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Ten things I love about America
(our New England) :
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Ten things I love about America
(our New England)

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.

1. Hospitality 

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’s School, 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.

IMG_8634Sarah Kate extending the hand of friendship to Tennessee in true American style. 

I used to teach my English students about the power of anecdotes. Let me give you a few.

Anecdote: When Lill King found me writing on the doorstep of The Moose Loop Cafe in Rangeley, she opened the door and ushered me in a good half an hour before opening time. She understood that I needed to start writing at the crack of dawn so that I could be home in time to spend the morning with Tennessee. Lill settled me into the covered porch, poured me a fresh cup of coffee and immediately made me feel that I had a special place to write and imagine. And one day, having heard that Tennessee was sad about her toys being on the boat, she came in with a doll that she’d bought on her day off. Another day, Lill came in with a bag of vegetables from her garden which I swapped for a copy of What Milo Saw.

IMG_9602“Baby Lill” as we baptised her – such a kind gift from Lill King.

By the time I left Rangeley, Lill, Morgan, Gloria, Sarah and Barbara, the staff at The Moose Loop Cafe, felt like family. They’d bought my novels, sat next to me and talked to me about their lives and the town and they made me feel like, whenever I came back, there’ll be a place for me.

Anecdote: On our first day at Rangeley Lake, we met the Murphys: Karen, Jim and their children, Sarah Kate and Patrick. They shared their toys and their snacks, told us about beautiful places to visit, gave us tips on how to survive bugs and invited us into their home for a ‘cook out’.

Anecdote: One morning at The Mooseley Bagel, we met a gorgeous couple, Henry Clarke and Brenda Meaney: actors from New York. They immediately invited us to discover the beautiful, remote cabin on Kennebago lake where Henry spent his childhood summers. We were welcomed with homemade muffins, freshly brewed coffee and an invitation to make ourselves at home in this small patch of paradise.

IMG_8529Tennessee playing with the beautiful, talented and kind Brenda by Kennebago Lake.

Anecdote: We also met Brita, Adam, Corwyn, Aoife and Rio, who played with us for hours on the beach and invited us to their lake house, to dive off their dock and to share some homemade pizza. We’d barely introduced ourselves to them before, like many others, they made us feel like long-lost friends.

More kindness: Chris Farmer offered his legal services to help Hugh with his visa in three years time. Kate Quimby allowed our letters and packages to be delivered to her home – and brought them over to Rangeley for us. The wonderful librarian, Janet Wilson, let me do a signing and sell my novels before she even met. Arthur Haines, the wild food specialist, invited us for a feast after a five minute conversation on Rangeley dock.

I could name dozens more people in Maine who extended to the hand of friendship to us – right from the start.

IMG_9333A gorgeous afternoon spent with Brita, Adam, Corwyn, Aoife and Rio. 

New Hampshire has been no different. As we’ve settled into St. Paul’s School, Concord, we’ve been given welcome hampers, fans to stay cool, muffins, loaf bakes, freshly baked bread, cards and messages when dear, little Vi died. Even the Dean of Faculty, Michael Spencer, sent me a personal message to say how sad he was to hear that we’d lost such a beloved pet. Amazing.

We’ve been invited to dinner, offered cool basements for Tennessee to nap in; we’ve been taken blueberry picking and been invited for play dates; we’ve been leant tool boxes. People have gone out of their way – with no thought of personal gain – to make us feel loved. I’ve worked in three wonderful, wonderful boarding schools in the UK, boarding schools full of gorgeous, kind people, but I’ve rarely felt so welcomed from day one – before day one: term hasn’t even started and I’m not even a teacher here.

2016-08-23 17.29.50The gorgeous Kate Jensik giving Tennessee her daily supply of ‘Kate watermelon’ – the best way to survive a heat wave!

I imagine that, one you’ve lost an American’s trust, it’s hard to win it back – after all, there could be no greater affront than betraying such unconditional hospitality. But their starting point is open arms, which is just the most wonderful quality. One which I hope will win through in the upcoming elections.

2. Family matters

My mother always told me that the country which most respected and welcomed children was Italy. I believe she’s right. But they have a rival. Despite the tantrums and the early mornings and the million and one other demanding qualities of our beautiful toddler, Hugh and I feel fortunate indeed to have moved here with Tennessee. I know that we would have been welcomed as a childless couple too, Americans extend their friendship to all, but there’s something about walking around with a bonkers little girl with unruly curls and a cheeky grin, which makes people step closer.

Americans love children. No longer do I get furrowed brows or icy glares when Tennessee runs round causing havoc in a ‘grocery store’ or when she speaks a little too loud in coffee shops or libraries. People scoop her up and swing her around and understand that being a kid is tough and frustrating and that being a parent is tough and frustrating and so it’s best to show love rather than judgement. To share toys. To offer up snacks. To invite you on a play date.

Anecdote: When one of Hugh’s colleagues, Bill Potter, and his wife, (we haven’t met either of them in person yet) found out that Tennessee’s wellies were on the boat and that one of her favourite activities was puddle jumping, they sent us a pair of new, bright red wellies in the post.

Anecdote: I met a mother in Gibsons Book Store, we exchanged contact details, and the next day she sent me a message offering to take us to a farm she and her children love.

Anecdote: All of our neighbours in the quad of which our dorm, Simpson, forms a part, have let Tennessee come over and play with their toys: swings and slides and bouncy houses and paddling pools and toy houses. It’s telling that none of these families have closed in gardens with walls and fences: their toys are just strewn out in their front yards for everyone to use.

IMG_0224Tennessee playing with the ‘blow up paddling pool’ (plus climbing wall and slide!) at our next door neighbour’s house at the end of a long, hot afternoon.

Lill King from Rangeley summed it up perfectly:

Children matter here.

And by here, she means America.

3. Blueberries

A simple one. In America – or in New England, at least – blueberries taste of blueberries. Especially freshly picked blueberries. I’ve pined for delicious, sweet blueberries my whole life. I’ve tried to grow blueberry plants in England and reaped nothing but spindly, fruitless plants. Trust me, it’s worth coming all the way to New England just to taste that sweet, burst in your mouth, native blueberry.

IMG_0077Blueberry picking at Carter Hill Farm, Concord, NH.

4. Space

I know it’s been said before, but goodness it’s refreshing – and beautiful – to be surrounded by all this space.

Space makes you breath more deeply. It extends your gaze and helps you think of greater possibilities.

From the beautiful mountain ranges in Maine to the tall pines and lakes of New Hampshire to the size of the lanes on roads, there’s room out here. I thought that Wellington’s 400 acres was generous. St. Paul’s School has 2,000. On a practical level, I’m most grateful for the size of parking spaces. I have little spacial awareness and have scraped a good few cars in my driving life. I’m sure I will again, but oh how lovely it is to have all that room to scoot even a big car into.

I love – and miss – the cosy, tightly packed little towns and villages of old England but, for now, I’m enjoying being a little more expansive.

2016-08-24 18.57.10The St. Paul’s lake at sunset…so much space you can feel your lungs expanding with every breath.

5. The natural world – a wildness

I suppose this is an extension of the space point but it’s more than that too. Beyond the cities, there’s a wildness to the natural world here. Nature is more intense and unpredictable: a moose standing on the road, refusing to budge; a bear crouching in a clearing; a chipmunk rummaging through your rubbish bin the kitchen; a thunderstorm that makes you wonder whether you should start building an arc; a waterfall so high that even the most intrepid teenager would shy from scaling its height for the adrenaline rush of a dive; a forest so dense, the trees so tall, that you know that a wrong turn could allow you to get truly lost.

It’s telling that the first time Tennessee saw a forest in Maine she exclaimed: ‘That’s where The Gruffalo lives, Mummy.’ England might have given with to The Gruffalo and Stick Man but America is where these fictional characters come to life.

IMG_8700A visit to Smalls Falls, just outside Rangeley.

There’s so much land to manage in America that it would be impossible for one, central government – or even one state – to control every acre. In England, it feels as though every patch of earth has been accounted for: it’s on the map; ramblers have passed through it; the National Trust have snapped it up and made it look pretty. Here, it’s possible to go a little off the beaten path and to feel blissfully lost – and to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, you were the first to walk this way.

6. Early starts

Oh, my poor, beloved husband: the night owl who would be happy to work until 4am and then sleep in until lunchtime. Americans get up early. Coffee shops open at 6am: flasks of freshly brewed coffee steam up the windows; warm muffins line the shelves; eggs and pancakes sizzle on the pans in the kitchen. You can have an optician’s appointment at 6am. You can work out at the school gym at 5am. By mid morning, most Americans have put in a day’s work. Which I find wonderful. I’m a seize the day kind of person. I love dawn. I love to feel that I’ve got ahead before I’ve even started. There’s a go-gettingness to getting up early. And my beloved husband is learning that too…The only down side? Tennessee is clocking onto the natural trait.

IMG_8925My 6am writing sessions at The Moose Loop Cafe – with the best oatmeal and berries in town!

7. Coffee

England came quiet late to the coffee scene. Mainly because it had pubs and delicious tea, but now, every high street has at least five coffee shops. I’ve spent the last few years of my writing life living in coffee shops around Berkshire, so much so that the wonderful barista, Richard Louis George, features in the acknowledgements of my latest novel, The Return of Norah Wells: he has been as instrumental in supporting my writing as have my dearest friends, family, agent and editor. Richard also makes the best lattes in the world.

IMG_8708

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.

IMG_8483My 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.

IMG_8930Our 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.

IMG_8745Even 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.

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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.

IMG_9455The wonderful independent book shop in Rangeley, Maine.