Flat

Despite San Francisco being famously hilly, it has excellent cycle infrastructure, including a route known as ‘The Wiggle’ that eases westbound cyclists home by avoiding the steepest inclines. This afternoon, as my Brompton and I struggled up the final gentle climb of The Wiggle, an overtaking cyclist shouted “You do know it’s flat, right?” to me as he sped past.

The Wiggle

The Wiggle

Naturally, I was rather annoyed by this breach in cycling etiquette. How dare he cast aspersions on my lack of uphill fitness? It may not have been L’Alpe d’Huez, but it certainly wasn’t flat and it came at the end of a series of tiring hills at the end of a busy week. Who was he to judge? Etc.

I continued to stew about this for a minute or two, before my brain caught up and realised what you probably guessed about a paragraph ago: he wasn’t referring to the road, but to my punctured rear tyre. What I had assumed to be an act of cruelty was actually one of kindness, and I rightly felt bad about the less-than-gracious face I had pulled at this courteous stranger.

The point of me telling you this story about a single word that has two meanings is to facilitate a segue (or, if you’re hipster enough, a Segway) into a discussion of single meanings that have two words associated with them. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for the Brit-in-the-USA moan about American English.

Google tells me that it was George Bernard Shaw who first described England and America as “two countries divided by a common language”. This is quickly obvious to British tourists here, as they begin their vacation by unloading the trunk of their automobile onto the sidewalk. It gets more tricky once you start to live and work here.

Last week I moved into a studio in the Sunset district. Like a Thatcherite theme park, over here you have to pay a private company to collect your bins every week and to set this up you have to call the company and request the service. For a Brit fresh off the boat, this call resembles a one-sided game of Taboo, in which the words “bin” and “rubbish” are forbidden, but you also worry that they might think you’re taking the piss if you say “trash can” in an English accent.

But by far the hardest linguistic adjustment I’ve had to make is starting work as a teacher in a US high school. The US system appears to be mercifully free of the never ending catalogue of acronyms that have taken over British education (“Here’s a WAGOLL of some DIRT completed by an SEND student with EBD, ASD and a little ADHD. Is this A* student G, T, G&T or MA? Pass my G&T.”) However, there’s still plenty of room for confusion.

So, on the off-chance that this blog is ever read by a teacher who happens to be transferring from the UK to the US (or vice versa), here is my guide:

UK: Year 10
US: Grade 9 – a.k.a. freshmen

UK: Year 11
US: Grade 10 – a.k.a. sophomores

UK: Year 12
US: Grade 11 – a.k.a. juniors

UK: Year 13
US: Grade 12 – a.k.a. seniors

UK: Form tutor
US: Advisor

UK: Timetable
US: Schedule

UK: Class
US: Section

UK: Late
US: Tardy

UK: Special educational needs
US: Learning challenges

UK: University
US: School or college

UK: Maths
US: Math

UK: Sport
US: Sports

UK: State school
US: Public school

UK: Public school
US: Private school

UK: World history
US: American history

…and I haven’t even considered the French terminology that is freely used at my school.

Anyway, returning to my opening story, I had to take my bike on the bus the rest of the way home to my ground floor flat or, as it’s known here, my first floor apartment. Given I can’t cope with two meanings of ‘flat’, it’s probably for the best they’ve got a separate word to describe my home.

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Badabooming or badaboring?

I don’t know specifically what the two millennials on the train yesterday were discussing as they categorised the world into ‘things that are badabooming’ and ‘things that are badaboring’, but San Francisco can certainly not be described as badaboring. Or, to use actual words, ‘boring’.

I arrived nearly a week ago, following two flights via budget Icelandic carrier Wow Air. These were notable for only three things: 1) they were delayed by hours; 2) Wow Air’s interior branding consists mainly of confused whimsy (such as the awkward Oasis reference below); and 3) the pilot temporarily forgot the phonetic alphabet. “Those passengers for San Francisco should go to gate D21. That’s… um… D for… Daniel. Daniel 21. Passengers for San Francisco: Daniel 21. Passengers for Los Angeles: gate… Daniel 27.”

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Budget Icelandic whimsy

I was collected from San Francisco airport by a colleague holding a sign with my name on it, thus ticking off an item from the lower divisions of my bucket list. For the first couple of nights I was kindly accommodated by a parent of my school, giving me a base from which to explore this magnificent city, and to dip my toes into both US government bureaucracy and the San Francisco property rental market.

Pretty much every form I’ve filled in since I got here asks for my social security number, yet after nearly a week and two visits to two different Social Security Administration offices, I still don’t actually have one. I won’t bore you (too late) with the reasons why I was twice rejected, but if these offices represent a citizen’s rare interaction with the federal government, it begins to explain why people here insist on maintaining enough personal weaponry to overthrow it should the need arise. One more failed visit and I’m joining the NRA.

By far the most annoying thing was that one of the assistants persistently failed to remember the number of her window. Every time she called the next number, “A22 to window… [she pauses to look up at her window number] five”. Every single time. And every single time she was still at window 5. She didn’t move, the window didn’t move, every person in the room could confidently tell her she was at window number 5. I’m definitely returning to that office when I next fail to get a social security number, just to see whether she always works at window 5.

The property market in San Francisco is famously booming. Or badabooming, as the locals would say. This is a small city, enclosed on three sides by water. On the fourth side is Silicon Valley. This adds up to a lot of well-paid people (plus students, hipsters and international school physics teachers) all wanting to live in a city that has limited housing, driving prices through the roof. Want a studio apartment, sir? Has sir got somewhere between $1500 and $2500 a month to spare? May I recommend this shoe box as an alternative: only $800 a month plus utilities?

Even if you are able and willing to spend this much, it’s an owners market. In Soviet Russia you don’t choose apartment, apartment chooses you. You fill in long forms (obviously requiring a social security number) to apply for an apartment, putting yourself at the mercy of landlords picking your name out of the hat. Having no US credit history makes this fraught process all the more tricky.

Throw into the mix a load of clearly fraudulent Craigslist adverts, usually from someone saying that they’ve moved to Ohio/Michigan/Florida at short notice but need to rent their apartment out. Unfortunately, you’ll not be able to look inside, but feel free to drive past, then wire us your $4000 deposit.

As I write, I’m in a 48 hour holding pattern, circling high above the housing market. The weekend brought an unwelcome interruption to a letting agent running their checks on me, so I just have to sit with my fingers crossed until Monday morning. There’s a tempting possibility that I’ll soon be of fixed abode, but there’s a daunting possibility that instead I’ll be thrown back to square one, still living in overpriced hotels by the time I start work on Wednesday.

In between visits to federal offices, filling in forms and hunting for houses, I’ve had a great time exploring this awesome city. I keep having to stop and remind myself that I actually (sort of) live here, because on a daily basis I’m seeing views that should rightly have no place outside of an annual holiday.

 

On my first morning I was struck by how unAmerican San Francisco feels. I mean that, of course, in a positive way. Having spent six weeks in 2007 travelling down the east coast, I became used to the endless identical strip malls filled with Burger Kings, Super 8s and Walmarts. San Francisco does have chains, especially along Market Street and in the Westfield Centre (where you can dine handsomely for free by circling around the food court eating food samples from cocktail sticks), but many areas of the city, such as along Haught Avenue and the Mission, are filled with interesting independent shops, restaurants and bars.

This variety feeds a virtuous circle, as the cool destinations attract more interesting people to the city, who go on to do other cool things here, such as inventing Twitter or performing a breakdance demonstration in the middle of a BART carriage. Maybe that was what the millennials on the train were discussing.