We've lifted a great quote from Expat Mojo's 365 tips for expats this week, and we're reflecting on how our own travels have colo(u)red our views of our own country.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime".
– Mark Twain
When I first came to the States I admit to being a bit of a grammar snob. If I heard something slightly different from the British version, I automatically assumed (albeit silently, thank goodness) that the Americans had bastardized the original.
I heard the word "momentarily" a lot, especially when waiting on the phone for a customer service rep. "The next representative will be with you momentarily". Of course, "momentarily" means for a fleeting moment doesn't it, I would think condescendingly. Then one day I looked it up in Webster's dictionary (an American dictionary I'll admit) and sure enough it gave two meanings, the other being "in a moment". Americans were using it correctly. Gasp! There are many other words and phrases that were actually once used in the UK; it's British English which has moved on while American English is often truer to the source. Words such as "closet" are now old-fashioned in the UK, but still in common usage here.
Lesson number one - British isn't always right!
My time here has also made me appreciate this about England:
- The gorgeous smell of a garden on a summer evening. Here in the Midwest of the USA, there aren't many smelly flowers.
- The relatively temperate climate. In Chicago we typically have summers in the 90's (Fahrenheit) and winters in single digits.
- Public swimming pools. Apart from outdoor pools in the summer (which we don't have in the city) there aren't any public swimming pools; you usually have to join a health club and pay monthly fees for all the other things you don't use - like the weights room, and the running track.
- Good TV. Yes, we might have hundreds of cable stations but they seem to be divided into news, entertainment, sports, crappy reality shows and crappy sitcoms; there are rarely any deep documentaries and the only decent drama comes straight across the Pond, often a couple of years later.
- Proximity to a coast; being brought up near the wild and windy north east coast line, I thought I missed the sea when I lived in London, but here in the American mid west I rarely smell the salty air. We have Lake Michigan here with nice (man-made) beaches, but it's just not the same.
- Too many food items to list.
And finally, from a distance, England still looks like a pretty good place to live even though everyone seems to be fairly pissed off at the moment. At least you don't have Sarah Palin!
Every American—at some time during their life—should be required to spend a year abroad. Really, it would do them good. Denmark would be a good place, or Belarus, but ultimately the country isn’t important (as long as it isn’t Britain—you can’t swing a bowler hat without hitting an American here these days); what is import is that they get out and understand there is a wider world that doesn’t care about The Super Bowl, how much money Bill Gates is worth this month and who is most likely to win America’s Got Talent.
Similarly, an equal number of Danes and Belarusians need to spend an equal amount of time in America, both to keep their countries from becoming overcrowded while all those Americans are there, and so they can learn that not all Americans are redneck, gun-toting, fundamentalists ready to barricade themselves in their farmhouses and spark up the fuse to Armageddon. Granted, we’ll have to send them to Michigan, Wisconsin or one of the other more placid states (or at the very least avoid the Deep South) but I think it would go a long way toward promoting universal peace and understanding.
(Excerpted from my upcoming book, Off on a Tangent – the ramblings of an accidental expat, due out in this summer.)
So, in moving to England, my world opened up, and I have to admit it has been such a pleasant experience I am having trouble finding things I miss from my old life back in the States, but with a little effort, I came up with these:
- Denny’s: I miss being able to just stop off at an informal dining place for coffee or a Ruben sandwich and some conversation. The only comparable establishment over here is Wimpy’s, but the food there is the stuff of nightmares.
- Alieve: I have to send to the US for this, the only pain reliever that works for me. And standard aspirin comes in packets of 16 and you can only buy one at a time. The next time I go to the US I am bringing back a 500 tablet bottle of Bayer.
- Medical Treatment: Back home, I used to go to the doctor for a once-a-year check-up. In Britain, they do not do preventative medicine and only want to see you if you are dying. And even then they will make you feel like you are wasting their time.
- Dry cleaning: Too expensive and really crap service. I used to take my shirts out for cleaning in the States, and I miss have nicely pressed and starched shirts.
- Cheap Cuban cigars: How ironic, that in the country where smoking a Cuban cigar is considered treason (it is part of the “trading with the enemy” act) that I could easily procure reasonably priced Cubans. When I moved to a country where they were legal, I assumed I could get them even easier, but a decent Vegas Robiena cost about £14 (about $20) at my local tobacconists. I cannot, in good conscience, set fire to something that costs that much. I want to smoke it, not frame it.
- Optimism: The news here is uniformly awful. No matter what it is, it is going to kill us all. There is no sense that good times are just around the corner, the only thing lurking there is certain catastrophe.
- Friendly people: It’s a cliché for a reason. Americans are friendly (but not as friendly as Canadians), and the British, especially the southerners, as a reticent bunch. I’ve been here ten years and still do not know anyone I could call up and ask if they wanted to go down to the pub for a few beers. The only people who spontaneously talk to me are displaced northerners and nutters.
And finally, I miss that sense of belonging, of being in a crowd when someone starts chanting, “USA! USA!” and soon everyone is chanting. I realize outsiders look upon with a bit of fear and find it very tribal. But it’s my tribe.
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