Monthly Archives: December 2014

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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Filed under Practicalities

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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Filed under Holiday

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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Filed under Communications

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

I need a new…

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

My roommate, who is German, came home from work one day and told me he had broken his shoe; the sole had fallen off while he was walking. They were the only nice pair of professional shoes he owned and he wore them to work every day. He went to a cobbler to try and get them repaired, but the cobbler had turned him away. So, he bought some glue and fixed them himself. Voila. He continues to wear those shoes at work every day.

It got me thinking about how many cobblers there were in London, which was something I noticed when I lived there. They were usually nestled in and around London Underground stations or squeezed into small shops in London City. And they always seemed to be doing a brisk business, including female customers getting heels re-affixed to pumps they pumped too hard.

I realized that in Europe, if your shoe breaks, you go to the cobbler to patch it up. The same is true in Africa, the only difference being the cobblers are often shop-less vendors sitting on the side of the road; that said, they are just as ready (indeed more so) to restore any shoe or flip-flop to wearable condition (and for small money).

This struck me, because as an American, my response to a shoe breaking was… go out and buy a new pair. Shoes and clothing are so cheap in the US (and have become cheaper over my lifetime), and there is such a mentality of consumption, that the “solution” to a broken shoe is replacement, not a repair. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes “If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one.”

But even if an item isn’t broken, I feel it has become a habit in our culture to simply cycle through consumer goods – throwing away old items as soon as they show the slightest wear or obsolescence, and replacing them with newer, shinier versions. I realized I’ve become guilty of this myself. For example, before January, I had never even owned a smart phone; during all my years abroad, I got along just fine with my £5 Samsung phone. But when my brother gifted me an iPhone upon my arrival in the US (albeit one from 2010), it became my new standard.

But, I soon grew out of it. Using it on a daily basis, I began to get annoyed with its slow operating speed (surely due to the fact that it was 4 years old and several generations old). Sure, it worked. But it often froze up and I had to wait a long time for applications to load. So, I bought a new one. Well, by “new,” I mean a used Samsung Galaxy II that I bought on eBay for $114. But still, a new-er phone. I similarly upgraded my laptop, from the piece-of-shit $280 one I bought in January when I was unemployed, to a nicer one I’m using currently.

Next thing you know, I’ll want a new iPad, and a new Kindle, and by the time I’ve replaced all those things, it will be time for me to buy a newer phone and a newer computer again…


Filed under Communications, Consumerism