A history and guide to Terre Haute - Differences 1

Differences and First Impressions (1)

I moved to Terre Haute in September 2001 to be with Patty. We first started chatting to each other in one of the internet chat rooms sometime in 1997. A year later we decided to meet and I flew to Chicago then down to Terre Haute to see her. Two years after that we started the immigration process and now Terre Haute is my home.

Between 1998 and 2001, Patty and I would visit each other several times a year. Patty's impression of Britain is that it is cramped and expensive but most of all old. On her visits we went Stonehenge and several other ancient monuments, the stone circle at Avebury and the White Horses in Wiltshire amongst them. I think one of her lasting impressions is from when we went to Well's Cathedral. In the floor of the Cathedral is the resting place of a man who had died in 909AD, he never saw the last millennium, let alone this one.

The last couple of weeks I've been trying to get my thoughts in order as to what are the differences between my new home and my old one. Some are very obvious, whilst others are more subtle. As a result this page may seem a bit rambling, but I hope you find it interesting.

My impression of America and Americans in general is that they are very insular. Basically, if it's outside of the US, and sometimes outside of their own state, it's of no consequence to them. If you've a half decent job and not ill then life here can be very good. The basics of life, food, housing, etc. are a lot cheaper than at home (by which I still mean the UK). It's on record in my Visa application that I've no intention of becoming a US citizen, I'm as proud of being British as Patty is of being American. Going back to food, when you go to a supermarket, exactly how many different types of breakfast cereal do you actually need?

People here say I've got a strong accent, it's not me, it's everyone else! They also say things differently aluminum for aluminium for example - even the spell checker I'm using is trying to correct my spelling of aluminium it's also trying to change litre to liter, centre to center, tyre to tire etc. but give it a few years and I'll have everyone here talking and spelling the right way.

Driving around is also odd. Apart from driving on the wrong side of the road there are other differences. In the UK, when you get a red traffic light you stop (well, most of the time) here, you can turn right through a red light. Petrol here is about the same price for a gallon as it is for a litre in the UK, which is just as well as, apart from the larger cities,  you really do need a car to get around. On the whole, driving in the US is a lot less stressful than in the UK, the roads are mostly straight and actually designed for cars and not just crammed into spaces made for the occasional cart or stagecoach, and I'm managing to slow down and take driving a little easier. The railways are still important in the US and the amount of level crossings here are amazing, but not always that level. I've already managed to bottom out the car a couple of times, once so hard I thought the shock absorbers were going to burst through the bodywork. It's very strange though having to peer out from behind a train to be able to join another road. If a train does get to a crossing before you, you may as well switch off the engine. They are usually very, very long and move at a snail's pace. I was a bit nervous of driving American cars, as all the films I've ever seen seem to have cars exploding at the merest impact, but as I haven't been gunned down by gangsters on my visits to Chicago either yet, I suspect it's all just Hollywoodland.

American streets seem to have much more road furniture than UK ones. They have exposed gas pipes, something that is rarely seen in the UK, as well as the usual collection of electricity and telephone cables. One thing the Americans don't have that most British houses do are television aerials, most of American television being supplied by either satellite or cable. The fire hydrants are exposed instead of being buried in the ground as at home. By the way, if you happen to hit one of these 4 inch cast iron mains water pipes they do your car a lot of damage, they don't just snap off like they do in the films.

Street furniture

Street furniture

It's not often you'll find such a find such an urban scene rich in so much well designed, starkly beautiful street furniture but now and then you'll stumble across something like this. I think this little collection adds a little "je ne sais quoi" to this particular road in Terre Haute.

Guns, at home most people rarely see them, even during my time with the Army on our way to exercises the weapons were nearly always kept well out of sight. Here things are a bit different. The first time I visited Patty I was surprised to see that she kept a sawn-off shotgun in the house. She says she can't be bothered with all that aiming business, and with a sawn-off you don't really have to, just point and shoot. When we went to visit her parents we helped move some furniture, opening a drawer I was very surprised to see what looked like half a dozen hand guns. Visiting a friends house there was a gun on the mantelpiece, when I picked it up I was told to be careful with it as it was loaded, I quickly put it back down. People here are used to guns, and from what I can see, most houses have one around somewhere. This doesn't mean you see guns on the street, getting new holes put into me than my body naturally has by a policeman is more than I'd like to think about. Having said that the crime rate here seems very low, and often there seems little point in locking the house or car at all.

American towns are mostly laid out on a grid system, which makes naming the roads a doddle, and I'm getting used to 21st Street, 2nd Avenue etc. One thing that I find amusing is that where new roads are put in you get names like 34? Street.  It's amusing but confusing, when you've just passed 23rd street you expect 17th to be 6 streets away, but more often it's not as you may get 19? street in between and so 17th street could be 7 or 8 streets away. Apart from that it makes getting around easy, if a little boring. Towns are very open here and there aren't that many fences or walls around properties. Unlike the UK, where, if you don't like your house, people move to a new one, here, they'll just tear the old one down and rebuild it to their liking. This means, that in the UK you get houses that will hardly change from the day they are built to the day they eventually fall down, possibly a hundred or more years later, here they last only as long as you want them to. This also means that where in the UK you'll get housing estates made up of hundreds of near identical houses you very rarely find that here, where most houses are as individual as the people who built them.

North 14 and a half street

North 14 and a half street

If they don't fancy rebuilding from scratch, people here, as in the UK, will add bits to them and the do-it-yourself stores are common in both countries. Patty wanted electricity in the old garage, so I said I'll look into doing it. I rewired both houses I owned in the UK and couldn't foresee much difficulty in adding a new circuit here. WRONG !!! The basics are the same, power from a fuse box to a switch then onto the light fitting, but when I went to the store to get the bits and pieces I needed, I couldn't find a single fitting I recognised and I had to get a book to explain the fittings and circuitry to me. In the UK wire is measured by its cross section in mm, here they use it's gauge. The higher the gauge the smaller the wire, which seems backwards to me. In the UK, power outlet and light circuits are kept separate and use different size wire, here the same size wire and even the same circuit can be used for both. This seems a bit silly, as if you manage to overload a power socket and burn out the fuse then the lights go off as well. As I wanted to run wire to several lights in the garage I needed a junction box. All they are is a plastic box with screws on posts that you can use to join several wires together, not here, when I asked a store assistant and explained what I wanted he looked as if I was explaining rocket science to him. What they use are wire nuts, into which you screw the wires you need to be joined. If you need it to look tidy then you buy a separate box, drill your own holes and hide the nuts in that.

The electricity in the garage thing is part of my "Honey Do" list. I've always kept lists of the things that I should get round to doing, in fact I'm better at making the lists than doing the things on them, but the "Honey Do" list is new to me. I first came across one at Patty's parents house, it was attached to the fridge and included such things as "paint the back fence". I soon realised what these lists meant. Mine is now three pages long and growing, I only hope I live long enough to do everything on it. Perhaps these lists are one reason why women still live longer than men? Perhaps Patty is trying to get rid of me already? Some of the items seem a bit dangerous - like the electricity thing in the garage and tree trimming. At home the council is responsible for the trimming of the trees along the roads, here it seems the owner of the house they stand outside of is. So now we have a very oddly shaped tree outside our house. The residential areas of Terre Haute are full of trees which for most of the year makes it look very pretty, I got here in the autumn and one of the first jobs was rake up the leaves, there are absolutely thousands of them. A couple of weeks later I was doing it again.

Terre Haute is French and means high ground. This is a laugh, as the land around here is the flattest I've ever seen. On one trip here we visited Patty's parents in Decatur, Illinois. As we drove there during the night I said I wished it was daylight so I could see the scenery. A couple of days later we drove back, this time in daylight, and I realised there was no scenery!! The land is as flat as land can possibly get. This leads me on to one of the biggest differences between my old home and my new. There is too much sky!! Bristol, England, sits between two rivers, the Avon and the Frome, in a natural bowl surrounded by hills. Bristol itself, is built on seven hills. As a result where-ever you go you can see a hill, not here, as the land is flat you can see huge expanses of sky stretching out in all directions. It's not un-nerving, just odd. One thing about it though is that the area is very prone to thunderstorms and when one's due I can go upstairs and watch the storms race in across the countryside, and the great stretches of lightning streak across the sky, something I've never seen to their full affect at home.

Wabash River from Merom bluff

Wabash River from Merom Bluff

Merom is about 40 miles south of Terre Haute and there are fine views from the bluff. Here's a fun thing to do - in your favourite search engine look for Indiana + mountaineering - believe me, you won't get much back.

One thing bothered me for a long time, and that was why American towns look so different to British ones. It wasn't anything to do with some of the things I've already written about, but rather something more fundamental about them. First of all I thought it was because British buildings are more solidly built, but that isn't it, the buildings here are as well built as any in Britain. I finally realised what it was, and it's do with history and heritage. There is very little to give a sense of history here. Terre Haute itself was only founded in 1816, and it's near 200 year history is a mere step backwards in time compared to Bristol's 1,500 years, or somewhere like Stonehenge and it's 3,000. I know that several tribes of native American Indians lived here for thousands of years but their traditions were oral not physical, and, so far, I've not seen any trace of them at all. Most British towns and cities grew and developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it shows, in the different styles of architecture, even in the layout of the streets. Not so here, apart from a few old(ish) buildings I get the sense that most of the town could be swept away and it really wouldn't matter that much, whatever was rebuilt would be nearly the same.

In the UK, when you call the police you get a policeman. The may belong to the Somerset, Metropolitan, Merseyside etc. force depending on what part of the country you are in and it doesn't really matter. Here they have the town police force, the county police and the state police. If you're unlucky enough to get involved in an accident on the edge of town you could get all three turn up. It's all very strange. Patty and I were in one of the rougher parts of Chicago and went into a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop for supper. There was a guy in uniform there with a gun, I thought he was an off-duty policeman but it turns out he was a security guard hired by KFC to protect the place. What a strange society, "drop that chicken and put your hands in the air". If the private security firms pay like the ones in the UK, what an odd job, minimum wage BUT you could get the chance to kill someone.

At home, practically everyone has piped water to their house, not so here. Some of our friends who live just outside of town still use wells. On one of my visits here one of Patty's mature students invited us to a "Cajun Cookout". I've got to admit it all looked pretty messy. They cook everything in a big cast iron pot, put out newspapers and plastic sacks on the tables then dump all the food on that. During the course of the evening I used their toilet and was mortified when I managed to back up their septic/slurry tank. There was water and "stuff" all over their bathroom. They were very nice about it though and explained to me that their plumbing was a bit "rural", but I don't think I'll be invited back anytime soon. Being a city dweller most of my life, it was nice sat around the big fire chatting away and watching the fire-flies and listening to the coyotes and owls. There are wild deer everywhere here and hunting is a big thing, even Wal-Mart sells rifles and shells - something that they just don't do in Asda or Tesco's back home. In season, there are cars parked all down the sides of the main roads and the sound of rifle fire. Although in the UK there are signs in places warning of wild deer crossing they are a pretty rare sight, here in the US they mean it. It's pretty scary going down Hwy 41 at 60 odd miles an hour and one of these big beasts leaps out at you. One night we went out to eat in a restaurant with some friends and their kids. Parked outside was a 4x4 with a dead dear strapped to the back, when Patty said "Oh look, they've killed Bambi" the kids wanted to go out and inspect it.

This page created 1st December 2001, last modified 6th February 2007