Category Archives: Practicalities

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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Mystery month

Americans like to do things their own way. Forget the rest of the world. I blogged already about the American way of telling time. Well, Americans also like to do dates their own way. A fish doesn’t know the water, so yet again this is something I wasn’t even aware of until I moved abroad.

American children are taught to write dates in a month / day / year order. And generally children do what they’re told (and then they grow up into adults). Well, it turns out in classrooms in many other countries in the world (including the Canada and the UK), children are instead instructed to write dates in a day / month / year order. WHOA.

This leads to a lot of confusion. Think about it. What is 06/10/2013? Is that June 10, 2013? Or October 6, 2013? Well, the answer is, it depends – on where you are. This initially wreaked havoc on my personal filing system and records. Because, over time, I subconsciously migrated from writing dates in the US date format to writing dates in the British date format. So, when I saw a date written in my own hand, I wasn’t even sure which system I had used. D’oh.

Eventually I got into the habit of writing out the dates completely, as the French do, with the day and month clearly enumerated as such: 8 avril 2013 (or 8-April-13 or April 8, 2013). Yes, it’s longer to write out, but it saves you time down the road when you’re trying to figure out whether those accounting records you meticulously kept for yourself mean that you bought the stock on January 11, 2009 or November 1, 2009.

To confuse matters further, other countries follow  a year / month / day format (2009/11/1). If you think about it, the American system makes the least sense of all of them, because the units are neither in descending nor ascending order. But, I learned long ago to stop trying to apply logic to many things.

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Chipless and pinless

Magical microprocessor.

Magical microchip.

I’ve been making a lot of purchases with my debit card lately. Because, as I quickly realized upon returning to the US, nobody pays with cash anymore (although checks seem to stubbornly persist).

Sure, paying with your debit card can make life easier because you’re not required to carry cash around with you all the time. But, what’s with all this signing of receipts? In the US, when you pay for something with your debit or credit card, you often have to put pen to paper and sign to authorize the payment.

That’s not the way it’s done in the rest of the world. In fact, it’s a totally outdated technology. The US is the last major market to use the old fashioned swipe and signature system. In the UK, France, the Netherlands, and all the other European countries I’ve been to, debit cards use a so-called “chip and pin” system, also known as EMV cards (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa) or “smart cards.”

They’re smart because they have microchips embedded in the card which authenticate your identity in conjunction with your personal identification number (PIN). The microchip just looks like a small silver or gold square on the front of the card. But it makes life so much easier. Rather than swiping your magnetic stripe card and then signing a printed receipt to prove you’re you (or some fraudster forging your signature), you just insert your SMART card into the card reader and then enter your PIN into the payment device. Voila, payment complete! No paper, no signing. Ta-da.

In Europe, all merchants have the equipment to process chip and pin payments. At supermarkets, it’s usually a device fixed in place at the checkout counter. At restaurants, it’s a handheld device that the waiter or waitress brings to your table to stick your card into and hand to you for PIN entry. In recent years in Europe, this has been further evolving into contactless payments, where you just tap the card against the reader without even entering your PIN (this is usually limited to smaller payments).

And here we are state-side, writing checks and signing receipts… and I have a chip on my shoulder about it. (Yes, pun intended.)

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No swimming allowed.

No swimming allowed.

I went to one of Washington DC’s open air public swimming pools on Saturday and my visit brought me back to a museum visit in San Francisco earlier this year. Freshly back in the US and eager to enjoy some culture (and distract myself from long listless days of unemployment), I walked all the way from the Mission to Golden Gate Park to visit the De Young art museum.

I arrived and found out admission costs $29 for a non-member adult visitor. What the?! Suddenly I was missing the museums of Europe which were often free (subsidized by the state on the radical basis that art, culture, and history should be accessible to the masses). No way I was going to shell out $29.

So instead I walked around the ground floor lobby, which had a limited amount of artwork that you could see without paying admission. As I walked through the lobby with my backpack on my back, a security guard approached me and informed me that if I was going to carry a bag inside the museum, I would have to carry it at waist level or below. Huh? Meaning, take your backpack off your back and carry it by your side. OK then. I’ll continue walking around, looking like a dufus with my backpack in my hand.

I found one installation that I particularly liked, a series of lighted TV-like panels that covered a wall and projected dancing images of trees rustling in the breeze. It was mesmerizing to watch the swaying of the branches and the leaves teasingly flashing their white underbellies in the wind. Captivated, I slowly walked closer to the screens, noticing each screen showed a different movement. “Ma’am, please back away from the art!” I heard brusquely barked at me from behind.

Startled from my revelry, I quickly and meekly retreated to a nearby bench to enjoy the installation from a distance. I watched other visitors be drawn to the art and get similarly repelled by the museum guard. One man – what the hell was he thinking – even tried to take a photograph and was quickly reprimanded. Another woman was scolded for snacking.

Rules, rules, rues. More rules than you can keep track of. A sign that I was was back in America, where things are regulated and structured and systematized in a way that I took for granted, and would have continued to take for granted, had I not spent time living in the developing world. I’m not saying these rules are bad; clearly, many of them serve a purpose, and much of “development” is about putting rules in place. But sometimes it seems rules can be taken too far.

Like when I went to the pool on Saturday. We had to queue up to get access to the (free) public pool in the neighborhood. All visitors had to present a valid photo ID and a proof of DC residency (e.g. utility bill or lease agreement) to get access to the pool. I understand that DC is providing this wonderful free facility – paid for with the DC taxes that are garnered from my paycheck – and they don’t want non-residents to abuse it.

But in addition to the ID and residency check, they were also checking for appropriate swimwear. They asked each visitor “Do you have a swimsuit?” and people flashed their swim gear underneath their clothing or rifled through their bags to supply proof of attire. We saw two (lower income) people get turned away for non-compliant swimwear. There was even a sign on the wall demonstrating what constituted swimwear.

I also went to the pool last month when I was in Connecticut, but that was a private pool inside the suburban condominium where my step-father lives. Nonetheless, there were rules. When my friend came over to hang out at the pool, my step-dad lent us his two pool passes, and we had to sign in when entering the pool area. When we went out for lunch and came back, I accidentally left the pool passes at the house. Sure enough, the pool guy showed up and asks us to present our pool passes.

“I’m sorry, I left them at the house.” To which he immediately and very seriously replied, “You cannot be in the pool area without possession of a valid pool pass.” I felt like a criminal and quickly offered to go and fetch them from the house. My friend later told me that as I got up and walked off, he remained standing there, looking at her as though he expected her to get up and leave, too.

Perhaps she was not wearing the right type of swimwear either.

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The first floor is on the ground.

The first floor is on the ground.

On those occasions when I’m forced to take the elevator (which is often, because it’s literally impossible in my office building to walk up the stairs – the door to the stairwell is kept locked), I am reminded of another Americanism: the “first” floor.

A fish doesn’t know the water, so this was something I wasn’t even aware of until I moved to London in 2005. In the US, the floor of a building which is at ground level is called the “first” floor. If you walk up one flight of stairs (or, more likely, take the elevator), you are on the second floor. I never questioned the fact that this does not, in fact, make sense.

In the UK (and many other countries), the floor of a building which is at ground level is called… the ground floor (abbreviated “G” on elevator buttons). If you walk up one story, you will find yourself on the first floor. If you walk up two stories, you will find yourself on the second floor. Now isn’t that some ground breaking logic? (Yes, pun intended.)

This of course leads to plenty of confusion when people from, err, the rest of the world come to the US and, err, want to exit a building. Confusion which is similar to that which is caused by the US’s persistent use of imperial units, the 12-hour clock, and US letter format paper, other American systems that are incompatible and out of date with the rest of the world. AMURICA.


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I have to WAIT to pay?!

Last Sunday afternoon I made the grave error of going to a central shopping mall which is notorious for being a crowded cluster fuck. I had a grand total of four items and, when I saw the line of people snaking away from the “express” check out lane, I nearly dropped my items and walked out, filled with rage at the prospect that *I* would have to wait in line to *give* them *my* money.

I feel Americans harbor a unique indignity and resentment for queuing. Rather than being seen as an unavoidable fact of life that must be endured, waiting in line is tantamount to a violation of one’s rights as a consumer and a citizen. I find Americans are much more likely to complain about having to wait and are much less patient about doing so. In the land of customer service, the customer is king and should not be made to wait. Especially not for the bill or to make payment. Who is serving who here?!

The British, on the other hand, are master queuers. British people are in their natural state while waiting in a queue; they do it automatically and naturally. On more than one occasion when I was living in the UK, I saw a British person join a queue as a default behavior, even if they could have easily avoided queuing.

For example, there were usually two registers at a Boots drug store: the main check out area near the front, and then a secondary check out in the cosmetics or pharmacy section. I would routinely do my check out at the latter two, where there were few to no customers. Meanwhile, there would usually be a long line of people at the front check out.

The queue was not something you questioned.  You just got in it. And across the pond, Americans (such as myself) are suffering from queue rage. How dare you!

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No risk of being 12 hours late for your train in Europe, where train times are shown on the 24-hour clock.

No risk of being 12 hours late for your train in Europe: train times are shown on the 24-hour clock.

One little thing that has been getting on my nerves since I returned to the US is the American way of telling time. Meaning this whole AM/PM business.

In most European countries (indeed, in most countries in the world), the 24-hour clock is used. This shockingly logical system divides the day into, uh, 24 hours and runs from midnight to midnight, indicating how many hours have passed since midnight. So, 8:30 “AM” is 08:30, 12 “PM” (noon) is 12:00, 2:15 “PM” is 14:15, 8 “PM” is 20:00, and at 12 “AM” (midnight) the clock goes back to 00:00.

This is what Americans would refer to as “military time.” Well, maybe the military wisely uses it because it makes sense and avoids confusion? The 12-hour clock, on the other hand, is ambiguous, cumbersome, and downright annoying. My biggest pet peeve is trying to check train times online and getting the wrong results because I have failed to select “PM” from the drop-down menu.

It seems the US likes to stubbornly persist in using systems that are out of sync with the rest of the world, like the imperial system. Great if those systems are vastly superior. But they’re not. They’re just a pain in the butt.


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