Top and bottom fives

A fellow American expat recently asked me a question that, he said, he poses to all transplants that he encounters abroad: What are the best and worst things about living where you live, rather than in the US? It is a query not dissimilar to the “Do you like living in England?” that I am frequently asked, but more specific. As always happens when I am asked the latter question, I did not have a quick answer on hand; it is just not something I think about on a regular basis.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t make comparisons–especially when I first moved here–but I have long since switched to a mindset of simply getting on with the process of daily life. That’s not necessarily a good thing, since it means that I tend to overlook not only the Britishisms that annoyed me when I first relocated, but also those that I found (and still find) quite pleasant. I think we all probably do this to some extent, no matter where we live or how long we’ve been there; the things you encounter every day can easily become mundane to you even if they would be deemed wonderful by someone–or even everyone–else. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I was surprised when the Sunday Times recently named Falmouth as the fourth best place to live in the UK–it’s not that I don’t like Falmouth, but it does seem rather ordinary to me because I see it on a daily basis.

Obviously, something is wrong with me if I can think of even this view as “ordinary.”

In any case, the best/worst question stuck with me, and I found myself pondering it in the days that followed, as I went about my expat existence. It made me look at my Falmouth life through two sets of eyes–those I had when I first moved here nearly five years ago, before I adjusted to the new conditions, and those I have now that I have come to see the Falmouth/British way of life as normal and expected.

Strangely, my lists of pros and cons could be both longer and shorter than the “top and bottom fives” I have compiled below. For both categories, there are things that emerged quickly, and others that I only realized after considerable thought; some affect me only periodically, and others once seemed important but have faded in significance as I’ve settled in. Still, they are all relevant to some degree or another, and you may recognize some as topics that I have addressed in previous posts.

Me, with my importer

The lows of life in Britain (because it’s better to start with the bad and finish with the good…)

Honorable mention: Use of the word “trousers” instead of “pants”.

5. The smell of dampness. The smells of mold and mildew are not unique to Britain, but they are far more pervasive here than pretty much anywhere else I have ever been. I think this is caused by a combination of factors. First, you’re never far from water (see point #2 in the next section) and rain is incredibly common; it is not hard for things to become waterlogged. Second, in addition to the moisture, there is also a tendency to have mild temperatures; these are the perfect conditions for cultivating a nice collection of “aromatic” microbes. Third, there are many old buildings here that have had centuries over which to absorb the damp. Fourth, many of these structures are built in such a way as to facilitate a certain closeness of air–they’re made of stone, for instance, or have only very small windows. Cumulatively, all these factors contribute to an odor of wetness that can be smelled in even the cleanest and tidiest of homes. Often it can be combated, and potentially even defeated, only with the most prodigious of efforts and at great expense.

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On the up side, lots of water droplets = lots of rainbows

4. The wind. I know that everyone complains about Britain’s precipitation, but actually I don’t mind rain. In fact, I like it; I always have. What I don’t like is the seemingly incessant wind, and the combination of wind and rain. It ensures that you get wet no matter what you are wearing, and that your hair never looks good. It gives me headaches. It causes my windows to bang shut and my apartment to creak loudly in the nighttime, thus keeping me awake. It blows dust in through every crack it can find, and knocks wads of moss off roofs and onto your head. It makes the seas choppy, which renders boat journeys miserable. It finds you wherever you are, inland or by the sea, and just generally makes a real pest of itself.

The wind is so strong that it even shapes the trees
The wind is so strong that it shapes the trees as they grow

3. Things are tiny. For someone living in Cornwall, Britain seems pretty big; it can take an hour to get somewhere else in the county, let alone from one county to the next, or from England to Wales or Scotland. But this is deceptive; in reality, the UK is not very large, and yet it is home to quite a few people. To make this possible–and, in particular, to make this possible atop infrastructure dating back centuries and, in some cases, all the way to Roman times–it is necessary to make everything tiny so that it can all be crammed in to what little space there is. Because roads are small, cars are small. Houses and apartments are small, which means that rooms are, too; kitchens are diminutive, thus necessitating tiny fridges and freezers that barely hold a few days’ worth of food. Stores are often quite narrow, making it difficult to squeeze between rows and racks of items on display; God forbid if you need to fit past another person as you navigate these narrow corridors. And don’t even talk to me about storage space; I have almost none.

Not bad, as far as woods go. Notice the size of the trees--this is a very young stand.
Not bad, as far as woods go. Notice the size of the trees–this is a very young stand.

2. No trees. Obviously, there are some trees in Britain, but there aren’t nearly enough for my taste–and they don’t occur in large enough patches. This is particularly noticeable in Cornwall, and throughout the west country in general, where you are much more likely to encounter a field of sheep or cows than a stand of trees. What is amazing about this is that Britain used to be covered in forest; here in Falmouth, excavators once unearthed the petrified remnants of an ancient forest that was swallowed up by the estuary as melting glaciers advanced the shoreline by several meters thousands of years ago. I grew up among trees and frequently feel the need to walk under them, far away from the sounds of traffic and the sight of human constructs. That is not an easy thing to accomplish around here.

1. Distance to family. As I was growing up, I always knew I would end up leaving my hometown and going somewhere else. I deliberately chose places that were not Ohio when selecting where to go for my higher education and my summer employment. However, I never imagined that I would end up in a whole other country–at least, not for a period longer than your average vacation. I’ve always been pretty independent, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually felt homesick, but I still find it difficult to be so far from my family. In an emergency, I could get to them within a day, but I would probably need all 24 hours of that day, and it wouldn’t be an easy thing to pull off. It would be nice if it took less time and energy (and, of course, money) to get back to see my parents and grandparents. But, whenever I think about how difficult it is, I do have to console myself with the thought that at least I live in an era when technology makes it easier to stay in touch, both in terms of electronic communications and physical visits; a couple hundred years ago, I would have been much more cut off than I am today, and both letters and visits would have been fewer and farther between.

Family selfie
Family selfie in the Columbus airport. We were doing group selfies before it was cool.


The highs of life in Britain (because, no matter what I said in the last section, I do actually love my new home…)

Honorable mention: So. much. tea.

5. Cultural history. I first came to England as a teenager, on what I have since referred to as a “literary tour of England.” The Bronte parsonage, “Thomas Hardy country” (i.e., Dorset), the Globe Theater, and Tintagel were some of the many places that my parents and I visited during our tour of the country. My mother, an English teacher, was responsible for the bulk of the itinerary, so of course there was a bit of a theme. However, what I have learned since moving here is that it would be hard to go anywhere in Britain without stumbling across something of historical significance–if not literature, then music or architecture or science or whatever else you can think of. It is full of fascinating remnants, artifacts, and stories left behind by the humans that have lived here for thousands–if not tens of thousands–of years. Britain was hugely influential in shaping my own country, in particular the bits where I have lived: Appalachia, Philadelphia, Williamsburg. Melting pot though it may be, the US can trace its modern origins (please note I am not ignoring the importance of the original inhabitants of North America!) to England. In many ways, visiting England is like visiting home, albeit a very ancestral one. Another way to think of it is as a giant living museum, though I’m not sure the Brits would enjoy that view of their country.

Roman mosaic unearthed in St. Albans, as viewed by me in 2006

4. Robins (and other British wildlife). Britain may no longer have wolves or bears or other dramatic large wildlife comparable to that found in the US, but it does still have some spectacular species–and they are easy to see no matter where you are. From the water’s edge, you can see seals, sharks, whales, dolphins, porpoises, otters and even, if you find yourself in a particular portion of Devon, beavers; in the air there are peregrines, kites, buzzards, and any number of brightly colored, sweetly singing passerines. On land, you can find badgers, foxes, impossibly cute hedgehogs, stoats, and a myriad of other small mammals. Wherever they can find a crack to root in or a ledge to cling to, there are lichens, mosses, wildflowers, and, in larger patches, shrubs, trees, and berry bushes with fruit available to anybody who cares to pick it. Springtime in the US is remarkable, but it is even sweeter in the UK, where winter brings longer periods of dark and less snow to make the cold worthwhile. Those first few slightly warmer days nearly make your heart burst with relief, as does the sight of almost painfully bright primroses and daffodils and, above all, the insistently cheerful trill of the plucky little robin. Even in the most urban of areas, the Brits do an amazing job of leaving space for greenery and giving you an opportunity to interact with wildlife wherever you are.

European robin in the old cemetery on St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

3. Proximity. Although the Brits tend not to think of themselves as inherently “European,” the British Isles are, undeniably, both geologically and geographically linked with the rest of the continent. One impact of this is an astonishing ease of travel from Britain to pretty much anywhere else you might want to go–not just in Europe, but beyond, via Paris, Amsterdam, and other continental hubs of airplane travel. This facilitates more than simply ticking another country off your list; it also enables you to experience new languages, cuisines, music, fashion, ecosystems, and whatever else you might be interested in. Since moving here, I have been to Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, India, Australia, Kenya, and the Czech Republic; this autumn I will be adding another country to my list when I go to Greece. Even more impressive is the fact that I don’t always have to go all the way to London to embark on this travel; regional airports (not to mention ferry terminals and train stations) right here in the Southwest act as gateways to many of these destinations, making it as easy to travel between countries as it is to travel between states–or even cities–in the US.

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Boats moored at Custom Quay, Falmouth

2. The ocean. When I was studying for the UK citizenship exam, I learned that there is nowhere in Britain that is more than 70 miles from the ocean, and that fact has always stuck with me. The sea is such an important part of British life, both past and present, but I think that the ocean is such a standard part of British existence that it tends to be taken for granted. For someone who comes from a landlocked state (no offense to Lake Erie, but it is still just a lake even if it is a great one), the perpetual proximity of the ocean is an amazing thing. It is a symbol of freedom, a conduit to possibility, and, extending as it does all the way westward to the shores of North America, it is also, perversely, a bridge that connects me to home. I may have lived the bulk of my life inland, but after only a few years on the coast, I would have a very hard time moving away.

Wildflowers along the shorefront walk between Pendennis Castle and Gylly Beach, Falmouth

1. Transportation. You may think I’m a very boring person for choosing transportation as my favorite part of life in Britain, but public transport is pretty darn amazing here, and it affects me every single day of my life. My driving license does not permit me to drive independently in a car, and yet I can get pretty much anywhere in the country whenever I like, without that much of a hassle–not to mention in a fairly eco-friendly way, since I’m sharing my ride with a bunch of other travelers. For a mere £0.80, I catch a bus to school every morning and can then walk home every evening–combining exercise with transportation and killing two birds with one stone. The University of Exeter is not the only thing within walking distance. I can also go shopping for groceries, clothes, home furnishings, books, and pretty much whatever else you can think of; I can go to a restaurant, or a movie, or to the doctor, or even just head out into the countryside to see a bit of nature. Rarely do I ever need something that I cannot easily access on foot–a thing that is true in very few American towns and cities. The lack of this facility is immediately obvious to me when I visit the US, and I very much miss the feeling of independence that you have when you live in a place that does not cater so heavily to cars.

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Train pulling in at Colesloggett Halt, near Bodmin, Cornwall

I suppose I am lucky to have moved somewhere that I like so well; after all, Sasha could have whisked me off to Siberia or South Korea or somewhere else that is so truly beyond my range of experience that I could never learn to feel at home. I do wonder about that, though: Was it luck, or is that just the way I am?

I love to travel because I love to see, do, think, and feel new things; I have never been anywhere that I didn’t find interesting, even when my destination was the sort of place that makes other people raise their eyebrows when you say where you’ve been (Droitwich Spa, I’m looking at you!). Obviously I wouldn’t have been happy in a country with an oppressive religious and/or political regime, but beyond that…it’s quite possible that I could have settled in anywhere. It might have taken more time to adjust to, say, unreliable electricity or cockroaches the size of salad plates (I’m thinking here of horror stories I’ve heard from my own family members), but in exchange for these things I might have reveled in something else that made it all worthwhile.

Who knows? Maybe one day we will move again and I will have a chance to explore this theory–or maybe we’ll live out our days being serenaded by herring gulls as we listen to the wind whistling through the rigging of the ships in the harbor. Either way, I’m up for it.

How can I not love Cornwall, given its steady supply of cream teas?


3 thoughts on “Top and bottom fives

  1. Great Blog! I really enjoyed reading this and the lovely photos!
    From fan of The Pocahontas Files!

  2. What an elegant article Caitlin. I agree with it so much. I often wonder what people make of us. I’m one of the rare breed of Brits (it seems) to be very pro-European and indeed, quite proud of what that gives me. I also listen to the world and sometimes that is uplifting and sometimes depressing, but always so vital. America is a constant source of fascination for me and shaped my values. I must spend more time in your homeland in the future.

  3. A perceptive personal assessment of blighty. Like both your lists. What about the social and human dimensions of your encounter with those isles?

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