Ever since you left
It’s like a new beginning.
Look! The bird flies free!
Ever since you left
It’s like a new beginning.
Look! The bird flies free!
The old adage that England and America are ‘two countries divided by a common language’ is alarmingly accurate. Since moving to Arizona a year ago from the south-west of England, I continue to be surprised, perplexed, entertained and intrigued by how different these two nations are. So here is my advice on the how-and-how-not tos, the dos and don’ts of avoiding the perils and pitfalls of life in the USA, whilst experiencing a gulf of cultural differences along the way.
Americans are exceptionally positive people. None of your British non-committalism here; everywhere you go you will be met with a cheery “Hi!”, “Enjoy the rest of your day!” “Thank you so much for coming!” which is rather refreshing when you’re used to the passive-aggressive grunting which more often than not closes a conversation back in Blighty. Americans, even when they’re saying no, do so with unbridled enthusiasm. “I’m not going to fit in with your schedule, but, hey! Let’s make another date!” or “I have no intention of doing what you asked me, but I’ll give you my full support!”; “No, you can’t speak to the doctor, even if you’re having a coronary, but hey! Have a nice day!”. The zeal for niceties is quite exhausting.
The all-American can-do attitude also extends toward the culinary. Everything can be improved upon. Milk? No problem! We’ll add vitamin D! Bread? Absolutely! Added B vitamins or iron! Salt? Iodised! Butter? Add canola oil!
Fortification of foodstuffs is governed by the FDA in a move which surely borders on that of a nanny state, presumably because the Government knows what’s best for us. Although ‘fortification’ is not mandatory, in reality it is quite difficult to find a supermarket foodstuff that has not been ‘improved’ in some way. And yet, bizarrely, Americans are far more intent on pill-popping over-the-counter meds than almost any other country. The knowledge base of the average American when it comes to pharmacopoeia is astounding. According to the U.S. Department of Education only 13% of adults have a ‘proficient’ reading level* but the average Joe can rattle off an impressive list of six-syllable medications with no problem whatsoever.
I’m a big fan of the United States Postal Service. It’s quaint and friendly, with some endearing habits. Every home in town has a mailbox at the end of the drive–no letterboxes in doors here. And all mailboxes have to be of an approved design, in case you go getting any gosh-darned notions about individuality. The post office staff in my town are entertainingly quirky with a wicked sense of humor. This extends right up the hierarchy to the very top, as my significant other discovered when he ordered an ‘adult toy’ from Amazon, causing some controversy when it was impounded by US Customs; a situation which was resolved only after a ‘live chat’ session with a customer service representative. I can’t work out who was more embarrassed. My beloved had the option of keeping a record of the conversation which, rather fortunately, he declined. It’s probably Scotch-taped to someone’s wall right now.
Speaking as one who has been through the desert on a horse with no name (actually his name was Willy, but I’m not admitting that to anybody) I can confidently say I know a thing or two about wildlife. In the U.K. our main ambition is to protect and preserve, whereas in America it’s all about huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. In England if we inadvertently hit an animal on the road, we will take it to the nearest wildlife hospital. Here in the U.S. you sling it in the back of your truck and take it home for dinner. Mind you, a wandering mule deer will make an infinitely more nourishing meal than a squashed hedgehog.
Apart from obvious differences such as driving on the right, or as we Brits would have it the wrong side of the road, there are several key points to mastering the joys of vehicular travel in America. This was made patently obvious to me when I had to take the state driving test, which was pretty much a matter of driving once around the block without hitting anything. I admit to being slightly alarmed when the examiner told me to drive forward on the pavement. In England the ‘pavement’ is what we call the sidewalk. You can understand my confusion. Anyway, having neatly jumped that hurdle I encountered a steep learning curve in the form of signal lights. In the U.K. a red light means stop in the same way that ‘no’ means ‘no’. In America a red light means stop, except when it doesn’t. Turning right, for example. And just to add a bit of excitement pedestrian crossing lights allow people to cross the road against oncoming traffic. Outstanding!
Automatic transmissions are rare in the U.K. and our vehicles are right-hand drive, so at first I found myself regularly reaching for a non-existent shift-stick while simultaneously slamming my left hand against the driver’s door. A year later and I still get in the passenger side to drive if I’m not totally concentrating.
Basically, when driving in America take any rule in the U.K. Highway Code and do the opposite. You won’t go far wrong. Add to this the feel-good factor when you finally get your driver license, complete with the little photograph that’s guaranteed to make you look like a criminal. That, at least, is the same the world over.
American: hood. Brit: bonnet. American: trunk. Brit: boot. American: shift. Brit: gear. You may notice an apparel-related theme here. British car parts are named after items of clothing. That is because, like the well-turned-out hipsters we imagine ourselves to be, we like to think of our automobiles as nothing less than beautifully attired extensions of our own fashionable selves.
Air-conditioning is not a thing in England. Temperatures rarely rise above 65°F, so we don’t need it. What we do need is heat, and lots of it, so our cars and homes come equipped with heaters of varying degrees of efficiency. AC is so much a novelty to us Brits that when my husband moved to New Mexico and purchased an old car he would deliberately drive around with the windows closed just to give the impression that his motor was as well-equipped as everyone else’s. That’s the vehicular equivalent of pulling the crotch of your jeans down around your knees to look like a gangsta.
In the U.K., all vehicles undergo an annual MOT test to ensure road-worthiness. The MOT (Ministry of Transport) test checks things like bodywork, brakes, fuel system, emissions, tires, safety belts, steering and suspension. It even has rules for the color and character spacing of registration plates. It’s illegal to drive a car without an MOT certificate, so if yours fails you have to get it fixed before you can drive it again. This in stark contrast to the USA, where I have seen vehicles held together with nothing more than duct tape and wishful thinking. There’s even one car in my town that has no doors. Thinking about it, that would have solved the problem with my husband’s lack of air-conditioning.
Before moving to the USA I assumed that Americans all drove fast and recklessly on 9-lane highways. In actual fact driving in my town is a joy. The roads are wider than in England but the speed limit is generally lower, and there are some quaint rules which seem to be based more on chivalry than on the need for world domination which comes over many English drivers once they get behind the wheel. At a crossroads, or an all-way stop as it is known here, the driver who arrives at the junction first has priority. So we all stop, then politely wave each other on–none of the queue-jumping and bullish behavior you would see in England. Drivers here acknowledge one another with a polite wave more often than with the middle finger and pedestrians, so long as they aren’t jay-walking, are treated with courtesy. By way of contrast if your car is hit by a Brit, chances are they will leap apologetically from the driver’s seat and with a tip of their Bowler hat and a cheery wave of their tightly-rolled umbrella exclaim “I say, I’m most terribly sorry, old chap!” Here you’ll see Americans speeding off into the sunset in a cloud of dust shouting “Dumbass…”
When it comes to the weather our tried and tested methods of prediction are quite different. In England, we have the Meteorological Office. In America, they have a large rodent. Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog in Pennsylvania who, for reasons best known only to himself ‘predicts’ the weather every February 2nd. As a side note, when I typed in his name, predictive text asked if I’d like to replace it with ‘Unsatanic Phil’. I’d really like to; he sounds far more agreeable. My favorite American weather website updates minute by minute and is always reliably unreliable. I imagine it’s run by a chap who taps stuff into his computer while looking out of the window to see what’s happening. Subsequently I always know what the weather is doing right now, but the future remains disarmingly uncertain. It’s supposed to snow at the weekend, but I’ll pop out and ask a passing chipmunk, just to be on the safe side.
* National Institute of Literacy, August 2016.
This article was originally commissioned by Overland International. An edited version subsequently appeared in the Overland Journal fall edition, 2017.
Whoop! Whoop! My new book The Pelican Tree and other poems is out today, available to order from your local bookstore, or worldwide from Amazon.
Featuring illustrations by Prescott artist Lisa Hendrickson, The Pelican Tree contains an eclectic selection of poetry covering topics from Einstein and Matisse, to the delights of aging and sardines…
Here’s a rather complimentary review:
Devereux’s poems and Hendrickson’s artwork speak musically together to enthuse and inspire us to imagine the best within ourselves … You can never close the cover on The Pelican Tree nor put it to roost on the shelf with the rest of your old favorites; rather, it will ring euphoniously in your ears like the final cadence of a symphony, playing on and on, long after the orchestra has packed and gone home for the evening…
Time, suspended. In gathering stillness
we breathe, and the pregnant air
hushes our expectations.
Night is come, mid-morning,
lulling the birds to sleep
and we wait
then huffed away on an ancient breeze
old as the universe
cool as the ocean’s deep.
Sidestep, sidestep, the liars’ gavotte
Gag the press and burn the lot
Buy the media, make them pay
Big the small man, make his day
Lay the pipeline, dig the mine
Build the wall and toe the line
See the future, it’s so bright
Jesus loves you if you’re white
Honor the flag and do your duty
Cry for us, American Beauty
Be a man, be unforgiving
Save the unborn, kill the living
Jail the immigrant, bash the gay
Mock the cripple, it’s okay
Shoot the black man, cross the street
Hammer the nail through the martyr’s feet
Fake the figures, tell the lie
Live the dream, American Pie
Liberty weeps while rich men rule
Line your pockets, play the fool
Silence the speakers, feed them bread
Bring on the circus, turn your head
Burn the native, take his land
Starve the child, twist the hand
Chain the woman, hear her scream
Wave bye-bye, American Dream
Sidestep, sidestep, the liars’ gavotte,
Gag the press and burn the lot
Constructed of rosewood and dovetail, the Cabinet of Curiosities waits, gathering dust, for the watcher’s introspection. Rimed with silver, mother-of-pearl; a hinge that squeals when woken. Upon each sanded shelf my treasures lie. Mermaid’s purse and sea-glass from Lyme, an urchin, greedily plucked from an aquamarine Cretan seabed; free-diving, naked, off a deserted cove. And from a purple evening’s strandline at Cayucos, a fossilized sea-potato. But it is not solely objects that my cabinet holds. It cat-cradles my memories, as if balanced in a child’s playground game.
That rock-nestled urchin found whilst free-diving, naked, off a deserted cove; the sun bleaching our hair; warm ocean lapping at our skin like a thirsty lover; fish nibbling our toes.
The mermaid’s purse and sea-glass from mid-separation treks around the Dorset coast, the finder finding solace in the crash of waves.
A turquoise-banded bear fetish, the gift of a druid, for guidance. A wooden, jointed hare, a child’s toy from my father’s time, a century ago; reminder of a harsher life, when possessions were few.
A seashell from Orkney, found when I was fourteen, a relic treasured by a half-damaged girl in the years before it all came crashing down.
A California road-trip, passing places I thought I’d never see again; a lost child who I probably never will. His intricately-folded origami crane pierces my heart with happier times before love drove him away.
And my Cabinet of Curiosities, itself no more than a memory, mellowing those rememberings in a box in a room in a house five thousand miles away. For I have a new home now. And a new promise. I shall furnish a new Cabinet of Curiosities with New World memories, findings from desert and ocean, of exploration and learning, of forgiveness, of growing, and love.
I inadvertently do things which seem normal to me but which immediately mark me out as being different. Today I walk to the supermarket. In a culture where the car is King, this in itself is sufficient to cause people to stare. The only other pedestrian is Safeway’s resident beggar. Every supermarket in town has them. Usually a disabled veteran with no Federal benefits, or a young, haggard Hispanic woman, old before her time. More often than not a small child or a dehydrated dog features in the tableau. It occurs to me, rather ironically, that they are more a part of this society than I am; my visa is expired and I have no legal status in this country until the Department of Homeland Security decides to grant me residency. I am not allowed to leave the country until this process is complete; I am a stateless immigrant.
I am gradually getting used to the differences between American supermarkets and those in England. American stores are more reminiscent of the English grocery shops I remember from my early childhood, in the days when self-service was still a novelty. Food is more expensive, and the concept of the ‘value’ brand and fifty varieties of baked bean has not yet arrived. The jars of ‘Pigs’ Feet’ and piles of fresh cactus hold no fear for me. Potatoes are carefully arranged individually on display, as if they are rare fruits, which I suppose is what they are here. They are expensive, and of poor quality. The desert is not good arable country, and anything requiring a large amount of water to grow is a luxury item.
As I pay for my goods, Angie on the checkout offers me a third carrier bag which I refuse, explaining that I have to carry the shopping as I’m on foot. She looks at me as though she doesn’t quite grasp the concept. ‘You want a ticket to paradise?’ she asks. For a moment I wonder if Angie is going to turn out to be some kind of checkout evangelist, but it turns out she is just handing me my lottery ticket.
Being English and coming from a very rainy part of the country I am used to hurrying everywhere, coat buttoned to the chin and head down against the elements. The image of America I used to have in my mind was one where everyone is in a rush. That may be true in the cities, but here in the high desert, no-one hurries. It’s too hot, for a start. Today, in early March, shortly before lunchtime, it is just shy of 70 degrees, and that means a slow walk home. Arizona even has its own time zone. Imagine that in Somerset.
When I arrive home, hot and sweaty in the underwired department, I discover a note left wedged in the doorjamb, left by the Jehovah ’s Witnesses. Last time they came to the door I patiently explained that I was a Quaker and very happy with that, thank you very much. Again this prompted a look of bafflement. ‘Well, we get folks claimin’ to be all sorts of weird religions’ one of them said…the words pot and kettle sprang to mind, but I was too polite to say so. I unfold the leaflet, to find an invitation to a ‘free public event: You Will Be With Me In Paradise’. Superfluous capital letters aside, I spend a moment pondering on being with Jesus in Paradise, Paradise being apparently located at the Adult Center of Prescott on a Wednesday evening. If I attended, I was assured that I would hear ‘an explanation of how his death can benefit you and your family’. Trust the Americans to turn crucifixion into a development opportunity.
I feel brighter today, deciding to revert to good old British cooking making the most of the limited local resources. I improvise Cornish pasties with ready-made pastry cases and frozen veg. I’m not homesick exactly; there are not enough wild horses in England capable of dragging me back to the Somerset Levels, but I miss something of the familiarity of the land of my birth. So, I set about making familiar comforts: jelly with fresh Californian strawberries suspended in glorious, artificial ruby red nectar. I shall produce them from the fridge at teatime, as if by magic, and transport the two of us back to childhood Somerset. This will break all the food rules of the house, of course, this orgy of disodium phosphate and Red 40, and as I whisk it up I am almost drunk with the powdery candyfloss aroma of crystallised gelatin. I breath it in, and decide this is what Paradise smells like. It smells of red, and jelly and ice-cream, and candyfloss.