Try as I might, I can't seem to find information as to when British writer/actor/comedian Stephen Fry's six-part BBC documentary "Stephen Fry in America" will air in the United States. If ever. Anybody know? The accompanying book is available for preorder on Amazon, but it's not released until May, although you can get a good preview by reading chapters linked to on this earlier post.
However, despite this bit of unfairness to my readers west of the Atlantic, I can't help commenting on the first three episodes, which have aired over here on Sunday nights for the last three weeks. I've been catching up on them in quiet moments on my own by watching the BBC iPlayer versions (downloadable episodes that are, unfortunately, not available on the U.S. BBC site), but it would've been much more fun to watch them with a crowd of Brits and Americans so we could compare our varying opinions. (You can get an idea of those, by the way, by visiting Stephen Fry's blog site here).
It was episode three, broadcast last week, in which I found myself most at home. Fry commences the show in New Orleans and then drives and ferries his London cab up along the Mississippi River through the nation's heartland up to where the river starts in MInnesota, with a significant veer over to Chicago. And I must say that his Chicago coverage was simply lovely. Fry seemed to adore Chicago, including more of that city than he did of New York (hooray!) Although his coverage of some of the other states has been a bit strange--Massachusetts gets identified by Wiccans and witchcraft, New Orleans by voodoo, St. Louis by the homeless population, and Tennessee by forensic science and rotting cadavers--Fry seemed to happily pounce on Chicago's tourist trademarks and promote them to the full.
He starts out with a lengthy drive around the South Side, complete with loving camerawork of the beautiful but changing old neighborhoods, then visits a blues club where viewers are treated to some soulful music and a candid, rather heartbreaking interview with blues legend Buddy Guy, who recounts the decline of Chicago blues. Then it's off to the North Side and Second City, where Fry not only performs onstage during Improv Night but even heads off to try a Chicago hot dog at The Wiener's Circle with a few budding comedians.
I watched the Chicago segment with delight and bated breath, counting myself lucky that he'd spent so long covering my city in this crammed-full documentary. But it wasn't over yet. After the hot dogs, Fry headed up to the top of the Sears Tower at night, where his film crew did a wonderful job capturing the glowing lights of the city spreading out in every direction. The cameras swept round and round the city, showing the lights again and again, and I felt a deep pride as I watched. How wonderful it was to know that the United Kingdom's millions of BBC viewers were now seeing one of my very favorite sights.
I feel awful that I haven't been posting much on here lately.
Part of the reason is because I've had difficulty settling back into life in England since arriving here for Year 2 in mid-September (after a month in the States). I've found myself homesick in a way that I didn't experience the first year, and it didn't help that I was in a nasty accident while riding my bike just a day after my return. I ended up with a few painful but relatively mild injuries and am OK now, but five weeks later the accident seems an unnecessarily graphic metaphor for being knocked off course: I arrive in foreign country for another year of service, having made all sorts of tough but worthwhile decisions about leaving my home behind again and settling back into a new home, and within 36 hours of starting the England Adventure, Part II, I am knocked off my bike by a car and in pain, wondering if I made the right decision.
Was it worth it to leave all that's familiar behind and start anew over here, I asked myself? Sure, I had many wonderful friends and opportunities in the UK to return to following my first year in England, but after spending a month in America, I was second-guessing my choice to come back. At home, I have deep, satisfying family and community connections. At home, my dollar is worth its full value. At home I don't stand out because of my accent. At home I'm not endlessly queried about the American political system (although, to be honest, I rather like that question) nor grilled heavily about the constitutional right to bear arms (an American concept that I have learned is something Brits simply cannot understand, to the point where they will argue continually with me about it, even if I tell them I advocate severe gun control).
And so I asked myself these questions as I settled into a new round of volunteer responsibilities at the church and paid for bus tickets during the time I wasn't healed up enough to get back on my bicycle. All the while I was missing my blue-eyed, golden-curled toddler nephew and thinking again of how wonderful it was to be home. Then I would think about this blog and wonder what on earth I could post that would be fun, light and convey the joie de vivre that's supposed to come with living abroad. I found a few things, but not many, and it was a struggle to come up with blog posts in the midst of an emotional funk whilst also being extremely busy with my church positions.
Yet about a week ago I realized that yes, it was worth it. As a Christian, I look to God for direction and I can unequivocally say that I feel God has assured me I am in the right place and at the right time. But even if I left God out of the occasion and just looked to my own desires and emotions, I believe I'd come to the same conclusion. This adventure is still an adventure, even if it now ...every once in awhile ... feels like a familiar drudgery. I choose this place and these wonderful people. As I cycled home from church last night near midnight (yes, I'm back to my trusty, though now slightly more dented bicycle), I suddenly felt the urge to pinch myself.
"Stephanie, you are in England!" I told myself. "Look about you at the Tudor-style terrace houses, the pubs emanating warm light and laughter, the cobble-stoned streets leading off the main road."
Just now I was chatting with a Chicago journalism source for a story I'm working on, and when she heard I live and volunteer in England while simultaneously working as a long-distance reporter and editor, she exclaimed, "What an exciting life you must lead!"
"You'd think that, but exciting lives have a way of just turning into ordinary lives," I replied. Now, 10 minutes later, I know that I am right, but I also know that she was right. It is an exciting life.
After all I'm planning trips to Cornwall, Cambridge, London and Istanbul in the next few months. Not to mention the visit to Newstead Abbey, Byron's home, that's coming up, or planned hikes in Derbyshire. And even just being out and about in Nottingham, working hard and simply living, is exciting. Even right now, as two hungry black cats purr incessantly for their tea and the crackling fire warms up the damp gloom of an English autumn and I glance outside at the apples ripening on the tree outside, I am glad to be here. Very glad, indeed.
Fall is progressing nicely here in England this year. I've just been too busy settling into life in Nottingham again this fall to take photos, but here are a few of my favorites from last year. I don't think the leaves will be quite as spectacular as they were in 2007 but so far the changing colors are lovely.
My friend Jo walks through the gardens at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, last November.
I head along the Nottingham canal last October.
I love the autumn mists that rise over the fields and canals.
A country road in Northamptonshire that charmed me when I first arrived last year. I was on the same road this September and found it equally charming, although not as novel.
This morning English Dad asked me to draw the curtains. I looked at him, bewildered. They were already shut.
He mistook my confusion for belligerence.
"Aren't you the one who closed them last night? Will you please draw them before you leave today?"
The penny dropped.
"Ah," I said. "Sorry, I was just doing a bit of inner translating there. At home we say 'draw' only in reference to closing the curtains. We say 'open' the curtains if we want to open them."
That's what I've always said, anyway.
I brought the subject up at the meeting I attended this morning. Of the 12 Brits in the room, 10 use "draw the curtains" interchangeably to mean open or close, while only two agreed with me that "draw" is an exclusive term for closing them.
Yet another example of how the smallest, idiosyncratic detail can lead to actual misunderstandings.
Yesterday I had a nice long chat with both of my parents, and the big topic of the day was the economic situation.
"Is it as bad in England as it is over here?" my father asked. Yes, I told him. Every day the papers are full of it and people are talking about the crisis up and down the high streets (England's version of the main street). Banks are failing and councils (like our city governments) who've invested in them are losing overwhelming amounts of public funds. I discussed the situation awhile longer with my parents, then hung up. Moments later I was involved in another discussion, this time with my "English mother," a self-employed small business owner who's been carefully monitoring the situation herself. This afternoon my "English sis" ranted about having been given an unsolicited credit card. She thought she was applying for a store card to buy a purchase at a discount, but instead received a MasterCard with a high credit limit.
"All of those bankers should be hanging their heads in shame!" she cried, just before paying off the small amount, calling MasterCard to cancel the account, and cutting the plastic into shreds. Part of my work at the church now involves helping folks to get out of debt, and I couldn't agree more. Crippling, life-limiting debt is so easily achieved these days, but trying to pay it off literally drives some people to suicide.
Today my aunt, Becky Liestman, emailed me a few thoughts that I thought my British readers might find especially interesting. It comes from a well-educated Baby Boomer with considerable financial understanding. What strikes me most about Aunt Becky's email, though, is the way she ends it on a characteristically optimistic note. As Stephen Fry would say, only in America!
This economic crisis has gone from lurking somewhere out there in the news to the only real thing people here are thinking about. All you have to do is walk down the street, and people are talking about the losses in 401K retirement plans. And remember, here it is the only safety net for retirement/crisis emergency money for most Americans. There is no government health care. And no social security, or welfare system big enough to provide a safe haven. People who pay their bills and have done all the "right" things to save for the future are taking a big hit, especially those in my age group and above, who don't have the 10-12 years necessary to recover their lost savings. Anyway, it must be interesting in Europe, as well.
Take a "quintessentially British" comic actor and writer, stick him in a London taxicab and send him trundling across the 50 United States of America, and what do you get? You get Stephen Fry in America, a new book about his travels and also the name of an upcoming BBC miniseries documentary.
I recently saw Fry interviewed on BBC about his travels and have been fascinated by what I've heard and seen.
Most American readers are no doubt ignorant about even the existence of Stephen Fry, who is a highly celebrated personality here in England. All of you House fans might recognize his name because he co-starred in British television shows with his comedy partner Hugh Laurie.
What's most impressed me about Fry's current project is the way he speaks so respectfully of America. Here's what he said on the Steve Wright radio show:
"I didn't want to go and sneer. I didn't want to go and laugh at America. It's a lot harder to engage with them then you might think in your smart, European way. They are a very sophisticated people. There's a lot of sharp wisdom."
Find a trailer to Fry's miniseries here. Better yet, go here to read the introduction and epilogue from his book.
While in America, Fry clearly seeks out what he considers quintessentially American experiences, like going deer hunting with rural residents, swimming with sharks in Hawaii and attending a Wiccan function. Yet as he states in the book's introduction, he knew that even his 8-month journey would provide just the smallest snippet of life in our vast, wonderful, varied country.
Read the introduction to his book if you have time, but if not, here are a few quotes I found particularly engaging. I know I'm going to be getting my hands on that book and also doing all I can to watch the series!
The overwhelming majority of Americans I met on my journey were kind, courteous, honourable and hospitable beyond expectation. Such striking levels of warmth, politeness and consideration were encountered not just in those I was meeting for on-camera interview, they were to be found in the ordinary Americans I met in the filling-stations, restaurants, hotels and shops too.
He goes on to say that this is especially pronounced in the Midwest and South. I, for one, was amazed by the level of friendliness I encountered after moving to Chicago in 2002, even after spending the preceding four years in St. Paul-Minneapolis.
It is all very well to talk about living and dying, hoping and dreaming, loving and loathing 'as an American', but what does that mean when America is divided into such distinct and diverse parcels? To live and die as a Floridian is surely very different from living and dying as a Minnesotan? The experience of hoping and dreaming as an Arizonan cannot have much in common with that of hoping and dreaming as a Rhode Islander, can it?
As someone who grew up in both Minnesota and Arizona, I found this comment particularly insightful, although I thought it interesting that Fry assumes Americans identify only with one state. I identify closely with not only Minnesota and Arizona, but also with Illinois, as that is where I lived my adult life before moving to England last fall.
If you were to hear a Briton say 'Tch! only in Britain, eh?' it would probably refer to something that was either predictable, miserable, oppressive, dull, bureaucratic, queuey, damp, spoil-sporty or incompetent - or a mixture of all of those. 'Only in America!' on the other hand, always refers to something shocking, amazing, eccentric, wild, weird or unpredictable. Americans are constantly being surprised by their own country. Britons are constantly having their worst fears confirmed about theirs. This seems to be one of the major differences between us.
It's so true! I recently suffered through the bureaucratic tangle of obtaining a new visa and work papers here in England, and the inevitable reaction of English friends when I explained the process was an apologetic, "Only in Britain!"
America is not perfect, and I do not love Britain any less for loving America more. As all travellers know, the experience of a foreign country teaches you about your own.
Amen, Mr. Fry!