Not good-bye

I'll miss you, Americana!

I’ll miss you, Americana!

I am so sad to tell my readers that I need to take a hiatus from my Home Strange Home blog. For the very good reason that I am… going abroad again. Yes, really. After just under one year in the US (I started this blog at the end of January 2014), I am once again leaving (those who know anything about me are probably not surprised).

I have accepted a promotion at work to take an eight-month assignment in South Africa and Botswana. So, I will be back! And, I will surely have even more reverse culture shock to freshly blog about upon my return. In the meantime, enjoy America for me.


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Instant banking

Please, no more forms, just take my money!

Please, no more forms, just take my money!

One thing I love about living in the US is how easy it is to get things done here. After nearly one year back in the US, I’m still continuously pleasantly surprised by how convenient and functional everything is. The stores are always open, the customer service is so smooth you barely notice you are parting with your money, things almost always happen when they are supposed to happen, and if not, they’ll make it up to you with a smile, an apology, and a freebie.

One perfect example of this is opening a bank account. I recently opened a checking account with TD Bank. It couldn’t have been easier: I just walked into a nearby branch, told them my information, and voilà, I had an account. They even printed a debit card for me on the spot (but if I wanted checks, I had to order those to be sent to me in the mail). I don’t think I even needed to go into a branch in person; I could have called and opened an account over the phone.

For whatever reason, opening a bank account seems to be much more of a hassle in other countries. Indeed, it can be an uphill battle. In many countries, you need to supply a proof of address in that country in order to open a bank account.

In the UK, I remember struggling to provide this when I first arrived; I didn’t have any utility bill or council tax bill to show, given that I was only renting a room in a shared flat (moreover, I remember being confused and incensed to see that on the list of “valid forms of proof of address,” one of the items was “UK bank statement”… go figure).

In France, during my academic year abroad in undergrad, I made repeated harrowing visits to the bank, clutching onto various slips of paper and struggling to navigate the Byzantine account opening requirements and face the sour-faced clerks in my broken French. I never understood why it was so difficult to get the bank to agree to take my money. 


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Public drinking

No need to hide.

No need to hide.

When I first got back to the US in January, I flew into Los Angeles and went to visit a friend in San Diego. He had recently graduated from his Masters degree, and his family and friends were throwing him a big graduation party which I attended.  After the speeches had been made and the parents and relatives had gone home, I stayed on with him and his girlfriend and friends for the after party. I helped grab the bottles of champagne he had received as graduation gifts, and we hopped in his car and headed off to the bar.

As my recently graduated friend turned up the music and drove off, I pulled out one of the bottles of champagne and uncorked it, then went to take a swig from the bottle before jubilantly passing it around. But my party mood was cut short by my friend barking at me, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that’s illegal?!”

Oh, right: open container laws! D’oh. I had forgotten.

In many states in the US, it’s illegal to have open containers of alcohol in public places, including motor vehicles. In the UK, you can buy a six pack of beers at an off-license (corner store), then crack open a can and start drinking from it as you step outside the shop. In the summertime, London’s parks are full of boozing picnickers. In the US, on the other hand, you might catch people “brown bagging” 40 ounce bottles of beer in a flimsy attempt to conceal the fact that they’re drinking from an open container of booze on the sidewalk or in the parking lot. Classy.

Similarly, American motorists in most states aren’t allowed to drink alcohol while driving, nor are their passengers allowed to have open containers of alcohol inside the vehicle. That’s not actually the rule in many countries – in the UK and New Zealand, for example, it’s legal for passengers to consume alcohol in a car; indeed, it’s legal for the driver to drink while driving, so long as they’re not over the blood alcohol limit.

I’d gotten so used to drinking on the road – indeed, what is a road trip without knocking back a few cold beers? – that I’d forgotten it wasn’t allowed state-side. (I’d also forgotten about getting carded for looking under 21.)

Oops. Fortunately when we arrived at the bar, we found a dark quiet corner of the parking lot to polish off the bubbly…


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How about a blood sausage?

How about a blood sausage?

Over the summer (yes, that was a long time ago) I was invited to a few barbecues at friends’ places. It brought me back to the barbecues I used to have growing up in Connecticut: slap a few homemade hamburgers and packaged Oscar Meyer beef franks on the grill, top it off with some ketchup, yellow mustard, and relish, and voilà. A simple affair. The barbecues I was invited to this year were similar, grilling up only the basic hot dogs and hamburgers, and serving the usual chips and dip on the side.

I only realized after going abroad that this is a very American version of BBQ. Or rather, a very northeastern American version of BBQ – I’m sure the Texans and southerners and mid-westerners are up to something altogether different. What I, as a New Englander, had always known as a “barbecue” was in fact a pale imitation of what I saw other people putting on elsewhere…

In Britain, it was all about the juicy sausages and shish kebabs; in New Zealand, I ate grilled shrimp for Christmas dinner; the Australian “barbie” featured lamb and steak and prawns; in Tanzania, I devoured mishkaki (“Swahili shish kebabs”) from roadside vendors; and the South Africans – probably the world masters of the braai – left no meat group unrepresented on the grill, the crowning joy being the saliva-inducing spiral of boerewors (sausage).

Somehow the hot dog and hamburger barbecues of my childhood are no longer so exciting. I think I need to dedicate some time to exploring all the American styles of barbecue… any recommendations on where to start?

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My 2014 Year in Blogging

My blog was viewed about 8,300 times in 2014! Not too shabby.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for Home Strange Home, which you can view by clicking below.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Street wise, number wise

The mysterious "bis."

The mysterious “bis,” not to be found in America.

A British friend of mine asked for my address the other day so she could post me a letter. When I sent it to her and she saw my four-digit street address (1438), she replied, “Your address is ridiculous! How long is your street?! I know America is big, but to have a street with over a thousand houses on it is insane!”

After having a good laugh over her comment, I explained to her that my street does not, in fact, have over a thousand houses on it; indeed, my street is quite a small one, spanning only two blocks. I am not, therefore, the one-thousand-four-hundred-and-thirty-eight house on my street (thankfully, as that would be an awfully long walk from the metro).

Rather, my address follows the block numbering system used in many cities in the US, where the house number indicates the position of the house: 1438 means I’m near 14th street, on the block between 14th street and 15th street. The first house on my block of my street is 1400. If you were to cross 14th street to reach the other block of my street, you would find the last house on the preceding block to be 1399. Likewise, my former address in New York City (248 East 23rd Street) indicates I was located between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue.

In Washington, DC, these block numbers are also conveniently noted on the street signs. And the addresses are verbalized in a way that indicates the first two digits relate to the block: I live at ‘fourteen thirty-eight,’ not ‘one thousand four hundred and thirty-eight.’ Moreover, even numbered houses are on one side of the street, and odd numbered houses are on the other. Makes sense, no? (Actually, planned cities are even more ingenious, if you look deeper: there is a single base point or origin – the Capitol, in the case of Washington, DC – and the numbering of all streets reflects the distance from that origin on the Cartesian coordinate system that is the city grid.)

When I was living in the UK, I noticed that house numbering didn’t always work this way on the other side of the pond. Not only do the Brits and Americans have different conventions for naming floors, writing dates, and telling time, but they also have divergent habits for house numbering (just to make things even more confusing).

On some British streets – I never quite worked out the method to the madness, but it seemed to be the smaller streets or culs-de-sac – the houses on one side of the street are numbered consecutively, using both even and odd numbers sequentially, and continuing around and back down the opposite side of the street. On several occasions, this caused me to walk up and down a street in its entirety to reach an address at the beginning of the street. D’oh.

The other thing I encountered in Europe, which I have never come across in the US, is the “bis” address. The first time I came across it, somewhere in southern France, I was mightily confused. At the time, I was still learning French, and I stared at the address I was trying to locate, asking myself what this mysterious new French vocabulary could mean.

Well, I found number 28 bis (right next to number 28), but only later learned that “bis” is not French, but Latin; it means “twice.” It is used throughout Europe, when houses are subdivided or a new unit is added to a street, so the extra door has its own number (basically, 28 b). In the UK, sometimes a fraction is used, e.g. number 28 ½!

This may sound odd, but at least the house has a number, even if it’s a fractional one: some houses in the British countryside, especially in remote or rural areas, don’t have house numbers at all; mail is delivered to them by their house name (e.g. Rose Cottage, Crowdecote, Derbyshire SK17 0DB… yes, I assure you, that is a complete postal address).

No wonder my friend was taken aback by number 1,438. Or rather, 14-38.


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Instant comfort

Gratification in five minutes.

Gratification in five minutes.

Every country and culture has its own comfort food. I’ve blogged about many of my favorite American comfort foods (to the point that I think Home Strange Home could legitimately be mistaken for a food blog).

Well when I want comfort, and I want it now. And I love that many American favorites are instantly available. While some people may find instant just-add-hot-water mashed potato flakes unacceptable, I personally find them secretly soothing. (Then again, I do also enjoy reconstituted refried beans from Taco Hell, so perhaps my judgment is questionable.)

There is something just so satisfying about following a simple, three-step process on the back of a box to create a warm, buttery, creamy, carby proxy to all sorts of otherwise labor-intensive goodness. I feel the same way about instant mac and cheese, which has its own distinct charm apart from real macaroni and cheese. And not only because I didn’t have to wait for it.

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Ugly sweaters

Now how many holiday parties do I have to wear this to?

Now how many holiday parties do I have to wear this to?

I have been invited to an overwhelming number of holiday (read: Christmas) parties this year. As a non-Christian, I don’t normally pay much attention to Christmas, beyond enjoying the opportunity to have some time off work and see my family and loved ones.

But, after all these years abroad, now that I have experienced the full lead-up to Christmas – and “lead-up” is the right word, because it seems the “season” starts right after Halloween, gains momentum after Thanksgiving, and reaches a full frantic frenzy by early to mid-December – well, now I’ve realized that it’s impossible not to pay much attention to Christmas.

Unless you want to risk social ostracism by opting out of the multiple, back-to-back, often conflicting holiday party invitations. Taken individually, you want to attend them, but taken as a whole CONSTANT-CHRISTMAS-PARTY-MARATHON-MASS – I was literally invited to ten holiday parties in ten days – you just want to crawl into your bed and hibernate until January.

Well one of the holiday party traditions which I discovered this year is the so-called “ugly sweater party.” A friend of mine hosted one, and my office also hosted an ugly sweater contest. (Sadly, due to my insane work schedule of late, I ended up participating in neither, despite having ordered a sufficiently ugly sweater from eBay for $0.99.)

Apparently this is a thing that you wear horrendously ugly sweaters with a Christmas or winter-style design in a tongue-in-cheek fashion (evidently it’s also a trend in the UK, if the “Christmas jumper” entry of Wikipedia is to be believed, although I must have missed it when I was living there).

I’d never heard of this before, but now I know it’s cool / camp / hipster / [insert other appropriate word]. To the point that it even has dedicated websites, such as Yup, Christmas parties are some serious stuff.

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Hugs and kisses (or handshakes)

Bear Hug

What are we supposed to do next? Shake paws?

Anyone who has lived in multiple countries or cultures will understand that moment of confusion when you meet a new person in a new place and… have no idea how to appropriately greet them. Do I shake their hand? Do I hug them? Do I kiss them on the cheek? Do I kiss them on both cheeks? Do I kiss them on the cheek three times?

Inevitably, there is a socially strained moment of awkward hovering when neither party is entirely sure what to do or where to go. Maybe a couple of clumsy air kisses are exchanged, hopefully with each party starting on the same side of the face to avoid any risk of accidental lip contact.

I’ve noticed that in AMERICA, the preferred form of greeting friends is hugging. The “hello hug” is not something I have observed much in other cultures – in France, it was faire la bise; in Holland, it was the three kisses; in Liberia, it was the finger snap handshake, and in England, it was simply avoidance of all physical contact with the other person (because that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?). But in the US, it’s all about hugging: hug hello, hug good-bye.

You can usually tell how close the people are by how close their hug is. Couples, of course, embrace. Close friends do a full body hug, going for the real thing. And acquaintances do the “ass out hug” – the hug that creates the least bodily contact between the two greeters (and makes them look as camp as possible).

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Cars win

Choo choo! All aboard the express service to the 1980s!

Choo choo! All aboard the express service to the 1980s!

I never thought I would miss the London Underground. I take back all the salty words I showered upon it during all those years I slaved and sweated through it like a sardine in a tin (or should I say, a sardine in a tube).

But these days I find myself reminiscing for the “tube” as I go through my morning commute on the DC metro system, also known by the awkward acronym WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority).

The District of Columbia, an urban center and the nation’s capital, has pretty good public transport as far as American standards are concerned. But I’ve come to realize just how much lower American standards are than European standards when it comes to public transport, be it trains, subways, or buses.

It really hit home for me when, shortly after I returned to the US in January of this year, I was taking the Caltrain between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Mind you, this is one of the wealthiest, most technology advanced regions of the country, not to mention one of the top five most densely populated metropolitan areas in the US. So really, an ideal place to be making an investment in mass transportation.

Instead, you find yourself in the ghetto-fabulous, retro-tastic cattle car that is the Caltrain. One time when I was getting off the Caltrain, I noticed a plaque on the wall near the door. Now first of all, let me tell you, getting off the Caltrain is an awkward affair, requiring you to descend a set of large metal steps and breach a not insignificant gap onto the platform below. Every time I got in and out, I was reminded of trains I had taken in India and Romania. Well, as I was clambering out one day, I spotted this plaque, which read:

Caltrain: Assembled in 1985, Refurbished in 2002.

So let’s get this straight. It’s 2014. This train is nearly 30 years old. And it was lasted updated 12 years ago. Clearly, we Americans are not investing much in public transport.

One European friend, when taking the train from New York City to Connecticut, was shocked by the state of the Metro North Commuter Railroad carriages (anyone who has taken the ultra-modern, smooth-sailing trains in Holland and visited the US after would probably have the same reaction). And the same story seems to apply not only to the trains/subways/buses themselves, which are usually much older and more rudimentary than their counterparts in Europe, but also to all the infrastructure (or lack thereof) surrounding the public transport.

Take, for example, the ill-designed, user-unfriendly machines that patient passengers must use to make payment for the BART in San Francisco. They look like they were designed by an amateur engineer in the 1990s. Or the entry/exit gates at subway stations. Every time I tap in and tap out of the DC metro – waiting for the clunky gates to slowly open and close, waiting for the card reader to process the last transaction and turn from red to green, and waiting for the next half dozen people resignedly shuffling in front to do complete the same pattern – I think back to exiting the London Underground at King’s Cross station at rush hour, being one of hundreds of passengers swiftly flicking through the modern Oyster card-reading barriers in split seconds. It’s only now that I’m realizing what a well oiled system it was.


Filed under Transport