Tag Archives: America

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…

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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).
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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)
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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?

Taking stock

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.

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Taking stock up in the clouds. I think this was the edge of the Rockies.

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

  1. Diners. This one is linked to my second:
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

  1. Knowing my way around. I love traversing London using the network of buses and tubes.
  2. M&S and Waitrose. I do miss their ready-meals and snacks.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!).
  5. Being close to Europe. I really didn’t take advantage of this enough while I was in the UK.
  6. 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.
  7. Friends and family. Obviously.
  8. 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

  1. I actually quite like patriotism and earnestness. In moderation.
  2. I can get along with most people – and I’ve met a lot of very different people.
  3. 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.
  4. I really like motels/American hotels. This is partly because of the ease and friendliness of all my experiences so far.
  5. 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…
  6. 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).

Living on a swamp

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.

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East Coast Adventures – US History

Our travels on the East Coast of America have focused mainly on two of my interests in life – food and history. There’s also been some room for reading too, but more on that in another post. I’ll be writing about the delights of American seafood, barbecue and pizza as I blog about the places where we enjoyed them, but I thought it might be worth writing a bit about US history generally, before getting on to the histories as told by different states.

Before coming to the States I had some knowledge of bits of their history – mainly gleaned as a child from playing Sid Meiers’s Colonization (similar to Civilization, but set between the discovery of the Americas and the achieving of independence) and more recently from half watching the first couple of episodes of HBO’s mini-series John Adams (I would recommend this for the fantastic theme tune and credit sequence alone). I also of course knew the story of the Civil War as told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. But my understanding of the early history of settlement and interaction with the native Americans was sketchy; I wasn’t quite sure who had won the war of 1812 or what it was about; and while I knew not to forget it, I had no idea what The Alamo was. I had learnt quite a bit from the Smithsonian Museum of American History (I blogged about this education here last year) but nothing beats walking the streets where citizens protested the quartering of British soldiers or standing on the battle-field where the British surrendered.

What I have learnt from our travels, though, is that the narrative I thought I knew is largely the narrative of Massachusetts. The story of Puritans seeking a place to practise their religion in peace; of a populace rising up in righteous rebellion against a tyrant king; of the heroism of a New England silversmith, Paul Revere, riding to warn the rebels of the British attack; and the story of a North that sought to abolish slavery and bring about ever more union between the states… All these stories ring truest in Massachusetts – specifically in Boston.

When you travel in Virginia or Maine, however, you find plenty of people ready to dispute the details of this dominant narrative. Archaeologists in Virginia were keen to remind us that of course Jamestown was the first successful British colony – started in 1607 for commercial rather than religious reasons – predating the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony by over ten years. And the museum of Fort William Henry, near another very early fishing colony at Pemaquid Point in Maine, is scathing about the role played by Paul Revere in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 (during the War of Independence, the British had seized Castine in Maine and the Massachusetts legislature ordered an expedition to dislodge them). In Maine, the story goes that Revere was incompetent as an artillery commander, disobeyed orders, and fled before receiving orders to retreat (the expedition was a disaster). They prefer to commemorate the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who immortalised Massachusetts’ hero in the poem, Paul Revere’s Ride – making it clear that there were of course many riders, and Revere’s name was just useful because it rhymed:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

(it’s not a particularly good poem).

Meanwhile, in Boston, they insist that Revere’s name was cleared in the court martial he demanded for himself in 1782. They claim that the accusations only came about because the Massachusetts militia needed a scapegoat.

While I loved Boston, and thought their museums were very persuasive on most things, I’m more inclined to believe Maine’s version of the story of Paul Revere. This is partly because I was influenced by Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel of the Penobscot Expedition The Fort, which was excellent holiday reading in Maine.

I’m by no means an expert yet, but I’m certainly enjoying continuing my education in American history through reading, watching TV series, and, of course, more traveling.

Recommendations for anyone looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of American history – or just a different perspective (based only on where I’ve been and what I’ve read so far):

On the early colonies:

  • Jamestown archaeological site, Virginia
  • Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, Religion and American Politics: from the colonial period to the present

On the War of Independence:

  • Fort William Henry, Maine
  • TURN: Washington’s Spies, AMC series
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Fort

On the Civil War and its aftermath:

  • Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial (in Arlington Cemetery)
  • E. L. Doctorow, The March
  • Ford’s Theatre (especially the Ranger talk)
  • D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation (warning: explicitly racist)

Here and There – Apartment Hunting

(This post is part of series. See also: Then and Now)

When we moved from our first, temporary apartment to our more permanent home in DC it felt like moving to a different world. In the first apartment we experienced Columbia Road and Adams Morgan as a nightmarish warzone of flashing lights, sirens, drunken revellers and homeless beggars. In the second the only thing keeping us awake was the mockingbird in the garden opposite. And yet, in actual fact, we only moved five minutes down the road.

On the balcony of our current apartment
On the balcony of our current apartment

We chose our first apartment (on AirBnB when we discovered we had got the visa to come to America and R needed to turn up at work in about two weeks’ time) based on availability and proximity to downtown DC. We knew that R would be working downtown, and we had heard of Dupont Circle (from the West Wing), so we looked in that sort of area. We had heard horror stories about how DC was dangerous – how you could think you were in a nice area, turn a corner and be in that legendary, dystopian world of ‘the projects’ – so we tried to do our research. The closest affordable option that turned up was in Adams Morgan, which, when we looked it up on the internet, sounded like our kind of place – diverse population, full of restaurants and bars, walking distance from Dupont. The consensus of opinion on the internet was that it was safe.

And although our first experiences were not wholly positive, we had to agree that it seemed pretty much as safe as our area of London.

But it was noisy, and there were the beggars, and the apartment was gated, and it was a full twenty minute walk to Dupont metro (Woodley Park metro was closer, but then it took practically half an hour to get down the ridiculously long and slow escalator), and it was an hour’s walk to R’s work, and walking back was all uphill, and there was no good gym or supermarket nearby… our list of minor complaints was getting pretty long. So we decided to search for a new apartment closer to town. From talking to people, we were confident that the North West was the right place to be (it’s been safest for longest); we just wanted to be less far from the city centre.

Of course, apartment hunting in a strange city is difficult. In a foreign country it’s even harder. We were pretty experienced at finding and renting apartments in the UK – you go to Zoopla, find something in your price-range, contact the agent and give them all your details. They tell you that the property has already been let and your price-range is unrealistic. Or something like that.

In America – or at least in DC – there are similar websites (padmapper for example), but mainly people use Craigslist. This is far more reputable over here than it is in the UK. However, the form your search takes depends on what sort of apartment you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a serviced apartment with amenities like a gym and a concierge, then you can get this pretty easily, usually by contacting the apartment building/company directly. Most of these are downtown: south of Dupont Circle, on 14th Street or in the new waterfront developments in SW/SE. If, on the other hand, you like the look of the smaller apartment buildings in the nice old mansions of NW (19th street and Kalorama for example), you should look for adverts for ‘condos’ on Craigslist. (Condominiums are apartment buildings where each apartment is privately owned by different landlords; apartment buildings are owned and maintained by a single company). Areas differ in terms of what sort of apartments will be more readily available. In the Capital Hill area, for example, many of the rentals on Craigslist will be basements being let out privately by the young families living upstairs. Realtors are rarely used when you’re looking just to rent, so really there’s no-one that will give you this information – we just had to learn it from R’s colleagues and our experience. Oh and nearly every apartment in DC is let unfurnished.

This was all a lot to take in – especially during my first weeks in this country when I was still being challenged by things like grocery shopping. I spent hours on Craigslist and googlemaps, budgeting, making calls… And it always seemed to be raining as I walked down the hill to various condos, waited for agents or building managers, and tried to gauge light levels in first floor apartments. It was a high-pressure decision: we were running out of time in our temporary apartment, and our entire happiness for the next year rested on what apartment we would end up with.

And then, one sunny weekend at the end of April, we found our apartment. It wasn’t much closer to Dupont or Woodley Park metros. It was still on top of the hill. I still hadn’t found a good supermarket or gym. But that five minutes down Columbia Road made all the difference. This part of the road was behind 18th street rather than at the head of it. Rather than eating our weekend bagels on a busy road, we could take them to the park just a couple of minutes away. There were trees, and birds, and the building’s entrance was on a quiet, residential side street. It was perfect.

A year on, we have had no reason to regret our decision. The apartment building is old, but recently refurbished. It’s managed by a company, but we’re not paying over the odds for amenities we’d never use. The management fix things promptly, look after deliveries, and last summer they even hosted an ice-cream social to show their appreciation for their tenants. We also managed to find a good supermarket and a gym that has what we need.

And we’re still enjoying eating our bagels in the park.

Our local park

 

This post is the second in a series. Read on: Friends and ‘friending’ – social networks abroad