Dispatches from the South: Back Home

If you’ve been paying attention (and if not, why not), you will have noticed my regular column has not been here for the past three weeks. That was my son’s fault; he got married. And insisted I attend.

As is generally the case when my wife and I attend North America, we flew into Canada—both because we like exploring our neighbor to the north and I have an aversion to being treated like a criminal when entering my own country—and spent a few days there before driving to mid-state NY for the wedding.

The thing that always impresses me about America is how big it is. We clock thousands of miles on the rental car every time we visit and even “local” travel involves a twenty minute drive. As a Yank, I’m used to this, and my wife is simply resigned to long periods of sitting in a car while we are on holiday (last year, it was a full three days of driving to get from Albany back to Halifax).

When I first immerse myself in the open spaces of America, I feel a fresh wave of nostalgia and freedom. By the end of the holiday, however, I’m looking forward to being home on the tidy little island of Britain where you can drive from London to Scotland in less than a day.

Another thing I find myself grateful for upon my return is public transportation. Despite being the laughing stock of the EU, Britain’s transport system is miles ahead of anything you can find in America. This year, we became acquainted with Amtrak and were appalled at the inefficiency, lateness and general crappiness of the system. And that’s us, coming from a country where the train system is famously inefficient, late and crappy. But in Britain you can mostly count on catching a train—even if it is overcrowded and half an hour late. Our experience in the US had the trains, on average, an hour and a half late—and there were only five a day! You’d think, with such a small turnover, they would have the leisure time to get it right.

So I’m glad to be back in the Southeast of England, where I can walk to the pub, take a bus to work and book a train trip in the knowledge that there is at least a 50/50 chance of me making it to my destination on time.

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the one outstanding feature of America, and one that I continue to miss: the friendliness of the people.

This isn’t to say Brits are sour-faced curmudgeons—far from it—they’re just reserved, and that translates into, well, being reserved. There isn’t a lot of spontaneous discussion taking place among people at the bus stop here, whereas in the US, I found myself being drawn into conversations with complete strangers while waiting for the crossing lights to change. And the new people I met, as well as old acquaintances I refreshed, were without exception open, warm and genuinely friendly. It was a welcome difference.

I know this column is supposed to be about the wonders of living in the UK, but if you’re looking for breezy interaction with the locals, you’d better move up north or out to someplace very rural; the southeast—and London in particular—is a hotbed of British reserve and I can count on one hand the number of times a local has spoken to me without a compelling reason.

But that’s just here, and that’s just me and that’s just one thing about America that I am beginning to like better than England.

Now your television! That alone would keep me from entertaining any notion of returning. Seriously, you must do something about that; you deserve better.


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