Thursday, July 30, 2015

Habitat for Humanity

Last weekend we spent a tiring, but satisfying, day plaster-boarding (aka "dry-walling" over here).  No we hadn't suddenly been overcome with the urge to remodel the rental... we were taking part in a York "Habitat for Humanity" day with Hubby's work.
Habitat for Humanity is a voluntary charitable organisation that builds affordable homes in partnership with lower-income residents in the area.  It's funded mainly by private donations, and offers interest-free, 30 year mortgages to qualified families.  Much of the materials are donated from local contractors and suppliers, and the rest of the build depends on local community fund raisers and donations.
The ground-breaking for this house took place back in March this year (when there was still snow on the ground), and is due to be completed in November, with a deserving family already lined up to move in.
It was an early start - 7:45am, and already warm, with the promise of hot, muggy temperatures later in the day.  After a quick briefing (sustained by the obligatory coffee and doughnuts), we were split into smaller groups and designated an experienced construction volunteer and a room to work in.
Being a complete novice at dry-walling didn't seem to be a problem, and our little team of 4 was soon measuring, cutting, gluing and screw-gunning huge boards into place on the ceiling and walls like we knew what we were doing.  And then making adjustments to take into account the fact that timber-built houses are never square...
We did well, and although we weren't able to quite finish the room in the time allocated, we got close.  Sadly no in-progress photos - we were too busy working!  However, I have developed a new-found respect for those DIY programmes where they build complete houses from scratch in a few days!
By mid afternoon we were done.  We may have been filthy, exhausted and sweaty, but we left with a happy satisfaction that we'd made a small contribution to a future home for another family.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

10 more random observations on life in the US

1. Every time you say thank you for something, it has to be acknowledged with an overly enthusiastic "you're welcome!" or a non-committal "mmhmm".  It makes me overly conscious of how often I say thank you. 

And they really do say "have a nice day" - there's even a whole Wikipedia page on how this developed!.

It's chocolate-dipped bacon, before you ask...

2.  Chocolate-dipped bacon is a thing here.  It's kind of nice, in a weirdly crispy salty bacon-y sweet soft chocolate-y way...

3.  You can't buy alcohol in supermarkets.  Which means you have to make a separate visit first to the state-owned wine / spirits shop and then to the beer shop (where you can only buy the minimum of a case of beer).  Sometimes I miss the convenience of Tesco!  PA apparently has some of the strictest alcohol rules in the USA.  This seems to have changed very recently, and suddenly "beer cafes" are cropping up in supermarkets where you can buy small amounts of alcohol.   

4.  What the heck's a "biscuit"?  Still can't get a straight answer on this one.  Not a biscuit as the British know it (obviously that's a cookie), but seems to be somewhere between a bread roll and a (savoury?) scone.  Regularly served with fried chicken meal deals, along with gravy. 
No idea why.

5. True story - me, in [popular sandwich franchise], having ordered my chicken & bacon flatbread:  "And could I have some ranch sauce with that, please?"
Blank look from server: "Ranch?"
Me:  "yes please"
Server:  "Ranch?  I don't know what you mean - what is that?"
Me:  "the green one" (helpfully pointing)
Server (loudly):  "oh, you mean raaaayyyyanch!  Didn't understand your accent there!"

6.  Yard work is a full-time, year-round activity.  At any given point during the day, at least one of our neighbours (or their designated gardening contractor) is out doing "yard work".  If they're not mowing the grass in the spring / summer, then they're hovering up the leaves with their leaf vacuum / blower in the autumn, or they're clearing snow with their snow blower in the winter.  (Hubby is desperate to buy a sit-on mower, but luckily the landlord is responsible for cutting the grass...)  Lawns are closely manicured, beds are deeply mulched, shrubbery is trimmed and paths are swept to within an inch of their lives - sometimes it reminds me of the "Mr Fussy" Mr Men book where he combs the grass straight!

7.  Yard sales are big here - the US equivalent of boot sales, but where you sell your stuff from your own front garden.  Devoted yard sales fans are known to get up at the crack of dawn and scour local neighbourhoods for good sales, often diving into people's garages as they're trying to set up (much like they dive into your car in the UK when you're trying to set up at a boot sale).

8.  Drug adverts prevail here - and they're quite different from the UK.  They often openly compare their drug's benefits against named competitors, and they all advocate that you take their wonder drug but to be aware of...  (cue long list of random possible side effects, including death).  In magazines, they're often 2-3 pages long.  Oh - and they usually include a reminder not to take the drug if you're allergic to it... (but how do you know?)

9.  "Slated" in newspaper headlines means "scheduled" - this confused me at first, and I thought the reporters were being a little harsh...

* plus 6c
10.  VAT is added at the till - which means the ticket price isn't the final price you'll pay.  This caught me out a few times at the beginning (especially in the dollar store), but now you just get used to the fact that 6% is added on to your final bill.  (And you get better at your six times tables).

Friday, July 17, 2015

Strasburg Rail Road

Last weekend we took a trip on a steam train, and in the Presidents' Car, no less!  We visited Strasburg Rail Road, just south east of Lancaster, which offers 45 minute round-trip train rides through some beautiful Lancaster countryside on restored steam trains.

Strasburg Rail Road was founded in 1832 and was used for both passenger and freight transport, becoming a key freight interchange point with the Pennsylvania Railroad.  When its use decreased with the growing efficiency of highways, it eventually fell into disrepair.  The idea to make it a tourist attraction was formed in the 1950s, and a group of railroad enthusiasts worked to repair the tracks and buy up historic locomotives and passenger cars.

There are still sidings filled with rusting engines and carriages, presumably waiting for repair or being used for parts.  Some of the restored locomotives and cars have been featured in films such as Hello Dolly and Wild Wild West (Will Smith).  On certain days, you can meet Thomas the Tank Engine, take a Steam Punk ride, or participate in a Murder Mystery Dinner.

We rode on Reading Car 10 - originally built in the early 1900s at a cost of $55,000.  It was referred to as a "business car" - ie built for company presidents and other high level officials to travel in style.  Beautiful handcrafted inlaid and carved woodwork (mahogany and maple), cut glass crystal, flushing toilets and showers and even air-conditioning - these carriages were designed for the higher echelons of society.

Sadly, the train was mothballed and auctioned off in the 1960s due to declining rail company revenues, but was eventually restored and renovated to it's current glory in 2002. 

Obviously we travelled in style, partaking of a beverage and nibbles to complement the experience!

Later, we took a tour of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, where they have a large warehouse stacked to the rafters with historic steam and electric locomotives, rail cars and carriages.

A lovely way to spend a few hours on a weekend, with a lovely drive through Amish countryside at either end, too.

Friday, July 10, 2015

4th July Concert

Last weekend was Independence Day, 4th July, which apart from meaning an extra day off work, almost passed us by.  The Saturday itself was horrible weather, which didn't help (think it was the first full day and night of rain since early Spring), but Sunday was better, luckily, as we had hoped to be able to go to an outdoor concert at nearby Longs Park.

This was the annual Independence Day concert held by the Long's Park Amphitheater Foundation, and part of the free weekly outdoor concerts they hold during the summer months.  Families are encouraged to bring blankets and camping chairs and coolers to enjoy different types of music each week.

For the 4th July event, crowds of 25,000 were expected, and it was certainly busy when we arrived an hour and a half before the start!  But we managed to squeeze our camping chairs into a small gap in the crowds in front of the amphitheatre and settled in with our picnic and people-watching whilst we waited for things to start.  It was very warm - about 80 degrees, and it didn't really cool down much into the evening.

This concert featured the US Army's Concert Band, and included a number of US orchestral numbers  with the general theme of independence and celebration.  However, the high point was their version of the 1812 overture, timed just as the light fell, and including 16 civil-war era cannons.

You can see my video of the finale of the piece here.

This was then followed by a great fireworks display.

An amazing finish to a great evening, only slightly spoiled by the fact that it then took us 55 minutes to get out of the car park, which is 5 minutes from home!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Suspected Strawberry Thief

The home-grown vegetables are coming along nicely, and I'm already on the second sowing of peas...

Lots of carrots and sugar snaps (snowpeas):

The first rather large potato!  (just about to bake it for lunch),

and some green bell peppers that got so big and heavy that their branch snapped.

I also keep thinking I have some lovely strawberries coming, but they mysteriously disappear just as they're getting ripe - I suspect the chipmunk is the culprit, so I'm trying to distract him with birdseed...
Look at those fat cheeks!
Who, me?