Coming Home to America

Sara Robinson

I haven’t been blogging for the past few weeks because I was busy moving house. After nearly seven years in Canada, my husband and son and I packed up our things, and came home to the US. The decision was almost an accidental one — it’s a long and not very interesting story; suffice to say that there were family commitments involved — but the upshot is that we’re now at home in Bellingham, WA, a small college and farming town of 80,000 souls located 70 miles north of Seattle and just 20 miles south of the US/Canada border.

The move has given my son access to the high school of his dreams, and allowed my husband to accept a good job in Seattle. I’m exploring my new surroundings, getting back into the flow of American life.

I spent the first week back in low-grade culture shock. I couldn’t figure out whether seven years immersed in the gentle waves of Canadian Nice had softened my hide, or Americans really had gotten that much rougher and meaner to each other while I was gone. Every time I went into town, I heard people grousing at each other — and sometimes, at me. Female bloggers don’t last long in the business unless they have a pretty thick hide to start with; but it was becoming clear that mine was going to need to get even thicker, or else I was going to have to stop going out altogether.

Other friends who’ve lived abroad for a while and then returned to the US reassured me that this is a common reaction to coming home. America really is a socially much rougher, more competitive, and less forgiving place than Europe, Latin America, or much of the rest of the world. But we don’t really realize it until we step outside of that for a while and then step back into it. It’s like being doused with a bucket of ice water.

Happily, living in Canada taught me some new strategies for dealing with this. I’d never seen niceness used as an offensive weapon until I moved north of the border. Whenever I’d get my prickly American red-headed let-me-talk-to-your-supervisor sass on, they’d just outnice me until I felt like a pluperfect idiot. The more obstreperous you get, the nicer Canadians get (and they’re just soooo sorry you’re having such a bad day), until it’s obvious even to you who the problem person in this conversation is. I was caught by this a couple of times before I made it my business to learn the trick rather than be trapped by it.

Turns out that this is a great way to deal with grouchy people here, too — this tactic just confuses the hell out of Americans.

Another area of adjustment is the sheer quantity of stuff that’s available to Americans. Canada, at just 34 million souls, is a smaller marketplace than California, so it doesn’t have the same intensively-cultivated consumer culture the US does. Shopping isn’t as big a focus there, largely because there simply isn’t anything like the huge selection of stuff that’s available here, even in a middling-sized town like Bellingham. As we settle in, I find I’m spending a couple hours a day just shopping for things. Some of this is normal when you’re trying to outfit a new home, but I’d forgotten just how cheap and easy to get things are, and how seductively overwhelming American-style consumerism can be.

On the upside, I appear to have landed in a locavore’s paradise. The greenies in town have provided a thriving market for the family farmers, who have obliged them by going organic and/or converting to CSAs by the dozen. This has been going on for over 20 years, creating a foodshed that’s so robust that you can eat a rich and varied 50-mile diet here eight months out of the year. I can get fruits and vegetables, every kind of meat and dairy product, fresh fish from Puget Sound, and even household cleaners and wooly winter socks entirely made by local hands. (One of the goat cheese makers produces a sweet, light chevre that’s literally entered my dreams.) There’s a huge food co-op, a nearly year-round farmer’s market that’s a weekly all-city event, two local grocery chains that pride themselves on selling local food, and the aforementioned CSAs. What there isn’t is a Whole Foods — who needs them, when you’ve got all this?

The lively resilience movement here has important political implications, too. It’s forged a partnership between the deeply conservative Dutch farmers out in the countryside (where the Tea Party is huge), and the big in-town progressive community that’s anchored by the university. The townfolk support the family farms; in return, the farmers manage the land in sustainable ways, and get to keep farming like their grandfathers did. Food is the place where everybody’s interests align, regardless of their politics. At the end of the day — despite the grousing at each other downtown — we’re all eating from the same dinner table, teaching each other long-lost homely skills, and forming community almost in spite of ourselves.

If America ever comes back together as a nation, this is one way it might happen: one town, one farmer’s market, one table at a time. Right or left, the interconnections between us become undeniably obvious when we’re working together to make our shared local environment sustainable and resilient for the long haul. And those connections may, in time, help us learn to trust each other enough to begin to govern together again.

Living in Canada was an adventure — and there’s a real possibility we’ll be going back in a couple of years — but for now, my life is here. America has its troubles, and the future looks hard and rocky; but (as my Canadian neighbors will be the first to tell you), you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t ever take America out of the girl.

It’s good to be home.

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