Tag Archives: Washington DC

Clothes Shopping in the DC area

This is what I thought America would look like. Shopping malls of glass and chrome, coloured lights and escalators. Wide roads and pavements, shop windows of high fashion stretching down Wisconsin Avenue. It’s not Rodeo Drive, but it has all the names. Here by the metro station it’s H&M, Neiman Marcus, T.J. Maxx and McDonald’s, but the women in slacks and coloured jackets coming from further up Wisconsin are bearing bags from Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Cartier. I sit in the plaza outside Bloomingdales and take it all in.

Initially I’d been taken aback by how few of the store names I knew. All my clothes from the first few weeks here were bought in Gap and H&M – which was itself a relatively new arrival in DC. T.J. Maxx is of course the original of T.K. Maxx, and is just the same, only even cheaper; apparently, there was a business in the UK called T.J. Hughes which prevented T.J. Maxx trading under its original name when it expanded over there. When I first arrived I had no idea which of the clothes stores would be suitable for my price and age bracket, but I’ve been learning. Discount Shoe Warehouse (DSW) helped me out with its name, but the others were a mystery until I went shopping with an American.

Anna was also new to DC, and needed to buy a dress for a friend’s wedding in California. I had already discovered that Friendship Heights was a good place to shop – mainly because it had a Whole Foods. This supermarket also lived up to my ideas of what an American shopping experience should be, far more than Safeway in Adams Morgan. While Safeway had questionable meat, mixed quality fruit and veg and not even a whole aisle for chips or ice cream, this Whole Foods had a spacious fruit and veg market, a special system for check out, its own bakery, and at least three hot take-away food stations as well as a fresh salads and olives counter. (Rather than buying chilled microwave meals, Americans tend to buy freshly made, hot take-away meals, sides and desserts from supermarkets.)

Anna hadn’t been shopping in Friendship Heights before, but she knew the stores for discount dress-shopping. We started by hitting T.J. Maxx, and followed up with Neiman Marcus, Nordstrum Rack, H&M and Gap. The first three were the real discount warehouses, with rack upon rack of dresses. As well as the challenge of American sizes, I had to contend with different descriptions of age-brackets. To me, ‘Juniors’ sounded like it was aimed at children, but it actually seems to be aimed at anyone who’s not a senior citizen… Anna was tiny, which apparently presented all sorts of challenges for dress shopping that I couldn’t possibly understand, and she didn’t have a clue what she was looking for. I waded through racks of dresses, my arms ached with carrying so many to changing rooms, and I almost ran out my phone battery waiting while she tried things on. It was a very long shopping trip.

Finally, Anna made a decision and bought a dress. But before I could celebrate, we had to go and find make-up. I spent a little attempting to engage with her chatter about BB cream – apparently the latest thing – and how much she loved this beauty chain – Sephora – but when the sales assistant came over I left her to his assistance and browsed alone. I’ve since discovered that Sephora is a rather new model of beauty store in the States, though to me it was very like what we’ve had in the UK for a long time. It’s self-service, self-trial and stocks a range of brands from expensive to economy. It turns out that these sorts of stores have been slower to catch on in the States, as women continue to go to concession stands in department stores to be sold their make-up. I’ve always hated being hard-sold make-up, so I was relieved to be introduced to Sephora. This branch even stocked Soap and Glory, which I greeted like a long-lost friend.

Anna eventually made all her purchases, pocketed a few free samples, and we made our way home. About a week later she departed for California and her friend’s wedding, and decided to stay there with her family. That was it for my first DC friendship, but I was grateful for that shopping trip, and all that I’d learned.

Fast Food Nation?

The founder of Chipotle has reportedly predicted the end of traditional fast food restaurants as a result of the premium fast food phenomenon. Premium fast food chains are certainly well represented in DC. Five Guys and Shake Shack have a number of outlets as do Chipotle and District Taco. Recently I read that a DC chef is hoping his new concept of vegetable-focused fast food will take off.

There are advantages to premium fast food, especially if it lives up to its premium billing. However I have to admit that I think there’s still a place for McDonalds and Burger King – and I’d be sad if I never had the chance to experience those chains I heard about before I came to the States, like Wendy’s and Taco Bell.

Surpringly it was six months before I experienced McDonalds in the states, and nearly seven before I got to a Burger King. The closest I got was in Toronto when it seemed I couldn’t help but go to a Tim Hortons. I actually loved this chain; when you say you want to make your sandwich a meal, rather than handing you a cardboard cup and throwing some cardboard fries at you, they assume you want to add a coffee and your choice of doughnut – my kind of place.

To be honest, the McDonalds and Burger King in my area of DC, Adams Morgan, are not the most attractive destinations. They are cheap certainly but look old and rather grubby and their doorways are usually dogged by panhandlers. It makes sense – if anyone actually gives the local guy the 20 dollars he demands from passers by, he could buy two burgers and still have 15 dollars left to spend on wine. You can get a cheeseburger for a dollar – that’s 62 British pence.

When I finally got to a Burger King I was disappointed by the fries, but amazed by the portion size. In McDonalds I was pretty much happy with everything but baffled by the idea that anyone would ever need to order 50 chicken nuggets – one of the choices I was given. When I opted for a portion of six, I was given a happy meal.

But it’s getting hard to find these traditional fast food chains in city centers. When I was in Charlotte for a conference all I wanted my first night there was to avoid costly room service with a cheap burger. I was on my own, it was already 8.30pm and I just wanted something quick and cheap before heading back to the hotel to watch tv in bed. Unfortunately for me though, Uptown Charlotte (apparently they thought that sounded more positive than downtown) is a cosmopolitan playground for young professionals, full of expensive restaurants, cool sports bars and premium fast food joints. The only uptown McDonalds was in a mall that closed at 7pm and the only Burger King was on the wrong side of the tracks down a quiet, badly-lit road. The only place I could find where I could avoid a service charge and not look weird eating alone was a Five Guys.

Now everyone seems to like Five Guys – they plaster the walls with positive reviews telling you this. Their gimmick of free peanuts makes them popular with everyone – except of course mothers of kids with peanut allergies who steer well clear (I think they also cook their fries in peanut oil). However, I’ve tried them twice now and been thoroughly disappointed both times. The burgers have been thin and pretty tasteless, unable to stand up to the artificial tasting cheese slice. Also, if you take advantage of their free toppings and get the burger ‘with everything’ the resultant sandwich lacks integrity to such an extent that it threatens to fall to pieces in your hands. The only plus I can find is that if you like your ‘chips’ a little soggier than the usual American fries, this is the place for you. For me though, this doesn’t justify the hype or premium price tag, and I probably won’t be going back.

Shake Shack and Chipotle though, I love. I’ll happily spend that little extra for freshness and taste. Chipotle is a quick and healthy feeling lunch/dinner: you can get the burrito with veggies, a choice of beans and rice, and you can get it as a traditional burrito or as a salad bowl. Meanwhile Shake Shack has become one of those places we just have to take our UK friends when they visit. Here they experience the tasty secret sauce, proper medium-rare burgers and the perfect American milkshakes – and all in sensible portion sizes. They can also pair the food with a beer if they want, and enjoy the game on the big screen.

So, all in all, I’m not surprised that these premium chains are replacing McDonalds but I wouldn’t want to call time on the old favourites just yet.

Upsides to living in Washington DC/the United States

To balance out my more negative posts, here are just some quick highlights of everyday life things that I have enjoyed so far in DC.

  1. The food. See the rest of my blog for examples.
  2. Coffee. To be able to get seriously good coffee all the time, and re-fills. I loved having a drip coffee maker, but the cafetierre [or French Press] works equally well with the good coffee we can get.
  3. Iced water. Everywhere, for free. It’s not a luxury, it comes with the table – or the seat if you’re at a bar.
  4. My Brita filter. I know I only need this because the water tastes bad. But it means we have chilled water at home all the time too.
  5. Ranch dressing. I’m in love with Ranch dressing. On bagels and sandwiches, as a dip for vegetables and crisps [or chips], as a refreshing dressing with hot buffalo chicken salad (I know you’re supposed to have blue cheese, but this is better!) and – recently discovered – as a dip for pizza crusts.
  6. The climate. Yes, I know I complain about this. But the spring/early summer was wonderful and in the end we didn’t get too much humidity this August. You don’t ever need a cardigan, except to survive the air conditioning. And autumn [fall] is just the ideal of what this season should be: it’s been warm into October with not too much rain and I’m not sure if the climate is responsible for this, but the leaves seem to stay on the trees longer and gradually change colour in the most perfect way. I thought people exaggerated about the beauties of an American fall, but now I know it’s all true.
  7. The bus. There are two from right outside my front door and they’re beautifully air-conditioned. This, I have discovered, is how the city has an integrated transport network – you just have to use the buses.
  8. Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and World Market. Apart from the wonderful names of the first two, you can get really good wine and some great snacks from all of these. Harris Teeter and Whole Foods also do really good takeaway hot food, which is a really cheap way to not cook. And World Market is there for when we just need Heinz tomato soup, chocolate hobnobs, Worcester sauce, or Tunnocks caramel wafers.
  9. Running. This is a great town to have started outdoor running in. There are loads of footpaths along the creek, or in the parks, and it’s so normal to see runners on the streets that there’s no feeling of being looked at or judged. There’s also plenty of shops from which to get the gear – and cheap running clothes available from Target.
  10. Rock Creek Park. It’s amazing that just minutes from the trendy area of Adams Morgan is this area of almost wilderness. Far wilder than Central Park, the city is built around and above this wooded creek, which makes for amazing views in some parts of NW and lets you get away from the city in minutes.
  11. Cheaper clothes and shoes. This spring/summer there were lots of dresses and the chances to wear them. I’m very much enjoying the cheap warehouse-style outlets and the number of stores they have that follow the TK Maxx [TJ Maxx over here] retail model.
  12. Uber. I know this is in many cities now, but I love it and it makes living in DC much easier.

I hope in future to produce some more nuanced, helpful pieces about the nuts and bolts of living in DC, but this week’s been about adding the lows experienced as part of culture shock to the record of life in DC, which had till now only really featured the highs.

The Downsides to Living in Washington DC

There are ups and downs to living in any city. These are the things that began to annoy me about three months into my stay in DC.

  1. The metro. Coming from London, the DC metro has not impressed. Granted, it’s a striking design – the symmetry and concrete grandeur can’t help but impress – but it’s not really a system. What I mean by that is that it’s not really designed for circumnavigating the city, changing trains quickly and easily in a plethora of choice and efficiency (as I fondly remember the London tube). It was designed to get people into the city from their homes in suburbia, and then get them out again – quickly. So there are usually plenty of trains at rush hour, but in the middle of the day you can quite easily wait 10 minutes for a connection. All of which means it’s usually more efficient to take the line you can (you very rarely have a choice of more than one line except at one of the 3 or 4 interchanges) to as close to your destination as that line will get you and then walk or catch a bus above ground, rather than changing. Given the paucity of train lines, it also means that if something goes wrong on one line, you’re stuck. And something does go wrong – very often. Also, I’m not sure if I’m imagining this, but the escalators – many of which are interminably long, as the metro is inexplicably deep underground – seem to go much more slowly during the day than at rush hour. In good news, most people know how to use the escalators – stand on the right! – but there will always be a few people who don’t know the rule, and people here have a lot more patience with these offenders than we did in London. Finally, there’s so little information that it’s amazing I haven’t ended up on the wrong train more often; they’re clearly so protective of the lovely clean lines of their metro design that they don’t want to mess it up with useful things like signs and maps. Overall, I’d say they could learn a lot from TfL.
  2. The rats. I know that in London you’re supposedly never more than a few feet from a rat. But that statistic is based on the fact that they’re usually in the sewers far beneath your feet. In DC they have alleyways – proper alleyways with rubbish lining them and mysterious substances oozing down the middle of them – and that’s where the rats live. In three months of being here I saw three rats – more than I had in about a year in London – and that’s not counting the squished ones that lie on the pavement until the flies finish them off.
  3. The climate. Granted, I’ve not experienced much of this, but when it was hot and humid those couple of months in the summer, when we didn’t have proper air conditioning yet, it was not fun. I’m somewhat dreading the winter. And when it rains, often out of the blue, it really rains.
  4. Lack of good Chinese takeaway. So far every Chinese I’ve tried has been bland. Generally American food seems to steer away from being too hot (apart from some good Buffalo sauce on chicken wings or pizza). In terms of Chinese, there seems to be a greater emphasis on healthy preparation – so lots of steamed rice and not enough fried rice or noodles. Prawn crackers don’t seem to be a thing here either – the only time I’ve seen them was at an American seafood restaurant. I have heard that many Chinese families moved out to the suburbs a little while ago, which might explain the dearth of good takeaway in the centre. Of course the silver lining to this issue is that I’m not eating much takeaway, for which my wallet is certainly grateful.
  5. Homelessness/panhandling. This was very noticeable in DC when we arrived, especially around 18th street and Columbia Road NW, where we were staying. Around here there’s a particularly aggressive style to the begging, and an ambitiousness to it too – one person demanded I give him $20, another sits outside a deli and shouts at customers to buy him a sandwich. Sometimes they just shout abuse. As well as the annoyance that the begging causes, and the distressing spectacle of it, we found some local attitudes towards the homeless rather hard to take as well. Because there’s so much emphasis on freedom and individualism there’s not much suggestion that the state or city should do much about it. The most sympathetic analysis we came across was that the majority of the homeless are mentally ill and that the cause of a lot of the problem was the shutting down of mental institutions, begun by Reagan (Thatcher in the UK) in the 80s. When two homeless men died of hypothermia in DC, one newspaper journalist reported that one of the men ‘liked wine’ and therefore chose to avoid the homeless shelters where alcohol was forbidden. Saying that someone who was in all likelihood suffering from alcoholism ‘likes’ wine just shows that you don’t know – or don’t want to know – anything about it. But if it can be believed that personal, individual, free choices led to this man’s death then obviously the city gets to duck the blame.
  6. The water. This smells and tastes weirdly of earth. After years of living in London and ridiculing people who used bottled or filtered water we have finally moved to a place where we need a Brita filter. While a great invention it adds expense and hassle to tap water.
  7. Lack of good gyms. This is a common complaint. There are not very many gyms and so we are rather a captive market to be exploited by fitness giants such as Washington Sports Club. We spend what we used to on our nice little gym/spa in Bermondsey, with its steam room, sauna, Jacuzzi and swimming pool, in order to use old machines, 50% of which don’t work, in a cavernous warehouse that has used space that could have accommodated a pool for a ‘Turkish hamam’ – basically some heated benches in a cold room with a shower.

I know there are aspects of every city that are annoying – I probably complained plenty about London when I was living there – and that DC is much more live-able than it has probably ever been, but right here and now these are the things that are affecting me and I felt I had to get them off my chest. Rant over (for now).

First impressions – ‘This is America!’

Our taxi ride into central DC was a great experience. It was sunny, and people were jogging in green, wooded spaces. As we turned a corner I spotted the Washington monument, and the Capital dome. Then we passed the Watergate building: “That’s where Nixon was caught cheating,” our taxi driver informed us. Then we spotted the building we were going to be staying in on the other side of the road – “Oh, that’s it – is it possible to turn around?” – “Of course,” laughed our driver, “This is America!”