I’ve lived in the US, and specifically in Texas, for eight or so years now. I have learned one important lesson: it’s the people who make the place…although I’m still unclear about how much the place in turn makes the people.
I am, after all, not a philosopher.
So, living here this long after 30-odd years in the NE of England, things can still feel a little strange, a little alien, a little, well, foreign.
Like how a three-hour drive is not a big deal; like how a guy with a gun can be standing ahead of me in a queue; like how meat tastes when it’s smoked over wood for a long, long time; like how you can have a sensible conversation with a complete stranger while waiting for a food order (and other times, too, I’m sure).
And maybe these things happen everywhere. Maybe it’s my sense of dislocation that makes this kind of thing more noticeable. Or maybe, as a writer of a biographical blog of sorts, I just know that everything is potential material.
Take this very middle-class example from a recent weekend. We occasionally, my wife and I, use Instacart to get our groceries. This weekend’s excuse was that it is the Super Bowl weekend and so HEB would be packed with crazed Americans loading up on beer and chips and dips and beer. We opted out and paid a premium to have a nice old lady shop on our behalf.
This is, as the new vernacular has it, our particular bubble.
The nice older lady shows up with our groceries and an intent to chat. The moment I open my mouth, she’s paying attention. “Where are you from?” She asks.
“The UK. England, the North East, just under Scotland.”
An aside: When I was first settling in here, I spent some tedious hours in government offices, trying to get a social security number. When I finally got to talk to a human, he was a lovely young man who couldn’t wait to tell me how Scottish he was. He’d never been to Scotland, of course, but at least one of his grandparents was Scottish and he’d felt a deep affinity to the movie Braveheart. Really. One day, he promised me, he’d get back to his homeland. I wished him the best of luck.
These people really exist.
So, “just under Scotland.”
“How do you stand it here?” the nice older lady asks.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a good answer. “I don’t know,” I tell her.
The nice older lady tells me that she spent 12 years living in Somerset.
“Nice,” I say, because my repartee is 100% witty 100% of the time.
“YES!” she says. “And I’ve had enough of it here. I’m going back. My daughter has one more year in college then I’m done here.”
I tell her that I understand, but I don’t really see myself heading back to the cold, grey, and Brexit-pocked island of my birth.
She looks at me with sympathy. She reaches up and touches me on the shoulder.
“Stay strong,” she says with one of those really uncomfortable moments of intense eye contact.
I promised that I’d try.