A few months ago I wrote a post about all the things I’d grown to love about America, my new home. They were some of the big, rather obvious things, like the amazing positive energy Americans have and how that makes daily life so much fun. This time, I’d like to share some of the smaller things. Things that I’m sure, within a few months, I won’t notice any longer; things that have become part of my life but that I still catch myself looking at occasionally with a smile.
In the words of Arthur Conan Doyle in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes:
It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.
Moving a whole ocean away hasn’t been easy and there still a million things I miss about England. But here are some of the little things I’ve learnt to appreciate about the great US of A.
1. The foredge of American hardbacks
I’ve done more reading in the last five months than I have in years. Mainly because I’m pregnant. I’m not a very gracious pregnant person: I spent most of my first trimester throwing up and feeling queasy and counting down the minutes to when I could go and have a nap. The pregnancy ‘glow’ has always eluded me. Often, I found myself with little strength to do anything other than slip under my duvet.
But I’ve always, always, had the energy to pick up a book.
As a writer, I count reading as work and that makes me feel a little less grotty and unproductive.
I had to look up that term, ‘forage’ – which, granted sounds a little risqué. I gather that a book, much like a human body, has a structural anatomy with names for all its different parts. The foredge refers to the side where you see all the pages pressed together, in other words, the opposite end to the spine. Americans know how to do a foredge!
When you buy a book in America, especially a hard back, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time and purchased a beautiful old edition when pages were glued together and had to be cut open as you read. It makes each book feel like a special object to be cherished – which is as it should be.
I understand the need for Kindle; I value and praise its benefits. But the joy of holding a new, hardback book cannot be equalled. American books make this experience all the richer.
2. The width of American ovens
Many moons ago, I stayed with a lovely American family who had just moved to London. The husband was an ambassador: they were the kind of family that moved every few years and so they were used to packing boxes and removal vans and quickly settling into new communities. It was a lifestyle they embraced. But there was one thing the wife mourned: American ovens.
She showed me around her beautiful, London kitchen. Everything gleamed and sparkled. Marble surfaces. A gorgeous island. An enormous fridge. Endless cupboards and counter space. But then she sighed and put her hand to her heart and led me to the pantry. There, I bore witness to a graveyard of the most wonderful baking pans and sheets and other items of oven-wear – gathering dust.
Cooking was important for this woman. It was her joy, the space in which she expressed her creativity. And clearly, it’s where she spent her money too. What she loved most, was baking. But none of her gorgeous American pans fitted her new, diddly European oven.
As I looked at her stylish oven-wear, a small part of me wondered who on earth would need such large pans – even with a big family to feed. But ten years on, having moved to America and experienced their ovens first hand, I’ve changed my mind.
We live in a relatively modest house, attached to a boys dormitory and owned by the boarding school for which my husband works. If it were my house to do with as I pleased, there are quite a few things I’d love to change. But we have a tremendous oven. Not a stylish, Rolls Royce oven that forms the centre-piece of our kitchen. It’s not beautiful. But it’s big and wide and generous. In other words, you could (if you weren’t a vegetarian like me), fit the most enormous turkey in it and still have room for spuds. Come to think of it, maybe Thanksgiving is behind the generous American oven size.
I can now slot huge pans of vegetables to roast in my new oven. And my cookie trays sit comfortably side by side, rather than waiting to go in one after the other – which never turns out well, does it? Or it never does with me. One tray inevitably gets forgotten or comes out burnt or crashes to the floor during a baking sheet swap.
It’s a little thing, but it makes cooking things in the oven so much more fun. So here’s to the capacious American oven!
My much loved sky blue Le Creuset pot fits our new, American oven!
3. The friendly dance at road crossings
This is a bit like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. Hugh, my husband, finds it infuriating and ridiculous – especially as he failed his first theory test as a result of an answer pertaining to just this situation.
In the US, there are stop signs everywhere. And when there’s a stop sign, you stop – even if you can’t see another car coming for miles. And by stop I mean really stop. Not slow down or creep over the crossing or inch around the corner. You pull on the hand brake, put your car in park and wait.
And at ‘stop’ crossings, this is the right of way rule: whoever gets there first, crosses first.
Isn’t that hilarious – and wonderful? Especially as, who got there first involves something of a judgement call. And especially as Americans, though weak in other respects concerning the rules of the road, do have this quality: they’re polite and generous to fault. They’ll always let you go first. Even, it transpires, if they got there first.
So, what usually happens at a crossing is that you find yourself squinting at the other cars to your left and right and ahead and you all wait and smile and everyone sort of waves the other person on to go first and it’s all tremendously polite and, in a way, quite British, but also dangerous. What if two people are saying to each other, ‘go ahead, be my guest,’ but they’re not taking into account that the cars on the two other bits of the crossing are saying the same thing?
All this leads to what I’ve come to call the ‘crossings dance’. Which is frustrating for most drivers, especially the impatient, and a little risky too. But there’s something human about it. And, as someone who doesn’t like driving or cars all that much, it cheers me up.
4. A wave from a stranger
In England it’s not uncommon for your best friend or neighbour to ignore you pass them. I don’t think they’re being rude. To generalise, English people are introverts: when they’re driving or walking or cycling, they’re often lost in their own worlds which, at these times, is where they’d rather be.
Americans, however, not only wave at the friends – they wave at strangers too. Something the British would never do, not unless they had a nervous twitch or were mistaking you for someone else.
Why say hello to someone you don’t know? they’d argue. What’s the logic in that?
Well, the American logic of saying hello to those you don’t know is quite simply this: it’s kind.
Here, crossing someone’s path is a cue to say hello.
At first, it took me aback. I’d be cycling down the road and a guy in his pick up would raise his hand or nod his cap or give me a big smile. I’d wobble around a bit, look over my shoulder to work out who they were saying hello to, and then I’d set off again, a little confused. Maybe they thought I was someone else.
And then it happened again. And again.
And I realised that this is just something Americans do: they acknowledge you, just because you’re a human being, just because you’re crossing their path.
It reminds me of how, in the past, the English gentleman would tip his hat whenever he walked past a lady – you see, when chivalry still existed, the English were a more outgoing breed.
So now I wave back and smile and nod and sometimes, if I’m brave, I’ll be the first to take my hand off the handlebars of my bike and call out: ‘Hello!’
Why? Because it feels good. Because it’s kind. Because it says something important about being human: that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what colour your skin is, what gender you are, what your sexual preference is, whether you’re large or slight or stunning or ordinary looking. What does matter is that you’re here. That your heart is beating. That you have a soul. That you’re making your way through the world.
That’s what I’m acknowledging when I say hello to strangers. It’s a lovely, national trait, one that I’m glad I’ve learnt to adopt.
5. Steaming manhole covers
Until I moved to Concord, I thought these only existed in movies from the 1970s. But no. Whenever I walk or cycle into town, I’m captivated by these steaming, metal discs. They’re particularly striking in the morning – something about the cold air and the empty streets makes the manhole covers look even more dramatic.
They make me feel like I’m on the set of an old-fashioned black and white film. Or like I’m going to find Marilyn Monroe tottering over the road in her heels and her halter-neck dress. Or like a ghost-buster is about to pop up to defend the town!
I haven’t got to the bottom of why American manhole covers steam and English ones don’t. I imagine my fondness for them will dissipate when I find out that it’s because the local council pours toxic chemicals down there first thing in the morning to get rid of sewer rats. But for now, they form part of my new setting, and they make me feel happy and dreamy and like I’ve landed somewhere both old and exotic.
Who’d have thought that we could find beauty in a sewer, hey? But here it is, a steaming manhole cover on Pleasant Street, Concord, NH.
6. Brown paper bags
These are a proper thing too, rather than a film thing. And they’re gorgeous. And impractical. And they do rip open as you’re carrying them down the ‘sidewalk’, and everything tumbles out and some kind stranger has to stop and help you pick up your bruised apples.
They bear testimony to one of America’s idiosyncratic national traits, their ability to live out paradoxes: opposites which, held together, shouldn’t make sense but are nevertheless true. So while Americans drive around in their gas guzzling trucks, they also have a predilection for paper over plastic. And brown paper: recycled and recyclable. Long may it continue.
7. Christmas Trees Strapped to Cars
Some of you may have read my recent FaceBook post on campaigning (against my dear husband) for a BIG rather than a small or even averaged size Christmas tree. Big isn’t always better but for Christmas, in America, it would be anathema to be minimalist – or, as I put it to Hugh, to have a diddly tree with a few sorry-looking decorations. I gather, from an American friend, that you’d be considered as something of a loony tune should you even attempt to put a Christmas tree in the boot (or trunk) of your car.
Here’s the conversation I had with my beloved:
Me: Let’s get a REALLY big tree this year.
Hugh: We won’t be able to fit it in the car.
Me: We can put it on top of the car (this is what every sensible American does).
Hugh: It’ll scratch the car.
Hugh: Seriously, the car’s on lease…
Me: We can borrow a pick-up!
Hugh: For a tree?
Me: Yep. It’s Christmas.
Hugh: Who, do you suppose, we should borrow a pick-up from, then? (that lovely, slightly sarcastic British tone).
Me: (Internal monologue: Just look around, dear Husband and take your pick – they’re everywhere!).
Me (with a grin): I saw one outside the Headmaster’s house…
Hugh (eyebrows shoot up his forehead): You really want me to ask the headmaster to borrow his car so we can collect a Christmas tree? Really?
A few moments after I posted this on Facebook I had the offer of about five different pick-ups – including that of the Headmaster! – and bits of tarpaulin to put on the roof of our car, and instructions on how to tie a Christmas tree to a car without causing damage. The next day, as Tennessee and I were having supper, we watched our neighbours’ car pull up – with a Christmas tree tied to the roof. It’s just one of those joyous, iconically American images that make Christmas sparkle.
Hugh finally did come round to the idea of a big tree – and we did use the Headmaster’s pick-up to bring it home. In fact, the Headmaster himself dropped it off. Something else you wouldn’t see an English Head doing.
8. Rainbow Flags Outside Churches
Another American paradox. In a land of religious extremes and intolerance, you will also find the most tolerant and welcoming religious practises of all. I have lost count of the number of churches I’ve cycled past with rainbow flags. In our current political climate, this gladdens my heart. I hope we see more and more of them. And it’s not just churches. I see them outside primary schools too and hospitals and people’s homes. Americans are good at flags. Most homes have the star-spangled banner flapping in their front yards. They like to announce how they feel. To celebrate their patriotism. And part of this celebration is inclusion. I love that.
A church I cycle past every day on Pleasant Street, Concord, NH. Here are some words from their billboard: diverse, progressive, open, affirming,
9. Personable Receptionists
It’s a funny English quirk that the people responsible for giving you the first impression of a school or business or doctors surgery are often the least warm, friendly or sociable people on the planet. I don’t know why this is. And I don’t really want to blame the receptionists in question: they’ve probably been hired for their organisational skills, their efficiency, their ability to multi-task and to process clients quickly. So what if they’re not all warm and cuddly and how-was-your-day about things?
But still, it doesn’t really make sense to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been put off a place because of the cold, standoffish tone of a receptionist. The business or school or surgery in question may be amazing. The doctors and teachers and CEOs may be the most personable of creatures. But their gate-keepers let them down.
Receptionists in the US (with some exceptions, of course) are so warm and welcoming, it’s almost unsettling. Or it would be if you weren’t a sucker for kindness, like me.
They remember your holiday plans, your husband’s job, the fact that your beloved cat just passed away, that you have a toddler, that your mother is coming to visit. They remember the last time you called and the details of that call even if it was a month or two ago.
I’m not naive, I know it’s a good business technique. Everything here is commercialised and competitive: the person taking your blood doesn’t just work for the National Health Service, they want your custom. I realise that kindness can be a commodity and a sales trick. But that’s now how I’ve felt or experienced it here.
Maybe it’s a rural New England thing. Possibly in Boston or New York or Washington the tone of receptionists would be different. But for now, it’s one of the things that makes daily life so much more joyful. And for someone like me, who really doesn’t like the phone very much, it makes dialling and waiting for someone to pick up just about bearable.
10. Vegetable Names
This is definitely something the Americans have over the English. I’m a fan of vegetables. Give me a big, glowing basket of fruit and veg over a cellophaned animal carcass any day. But that’s a whole other debate. The point here is that Americans make vegetables sound wonderful. The names they use make them sound interesting and exotic and lyrical and appetising – and sometimes even funny.
So, although you’ll never find me saying ‘diaper’ or ‘pants’ or ‘band aid’, I’m more than happy to adopt their lexicon as regards vegetables.
Take these few examples:
English: Pepper American: Capsicum
English: Coriander American: Cilantro
English: Courgette American: Zucchini
English: Swede American: Rutabaga
English: Aubergine American: Egg plant (okay, not as pretty, but it’s funny, right?
English: Mange Tout American: Snow Pea (isn’t that cute?)
English: Rocket American: Arugula
English: Spring Onion American: Scallion
Noticing the little things – and celebrating them – cheers me up and makes me focus on the beauty that can be found in the everyday.
The little things are important to me as an artist too. My stories are different from the next person’s because of the small, idiosyncratic details which bring my characters and their actions to life. This is what my readers warm to and fall in love with.
So, noticing the little things about where I live and the people I share that space with, is part of who I am as an artist.
I’ll leave you with the words of someone who knew how to celebrate the ordinary (think of that iconic tin of Campbell’s tomato soup), Andy Warhol:
You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.
(If you’d like to read my first post on the 10 Things I Love About America, click here.)