Letter from America - Part I

The first of an occasional series exploring life in Redmond from the perspective of a newcomer to the United States.

When I posted a blog entry to announce I was leaving the UK subsidiary office of Microsoft to join the Longhorn evangelism team in Redmond, a couple of people mailed me to suggest I write a little bit about my experiences of the process - from applying for the job to settling in here in the Puget Sound area. This seemed like a fun idea, so I'll post a few thoughts on various aspects of the transition from time to time, starting with our initial experiences having stepped off the plane. We're delighted to be here and are greatly looking forward to some new adventures; nevertheless it's interesting to compare and contrast our two cultures that have so much in common and yet are often so alien to each other.

We arrived in SeaTac airport on Thursday evening after a long and exhausting journey from London (mostly due to having two daughters under two years old!), and we're staying in temporary accommodation provided by Microsoft until we find our feet and are able to sort our own accommodation out. We've been aided during the moving process by two relocation specialists, which makes the entire process easier as there's so much to sort out: housing, cars, visas, moving firms, bank accounts, social security. It's taken a lot of the hassle and worry away from us - a few friends commented that we looked too relaxed in our last week in the UK!

Of course, I've been over here a number of times before with business, so I had some idea of what the area is like as a visitor at least. (My wife on the other hand has only ever spent a total of three days in the US en route to a holiday in Canada, which makes her willingness to come over even more remarkable and brave.)  But my first wake-up call that this wasn't just another a short trip was going shopping at the Safeway supermarket in Overlake yesterday morning.

  • Size. I've often heard it said that America is a land of extremes, and whilst I don't yet feel able to comment on the generality, that certainly applies as far as grocery stores are concerned. Some staple food products only seem to come in insanely large quantities: the standard coffee jar size is a vat that will almost certainly last us until the end of our stay here, and I shall pass on the salt carton to our children when I'm old and frail (d.v.) in the full expectation that they in turn pass it onto their heirs with some still remaining. On the other hand, tea seems to be a boutique item - the majority of packets contain as little as 20 bags, compared to the 320 bag boxes my wife is used to in the UK. No doubt sociologists are able to use this information to provide profound insights into the cultural differences between our countries (Eastside residents drink coffee with salt, perhaps?).
  • Trolleys. Given that kitchen paper rolls come in packs of 8, pizzas are the size of dinner tables and juice and milk are sold by the gallon rather than the litre, you'd think that trolleys (shopping carts) would be the size of Texas. If anything, they're slightly smaller than the ones back home. We needed two trolleys in the end to stock up our apartment with household essentials - what are we doing wrong? I'm surprised at this - surely it's a retail marketing maxim that if you provide a large container people feel a subliminal urge to fill it, whereas a small basket discourages impulse purchases. On the other hand, our eldest loved the special family trolley with a built-in car at the front that she could sit in and play "driver" - even if I kept scything the ankles of other shoppers because it made the trolley so long.
  • Thunder and Rain. To our absolute delight, the vegetable section has a son et lumière display every couple of minutes. We thought the weather had really turned bad when we heard a rumble of thunder behind us, only to discover a faint spray of "rain" being drizzled over the carrots and beans from a nozzle directly above. The thunder sound effect itself came from little loudspeakers positioned directly above the water nozzles as a warning so as not to soak poor unsuspecting purchasers. Every time we heard a clap of thunder, my daughter and I raced over to the appropriate section (sending other customers flying with our ultra-long trolley), just in time to miss watching another gentle shower. Quite compelling - we could have stayed there for hours! Actually, the fresh fruit & veg were fantastic - beautifully presented with a variety of choice and quality that puts British supermarkets to shame.
  • Cheese. The pinnacle of fruit and vegetable amazement was soon washed away by our dismay at the cheese selection. It seems that when the Bostonians threw the tea overboard, they also threw out every cheese variety apart from Cheddar. Oh - there's also Monterey Jack if you fancy a change, but it seems like there's nothing else available. The cheddar has a luminous orange colour, as if it's been caught in some freak burst of radiation. There's any amount of choice of different brands, sharpness and shades of luminosity, but having bought several packets I can report that they all taste the same - bland and insipid. Never mind - we're obviously shopping in the wrong place - we'll report further on our intrepid search for dairy products of character in the future.
  • We don't speak the same language. Ask for nappies, dummies, cling film or cotton wool balls here and you'll get a blank look. The many differences in our languages are well documented, (we were given an American / English phrasebook just before we left, which is bigger than you might think), but it's surprising how disconcerting it turns out in practice. Just the subtle variations of idioms used in everyday conversations can make you feel very foreign.
  • Friendliness. One thing that always takes me by surprise is how friendly and kind people are here in the US. I honestly think British people often confuse politeness with being reserved, when they're not the same thing at all. I like it that you can strike up a conversation with a stranger without being seen as an incontrovertible extrovert, and that people are ready to help you rather than simply standing by and watching so as not to get "involved". This alone makes up to a great extent for all the other challenges and cultural differences we're expecting.

Oh, and it's been chucking it down non-stop ever since we got here - did someone say Seattle was the rainy city?!

More soon...