Im a stranger here mysel.., p.1

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, page 1


I'm a Stranger Here Myself

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I'm a Stranger Here Myself

  Broadway Books

  New York


  Title Page



  1. Coming Home

  2. Mail Call

  3. Drug Culture

  4. What’s Cooking?

  5. Well, Doctor, I Was Just Trying to Lie Down...

  6. Rule Number 1: Follow All Rules

  7. Take Me Out to the Ballpark

  8. Help!

  9. A Visit to the Barbershop

  10. On the Hotline

  11. Design Flaws

  12. Room Service

  13. Consuming Pleasures

  14. The Numbers Game

  15. Junk-Food Heaven

  16. How to Have Fun at Home

  17. Tales of the North Woods

  18. The Cupholder Revolution

  19. Number, Please

  20. Friendly People

  21. Why Everyone Is Worried

  22. The Risk Factor

  23. The War on Drugs

  24. Dying Accents

  25. Inefficiency Report

  26. Why No One Walks

  27. Wide-Open Spaces

  28. Snoopers at Work

  29. Lost at the Movies

  30. Gardening with My Wife

  31. Ah, Summer!

  32. A Day at the Seaside

  33. On Losing a Son

  34. Highway Diversions

  35. Fall in New England

  36. The Best American Holiday

  37. Deck the Halls

  38. Fun in the Snow

  39. The Mysteries of Christmas

  40. Life in a Cold Climate

  41. Hail to the Chief

  42. Lost in Cyberland

  43. Your Tax Form Explained

  44. Book Tours

  45. The Waste Generation

  46. A Slight Inconvenience

  47. At the Drive-In

  48. Drowning in Red Tape

  49. Life’s Mysteries

  50. So Sue Me

  51. The Great Indoors

  52. Death Watch

  53. In Praise of Diners

  54. Shopping Madness

  55. The Fat of the Land

  56. Your New Computer

  57. How to Rent a Car

  58. The Wasteland

  59. The Flying Nightmare

  60. Enough Already

  61. At a Loss

  62. Old News

  63. Rules for Living

  64. Our Town

  65. Word Play

  66. Last Night on the Titanic

  67. Property News

  68. Life’s Technicalities

  69. An Address to the Graduating Class of Kimball Union Academy, Meriden, New Hampshire

  70. Coming Home: Part II

  By Bill Bryson

  Don’t miss in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson’s adventure down under

  Intro to Excerpt

  An Excerpt from Bill Bryson’s At Home

  Outro from Excerpt







  and Sam

  In the late summer of 1996, an old journalist friend from London named Simon Kelner called me in New Hampshire, to where I had lately moved after living for twenty-some years in Britain. Simon had recently been made editor of Night & Day magazine, a supplement of the Mail on Sunday newspaper, and it was his idea that I should write a weekly column for him on America.

  At various times over the years Simon had persuaded me to do all kinds of work that I didn’t have time to do, but this was way out of the question.

  “No,” I said. “I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s just not possible. I’ve got too much on.”

  “So can you start next week?”

  “Simon, you don’t seem to understand. I can’t do it.”

  “We thought we’d call it ‘Notes from a Big Country.’”

  “Simon, you’ll have to call it ‘Big Blank Space in the Magazine’ because I cannot do it.”

  “Splendid, splendid,” he said, but a trifle absently. I had the impression that he was doing something else at the same time—reviewing models for a swimsuit issue would be my guess. In any case, he kept covering up the phone and issuing important editor-type instructions to other people in the vicinity.

  “So we’ll send you a contract,” he went on when he came back to me.

  “No, Simon, don’t do that. I can’t write a weekly column for you. It’s as simple as that. Are you taking this in? Tell me you are taking this in.”

  “Excellent. I’m absolutely delighted. We’re all delighted. Well, must run.”

  “Simon, please listen to me. I can’t take on a weekly column. Just not possible. Simon, are you hearing this? Simon? Hello? Simon, are you there? Hello? Bugger.”

  And that is how I became a newspaper columnist, a pursuit I followed for the next two years, from September 1996 to September 1998. The thing about a weekly column, I discovered, is that it comes up weekly. Now this may seem a selfevident fact, but in two years there never came a week when it did not strike me as both profound and startling. Another column? Already? But I just did one.

  I mention this to make the point that what follows was not intended to be—could not be—a systematic portrait of America. Mostly I wrote about whatever little things had lately filled my days—a trip to the post office, the joy of having a garbage disposal for the first time, the glories of the American motel. Even so, I would like to think that they chart a sort of progress, from being bewildered and often actively appalled in the early days of my return to being bewildered and generally charmed, impressed, and gratified now. (Bewilderment, you’ll note, is something of a constant in my life, wherever I live.) The upshot is that I am very glad to be here. I hope that what follows makes that abundantly clear.

  These pieces were written in the first instance for a British readership and of necessity included chunks of explication that an American would find unnecessary—what a drive-through window is exactly, how the postseason playoffs work in baseball, who Herbert Hoover was, that sort of thing. I have endeavored to excise these intrusions discreetly throughout, though just occasionally the drift of the text made such adjustments impossible. I apologize for that, and for any other oversights that may have slipped through.

  In addition to Simon Kelner, I wish to express my sincere and lasting thanks to Bill Shinker, Patrick Janson-Smith, John Sterling, Luke Dempsey, and Jed Mattes, to each of whom I am variously and deeply indebted, and, above all—way above all—to my dear, long-suffering wife and children for so graciously and sportingly letting me drag them into all this.

  And a special thanks to little Jimmy, whoever he may be.

  I once joked in a book that there are three things you can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he is ready to see you, and you can’t go home again. Since the spring of 1995, I have been quietly, even gamely, reassessing point number three.

  In May of that year, after nearly two decades in England, I moved back to the United States with my English wife and four children. We settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, for no other reason than that it seemed an awfully nice place. Founded in 1761, it is a friendly, well-ordered, prettily steepled community with a big central green, an old-fashioned Main Street, and a rich and prestigious university, Dartmouth College, whose benignly dominant presence gives the town a backdrop of graceful buildings, an air of privileged endeavor, and the presence of five thousand students, not one of whom can be trusted to cross a road in safety. With this came other attractions—good schools, an excellent bookstore and library, a ven
erable movie theater (The Nugget, founded in 1916), a good choice of restaurants, and a convivial bar called Murphy’s. Helplessly beguiled, we bought a house near the center of town and moved in.

  Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking from a long coma. Time, you discover, has wrought changes that leave you feeling mildly foolish and out of touch. You proffer hopelessly inadequate sums when making small purchases. You puzzle over ATM machines and automated gas pumps and pay phones, and are astounded to discover, by means of a stern grip on your elbow, that gas station road maps are no longer free.

  In my case, the problem was intensified by the fact that I had left as a youth and was returning in middle age. All those things that you do as an adult—take out mortgages, have children, accumulate pension plans, take an interest in the state of your guttering—I had only ever done in England. Things like furnaces and storm windows were, in an American context, the preserve of my father. So finding myself suddenly in charge of an old New England house, with its mysterious pipes and thermostats, its temperamental garbage disposal and life-threatening automatic garage door, was both unnerving and rather exhilarating.

  It is disconcerting to find yourself so simultaneously in your element and out of it. I can enumerate all manner of minutiae that mark me out as an American—which of the fifty states has a unicameral legislature, what a squeeze play is in baseball, who played Captain Kangaroo on TV. I even know about two-thirds of the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is more than some people know who have sung it publicly.

  But send me to the hardware store and even now I am totally lost. For months I had conversations with the clerk at our local True-Value that went something like this:

  “Hi. I need some of that goopy stuff you fill nail holes in walls with. My wife’s people call it Pollyfilla.”

  “Ah, you mean spackle.”

  “Very possibly. And I need some of those little plastic things that you use to hold screws in the wall when you put shelves up. I know them as rawl plugs.”

  “We call them anchors.”

  “I shall make a mental note of it.”

  Really, I could hardly have felt more foreign if I had stood there dressed in lederhosen. All this was a shock to me. Although I was always very happy in Britain, I never stopped thinking of America as home, in the fundamental sense of the term. It was where I came from, what I really understood, the base against which all else was measured.

  In a funny way nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live where nearly everyone is not. For twenty years, being an American was my defining quality. It was how I was identified, differentiated. I even got a job on the strength of it once when, in a moment of youthful audacity, I asserted to a managing editor of the London Times that I would be the only person on his staff who could reliably spell Cincinnati. (And it was so.)

  Happily, there is a flipside to this. The many good things about America also took on a bewitching air of novelty. I was as dazzled as any newcomer by the famous ease and convenience of daily life, the giddying abundance of absolutely everything, the boundless friendliness of strangers, the wondrous unfillable vastness of an American basement, the delight of encountering waitresses and other service providers who actually seemed to enjoy their work, the curiously giddying notion that ice is not a luxury item and that rooms can have more than one electrical socket.

  As well, there has been the constant, unexpected joy of reencountering all those things I grew up with but had largely forgotten: baseball on the radio, the deeply satisfying whoingbang slam of a screen door in summer, insects that glow, sudden run-for-your-life thunderstorms, really big snowfalls, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the smell of a skunk from just the distance that you have to sniff the air quizzically and say: “Is that a skunk?”, Jell-O with stuff in it, the pleasingly comical sight of oneself in shorts. All that counts for a lot, in a strange way.

  So, on balance, I was wrong. You can go home again. Just bring extra money for road maps and remember to ask for spackle.

  One of the pleasures of living in a small, old-fashioned New England town is that it generally includes a small, old-fashioned post office. Ours is particularly agreeable. It’s in an attractive Federal-style brick building, confident but not flashy, that looks like a post office ought to. It even smells nice—a combination of gum adhesive and old central heating turned up a little too high.

  The counter employees are always cheerful, helpful and efficient, and pleased to give you an extra piece of tape if it looks as if your envelope flap might peel open. Moreover, post offices here by and large deal only with postal matters. They don’t concern themselves with pension payments, car tax, TV licenses, lottery tickets, savings accounts, or any of the hundred and one other things that make a visit to any British post office such a popular, all-day event and provide a fulfilling and reliable diversion for chatty people who enjoy nothing so much as a good long hunt in their purses and handbags for exact change. Here there are never any long lines and you are in and out in minutes.

  Best of all, once a year every American post office has a Customer Appreciation Day. Ours was yesterday. I had never heard of this engaging custom, but I was taken with it immediately. The employees had hung up banners, put out a long table with a nice checkered cloth, and laid on a generous spread of doughnuts, pastries, and hot coffee—all of it free.

  After twenty years in Britain, this seemed a delightfully improbable notion, the idea of a faceless government bureaucracy thanking me and my fellow townspeople for our patronage, but I was impressed and grateful—and, I must say, it was good to be reminded that postal employees are not just mindless automatons who spend their days mangling letters and whimsically sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba but rather are dedicated, highly trained individuals who spend their days mangling letters and sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba.

  Anyway, I was won over utterly. Now I would hate for you to think that my loyalty with respect to postal delivery systems can be cheaply bought with a chocolate twirl doughnut and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, but in fact it can. Much as I admire Britain’s Royal Mail, it has never once offered me a morning snack, so I have to tell you that as I strolled home from my errand, wiping crumbs from my face, my thoughts toward American life in general and the U.S. Postal Service in particular were pretty incomparably favorable.

  But, as nearly always with government services, it couldn’t last. When I got home, the day’s mail was on the mat. There among the usual copious invitations to acquire new credit cards, save a rain forest, become a life member of the National Incontinence Foundation, add my name (for a small fee) to the Who’s Who of People Named Bill in New England, help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign, and the scores of other unsought inducements, special offers, and solicitations that arrive each day at every American home—well, there among this mass was a forlorn and mangled letter that I had sent forty-one days earlier to a friend in California care of his place of employment and that was now being returned to me marked “Insufficient Address—Get Real and Try Again” or words to that effect.

  At the sight of this I issued a small, despairing sigh, and not merely because I had just sold the U.S. Postal Service my soul for a doughnut. It happens that I had recently read an article on wordplay in the Smithsonian magazine in which the author asserted that some puckish soul had once sent a letter addressed, with playful ambiguity, to




  and it had gotten there after the postal authorities had worked out that it was to be read as “John Underhill, Andover, Mass.” (Get it?)

  It’s a nice story, and I would truly like to believe it, but the fate of my letter to California seemed to suggest a need for caution with regard to the postal service and its sleuthing abilities. The problem with my letter was that I had address
ed it to my friend merely “c/o Black Oak Books, Berkeley, California,” without a street name or number because I didn’t know either. I appreciate that that is not a complete address, but it is a lot more explicit than “Hill John Mass” and anyway Black Oak Books is a Berkeley institution. Anyone who knows the city—and I had assumed in my quaintly naive way that that would include Berkeley postal authorities—would know Black Oak Books. But evidently not. (Goodness knows, incidentally, what my letter had been doing in California for nearly six weeks, though it came back with a nice tan and an urge to get in touch with its inner feelings.)

  Now just to give this plaintive tale a little heartwarming perspective, let me tell you that not long before I departed from England, the Royal Mail had brought me, within forty-eight hours of its posting in London, a letter addressed to “Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales,” which is a pretty impressive bit of sleuthing. (And never mind that the correspondent was a trifle off his head.)

  So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me but can tackle a challenge and one that gives me free tape and prompt service but won’t help me out when I can’t remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning’s outing, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I’m happy.

  Now if you will excuse me I have to drive to Vermont and collect some mail from a Mr. Bubba.

  (Some months after this piece was written, I received a letter from England addressed to “Mr. Bill Bryson, Author of ‘A Walk in the Woods,’ Lives Somewhere in New Hampshire, America.” It arrived without comment or emendation just five days after it was mailed. My congratulations to the U.S. Postal Service for an unassailable triumph.)

  Do you know what I really miss about Britain now that I live in America? I miss coming in from the pub about midnight in a blurry frame of mind and watching Open University on TV.

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