Thursday, 22 June 2017

Common Courtesy: Or, Life on a Small Island

Our street in Durham.
In Durham, England, the recycling-pickup truck comes equipped with an automated warning voice, blasted out at the decibel level of  a stadium football announcer: Stand well clear. Vehicle reversing. [beep, beep] Stand well clear. Vehicle reversing. [beep, beep] Stand well clear .... All right, you get the idea.

The voice is a clipped, posh-sounding, south-of-England male voice: Staahhnd WELL clear. Vehicle re-VUH-sing. Nothing and no one can stop these remonstrations as long as the recycling truck is, well, reversing. (That is to say, backing up.) And very often this truck seems to reverse the entire length of Victoria Terrace, the street below Dave's and my bedroom window, in the wee hours of morning. Once when this guy's stentorian tones woke us up, Dave rolled over in bed and said, "Now, what exactly is it that we should do while he re-VUH-ses?"

Thought I'd prefer they did not wake me up at half-six*, I'm sort of in love with the overly articulate warnings of British culture. Once when Dave and I were in Edinburgh, a fire alarm went off in the office building across from our hotel on St. Andrew Square. (It must have been a drill or a mistake, as we never saw flames.) With this alarm, too, came a loud, posh automated voice: "This is a fire alarm (FI-yuh ah-LAHM). Please vacate the building .... This is a fire alarm. Please vacate the building ...."

St. Andrew Square, in Edinburgh
Hearing this, I said to Dave, "It's just like that damn recycling truck. It not only beeps, it has a voice."

"The British like to make sure you understand why you have to do what you have to do," Dave remarked. "Think of their signage, too."

In America, if someone wanted you to keep your dog off the grass, the sign would just say, NO DOGS or at the very most, NO DOGS ON GRASS. But here the signs literally say, Dog owners are advised please to keep their dogs off of the grass. Dog feces attract rats and other vermin, which we here in the park would like to prevent for health reasons.

Dave and I went on listening to that Edinburgh fire alarm for a while, till he added, "I'm actually sort of surprised it doesn't say"--he affected an upper-crust accent--"'Caution, a fire is burning. Please stay well clear of the flames. The burning flames could cause harm to you, or to others. Please stay well clear of the flames.'"

We had our laugh, as we periodically do here in the UK over such things as signage and alarms. But really, isn't it kind of wonderful? Who in America would even bother to explain things so thoroughly, to try to reason with whomever is being cautioned? How many of us in America, upon seeing a warning sign three sentences long, would stop to even read the whole thing?

There's something about British culture, I think, that calls for a little more slowness, and a little more awareness of others, than we are used to in the US. Rather than flying past signs that are often more image than language -- really just semaphores -- you have to slow down a little in the UK, to read the more detailed signage. And the makers of British signs and alarms go out of their way to be polite, to offer explanations for their requests, in a way that feels, well, more personal. I've come to think there may be a link between being personal and thoughtful of others and having to live close to them.

In America, land of comparatively huge houses and roads and wide-open spaces, one's coworkers and friends and even one's neighbors may actually live miles away. Thus it may be easy to forget that we are not alone, after all, in the spaces we occupy. In England, meanwhile, the presence of others around you is hard to miss. The country of England is physically tiny. It's somewhat smaller than the state of Illinois -- 50,350 square miles, as opposed to Illinois's 57,910. On the other hand, England has a population density of approximately 1,100 people per square mile, while in Illinois the average number of people per square mile is 232. In other words, England has about 5 times as many people per square mile as the state of Illinois. People here live comparatively very close together, even in the English countryside and in small towns like Durham. This physical proximity, in my experience, breeds a kind of politeness -- an awareness of others -- that is not always present in the US, where we may take our big spaces for granted.

As one example, I remember when Dave and I had recently moved to downtown Chicago, to a condo in a converted warehouse. We were at the time teaching at a deeply suburban college, to which we commuted by train. Despite the 90-minute commute to work, Dave and I loved living in Chicago's Loop and raved about it to some of our colleagues at the aforementioned deeply suburban college. "It does sound really great," sighed a fellow professor. "The restaurants, the clubs, the museums! All the street life! But I'm not sure I could live so close to other people."

Downtown Chicago
"What do you mean?" we asked her. "Why not?"

"Well," she said, "how thick are those walls in your condo?"

Dave and I looked at each other. We didn't know. "Pretty thick?" I said. "Thick enough?"

"Yeah, but can you really blast your bass when you want to?" our colleague said. "Can you just turn your music up loud whenever you want to?"

It perhaps goes without saying that this former fellow professor of ours never did make the move downtown. And while I do get the joys of cranking up one's sound system, that feeling of "I should be able to make all the noise I want, whenever I want to" is a feeling that flourishes only in places where our neighbors feel distant from us. (Whether they actually are distant from us -- distant enough that we can jam out at three in the morning -- is another question. I wonder now if the other people who lived on that former colleague's street perhaps heard her bass beat sometimes, even without sharing a wall.)

Durham University students, on Kingsgate Bridge
Because we moved here from the U.S., where that mentality is stronger, Dave and I were leery of all the houses on our street in Durham that were occupied by twenty-year-old students. Durham is a university town, first and foremost; the population literally doubles every October when the new school year begins, so it's hard to find a street in town that doesn't contain student housing. But we did wonder, at first: Are all these university students going to stress us out? Are we going to be up at all hours because of some neighbor kids' wild parties?

The answer is, simply, no and no. (I feel I should touch wood as I write this; who's to say that nice red-headed guy who's always typing in the window across from my office won't turn on a disco ball this very night, invite his 30 best mates over, and fling his window wide? Except that I've watched him and his roommates come and go out for almost 2 years now, and I'm just pretty sure that they won't.) Dave and I do see students on our street every day. This time of year especially -- between final exams at the beginning of June, and graduation at the end of the month -- university students are out at night in full fervor. Most of the time, they seem to be going to fancy-dress balls. The guys wearing tuxes, the girls wearing gowns. This week alone, as I walked around town in the evening, I saw a guy in an actual top hat, two guys in tails, and two others in full-on Scottish kilts. 

Just like this. I kid you not.
The students are out and about. They are partying. I know this, too, because they sometimes throw up in the street. (The city always comes by and cleans up, the day after.) But do I ever hear them? I mean, ever hear them? Again, I hope I'm not jinxing myself as I write this, but I don't. These students are amazingly, wondrously, and -- to my American, noise-jangled mind -- almost miraculously quiet. 

Perhaps the university students never think of it this way, but their relative quiet, even in the midst of their June-long revelry, is a form of respect and politeness to others. I can totally get behind it. And even while the recycling truck's announcements at the crack of dawn and the voice-aided fire alarms may make me groan at times, or just laugh, I think the impulse behind them, too, is a form of respect and politeness. An acknowledgement that we're all sharing this space.

*That's how the British say six-thirty. Isn't it pretty? I think so.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

How to Live in Another Country

My sister Linda and me with our uncles
Phil and Rick and our Grandpa and 
Grandma Hostetter -- Nigeria, 1972.
June 8 is an historical day, both in my adopted country and in my country of birth. Here in the UK,  today's general election will determine the party in charge of the government. In the US, former FBI director James Comey will begin his testimony before the US Senate. Though this is essay is not politically themed, it seemed like a good day to reflect on my experiences moving from one country to another.

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I used to think there was some mysterious trick to moving to another country and finding happiness there. I'd seen so many of my relatives do it before me. The most striking example was my grandmother's move to Lagos, Nigeria, when she was 51 and I was 3. I don't remember her leaving, but my parents took my sister Linda and me for a visit a few years later. That time in Lagos and then out into the hills in Nigeria's Middle Belt -- to see my much-adored and then very young uncles at their boarding school -- is one of my first memories. My grandmother loved Africa. People who'd known her before and after said she had blossomed there. She herself said, whenever one of her grandchildren asked her later for the story of her life, that Nigeria was the place where she felt she came into her own.

At about the same time my grandmother was teaching English in Lagos and loving it, my Uncle Doug and Uncle Earl and Aunt Pat were all living in Vietnam, where they worked for Mennonite Central Committee during the peak of the Vietnam War. (My Uncle Doug's story on teaching English in a war zone in South Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969, was recently published in The New York Times.) In these cases, too, I don't remember their departures for a distant country -- in fact, I wasn't yet born -- but again, my first memories of these beloved uncles and aunts were of hearing them discussed by family members who missed them. In my young mind, their names were linked to this other country where they had chosen to live.

My uncle, Doug Hostetter, with some of his students
in South Vietnam, circa 1969
In later years, other aunts and uncles of mine chose to live overseas, too. My Uncle Darrel and Aunt Sherill worked in Swaziland for a decade; my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Wilmer lived even longer than that in Honduras, where my aunt was a doctor to far-flung rural communities, and where the two of them started a ranch that they operate to this day. Still later, cousins of my own generation spent years in Germany and in Russia -- and became so intimately connected to those places, they met their spouses there.

All these family members forged deep, long-lasting links with a country other than the one they were born to. As a child growing up more or less in the midst of my parents' extended families, I grew up, too, with the echoes of Nigeria and Vietnam. At family reunions, I ate my grandmother's African ground nut stew, and learned of my Uncle Doug's fondness for Nước Mắm fish sauce. I was struck when my Aunt Pat and Uncle Earl, meeting a Vietnamese refugee family recently arrived in North Carolina, were able to greet them and converse with them in their own language. Knowing my grandmother -- knowing Aunt Pat and Uncle Earl and Uncle Doug -- was to know something of those other countries, to be aware of Nigeria and Vietnam as almost palpable presences in the lives of my relatives who had lived in those places and had come home permanently changed by them.

Having such positive and early role models for thoughtful expatriate living, I assumed I could do it as well. I wanted to do it -- to make a life for myself overseas, to become part of another country. In the stories I'd heard all my life, it was an adventure -- a worthwhile endeavor -- to live outside the U.S. for a while.

And yet, I struggled in my first attempts. I did live in Spain for a year. I did live in Guatemala, on two separate occasions, for a total of over three years. But I was not radiantly happy. I was not at peace. Almost as soon as I made those moves -- all three times -- I wished I was home again. I could not relax; I could not settle down and just be there, in Spain or in Guatemala. I never felt like I was part of the place. By the time I came back to the States from my last attempt at international living, in 2005, I'd developed a new, mostly secret opinion that my grandmother and aunts, uncles and cousins who'd filled me up with their stories of joyful expatriate living must have been exaggerating. 

But here is the question I hadn't yet thought to ask: What does it take, to be happy in a given place?

The ex-academic in me wants to make two caveats before I go on. Not everyone who moves to another country gets to ask that happiness question. Not everyone who moves to another country does so by choice. In fact, choosing to live in an other country is a luxury. This seems especially important to acknowledge in light of current well-publicized anti-immigrant attitudes in both my home country and in my adopted country. We need look no farther than the U.S. election of Donald Trump, the man who has promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and has tried to enforce a sweeping anti-immigrant travel ban. Here in the UK, last year's Brexit vote resulted in part from a similarly xenophobic mentality. As someone who sees Trump's election and the Brexit vote as real failures of human compassion, I want to recognize that moving to another country in search of adventure or edification or self-improvement -- as I and many of my family members have been able to do -- is a sign of our privilege, our unearned good luck.

It's worth acknowledging, too, that in many parts of the world, living outside one's home country is not so unusual, and thus perhaps not so monumental a choice as it seemed to me as a kid growing up in the U.S. For example, here in Europe I automatically assume any person my age will have lived in at least one other country besides their native one. Almost all of my friends in England have either come here from another country or have spent significant time living abroad. This is partly a feature of European countries being mostly quite small and close together -- often contiguous -- as opposed to the hugeness and physical isolation of the United States. It also has something to do with the UK's having been part of the European Union, which makes it easy for members of EU countries to live, work and travel abroad.* Simply getting to another country is much easier to do, in most parts of Europe, than in the U.S. Thus international living may not seems as challenging, or as exotic, as it does to many of us raised on the other side of the Atlantic.

But why couldn't I be happy living abroad, as the giants of my childhood had seemed to assure me I'd be? Why, in Spain and then twice in Guatemala, was I so restless, so unable to sink down deep roots?

It wasn't until two years ago, when my husband Dave and I moved to England -- where I have been, from the day we touched down, truly happy -- that I was able to answer these questions. And the answer isn't one bit arcane or mysterious. There's no magic trick to it, after all. All I needed to live happily in another country, I've found, is to be happy first in myself.

Or, to put it in a perhaps less annoyingly Zen-like way, my happiness in England is directly connected to my happiness in the work that engages me daily here. England has provided the conditions for my doing the work that I love to do. And, while there are many reasons why I like living in England, I think this one is first and foremost.

Dave and me with the staff of the language school
I directed in Guatemala City, 2003 to 2005.
It wasn't that I'd disliked Spain or Guatemala. It wasn't that I failed to find very good friends in both places. Nor was it that the work I did in any of those former expatriate years was unworthy. But I was one of those people to whom a clear sense of vocation came very late. I spent my 20s and 30s and much of my 40s doing work that did not fulfill me -- that did not draw out my best qualities or, in short, help me to be my best self. During those somewhat misbegotten decades, I was an activist and an academic. I was at least fairly good at both things. But I did not love doing that work. I did not go to bed holding the work I'd just done close to my heart, dreaming of re-entering its flow as soon as I could the next day. Working as an activist, then as an academic, did not call forth my joy, and as such I didn't always have much joy to give to others.

When I finally admitted to myself, somewhere in my late 30s, that my calling -- my heart's desire -- is to be a fiction writer, it came as a huge relief. I could stop forcing myself into the mold of an  English professor, as I'd been trying to do for some years. I could, instead, throw myself into the activity I had loved ever since I could hold a pencil. I could re-sharpen and deepen my skills in creative writing. I could invent stories, new worlds.

Early story-writing, circa 1973.
Or, at least, I could begin to. Dave's and my financial circumstances did not allow me to step completely out of my old teaching role until we moved to England, two years ago, and that is when true daily happiness in my work began.

As it turns out, my journey to another country, this time, was really a journey into my truest, best self. Clearly, we don't all need to move physically -- to change our current locale for a new, international address -- in order to find our best selves. But sometimes, maybe, it helps. I think it was so in my grandmother's case. Moving to Nigeria in her early 50s provided her with a freedom from housework and a scope for her imagination and an engagement with a meaningful, independent career for the first time in her life.

She did not stay in Nigeria; she came home again after six years. But Nigeria, in essence, came home with her. The new, more confident, more leader-like part of herself -- which she'd reached down and found and developed, while she lived abroad -- was, for as long as I knew my grandma, a part of her ongoing joy.

* Brexit, of course, will curb some of this international mobility, among other things.