So I know many people want to know what’s going on with us – whether we’re going to be able to stay in the US or if we’re homeward bound on 15 October. Well, we’d like to know too!
We’d like to know if we have to break our lease on our apartment, confirm our packers and buy airplane tickets. We’d like to know whether we should plan a goodbye or a celebration party, and start saying goodbye to our favourite places and restaurants. I’d like to know if I really have to use up everything in the freezer and store cupboard (I was going to title this post ‘we can’t leave now, I just bought a bulk packet of rice/pasta/dishwasher tablets’).
But our last-ditched effort to get a visa is still ongoing. Further information was requested on our latest application and once this has gone in, they have another 15 days to make a decision. So we won’t know whether we’re staying or going until the beginning of October…
Uncertainty really sucks.
So, we’re doing what people have always done in times of uncertainty – heading west!
The plan is to fly to Chicago, drive to Madison Wisconsin (where R spent a year of his childhood), head from there all the way to South Dakota to explore the Badlands and Black Hills, and from there make it to Yellowstone!!
After that we’re not sure, but we might visit Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, or Omaha on our way back to Chicago.
We have 14 days for this adventure. I learned to drive so R and I can share the driving. So here we go!
Keep nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. (William Morris)
I’m not a materialistic person, and this quotation from William Morris has always been my guide for keeping my home free of ‘clutter’. It’s been very useful over the last couple of years – R and I moved to a new flat in London just nine months before we moved to America and had little trouble throwing away what things we had allowed to accumulate over our first three years of living together, which kept the cost of moving down considerably. And then, of course, came the move to America – we threw even more stuff out before the shipping company arrived.
I certainly surround myself with useful things. My college room was once described as ‘efficient’ – which was not meant as a compliment. So when I was younger I experimented with throws and canvas lamp shades, and wind chimes and dream catchers, because I thought I should – but I only discovered that I hate the dust they inevitably collect. I hadn’t really developed my own taste, didn’t fully and truly believe these things to be beautiful, and so had no business keeping them.
My taste, it turns out, is for the efficient, the spare, the perfectly designed. I have few ornaments or pictures in my home, but those I’ll never get rid of include a satisfyingly squat and heavy blown-glass penguin paper weight in black and white, and a black and white abstract painting of camels by a Canarian painter called Manrique (see Lanzarote’s tourist information pages for further information about this painter).
To break up the monochrome there’s also a beautiful canvas painted by my sister-in-law in imitation of Edward Ruscha – gradations of blue into white into pink and red, which inspired us to be bolder than usual in our most recent choice of a bedroom color scheme.
Useful things can also be beautiful. I have some lovely blue ceramic bowls bought for me by my sister that I love to use for chips or guacamole, and a really elegant, fluted crystal decanter from a friend to mark my wedding. I also love the simple, blue glass tea light holders this friend bought me, and the satisfying, rustic-looking baking dish my husband and I bought when we had first decided to live together. And my books – whatever they now look like on the outside, having been faded by sunshine and warped by the sea air on holiday – are beautiful on the inside as well as essential in my line of work.
As you might gather from the above, things given to me by people I love are also things I find to be beautiful – especially as people who buy me presents usually know me well enough to appreciate my taste for the simple and well designed, potentially useful gift! When we left the UK we were given some wonderful coasters – some Union Jack, and others from Oxford with just the names of Oxford places printed in white on a black background. And this Christmas I received many beautiful book-themed presents – I think all of them were also useful!
In the US we’ve been careful not to buy too much. If we bought a DVD player it wouldn’t work with our UK DVDs, and if we bought American DVDs… you get the picture. We’re considered unusual in that we don’t have a television and cable service – but our little (shared) laptop and Netflix are fine substitutes. We had to buy all new furniture as furnished flats turned out to be a rarity in DC (we left our furniture at home for our tenants), but we really kept this to a minimum as we were only going to be here temporarily.
Sometimes I do wish we would stay around somewhere long enough for me to nest. When furnishing both our first owned flat and this DC apartment I’ve had to keep religiously to the ‘things you know to be useful’ creed, and resist my urge to buy beautiful things. Both times we knew we were furnishing for temporary residence, and so mainly relied on IKEA. It’s fashionable to rather disdain IKEA, and I certainly hate their shopping experience (being forced to follow their idea of the ideal route makes me rebellious), but IKEA design tends to suit me. It’s all clean lines, wood, bright colours here and there, serviceable book cases and kitchen counters – and cheap enough to not worry that you’re only going to be using it for 18 months.
Now that we’re maybe heading home and I’m thinking about packing up, I’m grateful again for our lack of clutter. Some ‘stuff’ has accrued over our time here, but by following Morris’s advice, I think we’ll be able to ditch what we don’t need pretty easily. Meaning we’ll have space for future purchases of useful and beautiful things as we enter the next chapter of our lives.
Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that my original 18 months in DC are nearly up. However, we’ve enjoyed our time in the States so much that we’re trying to get a new visa so we can stay a bit longer. I’ll attempt to write about our visa saga soon, when I might know more. Whatever happens, we’ll have a four week grace period, after the 18-month work placement, in which we can travel and say our goodbyes. But, as I was flying back to DC from a trip to California (also to be written about soon!) I started taking stock of a few things.
Back when I was in the midst of ex-pat culture shock I wrote lists of everything I hated about living in DC and about living in America (I later wrote one about the things that I liked). So, as I’m staring down the barrel of possible repatriation culture shock, I thought I’d write a few more lists: about what I would miss about America if we really have to leave soon, what I am looking forward to about possibly returning to London and the UK, and things that I’ve learnt about myself since moving to America.
Things I’d miss about America
Diners. This one is linked to my second:
Brunch. I’ve written before about my love of American brunch. Since our first experiences we’ve also sampled boozy brunches with friends, amazing home-made pop tarts at the DC institution that is Ted’s Bulletin, and a lot more Mexican themed brunch dishes. My waist-line will probably not miss this.
Climate. I know I have complained about this on numerous occasions (for example, here), but I really like how in DC I don’t have to worry about a coat or even really a cardigan for about 7 months of the year. I’ve also just visited California, and their climate makes me wonder why we don’t all just move there.
Variety of states to visit. There’s so much to see! I’ve visited I think 10 states in my 18 months here, which means there are 40 I haven’t had a chance to see yet. I can make a decent stab at improving this situation during our grace period, but I have enough places on my to-visit list to fill at least five different holidays.
Attitude. I didn’t realize how British negativity can get you down, until I was freed of it. There’s just an assumption over here that people will be friendly, open and confident. And because this was expected of me, I found that after a few months I was friendly, open and confident – or at least a lot more than I used to be.
Wine. Ok, I know we have this in Europe. Pretty good wine too. But I’d just been wine tasting in Sonoma, so it was on my mind.
Fitness culture. People who knew me a long time ago will be surprised at this one. But I have found that it’s a lot easier to start running outside when everyone else is doing it.
The ease of everything. This is always what R and I say about America: stuff is just easy. Apart from the bureaucracy of tax, health insurance etc., things like going out and enjoying yourself, in terms of booking, or putting your name on a list, or there just being room, just seem a lot easier over here.
Things I’m looking forward to about London/UK
Knowing my way around. I love traversing London using the network of buses and tubes.
M&S and Waitrose. I do miss their ready-meals and snacks.
Cantonese food. I wrote recently about how hard it’s been finding the kind of Chinese food that I’m used to. I have cravings for prawn crackers and chicken chow mein in gravy.
UK Holidays… in Yorkshire or Devon or the Lakes, or Wales. While it’s a small country the UK certainly has its own wealth of landscapes. I’ve been vicariously enjoying other ex-pats’ adventures in my home country (such as Amanda Afield’s adventures in Wales which made me very homesick!).
Being close to Europe. I really didn’t take advantage of this enough while I was in the UK.
Culture. DC does have theater and I do like the Kennedy Center, but I haven’t been able to work out how to get cheap tickets to reliably good things yet. I miss the English National Opera and National Theatre’s deals.
Friends and family. Obviously.
Humour. And British spelling.
That second list was hard, as I was trying to write it while flying over the Grand Canyon… It’s a bit difficult for the UK to compete with that.
Things I’ve learnt about myself since moving to America
I actually quite like patriotism and earnestness. In moderation.
I can get along with most people – and I’ve met a lot of very different people.
I love road trips. Though, as we’ve only really done one proper road trip, this might just have been the novelty. We’re planning to take a couple of weeks of our grace period and drive out West, that should be the real test.
I really like motels/American hotels. This is partly because of the ease and friendliness of all my experiences so far.
Traveling doesn’t have to be a big deal/stressful for me. I used to be a terrible traveler, stressing about a few hours’ train journey. Now that I’ve driven with R for days in the South and traveled on my own to conferences in cities I’d never heard of – and enjoyed these experiences – I’m a far more confident traveler. And finally…
I can run! The fitness culture of DC, the easily available sports gear, and the variety of trails/courses to run have turned me into a runner (at least when it’s not too humid).
Last summer we were completely spoiled and found the summer far more bearable than we’d been led to believe. Normal service resumed this year though and I feel like we’re living in the tropics. For the whole of June and much of July we had tropical storms disrupting our lives – and they’re not over yet. First the humidity builds until it feels like you’re walking into a steam room every time you walk out of the air-conditioning. Then comes the monsoon-style rain, unpredictable and soaking you to the skin. And finally, the storm to partially clear things up, until the next one starts to build.
The humidity has been hard to deal with, especially if, like us, you don’t like air-conditioning (it really sets off my allergies). But even we have had to close the windows and switch on the cool, dry air, just to be able to sleep at night. Nothing dries without the air conditioning – our bed clothes seem always to be slightly damp, and the laundry builds up. Walking anywhere is a draining activity. We go through many sets of clothes each day. In the same way that Mediterranean men wear old fashioned vests under their clothes, American men wear white t-shirts under their shirts in the summer to avoid their shirts getting too covered in sweat. (White t-shirts worn as outer-wear are therefore somewhat disapproved of, as they are associated with underwear.)
But the unpredictability of the weather can also really get you down. We had such plans for the summer, based on our experiences last year. We were going to go on more hikes, go canoeing more regularly, and finally use the tennis courts on 18th street. We are doing some of this, but it’s difficult to commit to any kind of regularity when at any moment it might rain.
Still, we adapt. While in the winter I used the buses to avoid the snow and rain, I now use them to avoid walking in the heat and ruining my outfits. We continue to use the gym for regular workouts and see anything we do outside as a bonus. Rather than cooking and increasing the heat in our apartment we mainly just throw together salads or make very quick pastas and frittatas/quesadillas.
And when we finally get a good weekend with low humidity, we make the most of it! This last weekend was just such a gift, and we walked, sat out on our balcony and grilled with friends on our roof at sunset. Weekends like this make all the rest of it worthwhile.
So eventually I managed to get some work in DC as a private tutor. For a while I was just tutoring once a week, for a family living in Montgomery County in Maryland. Since the beginning of the summer though, work has really picked up, as I’ve acquired two students from the Middle East – a boy from Kuwait and a girl from Saudi Arabia. I think both have fathers who work for American firms, and both go to schools that follow the American system. So this summer, they’ve come to the US for a month’s immersion and extra tuition. During this month I’ve been meeting one of them four times a week and the other just twice a week but teaching a session of 9th grade English followed by a session of 9th grade World History. I think he also has a second tutor who comes on other days to tutor him in math and science. His family stressed that he should also be given plenty of homework!
I love the way you discover a whole other version of a city and entire new neighbourhoods when you have a new job. So I thought I’d describe my new routine and the areas of DC I now get to frequent.
Last week started with a morning session tutoring 9th/10th grade English in Montgomery county. Normally I’ve been taking the metro to Friendship Heights in the evening and being picked up by Mom on her way home from work, but now it’s summer vacation and because of camp schedules we were meeting in the morning. So I walked from Friendship Heights, through the suburbs of this rather nice Maryland County, past beautiful front yards, full of flowers, tree houses and scattered toys.
When I got to the house, Dad was most apologetic that I’d had to walk – though he was there, working from home, he’d been busy chasing his escaped dog just before I arrived.
Dad returned to his study, and we started work in the kitchen. When we were about half way through, one of the dog walkers arrived to walk the family dog. While my student went to find the dog’s lead, dog walker and tutor exchanged pleasantries. As I walked home through suburbia I reflected on how many other people walking these streets were also staff of the families who lived here (and who, in contrast, move about in shining SUVs): au-pairs, cleaners, dog walkers, gardeners, tradesmen and tutors – the great service economy maintaining suburban life.
Tuesday saw me heading to Noma and my Saudi Arabian student. I had looked this area up before traveling here and had seen a lot of negative reviews calling it a gritty no- go area of warehouses behind Union Station. Well whoever wrote that hasn’t been on 1st street NE recently. Shiny office blocks, apartment buildings, food trucks and a metro stop that reminded me of the DLR stations in East London all combine to make a safe, modern and buzzing environment. A pop up book shop called Carpe Librum welcomed me just out of the station, there were cafes, food trucks, a Starbucks, a Harris Teeter and a CVS all within a block.
(However I did just hear that someone was stabbed on the metro going through Noma the other week…)
I tutored my Saudi Arabian student in one of her apartment building’s spacious common areas. The space is both a show kitchen and a party area that can be hired out by residents (a lot of apartment buildings have these in DC) but for our purposes it has a lovely long wooden dining table that we can work on. The area is public, but mostly quiet. In fact it’s quite serene, with a trickling water feature and a fake fire with flickering flames.
When the lesson was over I headed over to Foggy Bottom. Here, in an apartment building above a Roti, a SweetGreen and a Whole Foods, my Kuwaiti student lives with his brother, who I think studies at GW.
Here we work in the conference room in the business center of the apartment building and I take my breaks in one of the common areas.
I’m fascinated by the lives of my students, especially in terms of what they do with their incredibly long summers. Growing up in the UK we only had six weeks holiday, and I remember even getting bored in this short amount of time. My American student has been on vacation since the beginning of June. So far he’s been sailing with his grandparents, to a hockey camp and to an academic camp and now he’s on vacation with his family in Europe. My Middle Eastern students will have about three weeks when they finish tutoring and while one is going back home for three weeks of doing nothing, the other is heading to London for a couple of weeks of museums before heading back to school. In the meantime they don’t seem to be doing much except for studying and going to the mall.
As for me, I’m not doing much except tutoring at the moment – and spending far too much time in Starbucks (before, between and after sessions…) Things should be calming down soon though, at which point more normal blogging service should resume!