obscenities at you. In this city, that dubious distinction seems to belong, so far in my experience, almost only to black people. (This is not to say I’ll be thrilled if a white or Asian man nicks my Blackberry.)


The view from our new apartment on 8th and E.

The view from our new apartment on 8th and E.


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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

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