Before I left the UK I wrote a post on Ten things I’ll miss about England.Well, I’ve been in the US for 50 days now, so I thought I’d flip those feelings on their head and tell you what I’ve grown to love, so far, about this wonderful country. That said, I feel a little uncomfortable referring to America as a country. It’s a continent. Texas is twice the size of the UK and about as different from Maine and New Hampshire as England is from Portugal. Nevertheless, I suspect that some of the traits I mention below might seep a little outside New England’s borders.
I was looking up the etymology of the word ‘hospitality’ the other day and came across the most fascinating thing. The Latin hospes means, not only ‘host’ and ‘guest’ but also ‘stranger’ – even ‘enemy’. Hospitality, then, is not a million miles from ‘hostile’.
The word reveals the inherent risk in extending hospitality, in offering food and shelter and warmth and friendship: you don’t know who you’re letting in.
And herein lies the cultural difference: Americans are brave, they take the risk of opening the door; the English are a little more cautious.
Rightly or wrongly, the English often start from the position of suspicion. If you look or speak or behave in a way that is not quite conventional; if you reveal yourself not to form part of the group or clan, the door stays closed, for a while at least. My beloved mother has lived in England for close to thirty years. She still has the trace of a German accent but she could out-grammar any English pedant, has read more English literature than most Oxford dons and has her feet firmly planted in English soil. Still, she is a little continental, a little too outspoken, a little foreign. Still now, the English take a while to let her in. More fool them.
The British need to work out whether they can trust you first. You need to give them time to peer at you over their garden fences and over the top of their newspapers and through their net curtains. They need to let their dog sniff yours. They need to ask around about you, read your CV, do a background check. Then, and only then, they might decide to let you in.
This is, of course, a generalisation and so something of a stereotype. I have met deeply hospitable people in England. And yet, it’s clear that Americans have a markedly different approach to welcoming strangers. Just about every individual, from check out assistants in supermarkets to families we met at Rangeley Lake to our new colleagues and neighbours at St. Paul’sSchool, have opened their doors wide and said, ‘come in, friends.’ I don’t think I’ve ever made so many friends in such a short space of time – and real friends too, once that will last the distance.
Here, however, I’ve given up the latte in favour of the filter coffee, quite simply because the coffee, on its own, with maybe just a splash of milk (almond, coconut, soy, dairy…), is delicious. In one of my other coffee haunts in Rangeley, the wonderful Mooseley Bagels, there were no fewer than 27 different flasks of filter coffee available each morning. I understand, now, why Americans walk around attached to insulated coffee flasks: it’s quite simply delicious.
8. Libraries, Independent Book Shops & American Readers
America struggles to keep its independent bookshops and public libraries going, much as any modern nation – amazon, chain stores and supermarkets ensure that. But they seem to be doing better here than in England. I was told that it was due to the close of Borders but I think it’s more than that. Here, book shops and libraries form the heart of their communities. They’re where people bring their families, their lovers, their children – or browse in blissful solitude.
Book stores and libraries are full of wise, well-read book sellers who will recommend the perfect book for your reading taste. They also support local writers – even if that means ‘new local’ writers like me! The Rangeley Library let me do a book sale and signing on the basis of an email I sent from England before I arrived. Hillary, at Gibsons, is reading Norah and can’t wait to do an event.
My book signing at The Rangeley Library.
Americans also seem to love books, reading and writers in a more open and whole-hearted way than I’ve encountered in England. I brought a box of Norahs and Milos across the Atlantic thinking that I’d be lugging it around New England for a while. Before I left Rangeley, the box was empty.
Ordinary people read. Sophisticated people read. And they appreciate writers.
In England, when I say I’m writer, I usually get a bemused smile followed by questions like, Who are you published by? and What have you written? and, underlying it all, there’s the subtext of: Are you a proper writer, a known writer, a best-seller, a prize winner? Or are you just one of those scrabbling, no-one-has-ever heard of you writers?
I’m fortunate. I’m published by two major publishing houses. My fiction is commercial. My sales figures, though not at best-seller level (yet…in true American style, I’m aiming high), are doing well. My books are translated in a range of languages. I’ve got good reviews. But none of that seemed to matter much to the Americans I encountered: they just thought it was cool that I wrote stories. Maybe it’s because I’ve been amongst everyday folk rather the snobbish New York or Boston literari, but the first response I’ve received from Americans, time and again, is: Can I have a copy your book? And then they’ve read my books, straight away, and got in touch to let me know how they felt about my characters and my stories and passed them on to friends.
There’s a reverence for writers here and an openness to new books. And one of the best places to meet these people is in the gorgeous independent book shops like Gibsons and Books, Lines & Thinkers.
9. Pride of place
There’s a fine line between noble pride and showing off, and some may argue that the Americans veer a little towards the latter, but I’ve found the joy and pride they have for their country deeply refreshing. I remember how Tony Blair tried to make England cool, to brand it, to make us feel proud – and what a disaster that was. In some ways, the English brand is so distinctive that maybe we don’t need to shout about it from the roof tops. Indeed, part of our brand is discretion and self-deprecation.
Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed feeling some of the love Americans have for their land. Top tip: if you’re on a long car journey through America with a toddler, you could do worse than play the, ‘count the stars and stripes’ on people’s front lawns’ game.
I’ve also enjoyed taking part in local parades and celebrations.
Our friends Sarah Kate, Patrick and Jim heading to the annual Rangeley logging parade.
It feels like the local is a celebration of the national and the national is a celebration of the local. So when there’s a blueberry festival or a logging parade in a small town in Maine, it somehow identifies itself with some greater national pride which goes all the way to Washington and back.
The other wonderful thing about national pride is that (Trump excluded), it’s not exclusive: it’s not about saying – ‘Look how great we are, compared to you, who should stay well on the other side of the border.’ Rather, the American spirit says: ‘We love our country – come and love it too.’ I suppose that ties right into their hospitality – because you can’t be hospitable if you’re not proud of where you live.
Even the kiddies’ toy houses have American flags!
10. Enthusiasm, confidence & aspiration
I suppose this underlines many of the points above: it drives the hospitality, the early mornings, the celebration of family and children, the independent book shop and national pride. When I wrote about the things I’ll miss about England and the English, I mentioned how charming self-deference can be. And it is.
But self-deference and self-deprecation don’t feed the soul. They don’t make you hold your head up high and look at the beautiful sky and wonder what’s up there. They don’t make you dream big and reach higher and further.
The simple truth is that people here seem happier. Happier in their jobs, happier in their day-to-day, hum-drum affairs, happier in their relationships. They do things with passion – whether that be making coffee or building houses or teaching. They like new ideas. They like to meet new people, to connect, to set off on new ventures.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt as a teacher, mother and human being, it’s that enthusiasm is infectious – and that it makes people feel good.
I feel deeply grateful for the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had over the pasty fifty days in the great US of A: shifting your whole life to a new place certainly shakes things up, wakes up the senses, makes you look at the world with fresh eyes. I’m also deeply grateful to my dear friends and family at home, whom I love and think about every day: those special English people with open hearts and souls and minds. How lucky I am to have you both.
The wonderful independent book shop in Rangeley, Maine.