At 6am today, I was rudely awoken by a horrifyingly bad nightmare, although that was the least of my worries. It was an unforgivably dark Monday morning, unforgivable only because the usual organic tweet and twitter of birds dwelling in the Midwestern sunrise did not greet me as I slurped my coffee. My brain immediately reverted to it’s former 28 years of conditioning: Carolyn, there is an unrelenting torrent of rain banging against your window and an insipid grey, overcast sky hanging overhead. Which must mean you are about to grab your coat and brolly and walk 15 minutes to the nearest Piccadilly line station to cram on a Tube to work. The Family Fortunes’ buzzer sounded in my head: “ih-irr! Wrong answer!” No, I was in St. Louis, I was self-employed with a car parked outside and my half-asleep mechanisms were going to have to make an abrupt stop, right now. And this was where my frustration began. I was being forced to switch gears far too early in the morning and for something as apparently inane as torrential rain. As a result, I started feeling homesick for the miserable weather I fought to leave and the old reliable routine it induced; a ride on a leaky carriage, sparks flying off live rails, wet umbrellas ruining belongings, steamed up windows and the comfort of moaning Britons all around. Yet when I last checked, my Facebook reported at least three London friends wailing and pining to live in New York City after their very first visit to America in said city. I was once in their shoes. I got as far as St Louis, Missouri–further than most Britons get, and I don’t overlook that. But what is this fascination we Britons have with America and what is it based on?
With all the grudge-holding towards the US that Britain received infamy for after the Declaration of Independance in 1776, it is a small miracle that our nations are still friends today. All jokes aside about the national stereotypes of surly Father Britain disapproving of the behaviour of it’s “immature” young son, America, our relationship to each other is a fortunate and beneficial one in both directions. For participants, Britons hanker after America’s “bigger, better” attitude longingly, Americans pine for Britain’s quaint richness for history, reserve and grandeur. Yet the current British public perception of geographical America is still, one only based on exposure to huge, popular cities like New York and LA. Not quite even viewing-range, given that these cities aren’t a reflection of the average American life. This is something that few Europeans are really aware of and the average American is quite aware of this. But who can hardly blame us? Our tellies inform us with American sitcom, romcom and dot.com businesses from these two prosperous cities day and night; we are dazzled with America as far as New York and LA have taught us, buying flights in our droves to return crying and pining with armfuls of currency-friendly shopping. We start fastidiously looking into visa programs and green card lotteries, seriously considering forsaking Queen and country. But the question remains, while life may be better when we switch countries, is life really better when we switch cities?
Many people have asked me if I am happy in my new country of residency. My response is that I am unable to answer that yet. Still speaking from a seat of transition, I can say with some surety that life is certainly better having switched countries and there are several reasons for this. Comparatively speaking, America is a nation governed in a fashion that has completely different reverberations at ground level. These aren’t always agreeable but generally speaking, it is sometimes a great improvement, having been born under a British government which operates in a way that affects the public differently. There is a marked quality difference in agriculture, farmed produce and many other necessary resources made available for reliable consumption and usage. However this is somewhat universal to the US, it is when we look at the city microcosm that things change. And quite simply because American life doesn’t merely hang on to the threads of existence on the East or West Coast, I have yet to find happiness in a US city that is not New York or LA. Thankfully, the search has only just begun.
It is no secret that I am a big city girl and a self-confessed urbanite. What I am doing in a city like St Louis confounds a lot of people, even sometimes myself. Living amongst 8 million people crammed into 609 square miles for approximately three decades has always been unequivocally normal to me. 25 million separate journeys are made everyday in the capital to and from work. In the 15 minutes before 9am, 200,000 people use London Underground and 8000 buses cover over 2000 miles of streets to get people to work. It is said that the average commuter travels the equivalent of 2.5 times around the planet to get to work: London’s Tubes cover 300,000 miles of underground tunnel. While astoundingly impressive, these are not statistics that Londoners have time to stop and contemplate, they are borne into the grain of everyday living. Unnoticed to us all, Londoners live shoulder to shoulder and move amongst people, people, people, everywhere, all the time, non-stop, unrelenting. To someone not born in these conditions, this is the ultimate worst nightmare; out comes the common hyperventilatory talk of claustrophobia, asphyxiation, suffocation, bombardment, panic. Yet to the rest of London, it is just an auto-pilot dance, business as usual, the hum of the concrete jungle, the nucleic energy driving the country, the rhythm that keeps the capital having the first say on everything (The chimes of Big Ben are transmitted to 183 million listeners across the globe). London is considered the hub of the trading world, not least because of the fact that London is in the centre of two major time zones. A trading day begins just as the Far East has reached close of day, and finishes just in time to catch New York’s market. 40% of the office space in Greater London is grouped around the square mile; a typical day will see £640 billion passing through the trading system. And while I am sure that my current domicile has it’s own statistical boastings, any city has a lot to live up to when considering what I perceive normal. I won’t lie, living amongst 3 million people spread over 8,846 square miles is like living in a county bigger than Yorkshire—with LESS people: it is uncomfortably isolating and alienating.
To those who are considering moving to the US, I say come, it’s beautiful, there’s nowhere else in the world like it and I am sure you’ll succeed–it’s the American motto. But please, for your own sakes, study the demographic before hurriedly selling off your wares and applying for visas: there are at least, approximately 20,000 cities in all 50 states and you’ll likely only have money enough for one. Patience is a virtue; exercise it and you may learn a little more than what you thought you knew about what makes you tick.