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Scraps from DC – it’s the little differences

I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just, there it’s a little different.

You want an example?

Well, in summer you can walk into Pret a manger in DC and buy a lobster roll. And I’m not talking about a couple of pieces of crayfish, I’m talking about proper lobster.

And in bars, you can always get food. Most places you can even get good food – like a fresh salad you want to eat, or mac and cheese – Americans will eat that with anything. And hot sauce with breakfast – they drown everything in that.

And they have H&M. But it’s not a cheap shop for kids – they treat it like it’s high European fashion.

And TK Maxx? It’s pretty much the same, except in America they call it TJ Maxx.

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Scraps from American travels – New Orleans

It’s chaotic, and not at all like America.

Though it resembles ramshackle bits of Spain or Italy, it’s unmistakably French.

Music everywhere! The expected brass, but also jazz, blues, even French folk.

People wandering the streets with plastic glasses of beer, drunk already at 1pm.

Parties on balconies bedecked with beads, ribbons, banners. The colours of Mardi Gras, shine for a month-long bender.

Arguments breaking out as out-of-control kids throw beer down from their balconies onto performers in the street.

The place smells of sugar: praline shops, fudge, chocolate, and powder-covered beignets.

Bars are open to the street, the air balmy and soft on this February day. Chartres Street – most of the tourist chaos left behind on Decator and Canal – has that classic, French-quarter charm you read about. The square at the end of the street is like Paris – street art and performers.

I eat crawfish cakes with hot sauce.

A middle-aged couple order tall cocktails to go.

And Yoda just walked past with a storm trooper.

Saying a long goodbye to my blog?

Just over three years ago I moved to the States. In a way it was good timing – I had just finished a PhD, there were no jobs in the offing, we were still young(ish) and many of our friends had moved out of London to start families. But it took a long time and a lot of stress to get the visa that would allow R to take up the job he had been offered. By the time we finally got it, after an entire morning at the American embassy I was rather too emotionally exhausted to feel the underlying fear very acutely.

The fear was there though. Because although we assured friends and family that it would only be 18 months, in reality I knew R would be very happy to extend it if everything went well. And I’d never been to the US before, and had no idea if I’d like it. And I had no idea if I’d get permission to work, or be able to find a job if I did. I had visions of myself drinking gin through the afternoon, waiting for R to come home, or, worse, learning to drive and then just taking off somewhere.

Happily I didn’t succumb to alcoholism. (In fact, it was a massive relief to me that in extremis my reaction is merely to eat too much, become slightly agoraphobic and then call a therapist.) And while I did learn to drive, this was towards the end of our tenure and a skill used more to take road trip vacations than to run away.

Perhaps I should have worried more about not being able to work. If nothing else my experience in America taught me how much work is central to my identity.

But mainly the things that I learnt from living in the States were positive. It confirmed that I like people, and can get on with pretty much anyone. I like travel and learning about other cultures and their histories. I like food, and drink and music, and respect these as cultures. I like the outdoors, and healthy(ish) living. And I aspire to live a balanced life.

Of course it’s been a challenge incorporating these aims into my life back home in London – I think we all aspire to a truly balanced life, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone who has achieved this. But I think I’m definitely friendlier to strangers, and more willing to travel frequently to see friends and family. We’ve also been trying to incorporate American food into our lives here. Making a big bowl of guacamole to have with the football (NFL) is essential for us now, and we’ve bought a small barbecue so we can continue to grill when it’s dry and warm(ish) out. I’m planning to write a post about eating American in London, so watch this space.

But really I’m finding it harder and harder to think about blogging. There are things I never got around to writing about – our love of baseball, our trips to New York – but it just seems like such a different world now. So my plan is to write what I can, when I can to cover off what I’ve missed, but to work to an end date.

In June this year we’re heading back to the US for a two-week road trip in the NW. It will be a year since we left to come home – we made it a year! – and that feels like a good point to end this blog. At least until the next big adventure…

Women’s Health in the States

Another post written last year in the States, before we came back to the UK. Of course this was also during the Obama care era, so things will probably change…

After about 15 months living over here I finally had to find someone to refill my birth control medication. Thanks to an understanding GP in the UK and a couple of visits home I’d managed for about nine months without having to negotiate the US health system, but after that I realized I’d have to make a start at finding a doctor.

I knew that in the States people can choose their own specialist and don’t need a referral from a GP. It’s actually not essential to have a GP – many of whom are known as internalists (specialists in internal medicine). (What’s external medicine I wonder…?) I then found out that the medical insurance we have, from the company that is sponsoring R’s visa, allows us to access either doctors who are in their network, or to go ‘out of network’ without any financial penalty. So now I almost had too much choice as to what sort of doctor/practice to go to, and no real way of knowing how to make the best choice.

I spent probably the best part of an hour scouring the list of in-network gynecologists (or OB GYNs), looking them up on the map, checking to see if there were reviews on Yelp – as if I were choosing a restaurant – and cross-checking with a good online medical service I found called ZocDoc. Weirdly there didn’t seem to be many OB GYNs in DC itself, so I found myself choosing between going to Bethesda in Maryland or North Arlington in Virginia. Based on distance from the metro, some nice Yelp reviews, and availability I chose my practitioner. It hardly seemed the best way to choose – using the same comparison site I use to find good pizza – but at least a decision had been made.

And I have been thoroughly satisfied – and not a little surprised – by my experiences. My doctor works for an outfit called the Physicians and Midwives Collaborative Practice, which I immediately liked the sound of. The office is very clean, modern and comfortable. Everyone is very friendly – more than one of them calls me ‘dear’ (though this is less affectionate and more like a conversational tic). Best of all, I’ve not been charged a co-pay on either of my visits.

The first time I went simply to get a refill of my prescription, though I knew there was a possibility I might have to get an exam (I’ve heard that this is more common in the States). They were good about getting a pretty complete history and wrote me a prescription for 3 months without an exam, on the condition that I make an appointment for a full physical. I had taken my British medication and the information leaflet with me so that the doctor could find an American equivalent, and she made an effort to find a generic version that was as close to mine as possible. As I said, I didn’t have to pay anything that visit, and while my insurance company makes me pay for my prescriptions up-front, I can claim back the full cost.

The second appointment came round and I turned up largely unconcerned – I don’t personally find these screenings at all problematic and actually have more anxiety about having my blood pressure taken (which obviously doesn’t help with the result!). But it turned out there are quite a few differences in practice between the UK and the US! Mostly in the UK the procedure has been done by a nurse, or maybe a nurse practitioner. Only the necessary clothes have had to be removed, and it’s been carried out on a normal GP bed.

Over here – in this practice at least – all clothes had to be removed and I was given a full-on hospital gown, in which I waited for my doctor. Thankfully I’d brought a book, and after about quarter of an hour she arrived. We had a conversation about my plans (or not) to have children, in which it was suggested that at my age I might want to look into getting my eggs frozen(!), and then there was the awkward getting into position on the gynecological table with stirrups that I’d seen in so many American TV shows. After some poking and prodding of various glands, the smear was reassuringly familiar, and after this I was ready to be getting up and heading home. So I was somewhat taken aback to find myself being pushed and prodded further, as she apparently examined my reproductive organs! I finally understand the joke about how gynecologists should probably buy you dinner before the exam – she now knows my uterus better than I do!

Again though, I was pleasantly surprised by not being asked to pay anything for this experience. I have read that recent changes in healthcare law have made all these sort of preventative health appointments free of any upfront charges – the entire cost being covered by the insurance company [Ed – thanks for the memories Obama!]. This must be a good thing in terms of detecting problems sooner as I can imagine that the idea of having to pay for a screening would be that extra reason not to go as regularly as you should. I’d also be genuinely interested to know whether the more invasive and thorough physical exam leads to cancers being found more quickly in the US than in the UK.

In any case, I survived my first experiences with American OB GYNs, and next time at least there should be fewer surprises!

How to eat American food for 18 months and not put on weight

‘Are you exercising?’ This was the doctor’s question which when put to me by my GP in London had me lying through my teeth. But in DC I didn’t miss a beat as I answered in the affirmative – ‘of course.’

To avoid this post becoming unbearably smug, I will admit that in the first few months living in DC I put on at least half a stone. We were eating out a lot and enjoying American beer. After that time I realized I couldn’t eat as if I were on holiday for the entire time we were here, and I would have to start running.

The first thing I saw when our taxi pulled off Memorial Bridge and into DC proper were runners. It was March, but the sun was shining and beautiful people were making use of the trails down Rock Creek Parkway and on the Potomac to break in their good-looking trainers and work-out clothes. As I spent more time in the city I realised that people could often be seen in workout gear – they were on their way home from the gym or from yoga, or on their way to Crossfit, or just going to have a run sometime that day. To support all this, there were a lot of sports shops in DC, including the appealingly named small independent store, Fleet Feet, downstairs in my building.

So I joined the movement, and did what I had barely ever done before – I started running outside.

It was hard at first, and I have to admit that when the humidity got too high I retreated back to the treadmill, but for most of the autumn and spring times* in DC I ran outside pretty much every week. I had some lovely places to run. Initially I chose to run across Ellington and Calvert bridges because this was nearly all on the flat, but I soon realised that the main advantage was the views. As I became better at dealing with hills, the whole of Rock Creek Park became available to me and made running an actual pleasure.

Rock Creek Park is a large area (1754 acres) of relatively wild parkland in the NW of DC, containing the creek as well as a network of cycle paths, equestrian trails and hiking routes. While we didn’t take up cycling or horse-riding, we did hike in the park pretty regularly, as it was really easy to access from our apartment block.

Other facilities available in DC were an amazing number of free, and very well-kept, public tennis courts.

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As an ex-pat partner who at times was not allowed to work, I was able to play tennis very regularly at least one summer after finding a good partner. There was also canoeing available on the Potomac river – as well as pedaloes in the Tidal Basin. We found the Key Bridge watersports center was the best of the two available and often got Canadian canoes from there to either paddle around Roosevelt Island and down to the monuments, or upstream to watch for turtles and cormorants.

On our holidays we love nothing better than to eat and drink well in the evenings and to hike or play tennis during the days. In this way, DC made our day-to-day life feel like a holiday – while saving us from obesity!

*in DC winter really only hits in December, and spring starts around March. It’s also pretty much bearable to be running up until July.