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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.

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).

Then and Now

I can still remember the wonder and excitement of that day in spring when my parents opened the living-room windows for the first time after the winter. I don’t remember how old we were the first time I was conscious of it, and I probably remember a number of those annual spring days, all rolled into one. But I do remember the sound of those windows being flung open and the feeling as if the room had been uncorked, the tension released and fresh air infiltrating the whole house. It was early in the day, when the light was shiny and brittle, the air still cold, waiting for the sun to warm it. I remember standing on the window sill – these were tall, almost floor to ceiling windows, with an upper casement that swung open – and breathing in the spring air. At my height, though, only my chin or mouth could rest on the open sill and I breathed in the smell of accumulated dust and damp along with the fresh air. I loved it. I surreptitiously tasted it – the metal of the sill, the spongy damp seal, the dust warming in the sunshine, and over it all, the chill, slightly salt air –

Fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

Sitting now at home in DC I still feel some of that wonder as the air currents eddy around my doorless (not quite open plan) apartment. It’s already humid, and the air smells damp and dusty, but it still, in airing the apartment, makes me feel like my life is open to the world again, after being sealed up for the winter. It still makes me think of that scene in Gatsby when the breeze through the french windows seems to inflate the room – then Tom shuts the door and everything sinks back to the ordinary.

About a year ago, when we arrived in DC, we had an apartment that was very different from these bright and airy rooms I’ve been describing. The building was old and extended back from Columbia Road. Though the front, given over to charities, was accessible from the street, the residential block was further up a driveway, behind locked gates. Our apartment was on the side of the building, facing almost due east, so that the sun woke us early and we had a view mostly of Safeway’s flat roof. Only the bedroom and living/dining room had windows, the bathroom and kitchen extended back toward the door and the gloomy corridor. There’s something about needing electric light during the day that makes me feel ill. Presumably due to the aspect of the apartment, we got very little breeze through the windows. The heating unit was old and the control panel almost hanging off the wall. During the first cold days, when we watched snow falling through the window, the heating filled the room with the scent of burning dust. When it became warmer just a week or so later, the air conditioner noisily struggled as it failed to even shift the air from one spot to another.

I remember feeling scared those first few days in this new country. I had heard that DC was dangerous, and the first time we had left our apartment we were accosted by an assertive homeless guy asking us to give him $20. I didn’t like walking past the guys who loitered on the street between my apartment and Safeway asking me for money. I kept the chain on the door when I was in the apartment, my heart in my throat whenever I heard the Spanish-speaking supervisor or tradesmen banging in the corridor. Everything was unfamiliar – the washing machine, the oven with its ‘broiler’, even the toilet. I think perhaps American toilets were the most disconcerting thing about being in this foreign land – I just hadn’t expected that they would be different.

It was hard those first few weeks – for both of us. R was having to adjust to a new workplace and ways of doing things. I was trying to be supportive and keep the household going at the same time as house-hunting for a more permanent home. Just cooking and housework was harder than I’d imagined it would be. Food from Safeway was unfamiliar and often low quality. Versions of my usual meals – made with not-quite the same ingredients, in unfamiliar pots and pans – often failed. I forgot that R didn’t like much fish really, and didn’t like sesame oil. Thank goodness for cookies, or R would have gone to bed hungry quite a few nights.

There were things I liked, though, even about that first apartment. I liked the trash chute – so much better than having to take the rubbish outside. And I liked the coffee-maker. I drank a lot of coffee with my new favourite cookies – pecan sandies. And the popcorn setting on the microwave – so unnecessary, but so convenient. But we were very happy to leave when the time came.

And when we woke that first sunny morning in our fresh, breezy new apartment, it felt like all the tension had been released.


This post is the first in a series. Read on: Here and There – Apartment Hunting