Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bill Bryson and New Hampshire Nostalgia

I'm A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away
by Bill Bryson

This book is fantastic. With chapters such as The War on Drugs, Snoopers at Work, Your Tax form Explained, In Praise of Diners, and How to Rent a Car, you know you're going to have fun reading this. And the best part is, you can put it down and pick it up as you choose because each chapter is independent of the next. it is full of interesting facts.

If you're from New England, you've got an exceptionally good read ahead of you because Bill Bryson moved from England to New Hampshire. If there ever was a book built to boost New Englanders pride, this is it. Part of Bryson's intention is to point out the oddities and mysteries of New England and America in general.

 But I've got to be honest: it all makes perfect sense to me...

A Day at the Seaside:

"I've got an idea. Let's drive for three hours to the ocean, take off most of our clothes, and sit on the sand for the whole day."

"We'll get sand in our hair. We'll get sand in our shoes. We'll get sand in our sandwiches and then in our mouths. We'll get sunburned and windburned. When we get tired of sitting, we can have a dip in water so cold it actually hurts. At the end of the day, we'll set off at the same time as thirty-seven thousand other people and get in such a traffic jam that we won't get home till midnight"

And they're off Kennebunkport, Maine.

Having myself been to the English seaside, I can understand Bryson's hesitation for the beach:
New Englanders driving home from the beach on a typical summer weekend.
July in New Hampshire
On our way to the beach in England. Doesn't everyone travel this way? No?
Middle of July at the English Seaside. This is as far as we got. My arms are extremely tense due to the freezing of my toes.
Clearly, the English seaside and the New England seacoast are quite a different experience.

Fall in New England

And then there's fall. When I ventured home from Arkansas the last week of September 2013 for Fall Break, I met some Arkansans on my flight.

Arkansas to New Hampshire? I couldn't believe it. There are several routes from the Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport to Manchester or Logan. You can fly through Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas.

Check a map, all of these are extremely counter productive to actually getting back to New England.

Then there's through Baltimore. This one makes sense. On a lucky September day, this was the route I managed to book. I thought I was literally the only one on that layover in Baltimore. But no, two dusted-gray heads popped up several rows in front of me. I was accompanied by an older couple who hailed from Arkansas. In true Southern fashion (I've given up trying to read during a flight to or from a southern state, your neighbor is always so friendly. I think it's making me a nicer person.) we began an in-depth discussion of where we were from, family, what we were doing...

And what were they doing? They were going Leaf Peeping.

 (If you don't know what leap peeping is, go read Eve Bunting's Peepers:)

Bryson says "For a few glorious days in October, New England  is unquestionably the loveliest place on earth". He goes on to teach us where those colors from, and why they are better than anywhere else in the country.
Rye, New Hampshire, courtesy of my mom
Rye, New Hampshire

But what on earth could Bryson have to say that would make me nostalgic for a winter in New England? Darn, he got me on this one too.

Fun in the Snow

"People  here actually get excited about winter. There is skiing and ice skating and sledding on the local golf course. One of our neighbors floods his backyard and turns it into a skating pond for the kids on our is all very cheery."
Standing in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee, Meredith, New Hampshire with my mom. In the background is a pick up truck and an ice fishing shed...also in the middle of a lake.

I'm not a skier, but Bryson's got me. During my first two years teaching, the plow would pile the snow so high that children would slide down the "hill" during recess. The playground felt like an ice skating rink. These conditions in Arkansas cause a state shut-down for four days. or, until the temperature rises back above freezing to melt the icey streets. New Englanders find ways to make it through the winter and add a little joy in. And then it's March, that last blizzard're wondering if this will ever end. When can you see your toes in flip flops again? Something beautiful happens: spring arrives.

"Best of all, you know that winter is just one in an endless cycle of reliable, well-defined seasons. When the cold starts to get to you, there is the reassurance of knowing that a good, hot summer is just around the corner."

So hang tight my New England friends, and go get I'm a Stranger Here Myself, have a good laugh and put some logs in the woodstove. Are my parents the only ones still doing that?

If you'll excuse me I'm going to hop in the car and hit the dry cleaners drive through, the Bank drive-thru, swing through Starbucks, skip the liquor store drive thru, (did I forget to mention Bryson's chapter on Americans and their fascination with drive thru convenience?) and then head for a walk around the lake with the mild temps  in the 50-60's and sunny skies. I'll see y'all for summer vacation in June. (No, I'm not in college, I'm a teacher. I'm pretty sure I'll still be getting this question for the next ten years.)

This is only one of Bryson's many gems.

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