Phil is like the Rainman of dates. Quite randomly, he will announce things like “it’s 27 years ago today since I went to see U2 at Wembley” or “today is the birthday of my first school friend – the one I knew when I was 5.” Since I have to work hard to remember even the most basic of important dates, I am always amazed by this.
Yesterday as we were eating dinner, he announced that it was 16 years to the day since we arrived in America. And as soon as he said it, I was thrown back to that stressful, turbulent, exciting, scary period.
We came from Toronto where we had lived for 6 years and where we had made a relatively easy transition to Canadian life. My boss-to-be in the US had made the same move from Toronto to the US a few years earlier and I remember his warning about how difficult the change would be.
“The move from England to Canada,” he said, “is much easier than the one from Canada to here. It fools you, this country, because it all looks a lot like Canada. But believe me – it’s worlds apart.”
There was never a truer word spoken. The culture clash was intense. For years, I felt slightly off balance – mainly as a result of the in-your-face honesty of America.
People in Canada are not direct. Like the British, they tend to talk around subjects, particularly difficult ones. They soften the blow of harsh words, tiptoe around tough moments, muffle harshness wherever possible. If you want to be generous, you could say that the British and the Canadians share a desire to be kind. Or you could just say that they’re both scared of conflict.
There’s nothing timid about America. And when you experience it cold, having only ever visited once or twice before, it’s like a blast of wind on a day by the sea, snatching your breath in your throat. The people are more direct – they tell you exactly what they think and don’t cushion the blow. The TV ads don’t pretend to be mini-shows that just happen to feature a chocolate bar – they just come right out and tell you to buy the damn chocolate bar. But they’re not usually for chocolate bars of course. For the first time in my life, I saw ads for prescription medicine. I couldn’t believe it! These ads told you to talk to your doctor about your bloating or your restless leg syndrome or your frequent constipation. And not only were you urged to rush to the doctor, but you were helpfully provided the name of the medicine you should ask him to prescribe. My mind was blown.
I don’t know when we started to settle in or when the unusual became the norm. But somewhere along the way we did. Somewhere along the way we became more open and direct. Got used to calling the motorway “the highway” and a jumper “a sweater.” Got so we barely noticed the TV ads for Medicare-covered catheters (“At last! No more reusing old catheters!).
And now we’re preparing to do it all again. I hate how long it’s all going to take, but perhaps that’s a good thing. It gives me time to read more British newspapers and watch more British TV and try to ease myself back into the culture that I left 22 years ago.
Boy, I’m going to miss those ads for prescription Zoloft.