Tag Archives: US

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!

The Downsides to Living in the United States

These things were originally going to be in my last post, but I realised that it’s probably unfair to blame DC for them. Obviously my impressions are coloured by my love of London and the UK (which has grown since I’ve been here) and my struggles to set up home in this country as a foreign national.

  1. The Banking System. Of course the US has many banks – practically every large town will have its own local bank – so it’s difficult to effect any large-scale modernisation but, really, banking in DC has been like going back to the dark ages. There are charges for everything from making an online transfer to withdrawing at another bank’s ATM. It takes days for your pay check to fully clear and the funds to become available. You still have to sign for things – chip and pin is as yet a glimmer on the far distant horizon – and it’s still the norm to use cheques [or checks]. In fact, they’re so convinced that you don’t trust anything else, that they make you send them a voided check to ensure that direct debits are set up right (you can’t be trusted to get your bank account number correctly…). Nearly all bills come in the post and it’s assumed that you will return the payment, using a check, by post. Of course, the postal system is incredibly slow that you have to really think ahead to avoid being charged late fees. The slow postal system in fact, along with other factors, was blamed for the fact that it took practically two months for us to receive our bank cards. Whenever we wanted to withdraw cash, which was often, as we had no other way of paying (except with the emergency temporary checks they gave us), I had to go in person to the bank (between 9.30am and 3pm, Mon-Fri) and write out a withdrawal request. They got to know me very well. Given the charges for using other ATMs, and the fact that there are only 2 HSBC branches in DC, we still withdraw cash very rarely. Things were complicated for us by the fact that we were from overseas, and only one of us had a social security number, but largely the delays seemed to be down to incompetence and the slow post.
  1. Social Security Numbers/Credit records. Everything in the US runs on your social security number. When you’re applying for any kind of credit, leasing an apartment, or just signing up for a supermarket club card – you get asked for your social security. Sometimes, if you don’t have one, there’s no help for it, you’re just going to have to do without those goods or services. Sometimes they’ll accept an ID number, but if you have an out of state – or worse, international – ID, they’re often just not set up for that. We’ve been somewhat lucky with our banking/credit situation. One of us had a social security number from a few years ago, the other had a credit record with HSBC in the UK. When we’re combined we appear to be a just about viable prospect. Had things been different, I’m not sure what would have happened.
  1. The DMV. Again, the UK modernised its public services a while back and began to prioritise the public as ‘customers’. This has not happened in the US. It’s not just the wait times and the misinformation – though that is annoying – it’s the fact that in this country, where the customer is king, and customer service everywhere is delightful, you’re treated so badly by government employees. They clearly hate their jobs. They’re miserable. They’re so thoroughly fed up that they make it plain that they think it’s your fault and that they’re going to make you suffer for it. It makes me wonder whether, if they were nicer to people, and tried to enjoy their jobs, they might not feel just a bit better? We made a massive effort to be polite and patient with the people we met and were rewarded by being able to make it through the process, despite one of our pieces of evidence being not quite acceptable. Others were not so lucky. At the triage stage, some employees seemed almost to relish sending people away, telling them that they now needed an extra piece of ID – that the rules had changed and that they didn’t care what the website said. One mother and daughter had a terrible time of it, the daughter at one point leaving to go and sob outside, and then loudly discussed sending a letter of complaint to the council. The one thing we can say for Georgetown DMV is that it’s slightly nicer than the social security office.
  1. Groceries. While we are lucky in DC and can get a variety of British/international ingredients and treats, in general groceries are of poor quality compared with what we’re used to in the UK. Culturally the grocery market seems to have evolved differently, with a greater emphasis on frozen/cheap in many cases where in the UK we would buy fresh/refrigerated (e.g. it’s difficult to get fresh filled pasta or relatively good quality sausages), and fresh/expensive in cases where we would use dried (i.e. coffee). Overall there’s an emphasis on cheap low quality, or expensive high quality. There are some supermarkets from which some people simply will not buy their meat – they don’t trust it. There are some brands of canned tuna and anchovies that are not worth buying because they are 80:20 water/oil to fish. And then there are the additives: cane syrup, molasses, palm oil, liquid ‘mesquite’ smoke… Don’t even get me started on the bacon. Eating well at home is a challenge here.
  1. Healthcare. There’s not much you can say about the healthcare ‘system’ in the US that’s not been said in Breaking Bad. It’s barbaric. To withhold life-saving medical treatment from patients because their personal insurance won’t cover it, to knowingly offer them a lower standard of care from other patients who can pay for it – this is a situation that I can’t stomach. The attitude that you should get better healthcare than someone who (you believe) doesn’t work as hard as you is something so utterly foreign to me that I can’t begin to understand it – never mind that it’s economically short-sighted to boot. And it’s not as if the care most people in jobs with coverage is gold plated. The facilities usually look worse – poorer, older, dirtier – than many in the UK. R’s company freely admits that the dental and visual care that it provides actually sucks and that you can probably get a better deal if you shop around on the highstreet. Everyone has a tale to tell of an insurance company refusing to pay for something they thought was covered. It just doesn’t work.
  1. Flying. The fact you have to fly everywhere is beginning to get on my nerves. Why does everywhere have to be so far away? It’s also very annoying when your layover takes longer than the entire duration of the fight, and when you have to layover somewhere that’s really not on the way to your destination. The planes always seem to be too small to be able to take your cabin luggage in the overheads too… I know this is one of my pettier gripes.

Right. Negativity over (for now at least!).