Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Whole New World

A childhood spent on a small island in the North Atlantic watching the cross-dressing antics of Bennie Hill and the Pythons must be regarded with a wary vigilance. I fondly recall my first purchase of a .45 record. In the early seventies, while others were snapping up the first hit singles by ABBA or the last by the Beatles, I saved my pennies for a oddly appealing little number called The Funky Gibbon.

I learned to read by devouring the classic ‘Ladybird’ series, small hardback books with vaguely sexual titles like Dick Whittington, Peter and Jane, Puss in Boots and The Enormous Turnip. They innocently portrayed an idyllic version of my rural English upbringing, complete with the joys of nippy seaside holidays under grim skies.

Tossed into my reading mix were freshly imported American authors like Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry, who nuzzled their way into my favorite nook and opened my eyes to an alien world. They introduced characters with ridiculously exotic names I’d never heard of like Aaron and Pop. They showcased peculiar scenes of happy farmers building impossibly red barns, growing fictional vegetables such as corn and pumpkins. How could this be true? Such produce didn’t exist in my world. They lied about footwear called sneakers and kids who wore their pants on the outside. Didn’t they know that pants are what I called underwear? They depicted towns with gobbledygook names for familiar objects like garbage truck, and mail delivery person. Whoever heard of such poppycock? What’s wrong with rubbish cart and postman? I learned that people in America weren’t even people, but bears and foxes and pigs and they traveled by railroad or station wagons, whatever those were. What nonsense! And the dogs were uniformly brown, had droopy ears, and wore T-shirts. What a strange country this America must be.

And then a funny thing happened. Later on, I met an American, and married her. I moved to this bizarre land and discovered a few things for myself. The temperature varies by more than twenty degrees between summer and winter – shocking! It is a country plagued with wildfires, tornadoes, and mudslides. Camping means driving an RV complete with microwave and satellite TV. Portion sizes in restaurants could feed a European family of four for a week. Quick is spelled K-W-I-K and internationals news covers stories from as far away as Canada and Louisiana.

Even though I’ve been on this side of the pond for almost two decades now, there are still a few things that puzzle me. Why is it that when I compliment someone on their sweater, the unwavering response is never “Thank you” but always “Macy’s, on sale, 19.99”? Who needs the supermarket to be open at 2:36 a.m. and can I really buy pickled pigs’ feet there? Do people honestly drink Super Double Big Gulps? Why should I tip when the service is mediocre or worse? In public restrooms, who exactly wants to see the feet in the next stall?

Such are the unanswerable questions that stick with me as I navigate this American life of mine. I never guessed I would end up here or that my first forays into reading were hinting at the madness to come.

What a strange country this is.

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