Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some Things Are Better... Some Things Are Worse

There's a column that Bill Bryson wrote that has stayed with me throughout my ex-patriot experience. Bill Bryson is an American who moved to England at the age of 26 (same as me!) and married an English woman (same as me! – except I married a man). When he and his family moved back to America in the mid-nineties he wrote a series of columns for The Mail on Sunday's Night & Day magazine.

In this one particularly memorable column, Bryson talks about how efficient and agreeable his local U.S. post office is – best of all the fact that once a year it hosts a 'customer appreciation' day where coffee, donuts and pastries are served free of charge. "Much as I admire the Royal Mail," he writes, "it has never once offered me a morning snack, so I have to tell you that as I strolled home from my errand, wiping crumbs from my face, my thoughts towards American life in general and the U.S. Postal Service in particular were pretty incomparably favourable."

However, he goes on to point out the U.S. Postal Service has some drawbacks. The same day as 'customer appreciation day' he had a letter returned to him because he had neglected to address it properly with a street name or number. He wrongly assumed that Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California was enough of an institution that the letter would arrive regardless. Unfortunately, not only did the letter never make it there, but it had, in fact, spent six weeks in California.

This was in clear contrast to the fate of a letter addressed to Bryson in England, with the address simply written 'Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales', which arrived within 48 hours of its posting with the help of the industrious Royal Mail service.

His conclusion? "The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there's nothing you can do about it."

This advice has got me through many a bad moment as an ex-pat.

There are days when I worry if I did the right thing moving to another continent and country. I often wonder if I'll ever feel at home anywhere ever again. There are times in England when no matter how amazing my life feels and how many friends I have, an ache remains from somewhere within that I am really far from everything I truly know. But there have been trips home to the U.S. when as much as I enjoy catching up with all my friends and family, I feel anxious to get back 'home' to England to the life I've built here.

I have decided that 'home' is now a mix of both – and there is one group in which I do feel completely at ease – with my ex-pat friends. Whether they are American or from another far-flung place, there's a connection that doesn't necessarily exist with others who haven't strayed as far from their home towns. Don't get me wrong – I love my English friends too (and the Hub, of course). But there's a comfort I think we all need sometimes – the comfort of someone who has stood in our shoes and can truly empathize. And can understand why it's strange to have a washer but not a clothes dryer.

And although some things are better and some things are worse, I find it's best to try to focus on the good stuff (when I can). In honor of that, here are lists of my favorite things from both countries.

England: Pubs, topiaries, fields with cows and horses sheer minutes away from cities (even London), savory pies made with things like steak and ale, gin & tonics (acceptable to drink one at any time of day, really), the fact that everyone else is as pasty-skinned as me and people actually notice when I get a 'tan' on vacation, you can take the train to France, orange squash (a drink, not a vegetable), the fact that they call lady bugs 'lady birds', people are polite even when they are not very happy with you, Pimms cocktails in summer, curries and a seemingly endless supply of tea.

America: Thanksgiving, the abundance and constant availability of ice, Triscuits, Twizlers, clothes dryers, endless optimism, ordering anything in a restaurant 'your way' and never getting the hairy eyeball, strangers striking up conversation at any moment in any place, hotdogs – particularly at baseball games, the sound of a screen door slamming on a hot summer day, Fourth of July picnics, fireworks and fireflies, and pizza by the slice.

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2 comments:

  1. While I've never lived across the Pond, I spent my first years in Wisconsin, next set in south-central Pennsylvania, and am a California girl now. The good thing about living in different places, is you have friends & family everywhere. The bad thing about living in different places... same thing.

    Definitely culture shock, charming accents, and people who take for granted "that's the way things are DONE" as opposed to "this is how we do them here." Sounds wonderful, though, although I would miss the 4th of July stuff. Didn't figure that would be one they celebrate in the UK. :-)

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  2. No celebrating the fourth here is a bit ironic! I tried for years to get Americans together, but it usually just makes me more depressed. It's never hot and usually overcast that day (as luck would have it). Thanksgiving is easier to celebrated here somehow!

    Good point that you don't have to move to another country to have family and friends far and wide. It's a side effect of our increased mobility these days. But you're right, creates both positives and negatives. Everything is always about trade-offs... thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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