Category Archives: Life in America

How much does the DC Metro suck?

It’s become a joke that pretty much every morning in DC the question of everyone’s lips is not just ‘does the metro suck* today?’ but ‘how much does the metro suck* today?’

Well, last Tuesday the metro was shut down entirely. Yes, you read that right. On a work-day, in a major, first-world city, they shut down the entire underground rail network.

They had a reason of course. The night before there had been an electrical fire similar to the one that occurred about a year ago, which resulted in the death of a passenger from smoke inhalation, and they had to therefore conduct a safety inspection of the entire network. But I don’t call this a good reason, because to my mind the fire shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The dangerous state of the electrics in the DC metro was (is?) due to chronic under funding and negligence – they apparently conducted a similar inspection last year but this did not take 24 hours and, according to the Post’s sources, was not done properly. Can we really believe that it was done properly this time around? I’ve already heard that they were not able to fix all the issues they found, so there will be delays while these are sorted out.

When we arrived in DC we were shocked by the state of the metro. The carriages were old, delays were commonplace, there were very few intersections and you often had to wait 10 minutes for the next train. However, it was pretty cheap (compared to London), and relatively clean (especially compared to New York). While we’ve been here there’s been some evidence of investment, though this has clearly been on a limited scale. The metro map is an illustration of aspiration – for a couple of years now there’s been a projected line from the city center to the international airport at Dulles, VA. The exciting new Silver line arrived and opened, and now you can travel all the way to Wiehle Reston (so close – they’re just short by 7 or so miles!). But the first trains on the line seemed to be the oldest DC possessed, it was only recently that a few new carriages appeared and others began to be refurbished.

Nice new shiny carriage – they finally realised that carpet is not a good idea.

So the DC metro tries hard, but on its current funding can’t seem to really deliver.

And people are apparently abandoning it. While DC apparently rates highly in a study that measured whether a city’s metro system was widely used or only used as an ‘insurance’ transport system for the poorer inhabitants, the Post consistently reports that those who can afford it are choosing other methods of getting to work.

Maybe that was the reason last Tuesday wasn’t the complete disaster I feared it might be. There were cars clogging up the road network, an accident on the Beltway, and ubers were racing down the rat-runs of my usually quiet residential neighbourhood; but people also took the chance to work from home, to cycle, or to walk to work. Maybe some of them enjoyed it so much they’ll do it again, and something good can come out of the metro’s suckiness.

*actually the question is more usually constructed as ‘is the metro/how much is the metro f*cked today?’ but I thought I should be polite.


American ‘candy’!

As I faced the possibility this summer that our American adventure might be coming to an end, it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t fully explored the wealth of American candy out there. As you can see from the photo below, not all American candy is unfamiliar to the British eye. Both countries have access to Mars products like Snickers, Twix and MnMs, and I’ve definitely come across Reese’s cups in the UK. But look closely and you’ll see that American Milky Ways don’t look quite the same as British ones, and then there’s the puzzle of the intriguingly named 3 Musketeers…


So for the good cause of this blog, I carried out some research into all the chocolate that was unfamiliar to me. I may have to wait a few months for my waistline to recover before I repeat the experiment for non-chocolate candy (or as we say in the UK, sweets)! Anyway, while I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, the preliminary results are now in. I now have a good idea what the different sorts of candy are, and which I would walk to the store to buy in the event of a sugar crisis. In other words, I’ve tasted a variety of Hersheys and other products, and scored them (highly subjectively) out of 5.

Firstly, I can report that, in fact:

  • US Milky Ways are actually like Mars Bars (I’d give them 4/5).
  • And the 3 Musketeers bars are, in a pleasantly surprising way, what UK milky ways used to be like in the 80s/early 90s (these score a perfect 5/5, partly for the nostalgia value).

Another one that made me nostalgic was the Heath bar, which I discovered is like the UK’s dime bar! Toffee in the US is pretty much always hard. Unfortunately this is Hershey’s – I don’t like the after-taste of their chocolate – so I can only score it 2/5.

The York Peppermint Patty is famous from Charlie Brown cartoons. It’s pretty good, not too sweet, and comes in mini or standard sizes. 5/5

There are a few brands that come in boxes, and seem to have been popular cinema snacks:

  •  Milk duds – not at all what I expected from the name. These are like the chocolate covered toffee you get in a tub of Quality street. After a while all the chewing gets tiring (2/5).
  • Junior mints – nice, small chocolate covered mint creams. Pleasant, but not much to write home about (4/5).
These were devoured before I remembered to take photos…

As you might know, there’s a wealth of peanut themed sweets in the US, so I thought I’d give them their own section. Here’s my observations so far:

  • Reese’s Cups – I always loved these when I could get them in the UK. Chocolate over peanut butter cream – how can you go wrong? In the US they don’t just come in the original sized cups, but also in a large cup, and as mini-cups (eat a whole bag of these and you’ll feel very sick). Sometimes you can find them in dark chocolate. At Halloween they made pumpkin shaped cups, and for Valentines they were heart-shaped (tasty and versatile, always a good bet – 5/5).
  • Reese’s Nutrageous bar – might be my favourite. A bar of peanut butter cream plus actual peanuts, covered in chocolate (5/5).
  • Reese’s pieces – these look like MnMs, but are disappointing. They could actually do with some chocolate as they’re just sweet peanut cream in sweet candy shells (2/5)
  • Butterfinger – again, these come in regular and mini, and they recently brought out a cup version to compete with Reese’s. These remind me slightly of the old peanut cracknell that used to be in Quality Street, but I’m not sure this works so well in a large size (4/5 – mainly for the minis)
  • Baby Ruth – Seemed to me to be basically just like a Snickers, which is not bad (4/5)
  • Mr. Good bar – this is just a Hershey bar with peanuts, and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not a fan of Hershey’s chocolate (1/5)
  • Payday – salty peanuts in a sweet corn syrup paste. This was actually rather unpleasant. (zero)
I’m not sure what it is the York peppermint patty has 70% less fat than – a stick of butter?

Happily, as you might know if you’re a regular reader of my blog, our American adventure did not come to an end this autumn – our new visas were approved – so I still have time to try more American candy! There’s always plenty to choose from, including the seasonal treats surrounding Valentines Day, Easter, and Halloween. So if you know of an American candy bar I’ve not tried yet, do let me know. Which are your favourites?

American habits to give up when moving to the UK

Last year Matt Herschberger identified 7 American habits he lost after moving to England – and it’s all so true!

His original article is a lot of fun and I encourage you to read it:

But it got me thinking about these differences between America and the UK again, especially how I’d experienced them in reverse. So here’s my take on them:

  1. Matt ‘stopped wearing shitty clothes’ when he left the house. I totally get this. When I lived in London I didn’t even want to wear trainers out of the house – I didn’t own any that were fashionable (expensive) enough. So I’ve really loved how casual I can dress in DC. I’m not at the stage where I can go to the deli downstairs in my PJs (some of my neighbours really do this), but I’ve embraced the idea of walking to the gym in my workout gear and an old sweater. I’ve also bought (and been bought) so many beer and city themed t-shirts and hoodies, that I don’t know what I’m going to do with my wardrobe when I have to move back to London!
  2. Matt ‘stopped saying “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”. Now, I’m not really sure about this one. Since being in DC I’ve probably attended more happy hours than ever in my life before, but I would say that on balance I do drink less. The thing I’ve noticed is how when Americans go out for happy hour, that’s exactly what they do. One to one-and-a-half hours later, they’re getting ready to go home, or for dinner, or even the gym. R and I fondly reminisce about how after-works drinks could go on for hours – without appetizers – and end in some late-night bar in soho, or with pizza and a bottle of wine at some Pizza Express at 11pm.
  3. Matt ‘stopped shouting in bars’. This is the reason I’m usually pretty happy to be going home after happy hour – all the shouting to be heard gets very tiring!
  4. Matt ‘stopped saying hi to strangers on the street’. This is definitely a DC thing that I’m going to miss – people are so friendly. I love chatting to people on the check-out, or to strangers at the same bar/restaurant. This is definitely something we should develop more in London.
  5. Matt ‘stopped using [his] English accent at parties’. Annoyingly, in the US people often just can’t understand you if you pronounce something in a way they’re not expecting. Though my accent isn’t going anywhere, I have had to start saying tom-ay-to rather than tom-ah-to…
  6. Matt ‘stopped taking [his] coffee black’. I’ve certainly had no problems with proper coffee in the US. I’ve learnt that sometimes it’s nice to have coffee made slightly weaker than I would normally – that way you can enjoy a couple of refills with your breakfast or brunch. And I’ve really developed a taste for iced coffee. Although I didn’t think I could justify buying a drip-filter coffee maker, I could get a replacement for my broken French press, and ground coffee a-plenty. Instant coffee in America is absolutely foul though.
  7. Matt (almost) ‘stopped eating meat’. Another one I totally get. Although I’ve been able to limit meat in my home-cooking during the week, I’m constantly depressed by the lack of interesting vegetarian sandwiches especially when we go out. Certainly when we were on our road trip we ended up eating a lot of burgers and steaks. America is the home of the whopper after all.

The International House of Pancakes

A post for Pancake Day.

Pretty soon after I first arrived in the States my sister asked ‘So have you been to the IHOP yet?’. I was mystified, but it turned out she was referring to the ‘International House of Pancakes – the IHOP’. Apparently this often features in American TV shows, but for some reason I’d never heard of it.

In fact, it took me a while to even locate a branch in DC (though, as I wrote about a while ago, DC doesn’t have many great examples of old-style fast food places). In the same way as my local McDonalds and Burger King don’t exactly invite you in, it was apparent from Yelp reviews that my local IHOP (in Columbia Heights) was similarly unappealing – if I see the word ‘cockroaches’ in a review it’s a fair bet I’m going to be steering clear of that restaurant.

So I was really pleased when I discovered that the branch of IHOP opposite my doctor’s office in Arlington was both clean and well-reviewed. Finally, I would experience this mecca for pancake lovers – the myriad selection of flavoured syrups, those appetizing looking stacks of fluffy goodness, topped with an ice-cream scoop of whipped butter (take a look at their website and you’ll see what I mean).


I don’t really know what I was expecting. The ‘international house of’ part of the name reminded me of the warm and friendly experiences I’d had in Center Parcs in the UK and in Holland. These European holiday parks offer relaxed, comfortable stays in forests, with activities for kids and spa-experiences for adults – and the famous Pancake House.

However, the sterile, cubicled space I entered in Arlington was a far cry from the clean lines and bright colours of the European diner I’d enjoyed. True, I was dining alone, which is often a depressing experience, but I think a certain amount of my disappointment was caused by the decor. It was the kind of design that you could imagine repeated across America, always the same, these 4-people booths with low cubicle walls so they could adapt to fit two sets of separate couples. The best I could say for this place was that they had used the space efficiently.

Good features of the IHOP are the size of their menu and their prices. The menu appears to be huge, partly because they offer nearly every ‘combo’ you can think of to suit your needs and your wallet. I got the 2x2x2 – 2 fried eggs, 2 pieces of bacon and 2 pancakes. It was cheap and it was fast. It’s basically the fast-food version of breakfast. And, as so often happens with fast food, it’s a bit underwhelming. It was all fine and tasty enough, and the service was prompt, and the place was clean – it was fine. The flavoured syrups on the table were fun for a little, but are a bit gimmicky, and I enjoyed the full flask of coffee that was brought for just me, but the whole thing felt a bit sad. Not at all what I’d been hoping for or what that smile on the website had hinted at.


So today I won’t be celebrating Pancake Day at the IHOP. I’m glad I got to experience it, but I’ll be marking the day at home.

I have flour, milk and eggs and will make the traditional British (thin) pancakes of my youth (which I didn’t much enjoy back then, strange child that I was). In the past I have experimented by spreading them with nutella and adding banana, but I think the flavoured syrups at IHOP taught me a lesson. Lemon and sugar is all you need.



Is it the end of the world? No – just snow

Around the middle of last week DC was in chaos over 2 inches of ‘surprise snow’. (As it occurred in January, it wasn’t such a surprise to many of us…) How were we going to cope with the threatened 2 feet over the weekend?

The answer seemed to be: by stockpiling groceries. On Wednesday night there was a queue to get into Trader Joe’s. On Thursday morning Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan – never fantastically well-stocked – had already run out of many items. Some were predictable. Perishables that they stock on a ‘not-quite-in-time’ distribution model had gone – there were no mushrooms or avocados. There was no cow’s milk. Other things were less predictable, but I think reflect the sorts of foods people might think to cook on a snowy weekend: potatoes, onions, butternut squash and bagged greens. (This being DC they had obviously run out of kale.)

Queues for checkouts reportedly lasted 45 minutes in some stores on Thursday night. Arguments were breaking out over just 15 minute waits in Harris Teeter in the morning. One old guy made it obvious that he thought we were all overreacting, muttering something like ‘is the world going to end tomorrow?’ as he joined the queue. He didn’t appear to be stockpiling food, but he probably doesn’t have any other mouths to feed. It’s somewhat difficult for those of us used to eating well at the weekend but who have lived in small apartments with no storage space for most of our adult lives. We’re used to buying our groceries on the days on which we’re going to eat them. In Adams Morgan it’s also hard to have a car (no parking), so we don’t often go to large stores to buy in bulk. We were stocking our homes from almost scratch.

I’m afraid to say that tempers frayed. The old guy decided to focus his displeasure on me as I tried to use the self-checkout and pack my groceries as quickly as I could, grumbling that ‘the rest of us don’t want to live here, lady.’ Somewhat taken aback, I didn’t respond, but on my way out I decided I had to take him to task for his rudeness, only to be told to ‘go to hell’. Probably the most American argument I’ve ever had…

Still I left the store having succeeded in securing most of my necessities – including ground coffee, cookies, dark chocolate, and ginger beer and limes for dark and stormies. There’s no need to be deprived of nice things when you’re snowed in!

It seems others felt the same way – when we realised we were low on red wine and headed to the liquor store there was quite a queue there as well!

The one thing I didn’t understand was the advice we received rather late in the day that we should make sure to have a gallon of water per person per day of the emergency. We filled what we could, but I couldn’t help but think that this was advice for an earthquake or hurricane, rather than for an event that predicted large amounts of water falling from the sky in frozen form…

In the event, we didn’t feel like we were properly snowed in. It started snowing about 1pm on Friday and kept at it until around midnight on Saturday, dumping around 2 feet of snow on us. But on Friday evening people were still enjoying happy hour at the mellow mushroom pizza place on 18th street, and on Saturday morning we made it through the snow to the diner, where cops and dedicated brunchers were being served by presumably local staff. Safeway seemed to be open, as was our local convenience store. I guess it would have felt rather different had we lived in a more residential district; you certainly didn’t want to drive anywhere.

We decided to take a walk round the neighbourhood, taking in the nearby hill that we were told was a good place for sledging (we’re sadly rather far from the fun on Capitol Hill). Though we could mostly walk on the semi-ploughed road, when we had to come off onto the verge or to take a short cut through the park, the deep, powdery snow, made walking very good exercise. I was quite jealous of those who had come out with skis! We spent a little while watching the sledging fun – flattened Amazon Prime boxes seemed to make as good sledges as did snowboards, especially when covered in a trash bag. When we got home we took some beers up to the roof to check out the view, but were driven in by the increasing wind chill.



This morning the sun came out and the snow had stopped. We’ve watched people start the process of digging their cars out of the snow drifts, and shovel the sidewalks clear.


Whether it will be cleared and safe to walk to work tomorrow remains to be seen. At least I have enough food left in the house to keep us going through Tuesday!