Tag Archives: DC

Missing the States

At this time when America is so much in the news I’m missing all those things that were America to us.

I miss:

  • Watching NFL in a bar on a Sunday all afternoon…
  • Wearing a baseball cap and really casual clothes…
  • Drinking American IPA in sensible sized pints

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Though London and the UK more widely are catching up to what a great game this is, because of the time difference it’s really hard to watch our favourite teams live. Unless you have Sky TV (and can stay up real late) you can only catch the early Sunday afternoon matches – at very select bars. We found out that our local does show these, from 6pm UK time, but at 7.30pm the football is relegated to the background as they have their pub quiz (or trivia as my American friends know it).

Matt Herschberger has written how American casual doesn’t really fit in large parts of London (I reacted to his article here). I’ve tried wearing my baseball caps and Nats gear, but I’ve had to give in to the increasingly hipster vibe and be a bit smarter on the weekends.

Talking of hipster culture, the UK is also really catching up on the craft brewing front. I’ll go into this in more detail soon, but my area has recently acquired a whole mile of breweries, all of which do decent IPAs. Half pints are available, and indeed are to be recommended for the really strong beers they’re brewing round here now.

But I also miss:

  • Being able to hire a car that we can both drive…
  • Getting on the road and driving for hours through the most amazing scenery…
  • Singing along to country music.

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This last one we’ve been able to replicate thanks to Youtube and Spotify, but we have acquired a reputation as having slightly strange music taste. In terms of car radio music, we have enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with British cheese, especially eighties music, and we did have quite a bit of fun finding some typical French rap when we were driving to Bordeaux back in the summer.

But the attitude to hire cars – and street car schemes – in the UK is very different to the States. It’s more expensive to hire an automatic and there are quite high extra charges for each additional driver. Back in the US I don’t think they even asked to see my licence when we hired a car – the fact that we said we were married was enough to give me driving rights with no extra charge. This was great because I only had a learner permit, and I got to practice while driving my husband around the vineyards of Southern California… The hire car place in France was also fine with my American licence and our marital status, so I got my first experience of driving the narrow country roads of the old wine country. There’s just something about being able to skip the mediocre hotel breakfast and drive down to the nearest village for pastries and espresso…

Which brings me to some other things I’m missing:

  • Being able to reliably get good coffee…
  • And good (cheap) brunch.

img_0288I was at a conference centre recently with truly awful coffee. It was cruel and unusual and should be illegal.

I took coffee and brunch for granted in the States. And while I think we probably can get some good brunch in London if we make a date for it, maybe book, and travel a bit, it’s not the same as being able to go across the road to the Diner. On the upside we’re getting good at making our own eggs and pancakes and we can now get our favourite bacon and brunch on bacon sandwiches.

Other good brunch/lunch options that have opened up in our area are a really good salt beef and pastrami place – Monty’s Deli. And, round the corner, Maltby Street Market has an interesting looking waffle stall. So there’s definitely potential.

However, there are some things we can’t replicate. Here are some of the bigger, intangible, ‘this is America’ type stuff that people weave a national identity around, and that I miss more than I thought I would:

  • Going to the baseball (I can see why this is practically a religion)
  • Celebrating 4th July, or Halloween, and Thanksgiving… and all the other holidays…

Not because I particularly liked all the holidays, but because we got to celebrate with enthusiasm in the States. There was irony – ‘Merica! – but not often, and only on the surface.

  • Freedom!

Now I’m being ironic – especially seeing as how recently we’ve taken control back from Europe (more irony).

  • DC politics…

I know it might sound strange, but there was something about being in the DC bubble, where sports bars showed the debate, and the local paper went into great detail on local, regional and national politics. Though I couldn’t vote I certainly had my own strong views on abortion rights, gun control, and statehood for DC and Puerto Rico.

So right now I’m missing lots of things about America. I’m also worried for this country that welcomed me in for a while: is it going to become more right-wing, more misogynist, racist, more disruptive to world politics?

I’ll certainly be watching the election tonight and hoping that the result is that which will preserve everything I loved about America. Good luck friends!

All of a Sudden it’s Spring!

When we moved here two years ago we arrived in DC to snow, rain, and cold. It wasn’t until the middle of April that the cherry trees blossomed. Last year was pretty much the same. This year, however, spring took us by surprise; starting while we were in Asheville with the magnolias, cherry-blossom season transformed DC into a vision in white and pink, and the glades around the Tidal Basin became a fairy-land once more.

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Because of the colder weather at this time of year, though, the blooming period is shorter, and the blossom seems more ephemeral than ever. But the rest of the DC flora is catching up to Spring now, and DC is on the way to turning a vibrant green again.

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It’s official. Spring is here.

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.

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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.

Walking to the National Arboretum

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So my main advice about walking to the arboretum is simple: don’t do it. Unless you’re really fit, get a zip car or an Uber – it’s worth it. The Arboretum is really nice to visit, but it’s a long way from most places in DC and walking takes you through some much improved but still sketchy areas, like Trinidad.

I was accompanied by a friend and her dog, which made me feel a bit safer. It was also the middle of the day, and as many people have said, probably fine really. But when we ventured into a liquor store (the dog in search of air conditioning) I was struck by how the cashiers were protected behind a riot-proof plastic screen – I’ve never seen that before, and it didn’t fill me with confidence as to the safety of the area.

A little while ago crime dropped in this area, thanks to some vehicle check points set up by the mayor. These were then pronounced unconstitutional, but I think the area is still improving. Like everywhere in DC, property prices are rising and gentrification is creeping even into this area. And at the depressed, northern edge of this area – where we encountered the scary liquor store – a shiny new Kip charter school has just opened.

Once past Trinidad and the cemetery, the walk becomes a somewhat unpleasant slog (at least in a DC summer) up a hill beside a busy road. And then, finally, you arrive at the oasis that is the National Arboretum.

Entry is free, and we picnicked on the tables by the visitor center. It was a lovely spot, and I could have spent much of the day there, especially if I’d brought a good book.

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The arboretum is huge, so I think we only saw a small part of it. We visited the pretty herb garden, with its pond and neat trellises. From here there is a good view of the columns, and we were drawn to wander over the meadow towards these. These columns, standing alone in the meadow, date from the 1820s, but were actually moved to the arboretum in the 1980s – they originally supported the dome of the Capitol building.

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From the columns we realized we could take the path down to a stream, through a planted meadow, and into the woods. It was a hot day, so it was good to get out of the sun. Here we wandered in circles, rested on the numerous benches, and enjoyed the little stone and wooden bridges that cross and recross the stream.

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Finally we visited the bonsai garden. I must admit to not really getting the point of bonsai. I far prefer to see trees growing wild in a forest than presented, stunted and manicured in a pot. They certainly have a varied collection at the Arboretum though, and I did like how the garden was set out in traditional style.

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And then it was time to head home again. By the end of the day I think I’d walked about 12 miles! So again, my advice is: do visit the Arboretum, but don’t walk there unless you’re after a good work out!

Guest post: autumn adventures in DC and Shenandoah

Welcome to my first ever guest-post on 18 months in DC! This was written for me by my good friend Kate (who also writes a great blog about books, over at http://bloggingaroundmybookcase.com/) about her ‘vacation’ with us last autumn.

“I’ve got friends in low places, where the whisky drowns and the beer chases my blues away” the growling refrain came up on my iTunes recently and I was immediately transported to the back of a car on Skyline Drive with four grown adults giggling uncontrollably and trying to sing along.

But that is, perhaps, getting ahead of myself.  Last autumn E and I were very excited to head to DC to visit R and A, two of our best friends, who have decamped from London to live in DC for a few years.

I was unexpectedly charmed by DC.  In its own, low-key way it is quite lovely. R&A live in an area called Adams Morgan which is home to a classic American diner, a number of great restaurants and a degenerate bar called Madam’s Organ.

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Our first encounter with Madam’s Organ involved a riotous night of karaoke of which one of the highlights was a performance of ‘Friends in Low Places’.  I had first come across the piece during a summer spent working on a ranch in Wyoming so when I heard it again it was like rediscovering an old friend. If you aren’t familiar with the song, you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvCgSqPZ4EM and it would be excellent background music for the rest of this blog.

Other highlights of DC were canoeing on the Potomac in the autumn sunshine, watching the Washington Wizards in action, R’s informative and beautiful walking tour of the war memorials and hours spent in DC’s brilliant museums.  Watching E scrambling through air ducts in the spy museum will stay with me for a long time.

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The Vietnam Memorial in fall.

However, that wasn’t the main point of our trip.  After a few days in DC we headed off on a road trip taking in Virginia, Shenandoah and Skyline Drive.  We visited the sites of the original English settlers, learnt a lot about Pocohontas and the civil war, talked to lots of people dressed up as settlers and gorged on the fascinating history of this new nation.

Colonial Williamsburg (guests at the hotel are 'drafted' into the militia)
Colonial Williamsburg (guests at the hotel are ‘drafted’ into the militia)

I also had grits for the first and last time; collared greens and catfish were much more to my taste.

Then we headed off to Shenandoah, which was the highlight of the trip for me.

Skyline Drive is a road that weaves along the mountaintops through the Shenandoah Forest.  It is a stunning drive that we hit at sunset on the first day when the fading sun brought the autumn colours to life in a spectacular, fiery display.  We were there on the last week in the season and it was the perfect cold, crisp, clear weather – perfect for hiking.

So we stayed the night in a log cabin and the next day tied up our hiking boots and set off on a spectacular walk that that involved some time on the Appalachian Trail, waterfalls, startled deer and more autumn colours than I’ve ever seen.  ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t do autumn in Shenandoah justice.  It really is one for your bucket list.

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Those of you who have taken my advice and listened to the suggested soundtrack to this blog will have noticed two things a) it is quite long and repetitive and b) that it is an earworm that you will be humming for the rest of the week.

It was after a week of us humming this song, singing snatches here and there and that some members of our merry band couldn’t take any more.  So, when halfway up Skyline Drive, another rendition started up, one particular passenger turned the radio on in protest… only then to find that the song they were playing on that radio station at precisely that moment was…Friends in Low Places.  At which point we all dissolved into giggles.  There is no escape!