Our first year in America is almost over: we’re spending July in Britain, and by the time we get back it will be close to the anniversary of our immigration in August. In many ways it’s been a pretty hard year. I haven’t been able to get any interesting work, and the teaching I was supposed to do in the Fall semester has been cancelled because of the pregnancy. Both M and I have been homesick for people and places; it hasn’t been any easier settling into a new American city than it is settling into a new British one; and the more I find out about American approaches to birth and babies, the more I realise how different the two countries’ cultures are.
But having said all that, here are a few things I really do like about America that I’ve never got round to blogging about before.
1) Water, water everywhere.
Whenever you sit down at a restaurant or a bar they bring you a glass of iced water, often before you even get a menu. And there are drinking fountains outside toilets in most public buildings. Staying hydrated is very easy here.
The quality of burgers in nothing-special bars is much higher than in Britain. The burgers at the Celtic Knot, which I like to order with fried mushrooms and Swiss cheese, are a particular favourite of mine. Though judging by the heartburn I get afterwards they also provide your annual portion of saturated fat in one handy package.
Walking in any direction from our apartment is like stepping into a Disney cartoon. Rabbits and squirrels are scampering everywhere, bright scarlet cardinals and American robins dart from tree to tree. We see chipmunks much less often and enjoy transfixing them by fiddling around trying to take a good picture; I was startled by a flying squirrel on our building back in the autumn; we spotted a rough-legged hawk eating some unfortunate mammal on a campus tree between Christmas and New Year; and a red-winged blackbird was divebombing joggers just the other day. There are a lot more sparrows and starlings than you see these days in Britain, too.
I love the fact that the postwoman picks up our outgoing mail from our front door, and that all the other delivery companies are happy to leave packages in the lobby to the building.
J is going to be shocked that I have anything positive to say about American trains, since she’s repeatedly been delayed for hours by Amtrak. But I like the way that both Amtrak and Metra commuter trains are more comfortable than their British equivalents, with bigger seats. And some of the seats have backs that flip so that they’ll face either forward or back! On both kinds they have a generous complement of old-school conductors who actually help people on and off the train. Metra conductors clip your tickets with little paper punches to mark what kind of fare they’ve sold you. Amtrak conductors direct you towards particular cars depending on your destination. There is something brilliantly old-fashioned about the whole thing, and especially the train whistles. Though I wouldn’t mind a little more interest in punctuality.
I don’t know whether this is true only of Chicago bus drivers, but a lot of them are exceptionally friendly. The Polish woman who was driving my bus to work for a while used to address me as ‘my love’. They will wait for people who they see running, even when it makes the bus late, and even loiter around the El stop, guessing that the trains are behind schedule, if the bus doesn’t seem to have filled up to the extent it should have.
7) Shop opening hours
Here is where I have bought into convenience culture. The knowledge that you can go shopping until 9 or 10pm makes life easier. It’s true that I have only gone to CVS once after 9.30 to buy something I couldn’t have got at the 7-11, but that was to buy a pregnancy test that turned out to be positive.
8) Ziploc bags
They’re so cheap! And they’re everywhere!