Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Expat Book Review: Postcards from Across the Pond by Michael Harling

Michael Harling is an American who accidentally ended up living in the UK. He met his future wife in Ireland and moved to Sussex to be exact. And having been raised in a rural area of corn fields and cow farms, a twenty minute drive from the nearest shop, Sussex must have seemed a little crowded to this new immigrant in town. In any case, the move from the US to the US certainly gave Harling enough fodder for an amusing book about life in Britain through the eyes of a foreigner.

This book is not only a funny read, but highlights something interesting: For an American, a move to the UK would seem an easy one to make - the language is (almost) the same, the culture is not worlds apart. However, Harling soon discovered that the differences lay in the small things in daily life. He found that everything "is just off-center enough to give you a sense of permanent imbalance." This struck a big, clanging chord with me.

I wrote an article for The Telegraph last year about the differences between life in the Netherlands and life in my native Britain. A reader commented that adjusting to life in in the Netherlands was in fact a piece of cake and the two countries really are very alike. But they are not - and I think Harling hits the nail on the head with his observations of life in Britain: When you move to a far off land you expect life to be very different, when you to a country nearby or one with much in common you don't expect your life to be rocked. But it is - just by leaving your home country.

The differences lie in the little things like posting a letter, getting a parcel delivered, getting a social security number, driving, shopping, sports, weather, TV, queuing, bureaucracy.... Need I go on? 

Luckily, this book is not a mammoth whinge about everything in the UK being inferior to its US cousin. Au contraire, Harling doesn't see all the adaptations he needs to make as a step in the wrong direction. In fact, he gives the impression that he actually quite likes a lot of the differences - once he got used to them.

In this book, which is actually a collection of blog postings he has made over the years, he shares his astonishment at the lack of St. Patrick's Day celebrations in England; his difficulty buying shoe laces; his confusion playing the game of rounders (which he likens to baseball until he sees the bat. "The bat resembles a giant rolling pin with only one handle," he explains); the haphazardness of the local bus schedules; and trying to recreate Thanksgiving away from the US ("Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, and 60 million people on this island didn't give a shit," he tells us).

This book is 172 pages to make you titter (a word us Brits can use without sniggering) and it's a great read for all expats everywhere, for Brits who can laugh at themselves, and Americans who want to know how different life is on the other side of the Atlantic.

His blog of the same title (where he describes himself as an "American author living in the south of England, sort of like Bill Bryson but without the best selling books and gobs of money") is 

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