Syntactical drift

I’ve been a bit coy about my area of academic expertise on the blog up to now, but here is where I half-out myself: I am a person who used to study syntax.

M and I thought we were pretty much down with American English, along with every other Brit who grows up watching American TV and reading American books. And I’ve previously documented my unease with pronouncing the words ‘stroller’, ‘diaper’ and ‘onesie’ (actually, I’m still not sure what a onesie actually is). But whereas it’s easy enough to avoid words like ‘eggplant’, ‘sidewalk’ and ‘pacifier’, or to use them when they seem absolutely essential, a more troubling phenomenon has been sneaking its way into my speech. Yes: my syntax is drifting.

Before I make my confession I want to talk about one form of words I would never, ever use. I would NEVER put an adverb before an auxiliary. Huh? I hear you ask. Well, this is what I mean:

I also was eating an eggplant at the time.

I probably have changed my daughter’s diaper before seven in the morning.

The children of Evanston always are cycling down the sidewalk. 

Aren’t those constructions ugly? You don’t find them everywhere, but there are places where they’re endemic: the book Heading Home With Your Newborn, for example, has several per page. Anyway, if you want a better account of the phenomenon, I direct you to Separated by a Common Language.

OK – enough with the accusations. Here is what I’ve started doing.

I’ve started using ‘did’ instead of ‘have’ in the present perfect when I ask, for example, ‘Did you put out the trash?’ (I don’t really say ‘trash’. That bit is a joke to distract you from the larger crime.) The British Council, no less, explains that that is NOT WHAT THE BRITISH SAY.

And, possibly worse, because I keep saying it to baby A, I have been dropping ‘can’ before verbs of perception. So, I say ‘Do you see the rabbit?’ or ‘Yes, I hear the lawn mower.’ (There’s a not very helpful mention of this on the World Service site here.)

It is clearly time for me to go home.

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Porch culture

ImageThis post is dedicated to J, L and Z, our first and best guides through American culture, whose fine porch swing is pictured above. 

There was a porch on the house where I grew up, in the north of England, so I suppose I must have always considered them an essential part of a home. But whereas the function of our porch was to house the bin, the milk bottles and the occasional parcel, and to keep the rain off your head while you searched for your keys, the American porch is something a bit more fun.

American porches seem to be occasional gathering places for random junk too, but first and foremost they are places to sit – and on our trip to Arkansas we finally experienced the full joy of porch swing sitting. It seems to me to encompass three main pleasures (apart from the drinking of sweet tea, which strictly speaking I guess is a separate thing). First, swinging, which should certainly not be restricted to the under-10s as a daily therapeutic activity.


Second, a kind of modest wooden architecture that is everywhere in American suburbia and small towns, but which I barely knew existed before spending time over here.  The house just up from ours has been having the porch replaced over the last few weeks, and watching the wood being sawn up and hammered in has been very pleasing. OK, so American porches are not modest in ground space, in British terms, but this is one of the times when bigger really does mean better: see the wrap-around porch below (though I do think they should put some actual stuff on it).


The third thing they’re good for is enabling you to snoop on and socialise with your neighbours. This was what I noticed at Hallowe’en: that people were hanging out on their porches waiting for trick or treaters to drop by, transforming the whole thing from an extortion racket to a party. It seems to me that if you were to sit on your porch often enough, not only could you embrace your natural nosiness for the comings and goings of everyone on your street, but also you’d be bound to get to know them better. And the way the children up our road run in and out of each other’s houses and gardens while their parents sit half-supervising on the porch looks little short of idyllic.

Of course, there is a downside to all this. The national enjoyment of extraneous decoration finds its natural outlet on the porch, and we might be spared the plagues of illuminated snowmen, ghosts and Easter bunnies if they did not exist. 

On the other hand, as J pointed out to me, there is a whole genre of country songs about the pleasures of porches. (Here is just one example.) And that can only be marvellous.


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I’m feeling emotional today after saying our first goodbye. So this is by way of a consolatory post where I remind myself that all is not lost: we may be losing some friends, but we are returning to the land of cake.

It is well known that Americans do not do tea. Order a tea here and they immediately announce their incompetence by asking: ‘hot tea?’ and then presenting you with some vaguely tepid water into which they have dunked a teabag or, if they’re really posh, two. (Why?) But I was expecting that. What I had not expected was the national blind spot about the importance of cake.

Americans do eat cake, especially at birthdays. In fact, they appear to have their own birthday cake conventions – you can buy a birthday cake flavour cake pop at Starbucks, which makes no sense to me. It involves yellow cake and white icing.

Yellow cake? Right, well that’s something they’ve made up all on their own, too, but the important thing about it is that you should make it from a box of cake mix. Cake mix, tins of frosting (icing)- these are huge in American supermarkets. Here is the relevant aisle at our friendly local Jewel:


Let me highlight another feature of this photograph. Do you see, mid-right, a box of mix for Aunt Jemima’s coffee cake? This is not, as one might assume, a cake flavoured with coffee. No, it is a specific type of cake that is considered good to eat while drinking coffee.

I do not know how best to point out that this definition applies to all cakes.

Indeed, this national misunderstanding may be responsible for the dearth of cakes over here. Consider the coffee shop. Given how long Americans spend in coffee shops, and how good many of them are (follow the links for my previous posts on these subjects), you would expect them to sell cakes. But, in fact, they don’t. They sell muffins, which can be excellent, and cookies, which, frankly, are not as good.

It is my observation that cookies have supplanted cake as the default pudding or sweet snack in America. Is it because they don’t sell self-raising flour? Is it because they can’t wait the additional 20 minutes it takes for a cake to bake? Who can say? But it’s true that even the birthday cake is under threat from monster iced celebration cookies. Image

And that the unambitious restaurant will always have a cookie on its dessert menu (see the Bilbo’s pizzookie) instead of the ubiquitous-in-Britiain chocolate fudge cake.

I am British. I like cake. 



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Log cabins

ImageWith a few months left in America, we started in April to tick off (or check off, as people here say) some trips that we felt sure were essential to a full American experience. First up: the log cabin.

To be perfectly honest, we tried the cabin thing last summer, too, but it didn’t go entirely to plan. Over in Oregon we spent a night at a KOA – that’s Kampsites of America – in Astoria. KOA, while I’m sure it has no association with the Ku Klux Klan, certainly does like its Ks, and referred to the cabin as a Kabin. This was less disturbing than the realisation that it was, in essence, Butlins. Just feel the Fifties wholesomeness:


And, on further reflection, our cabin was, in essence, a chalet. Except muddier. Baby A was crawling madly at the time of our visit, and although the floor and porch were technically made of wood, she was covered in mud after half an hour there. We tried to console ourselves with the thought that this was probably how babies In Days Of Yore lived all the time (as they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – ‘he must be a king, he hasn’t got shit all over him’), but we still felt bad. Then she cried all night and we were cold in our sleeping bags on our vinyl mattress. And then we had to go to Christmas in July at the KOA pancake breakfast.

It was time to give it another try. So when my sister J and her girlfriend E came to visit, we all bundled into a SUV (amid much sisterly sarcasm) and sped off to a Wisconsin cabin.
For a long time I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so entranced by the idea of staying in a log cabin, though it was reassuring to find that it wasn’t just me. Log cabins are everywhere in America, functioning these days as a nice compromise between full-on tent camping and an ostensibly more luxurious hotel. Finally it hit me: Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Little House in the Big Woods. This is the book that introduced me, aged about 6 or 7, to the idea of maple syrup; the general store that sold sacks of flour, nails and clothes; bears; and log cabins. I suppose I have been wanting to live in one ever since. 
According to this nice National Parks Service resource, the first people to build log cabins in America were Scandinavians and Germans – they’re not a British tradition, but they came to be considered as quintessentially American. The cabins became the first homes for pioneers everywhere, easily made from trees around, not even needing the purchase of general store nails. And they were pretty humble: one room, beaten earth floor, a sleeping loft if you were lucky. 
The cabin has now strayed somewhat from those humble origins:
Our Wisconsin cabin ( at Rustic Ridge, which I highly recommend) had a dishwasher, two bathrooms, a gas fired grill, outdoor lighting and a jacuzzi. It was considerably more luxurious than our Evanston apartment. And yet it still kind of felt like a cabin: everything made of wood, with the proper overlapping logs at the corners; a porch that looked out on two sides over trees and a pond, and a loft style upper storey. We grilled meat, we drank Bourbon in rocking chairs, and A learned to walk downstairs on the wooden steps from the road to the porch.  
(With thanks to E for the photos of the Wisconsin cabin.) 



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It’s coming. Our time in America is almost over. I’ve booked our flights, I’ve got a job starting in September, and I even have a man coming to give me a quote for moving our personal effects (I love how grand that sounds) back to Britain.

There haven’t been many blogs lately, and although that’s probably mostly because toddler A keeps me busy, it’s also because I’ve gone semi-native – like a semi-feral cat, but the other way round. Things here don’t bother me the way they did. One Saturday morning recently, as I walked from the yoga class I love to our favourite coffee shop to the farmers’ market, all in the bright sunshine, chatting to people we’d got to know here, I was genuinely sorry to be leaving.  ‘Come on, you don’t have to pretend to like it any more,’ I thought to myself, crossly. But you spend enough time telling Americans politely that there are lots of things you like, and you make the best of living somewhere you never wanted to move, and you pour a lot of effort into making some human connections, and in the end you do feel a sense of belonging, even though you know you don’t belong.

I am going to be doing pretty much my dream job, in certainly my dream city, and only an hour from M’s family. So our ticket out of here is a good one, and, crucially, includes relocation expenses. All the same, the more we’ve settled in to the US, the stranger life back in Britain is bound to be. At the moment I mainly think I’ll miss the near light-speed of service in restaurants, and the near omni-presence of water fountains, but I guess other things will turn up to bother me.

It’s my intention to write a final series of posts about the things I never got round to writing about over the next couple of months. So don’t delete your bookmarks yet.

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A mother’s curse: the horror of the toploader


American washing machines are terrible. Let me count the ways.

1) They are enormous. This means they are invariably located in the basement. If you live in an apartment, standard practice is that there is a laundry room for the whole building (ours is pictured above). Therefore you have to trek up and down from your apartment every time you want to check that they’re free; load them up with washing; move the washing into the dryer; empty the dryer.

Hence, I can never do any washing while A is awake, because repeatedly going up and down two flights of stairs and 50 metres round the back of the building is not a very toddler friendly experience.

2) The water never gets very hot. How hot, I can’t say, because the settings on American washing machines are a vague ‘cold’, ‘warm’, and ‘hot’. Which seems a bit pre-industrial to me, frankly, accustomed as I am to European clothing labels specifying the temperature you should wash an item in degrees celsius. And, of course, to a washing machine dial full of symbols you neither recognise nor understand, and just three cycles that you ever actually use. 

The key point is that the water here is not heated by the machine, but comes off the building water supply, so at its maximum temperature it’s the same temperature as your hot tap. I would guess ours is around 40 celsius. 

Hence, the water is barely hot enough to get food – or worse – out of clothes.

3) Because the voltage is a puny 110 volts (around half the standard voltage in the UK), the spin function is feeble, and clothes come out of the machine much wetter than they would from a British machine. 

Hence, unless you use a dryer the clothes take forever to get dry. And I hate using the dryer for everything. But then I also hate lugging wet clothes back to the apartment, hanging them out next to one of our three radiators (American apartments seem to have fewer, bigger, but less handily clothes drying adapted radiators) and waiting for A to pull them all off the airer onto the floor.

4) Apartment communal machines require an endless supply of quarters to operate, which feels expensive – though it may be no worse than paying your own electricity bill – and is definitely inconvenient.

Hence, we can normally only muster up enough coins for a couple of washes a week.

5) Toploading machines shred your clothes. There’s a pole that comes up the middle, and that stirs the clothes around, kind of (look, I’m not an engineer, there’s a proper explanation on Wikipedia here), amusingly called an ‘agitator’, and it is much tougher on fabric than the tumbling drum on a frontloading machine. As well as less effective at getting them clean. There is a ‘delicates’ setting, as well as a ‘normal’ one and a ‘permanent press’ one. But my impression is that that just shudders politely and briefly in the general direction of the clothes. That’s why it’s over in 10 minutes. Whereas permanent press… permanently locks in creases you didn’t want in the first place?

Hence, A’s clothes start to look terribly shabby even before she outgrows them.

6) Seems they are far less efficient in terms of electricity and water usage too. 

There is a lot of ranting on the internet about how bad American washing machines are. I don’t quite understand why they persist with toploaders that look like they were built in the 50s and have a similar level of performance, but my guess is ignorance that there’s something better out there. After all: who but an out of work expat mother spends much time investigating global washing machine comparisons?

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Valentine’s Day: it’s all about the children

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sure it was supposed to be Christmas that was all about the children. Valentine’s Day, surely, is about the following: making single people feel desolate; charging couples a mint to go out for a multi-course dinner where they dare not express any loving emotion lest it feel too forced; allowing stalkers who send anonymous letters to feel socially acceptable for one day of the year. 

It’s not like I’m a fan or anything. But until we moved over here I did, at least, think Valentine’s Day was strictly for grown ups – or at least teenagers – and about the momentous decision of whether to send a card, and if so, to whom? 

Witnessing the Stateside kiddification of V-Day, I decided to borrow a library book to clear things up. Evanston library has a whole bay of books for children on this specific subject. Things to Make and Do for Valentine’s Day explains: ‘on Valentine’s Day we tell people how much we like them’, and suggests ‘make the same card for all your friends!’ Really? This seems to be the convention at any rate: kids make Valentine’s cards – or cookies or cakes.  (Check out the list of child Valentine crafts on this blog for a small sample.) Then they go to school, send everyone in the class a card in a specially orchestrated postal distribution thing, before they all, presumably, collapse in a haze of glitter and pink fizz. (But for a darker view, see here.) If they aren’t old enough for that, they simply dress up in clothes covered in hearts or a red tutu – as witnessed at this morning’s Wiggleworms class. 

In fact, this has gone so far that yesterday Time Out Chicago Kids proposed something of a perfect storm of nausea by requesting that you send a Valentine’s card to a sick child in hospital. Because what could be less meaningful than sending a pre-formatted electronic expression of your love to a child you have never, ever met?

Now, I know I wouldn’t find all this depressing if I weren’t, at heart, both a curmudgeon and a romantic. I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that love is all you need. My faint dislike for pink increases every time I look at clothes for little girls and can find nothing else. But more than that, I like the idea that a Valentine means something: that it expresses a true romantic feeling, a little bit tortured, a little bit dangerous. I don’t want toddlers to feel tortured – least of all, the ones in Lurie Children’s Hospital. I just don’t want to see them playing with those dangerous pink hearts. 

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