Monday, 25 July 2011

Welcome Home

After living in the UK for almost 7 months--officially my longest amount of time in another country or on another continent--I returned this week to the US. What a fantastic country. In fact, I might even venture the opinion that it is the greatest country on earth, even if our government can't figure out a way to balance the budget.

Look at all the other things America has going for it. For instance, it is July, and it actually feels like July. How considerate of the nation to have a heat wave just in time for my arrival. I get to wear tank tops and shorts without worrying about getting cold, I can feel sun on my skin, and I might even break a little sweat when I walk outside. During storms, the rain is warm. Fantastic.

I went shopping the other day and felt delightfully overwhelmed by all the options available to me. I know Americans sometimes get criticized for being materialistic and wasteful, but it is wonderful to walk into a store and have so many options. I went to buy sunblock, and there were at least 10 different brands, each with multiple different strengths and consistencies, each in lotion and aerosol and pump-action spray. So much variety! In the produce department, many things actually come from within the country, or, if not, from very nearby. For obvious reasons, this differs from the UK, which not only does not have enough climate variate to grow all the different crops that are found in the US, but also just doesn't have enough space. When I made fresh salsa for my family, it tasted different than when I make it in the UK; I realized that the difference was the sweetness from the tomatoes and limes, which did not have as far to travel to the get to the grocery store.

Speaking of plants, another amazing thing is the greenery in the wild. Not that the UK isn't green, but so much of the landscape is trimmed or planned or managed in some way. But around here, it is not only bountifully verdant, but also wild and lush and a little unkempt (dare I say, not a bad metaphor for the American people themselves?). The trees appear to be swimming in vines and bushes and waist-high grasses If you look out into my parents' yard, you can see chipmunks and squirrels and groundhogs and birds and insects all zipping around doing their thing. It's all so wild and active and busy. And the space! Cornwall has to be one of the most spacious places in Britain, since you really get no sense of how densely packed the country is. But compared to where I've been spending my time here in the US, Cornwall is a giant, booming metropolis. There is so much distance here between houses and towns and from one side of the street to the other. I feel as though I've been let out of a cage (that I never even knew I was in).

(Some of the verdant growth in my grandparents' backyard.)

I've been seeing and hearing an awful lot of "old friends"--just this evening I encountered some eastern kingbirds, whom I immediately identified by sound. Earlier this morning I heard some white-eyed vireos in the undergrowth along the creek at my grandparents' house, and as soon as I arrived at my parents' house I watched ruby-throated hummingbirds visit their feeder. Britain has some spectacularly adorable bird life (you really can't get much cuter than European robins) but the American species are the ones I grew up with--the ones that first got me excited about birding, and the ones whose calls and songs made the soundtrack to all my early outdoor adventures.

I've also seen some fantastic historic buildings. Americans don't do "historic" quite the way the Europeans do--we don't have a long enough history to compete--but what we do have is amazing. The river town architecture is evocative of another era; you half expect to see Mark Twain come strolling out the front door of the best-preserved buildings. Then there are all the decorative mimosa trees out front--not native here, but such a quintessential part of the river town scene along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. The barns are also amazing--some with quilt-square murals and Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements, others full of hay bales, and others with a strangely picturesque, "rural decay" caved-in look. Every now and then you pass an old cemetery in a seemingly random location, and you know you've either found an old homestead or a spot where early frontier travelers had to bury someone during their journey. It's hard not to feel a little awed and inspired when you travel across the US and think about the first Europeans who showed up and made their way across that immense and forbidding wilderness, often on foot, with only very primitive tools. It gives you some insight into why we can be so stubborn.

Speaking of incredible journeys, today my GPS unit had me cross from Ohio into Kentucky on one highway, then cross back over into Ohio on another highway, before finally leading me west into Indiana (where I was actually going). I forgave this ridiculous piece of navigation after it routed me through a town called "Gnaw Bone." In what other country on earth would you find a town with such a name? (Okay, I admit that I wouldn't be surprised if such a place existed in Australia). At a rest stop in the Hoosier State, I took a picture of the scenery just to capture the amazing colors. I didn't realize that Indiana had even more corn fields than Ohio:

After that break, I swapped out my overwhelmingly British playlist for some country and bluegrass music. Americana tunes just don't have the same appeal along Cornwall's rugged coastlines as they do in the middle of a landlocked US state. One of life's little pleasures is driving through the heartland, surrounded by corn fields and wide open skies, listening to country music. It just goes to show that you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can't take the Midwest out of the girl.

There are many things I love about the UK, and many things that drive me crazy about the US, but no matter how long I live in Cornwall (or in any other place, for that matter) this place--Athens or Southern Ohio or the Midwest or Appalachia or all of the above--will always feel special. Some things will change, but because this place is practically in my DNA, I will feel relaxed here because I know what to expect. I know that you can find heavenly sweet corn at roadside stands in July. I know that "creek" and "wash" might be pronounced "crick" and "warsh." I know that there will be fireflies blinking on and off during hot summer nights. I know there will be US flags everywhere and license plates that say "In God We Trust." I know that Walmart will always have whatever I need, for the lowest price around. Some of those things are more enjoyable than others, but all of them are home.

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