Small Differences: Dentistry

There are two stereotypes about teeth that we all know: Americans have big, wide mouthed smiles; British people have wonky teeth.  Studies show that there is no real difference in oral health and hygiene between Britain and America but the perception of vastly different aesthetics remains.

I have lived in America for almost four years now and still every time I visit the dentist for a check up I imagine the dentist recoiling in horror when I open my mouth and reveal my ever so British teeth.  Truth be told, my teeth are pretty skew-whiff even by British standards – perfectly healthy but very crowded and crooked.  Compared to my American peers, however, they are a complete and utter mess.  The first time the dental nurse at our American practice looked in my mouth, she asked me if I was British or Russian.  It was that obvious that my mouth was not tended to by American dentists.  I never felt self-conscious about my teeth back home in Scotland but here in America I most definitely do.  Cosmetically pristine teeth are clearly valued here and mine don’t pass muster.  I may have made it to the age of 41 and have only one filling but that doesn’t mitigate against the visual mayhem of my mouth.

I think the key to the different dental experiences may be in a different approach between the two cultures.  I cannot compare US dentistry to private dental care in the UK because I have never been to a private dentist.  For the five years when I malingered on the waiting list of an National Health Service dentist, I never had an oral emergency that compelled me to seek out a dentist and pay private fees for the privilege.  Throughout my childhood and all but those five years of my adulthood in Britain, I was treated on the NHS.  This means my dental treatment was heavily subsidised (great for the budget) but it also means that the appointments were pretty perfunctory.  In contrast, my US appointments last for an interminable amount of time even though all I am having is a check up and routine cleaning.  The hygienist actually performs the bulk of the treatment.  This involves lots of ponderous poking and prodding and then a professional cleaning that lasts so long I have to stave off panic attacks.  Only after that marathon is completed does the dentist appear to look over any xrays and give my gob a final, brief once over.

Every single time I go to my check up, either the hygienist or the dentist – and sometimes both – will comment on the overcrowding in my mouth.  It is as if they find it grimly fascinating to contemplate the abyss that is my British mouth.  My teeth are not straight, they overlap, and my lower wisdom teeth came in at right angles to my other molars (though to be fair my UK dentists always found that weird too).  Even the dental hygienist, an expert flosser, has occasionally trapped a piece of floss between my teeth because there is so little space between them.  When I first moved here, the inevitable follow up question was whether I had ever considered orthodontistry.  You can probably imagine their looks of surprise when I tell them that I had a mouth full of metal for almost six of my teenage years.  I don’t think they can comprehend that the mangled mouth they see wide open before them actually represents an improvement on what was there before.  I decline each time the subject is raised.  I have lived with my wonky teeth for enough decades now that I can just accept that this is how they are.  I have endured braces for enough years of my life and don’t need a redux.  Besides, I have to shell out a whole heap of dollars on my kids’ orthodontisty.

Sadly, yes, at least two of my children have inherited my British mouth.  Apparently I have a tiny jaw, especially the mandible, and I have transmitted that “defect” to two of my offspring.  My 10 year old is already in braces because, aside from the crowding, he also had a dramatic crossbite, and my youngest will start orthodontic treatment as soon as he has a couple more adult teeth.  In addition to all of the metal and wire work in his mouth, it has been mentioned that my 10 year old may need to have some teeth pulled to create space and will need a palate expander.  That aspect of the treatment diverges from my experience of having orthodontisry in 1980s and early ’90s Scotland.  I had no teeth pulled and certainly didn’t have my palate expanded which, therefore, means that no extra space was ever created in my apparently minuscule jaw for the relocated teeth to move into.  So, while the six years worth of metalwork pulled everything into line, as soon as all of those devices were removed, my teeth simply began to drift back – especially once my wisdom teeth came in when I was in my mid-20s.

Even with very good dental insurance, the out of pocket cost for the orthodontistry is a major expense.  Multiplied by two kids, that expense becomes eye wateringly winceable.  They need the treatment for physical reasons, not just cosmetic ones, but I also think it is important to their self-esteem that they have winning smiles that fit in here rather than having my experience of people looking quizzically at teeth that look like collapsed tombstones in a long abandoned cemetery.  I am, therefore, going to stick with my awfully British teeth so that my children’s mouths can evolve to become more American.

Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

Small Differences: Games Day

This morning was Games Day at my sons’ Elementary School.  In their school in Scotland they had one afternoon at the end of each academic year that was Sports Day.  I had assumed that this was just a vocabulary difference but actually the two events were really quite different.

At their school in Scotland, there was an emphasis on athletics type events, not like proper track and field, but events with a sharp start, a clear finish and obvious winners.  The events, therefore, were things like flat (sprint) races, egg and spoon and obstacle courses.  By contrast, at their American school the emphasis was more on having fun while being active rather than there being much that would approximate a recognised sport.  So, for instance, there were events that involved carrying a stack of pizza boxes, transporting water from one bucket to another using a sponge and pairs of children throwing water balloons to each other until it inevitably burst.  With the younger kids, there was very much an emphasis on having fun – there was even a pirate hunt for pieces of eight – albeit while using gross motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination.  It was only when observing my Fifth Grader that I saw any competitive aspect to the event as they were divided into two teams and were scoring points during each event.  Some of those kids were fiercely competitive too, the veins in their foreheads bulging and screaming at their peers like drill sergeants.  Even so, however, the competition was between the two teams rather than between individuals which somewhat diluted it.

I think it would be fair to describe Games Day as organised chaos.  The gym teacher had clearly put a great deal of effort into preparing the kids for the events as they all seemed to know what they were doing but as an observer, not comprehending what the actual point of the game was, it often felt like I was just watching a pile of kids in tie-dyed t-shirts running around in frenetically random ways.  I didn’t care because I would personally rather be a spectator of kids having fun than of kids being bored waiting for their brief stint in a relay race.  Because that was another difference between our experiences in Scotland and here in Pennsylvania: the amount of time spent actively doing something.  As things were more tightly and rigidly organised in their school in Scotland, there was an awful lot of kids standing on the sidelines waiting for their turn to arrive because, of course, if you are going to have clear winners then you cannot have a whole pile of kids running in each race so they had to be broken into smaller groups.  Here, on the other hand, there was never a point where the kids were not actually engaged in an activity – except for when they had a popsicle break.  They rotated between activities that were already set up which meant there was no time lost waiting for the equipment to be swapped around or reset.  This did present a challenge for me, however, in that I had to keep dashing around the grounds as I moved between spectating the activities of my three different children (the fourth thankfully being in preschool so that he did not become a human hurdle as he has in previous years).  I am used to using slack periods to swap which of my sons I am observing.  Without such slack periods, I did an awful lot of speed walking.

It is my understanding that a lot of schools have phased out the whole idea of winners for sports day.  However, the school my sons attended in Scotland still handed out stickers for first, second and third places.  Two of them would at least win one or two events but my now 8 year old never managed to get a sticker.  This is because he does not care for sports at all and is not remotely competitive.  Last year he actually danced his way through the obstacle course.  Literally danced.  Remember how the Sharks and the Jets dance-fight?  He dance-sports.  Everyone else was across the finishing line while he was still pirouetting his way across the field.  He did not care one jot.  Regardless, however, I think that permitting kids to experience success and failure on sports day is no bad thing.  It’s part of valuable life lessons about not being capable of experiencing success in everything that you do and that you can derive pleasure from participating even when you don’t achieve complete success.  Furthermore, I tell my kids that not everyone has to be great at everything.  Sure, there are always going to be high achievers with the Midas Touch but most mortals will find that they are good at some things and not at others.  That’s absolutely fine.  I absolutely sucked at Sport and at Maths when I was in school but I was great in English, Art and History.  As such, I got to experience both celebrated success and abject failure.  Meanwhile, a student who perhaps struggled with academia got to experience success on sports day.  It’s preparation for life.  The school my kids now attend in Pennsylvania seems to be taking something of a compromise stance when it comes to the whole winning thing.  For the lower grades, there was really no winning or losing going on, even when they were in teams racing against each other – as with the speed stacking of cups – because no one appeared to be keeping score.  The racing was just part of the fun.  With the older grades, however, they were collecting points (in some way I just could not fathom) for their teams and one team would be declared the overall winner.  However, the teams were so vast and the experience of glory and defeat shared across so many that the impact of either position was diluted.  That didn’t stop the kids from being grimly determined to win or to endeavour to do their best, however.  There were still a whole load of inherently competitive kids.  But it did remove the focus from the strengths and weaknesses of individuals.  I understand that here in Pennsylvania there is a gradual phasing in of traditional team sports within school, with those sports replacing games – such as capture the flag – as the kids get older, so an event like this is probably good training in sportsmanship to a degree.

So it was a very different sports day experience for me this year than in previous years.  I think each event had its pros and neither had particular cons.  I have a feeling my kids enjoyed today better simply because they were always doing something and, of course, because of the newness of it all.  I think my favourite difference about sports day, however, was that I got to be outside in the sunshine watching my kids participating without being eaten alive by midges.




Small Differences: Eggs

We consume a lot of eggs in this house.  They are a great option for a quick but nutritious meal, however they are cooked.  We also use them in baking a lot, from the humble pancake to celebration cakes.  For some time, therefore, I have been pondering the fact that eggs here are uniformly white.  They have a chalky white look to them, opaque rather than a glowing alabaster that some eggs have, and the shells are thin and brittle.  Sure, they look all nice in a box with their uniform complexion but the nature of the shell means they fracture too easily and are, as such, a bit of a pain to use.  I am not sure whether this is to do with the breed of chickens being farmed here (do white chickens lay white eggs?) or if they have been selectively bred more generally so that chickens produce white eggs only.  It’s great for dying eggs for Easter, I am sure, but I am unclear as to what other reasons there may be for these peely-wally eggs to be preferential.

Perhaps it is not the case across the whole of Pennsylvania or the United States but here my local supermarkets do not stock any free range eggs – or at least none of the cartons I see clearly promote the fact that they are laid by free range hens.  That represented a bit of a culture shock to me since I have been buying free range eggs for my entire adult life and, indeed, I cannot even remember the last time I saw a batch of battery eggs for sale in Britain.  Battery farms still exist in Britain for the production of chickens for the meat market but I assume purchasing power led the way some time ago for farmers to produce free range eggs – at least for the domestic rather than food processing market.  I can absolutely tell the difference too: with some of the eggs I have bought here, the albumen spits a lot when being fried because of the water content and the yolk is thinner rather than thick, sticky and golden.

Definitely farming and processing practices differ between Britain and America when it comes to egg production.  Here, eggs are kept in the refrigerated section of the supermarket whereas back home in Scotland I would pluck them off open shelves.  What’s annoying to me personally about that is that it means I have to then store the eggs in the fridge too which was not the case in Scotland because the uniform temperature required to store them was just room temperature.  Indeed, it is actually an EU regulation that requires this because fluctuations in temperature – such as happens when refrigerated eggs are transported in a car and warm up just to be plopped back in a fridge – promote the growth of bacteria.  This becomes critical because, unlike British hens, most American hens are not vaccinated against salmonella, hence the need for refrigeration.  As a bit of an aside, American eggs are also washed and dried before they are packed for sale.  This is done for hygiene purposes.  The same motive is true in the European Union but, instead of washing and drying them, there the edict is that they should be left as they are since the assumption is that farmers should be operating at a high standard of cleanliness anyway and the natural cuticle that layers an egg when it is laid is believed to create an effective barrier between the environment and the interior of the shell.  It was not unusual, therefore, to open a box of free range eggs in Scotland and find tiny feathers or bits of chicken poop still stuck to the eggs.  I would simply wash them thoroughly just prior to cracking them.

So my note to self is that I need to educate myself as to American food labelling so that I can perhaps identify some free range, humanely reared and maybe even organic chicken eggs in the supermarket so that I can ensure I am buying the best possible eggs.  Even if they are all a boringly uniform white.  It is all these little things – the way I could instantly identify food labelling in Scotland but don’t have the foggiest here – that remind me of my “fresh immigrant” status.  I have so much to learn, so much, if even buying a humble egg can flummox me.

Weather Forecasting

I cannot get over the accuracy of the weather forecasting here.  It’s almost like some sort of spooky precognition is at work.  This is especially when compared to the type of weather forecasting I have lived with in Scotland which was more akin to just plucking some meteorological terms from a hat and hoping for the best.

A forecast for the West coast of Scotland, where we lived, would often be along the lines of, “Mostly sunny with periods of cloud and occasional showers, heavy at times.”  That would be an example of covering all your bases and that is why we would often set out on day trips wearing shorts and t-shirts but with raincoats in backpacks, sunscreen and wellies, because preparing for all the possible seasons you might experience in one Scottish day means lugging enough equipment to require a sherpa.  We wore a lot of layers which we would peel off and on with each hour that passed.

Then there was another type of weather forecasting statement: predictions based perhaps more on hope than accurate interpretation.  A declaration of a sunny day.  It would rain.  Showers expected.  It would lash with rain.  A chance of light snow.  It would be cold and rainy.  It rains so much in Scotland that I am sometimes surprised that we have not begun to evolve gills.  But then there would be some days when they would predict rain so we would set out wearing all of our waterproofing just to broil in our own sweat under the heat of the sun, the circumference of our wellies sticking and rubbing to our calves as we trudged along actually annoyed by a non-rainy day for a change.  But those days were rare.  Mostly it rained.  But even the level of rainfall would be wrong.  Light showers would in actuality be lashing rain and heavy showers would be torrential.  Some Summers I wondered about getting a job lot of gopher wood.

Here in Pennsylvania, by comparison, the forecasting is mind-bogglingly accurate.  It’s like magical divination.  I can look at my Weather Channel app at even the 10 day forecast and be fairly certain that that is how the week ahead is going to look.  If a snow blizzard is predicted to hit our particular county at 10am then wouldn’t you know it but the first flurries of snow start to settle at approximately 10am.  It is a very odd experience for me to be able to plan ahead like this, to be able to set off from the house wearing just the exact number of layers required and without a backpack full of backup plan clothing.  Of course, my weather neuroses still kicks in from time to time and, largely out of a habitual skepticism for weather forecasting, I will stow some waterproofing layers in the boot of the car, but I have never yet been proven right in doing so.

Even today, following a day long blizzard, on the umpteenth snow day of the season, as my kids play noisily in the adjacent room instead of being at school, I am prepared to declare that I like this climate.

Medical Practice

Today was another first for me: my first time registering with and visiting an American medical practice.

Unfortunately, I have had cause to visit an American A&E / ER before.  Back in 1995, I developed a severe cellulitis reaction to some insect bites and developed blood poisoning and had to go to hospital.  That travel insurance was definitely worth the investment, that’s for sure.  That had been my sole interaction with the US medical healthcare system until today.

Obviously we needed to register with a medical practice anyway.  With six of us – and especially four kids – it is always sensible to know where you need to go when some illness develops or some sort of accident happens.  However, today’s appointment was not about illness or aching body parts.  Today it was just about filling out yet more forms to get my husband and I a step closer to holding PA driving licenses.  We needed to have formal medicals, signed by a medical practitioner, to prove that we were fit and healthy enough to even obtain the learner’s permit.

There is a long list of things I don’t know about living in America but if I had to rank those things in order of things I am most ignorant about then healthcare would have to be top of the list.  I just don’t get it.  Obviously I’ve not been living in a dank cave all these years so I know that there is a requirement for medical insurance, that medical visits and treatments are paid for by the patient directly and per use rather than through general central taxation.  The way that system operates, however, is a complete and utter mystery to me.  My husband has family medical insurance through his employer so the little plastic card he handed me is my portal to receiving medical care here in the US.  That is pretty much the extent of my knowledge.

Even booking the appointment was farcical.  The person who answered the phone could not understand why I didn’t know how things worked so every question I asked just threw her.  Eventually curiosity got the better of her and she asked how healthcare worked in the UK.  Her mind was blown.  Blown completely.  I am not a patriotic soul but if I had to name something that could possibly make me feel a tingle of pride in being British (and I do mean British as opposed to Scottish on this occasion) then the National Health Service would be the thing that sprang to mind.  A healthcare system that is centrally funded through general taxation and is free at the point of need is, I think, one of the best achievements of the UK.  It has its failings, of course, as every system does, but to know that everyone will receive the same care regardless of their income level or some other means test is, to my mind, a wonderful thing.  I think it finally clicked with the admin person making the appointment that the reason I had not a clue how the insurance system worked was because I had never had to even countenance how I was going to fund medical treatment before.  In Scotland, even prescriptions and eye tests are free.

My appointment was 10.40 and Mr Pict had his appointment right after me at 11.  My husband was off work today because I had parent-teacher conferences in the afternoon to attend, so he was needed at home to provide the childcare, so we thought it made sense to use the morning productively and achieve something we were needing to progress with – namely obtaining driving licenses.  I had agreed that we would come early so as to fill out the paperwork we needed in order to register, though I had downloaded and filled out the medical history form in advance.  So we provided our contact details and our insurance details and were instructed to wait to be called to our appointments.

Time passed.

More time passed.

Now here’s the thing.  If I am paying for something, I expect a certain level of service.  Conversely, if something is free then I will make some concessions.  So, while tardiness in doctors’ surgeries had always frustrated me in the past, this waiting was not just tedious and wasteful but was actually irksome.

Eventually an hour passed and neither my husband or I had been called to our appointments and we had a preschooler to collect from nursery.  So Mr Pict and I switched appointments so that I could nip off and collect our youngest child from preschool and then return.  He was being called just as I left.  When I returned, almost half an hour later, he had only just finished up.  I let the receptionist know that I was back and had thankfully just a short wait before being called.  That said, time was getting tight for collecting our older children from school – as they were on an early finish – so I left Mr Pict with the car keys just in case.

I was taken to a room where I had to answer a series of questions, some so complex and precise it was difficult to provide an accurate answer, about my health, medical history and lifestyle.  All of the answers I had already furnished them with on my medical history form incidentally.  I had my height and weight recorded, had to provide a urine sample, had my blood pressure taken, had my eyesight tested and my eyes, ears, neck and abdomen all checked.  All of which took even more time.  Back in July, the children and I had had to undergo pretty intense medicals at a clinic in London as part of the immigration process.  We were all healthy and disease free hence we were permitted to enter America as legal permanent residents.  Apparently this medical was good enough to assess our suitability to be resident in America but was not good enough to be an indicator of my ability to get behind the wheel of a car.  It’s frustrating to have to do the same things over and over just to prove things to different administrative organisations, never more so than when time is ticking away and you have places you urgently need to be.  

From the time when I first walked through the door of the medical practice to when I left with my signed piece of paper telling the DMV it was OK to issue me with a learner’s permit took two hours.  Two.   Hours.  Now the NHS is a socialist institution so it is often attacked by people who are not proponents of that political system and, yes, it can be inefficient and flawed.  However, my first experience of privately funded medicine was not exactly convincing me of its benefits.  Perhaps all medical services are inefficient and flawed because, let’s face it, healthcare is as unpredictable at times as health is.  But it’s hard not to resent paying for something as pointless as this medical was and then having to waste two hours of your life obtaining a signed piece of paper.  Between the financial and time cost, that’s definitely some motivation to stay healthy.

At least now, however, Mr Pict can go ahead and obtain a learner’s permit.  I, on the other hand, have some more hoops to jump through since, as a non-citizen, I need a whole heap of paperwork that I don’t yet possess.  Any progress I make here is always tempered by delays and obstacles and bureaucracy.


Snow Days

M kids experienced their first ever snow day earlier this week.

They have had “bonus” days off school before, when we lived in Scotland, but those were down to high winds and power failures.  This week was their first experience of being liberated from school because of snow.

The first day they just had a two hour delayed start but on the second day there was no school whatsoever.  And lo there was much rejoicing in the Pict household as four boys got to stay home all day, building a snowman in the garden, having a snowball fight and then getting cosy indoors with hot chocolate.  It was also special that Daddy did not go into work that day, also because of the snow, and worked from home which meant he was home to eat dinner with the rest of us.  As a consequence, they are now hoping for more snow days – but not so many that they need to make up for lost time in the summer break.

For my part, I am impressed with the school district’s notification system.  It is not especially pleasant to be woken by a phone call of a recorded message at 4.30am but at least it is adequate notice that there is no need to run around in a frenzy trying to get everyone ready for school on time (because we may live next door to the school but that does not eliminate the need for nagging and cajoling every morning).  What was a bit annoying was that the home phone went, then my husband’s cell phone and then my cell phone, all staggered just enough to mean there was no chance of us nodding off back to sleep.  But that was cool because at least, even wide awake early in the morning, we didn’t have to leap out of bed and start barking at our kids like a sheep dog herding a flock.  And just in case we missed the phone calls, I also had an email telling me there was a phone message from the school district.  They definitely wanted us to stay at home.

This Winter could prove to be very snowy indeed.  What I am already appreciating about Winter here, however, is the light.  Even now, in mid-December, the sunlight is strong and the skies are crisply blue and bright and the sunsets are spectacular.  By now back in Scotland the days would be dark.  I often remember one year when I was teaching in an internal classroom, with just a skylight, and I was travelling to work in the pitch dark and travelling home in the pitch dark so was going for five days straight without seeing daylight.  It was horrible.  I realised then that being a vampire would never be for me.

Winters where we moved from were harsh.  We normally didn’t get much snow because of the salt air from the sea loch but what we did get was brutal winds, hail stones that could dent your skull and rain.  Relentless rain.  Rain so hard that the sky should have become parched like a prune.  And then even more rain.  Cold and rain is not a pleasant combination.  Being soaked to the skin from freezing rain so that your skin is blue where it is not blotched with white is not a pleasant sensation.  I would moan every single Winter about how hard the winters were there.  So it will be interesting to see if I prefer this climate as we progress through the season.  If the snow days keep up then the mini-Picts certainly will.

Pounding Pavements or Stomping Sidewalks

I did warn you I had a compulsion to alliterate.

Whether I call it a sidewalk or a pavement, there just aren’t enough of them around here.

I’ve always known that America doesn’t really town plan for pedestrians.  During my first trip to the US, back in 1995, my now husband and I went to the Independence Day fireworks on the mall in Washington DC, our bums getting slowly but certainly numb on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At the finale, we were carried in a wave along with the rest of the crowd and deposited into Foggy Bottom Metro Station.  At the other end of our metro ride, the streets were pitch dark and empty.  We had a half hour walk to get to the place we were staying and every step was precarious.  The streetlights shone onto the road, not the sidewalks, because obviously cars with headlights need more visual assistance than pedestrians stumbling around, and the pavements were so uneven that we had to adopt a hobbling gait and almost face-planted a few times.  And that was when there were any pavements to walk on. 

I had a smidgen of hope that the leafy suburbs of Philly would be at least a little more geared up for pedestrians but, yes, even my smidgen-full of hope was in vain.

I am a walker.  Not in a zombie way.  I like to walk.  I enjoy the moderate exercise (just as I really don’t enjoy proper exercise), the fresh air, the thinking time, the opportunity to see things and explore.  I have always walked a lot.  When we lived in Scotland, the kids and I walked everywhere.  It was great.  OK, maybe not so much in the horrible winter weather but otherwise it was great that everything was in walking distance – school, shops, hospital.  Here, on the other hand, things are all close by – indeed more things are close by – but they are inaccessible on foot because of the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.  It’s frustrating.

I’ve taken to going on little ambles of a morning, once I’ve dropped the smallest Pict at preschool, trying to find a safe route I can walk with the kids, just to stretch our legs and get some fresh air without having to get in the car first.  The options are proving to be limited.  Even when I can construct a circuit, it involves constant criss-crossing of the road in order to access pavement on one side of the road when it has run out on the other.  I can walk on my own just fine because, as an adult with good road sense, I can actually walk on the road around here as there is not a lot of daytime traffic.  But I don’t really want to encourage my kids to walk in the road and it’s also not that sensible to walk along a road in a trail like a momma duck and her ducklings.  I’ve seen duck roadkill.  I actually do walk the littlest Pict back and forth to nursery on the road, very briefly, because the building is literally around the corner from our house and I refuse to drive for two minutes to get there.  The road is wide enough that we can do so safely and he is small enough to be happy holding my hands.

Mailboxes are a related nuisance.  We don’t have one close to home.  I know because not only have I not walked past one but I actually looked up the website to find where our nearest ones are.  They are all a bit of a walk away but still within what I consider to be a very reasonable walking distance, maybe 20 to 30 minutes for the closest two, forty-five for the furthest one.  On adult legs that is.  With kids it would take longer.  However, not one of those mailboxes can be accessed from home along pavements.  Probably the safest walking route is to the mailbox furthest away because it is the quieter road and stretches of it do have pavement on at least one side of the road.  The two closer to home are almost entirely devoid of any sidewalks whatsoever.  It does make me ponder why they chose to site the mailboxes there.  Convenience of collection probably won out over ease of actually accessing the mailbox.  It’s a bit of a pain in the butt for something as simple as needing to post a letter to have to be a kid-free mission.

I’m not going to even get started on the standard of the paving when there are sidewalks either.  Haphazard would be a kind description.  It surprises me that in a country known for its culture of litigation that local authorities would risk having people face-planting and snapping ankles all over the place.  Unless being a pedestrian is considered some sort of extreme sport.

That’s today’s rant then.  Sidewalks and mailboxes.  Riveting stuff.

Taking Out The Trash

The title of this blog entry is not about me donning spandex to fight injustice superhero like nor is it about vigilante justice – as much as there are some companies and organisations who are driving me spare right now.  No, nothing as exciting or creative as that.  This blog is literally about taking out the trash.

Trash collection is quite different here in the Pennsylvanian town we have landed up in compared to in the remote, rural community we left in Scotland.  In Scotland, regular household waste was picked up weekly and paper recycling was picked up fortnightly.  We had to take responsibility for all other recycling so our back garden contained three different boxes – for metal, plastic and glass – which we had to transport to the dump every time they filled up.  We are not eco-warriors by any stretch but we are eco-conscious so we did not object to the hassle or effort involved but I am pretty confident that more people there would have recycled had there been kerb side collection of such materials.  Here, not only does the township collect all of the recycling but it can all be put in one bin.  No sorting of materials required.  It is also collected weekly.  I cannot be bothered to track down the evidence but I would guess that more households recycle here as a result.

Another difference is that the whole bin collection process is automated.  Back in Scotland, the bin men would walk alongside the lorry to hoik the bins onto the back of the lorry and have them flip their contents inside the lorry.  Here, a solo driver scoots the lorry alongside the kerb and a mechanical arm comes out to grab the bin, toss its contents inside, and then deposit the bin back on the roadside.  I have no preference because, frankly, I don’t really care how my rubbish is collected as long as it is.  I am merely noting the difference.

The third thing is that here, in the appropriate season at least, the township comes to collect leaves.  This is a great thing because our back garden is absolutely littered with leaves.  Every three weeks we can gather them up into a large pile on the roadside and then a truck visits with a man operating a giant vacuum that sucks all the leaves up.  My 4 year old finds it quite fascinating.

One area of rubbish collection is definitely better in Scotland, however, is access to dumps and recycling centres.  In Scotland we could take any surplus rubbish, recycling, old electrical items and such like to the town dump where it would then be processed.  Here we appear not to have any access.  As a result, since we just moved here and have had to buy new things, we have a load of flattened cardboard boxes stored in the basement which we are gradually getting rid of by shoving them in the recycling bin so long as it is not already full.  It’s weird that they don’t seem to permit householders to dispose of that stuff in any direct way.  Apparently we can contact the township if we have any bulky items to dispose of – old furniture, for instance – and they come and collect it but I can’t help thinking they have missed an efficiency trick there by not just allowing people to go along and deposit their own waste.


Clearly I’ve shopped in US supermarkets before but doing so as a resident trying to feed, clean and clean up after a family of six is a whole different experience than being a casual shopper or supermarket tourist.

I always like to visit supermarkets, markets and grocery stores whenever I visit a new place. The geography of the store and the products can provide an insight into everyday life in a location that just don’t all the tourist stuff would not provide. I still have fond memories of the pastries counter in a store in Crete and of seeing a special on hog jowls in a Piggly Wiggly somewhere in Mississippi. My husband and I still laugh about us seeing a freezer full of stuffed “pasta” in Greece and me boiling them just to discover they were pastry and should have been baked. The problem of not being able to read Cyrillic.

So wandering around a new supermarket can be fun. But trying to navigate your way around a supermarket in order to buy a week’s worth of groceries becomes very time consuming in those same circumstances.

Let’s start with the basics: it’s back to front. Because driving happens on the other side of the road here, so does everything else: escalators go up and down on the opposite sides and entrances and exits are the other way around. It’s so ingrained in me that I actually have to make a conscious effort to remember to steer my trolley (cart) at the other door. Sad but true. Once in, the layout is also different from a typical UK supermarket and, because I’m institutionalized, I’ve taken to shopping back to front, against the tide of most customers – though I’ve noticed I’m not the only person who does so. I like to start with fresh produce and end with the bakery, what can I say. Then there is locating all the items in store. Every single trip I take, I have to ask a shelf attacker to guide me somewhere, sometimes three or four of them in one shopping trip. Sour cream isn’t with the cream or even the milk; it’s over by the cheese in a different aisle from all other dairy products. Cans of green chillis are clumped with other Mexican cuisine ingredients, not with other canned goods. Today I was looking for frozen savoury pastry (because I feel like cheating) and there was none to be had but I went in a tour with one employee who took me to all the places in the store where I could buy numerous pre-made sweet pastries or bread doughs. It’s not that it’s wrong; it’s just very different and, consequently, it takes me ages to find everything I’m looking for.

Today’s treasure hunt item was turkey gravy. In a jar. Jar. Yes, jar. The kids’ school is doing a Thanksgiving food drive and each class is donating specific items. My 6 year old has to bring in turkey gravy of a non-perishable kind. I hoped I would spot it in passing but I gave up and asked a young man who was stacking tuna and he guided me to where there were several varieties of turkey gravy in a jar. I have never seen such a thing.

Bag packing is different here too. Here there is an employee who packs for you. That happens from time to time in the UK but does not happen as standard. I’m pretty fastidious when it comes to bag packing. I might even be a tad OCD about it. I, therefore, load my trolley and thus the conveyer belt in a very particular way so that I can load up my bags the way I want them. That process becomes a bit haphazard when someone else is handling the final step. At times the bag packing is nothing less than lamentable with a bag of frozen veg squashed in with a loaf of bread and some avocados. That sort of makes me judder. I’m grateful for the help, of course, especially when I’m also running a three ring circus with my accompanying kids but it is going to take some getting used to. The bags themselves are terrible. You could spit peas through the plastic, they are so thin. Carrying umpteen cans in one of those bags without it splitting is a massive challenge. I’m looking forward to my shipping arriving so I can get my hands on my jute shopping bags again because all of those thin bags are such a waste. That’s the one great thing about them: if they are so awful that it encourages people to use reusable bags then that is great for the environment.

I could segue into discussing vouchers and coupons as part of this entry but I think I will save that for another day. There is only so much excitement one can handle in a piece of writing about supermarkets after all.