Friday, March 28, 2008

There and Back Again

The closer I bullet towards age thirty, the more I grow tired of America. Take my trip home this past Christmas. I drove through the suburbs of Philadelphia, frowning at the shopping centers and McMansions encroaching on the hills and farmland. I rolled down the window and yelled at the urban sprawl: "Thanks for bulldozing my childhood!"

I wanted to live somewhere untouched by man. So this spring break, instead of returning to Philly, I decided to check out the United Kingdom.

Friends and family were ecstatic. They gushed, "You are going to love it!" They imagined me, as I did, a lone writer, wandering through green lands of crags and castles and cute pale boys with whimsical accents. Together, we chanted the amenities of the UK. The museums! The trains! The architecture! The clothes! The Guinness! It was all talk. I had never been out of the country before.

So… did I love it? No. I didn't love it. On my last day in Edinburgh, I sat in a coffee shop with some Scottish guys and told them why.

"It's just like America," I said.

They gasped, groaned, and grabbed their stomachs.

"No offense," one said. "But we're used to thinking that we're better than America. I mean, the stereotypical American."

"What is the stereotype?" I asked.

"Loud. Obnoxious. Selfish."

This cracked me up. It was exactly why I had left the US, and exactly why I had no intention of staying in the UK. In my travels, I met many obnoxious people. Some were Americans. Some were not.

In London coffee shops, British girls screamed Avril Lavigne songs and left faucets running in the restrooms. On the street, Asian mothers banged strollers into my ankles. Little Indian boys escaped from their parents and knocked me over. German teens blew smoke in my face. Cars clipped my toes at the curb. I arrived at one B&B to find the proprietress not home, leaving me to sit on the front stoop in the blustery cold. On the train to Edinburgh, my seatmate, a three hundred pound Caribbean woman, ate three chocolate bars and passed out on me. Everywhere I went, I saw people acting like jerks.

But I met nice people too. I traveled alone, taking trains from town to town. Each time before boarding, I asked someone if I was headed in the right direction. When I got lost, passersby stopped to help. Many heard my accent and stopped me, wanting to know why I was in the country and what I thought of Barack Obama. Without their friendliness, I would have felt more alone than I was.

In one town, a group of Italian PhD students invited me to a party. In another, two Liverpudlian brothers warned me of tourist traps. A British Air Force pilot joined me for dinner, simply because I sat alone. A couple teachers invited me to their primary school graduation. Old Yorkshire men sat beside me on the train and told me the history of every town we passed by. Just outside of Edinburgh, I looked out the window at the cliffed coast to see two people walking their dog, and waving up to our train.

Even the Scottish guys were kind enough to put stereotypes aside. They hung out with me, and didn't hit me when I gave my thoughtless survey of their country. They let me explain myself.

"What I mean to say," I told them. "Is that we're all the same. We're not as different as we think we are. I mean it in a good way."

They nodded and agreed. One of the guys went, "Awww."

Still, I decided not to move to the UK. Being away made me realize how much I loved America. Traveling alone made everything look lonely. The castles and patchwork fields lost their romance, once they became part of the every day. I thought: Give me the Jersey shore, Valley Forge, and a Target any day.

Landscape has so little to do with what we call home. It's people that make a place. If people are the same everywhere, I'd rather surround myself with the ones that I know and love. I'd rather have a place to come home to, than a place to run away from.

1 comment:

jillksb said...

I agree with you about the cities: NYC, London, Hong Kong, Rome, Seoul--all the same. But the villages and towns I don't agree. I think they're really different, and that's where you see what people are really like. I think as you travel to places where people don't speak Romantic languages and if you travel to lesser developed countries you might have more varied experiences.

And do you realize for awhile you were writing about people being the same and I was writing about people being so different?