Today marks exactly 18 months since the kids and I emigrated from Scotland to America. My husband asked me the other day if seeing friends from back home had made me feel homesick. My answer was no but it was no because I am really never not homesick. I am still very much in that transitional stage of feeling uprooted and not yet entirely settled where I have chosen to be planted. It is not as if the homesickness is unbearable and it is not that I do not want to be here in America but the pangs are still there. After a mere 18 months, I don’t think that is unreasonable.
I miss people the most, of course. But I also miss places and things. Here are some of the things I miss, in no particular order.
The National Health Service. I cannot claim that the NHS is a perfect system. The way it is managed and administered has room for improvement, particularly in recent years. However, on this list of the things I miss most about Britain, the NHS was at the forefront of my mind. Medical care and treatment that is free at the point of need is not merely an admirable principle; access to medical care also ensures that people are healthy, that they seek help for a condition while it is acute rather than when it has developed into a chronic condition that is more complex (and expensive) to treat. Shelling out wodges of money every month to pay for medical insurance here in America does not fund a better functioning system. It is no more easy for me to obtain an appointment with a family doctor. At our doctor’s surgery, appointments can only be booked up to three days ahead. What that means is that almost every time I phone to make an appointment, I am told that there are no available appointments and I should call back and try again on X day. Luckily we have not needed an appointment for anything urgent so far. In fact, the only reason four of us are registered with a doctor at all is because we had to have medicals for our driving licenses and starting new schools. Two of my sons have not been registered because they had not needed appointments. Until now. The school district phoned to remind me that they are not registered with a doctor and now need professional medicals for their school records. I have been trying to make an out-of-school-hours appointment for them for over a month without success. This is a medical service we are paying money for. People complain about the frustrating length of NHS waiting lists but one of my children is on a 12-14 month waiting list for a particular medical service. Again, we pay through the nose for this. Furthermore, the expense of medical co-pays (as insurance only pays a percentage of the costs) holds people back from visiting medical professionals. Our co-pay is pretty minimal yet I know that even I have held off going to see a doctor for something that back home in Britain I might have gone to the doctor for. Knowing I will incur a cost, I instead choose to ride it out. Multiplying that over the entire American population, particularly people with higher co-pay or who have no medical insurance at all, and that is a whole lot of people choosing to ride out being unwell instead of seeking help and treatment. The system does not function. I miss the NHS.
Walking everywhere. British streets have pavements (sidewalks) and that enables people to be pedestrians rather than drivers. Where we last lived in Scotland, we could walk everywhere we needed to get to for everyday life: we walked to school, to the supermarket and other shops, to the hospital and dental surgery, to the community centre. And we could do so safely because we had pavements. I really miss that. We are lucky here in the Philly suburbs to live in a neighbourhood that has sidewalks so we can safely walk to school and back and my kids can play out on the street. However, to get just about any place else necessitates hopping in the car. We have to drive just to get somewhere to go for a walk. Isn’t that silly? The supermarket is walking distance (about 40 minutes each way) but there is no safe way to walk there alongside a busy road so I go by car. I could walk to the nearest mall but again there is absolutely no safe way to walk there. During the last snow storm, my kids had a dental appointment before the roads had been cleared. The dental surgery is about a half hour walk each way so that was do-able except that there was no safe way to walk half of the journey and no safe place to cross one of the roads. In the end, the dental surgery closed its doors early and our appointments were rescheduled but it was frustrating that the option to get there on foot did not exist.
Bradan Rost salmon. I love hot smoked salmon. I don’t like the wibbly, flibbliness of cold smoked or cured salmon, the stuff that looks like piscine skin grafts. Instead this kiln-roasted salmon is succulent and punchy with delectable smokey flavour. Since we lived on Loch Fyne, I could just nip along the road ever so often and buy a very affordable pack of the off-cuts from Loch Fyne Oysters. Or several packs. We bought whole sides for special occasions but the off-cuts were perfect for shoving on a crusty bread roll with a squeeze of lemon. I might shortcut my computer by drooling on it just at the thought of that salmon. Here in Pennsylvania, a source of hot smoked salmon has so far eluded me. In fact, I think I may only have bought salmon twice in the whole 18 months I have been here because fish generally is somewhat pricey.
Ruins. Where we lived in Scotland, there were ruins galore. It was always fun to take the kids to play among the ruins. They would play knights and dragons in the towers of a Medieval castle. Another castle might be transformed into Hogwarts and they would cast spells at each other in the courtyard. The dungeons and cellars would become the lairs of mythical beasts. A village of ruined crofts was, to my kids, the best playground ever. They could play make-believe within the buildings, make magic potions inside the old pots or water troughs, as well as climb the walls and play hide and seek.
Decent news broadcasting. I admit to being a bit of a news snob but what I want from my news is quality reporting of facts, as unbiased and bipartisan as possible, with high caliber analysis from someone who really does know their onions. Not too much to ask, right? My go-to news broadcasting in Britain was either BBC Radio 4 or BBC TV news. Here in the US, I have defaulted to still watching BBC News on the telly. It is actually the only telly channel for which I know the number (171!). The “problem” with the BBC here, of course, is that its remit is to cover global stories which means lots of quantity in terms of stories but no time for really in-depth coverage or analysis of one particular story. Trying to follow the Scottish referendum, for instance, was patchy so I resorted to the BBC website. The same is proving true of the UK national election. But still the BBC is my default position. I find I just cannot tolerate American news broadcasting for very long in any stretch. It is not that it is all “bad” as such but it is not the approach to journalism that I am used to and that I, therefore, want. The reporting tends to approach a story from a particular angle or agenda which often means being fed a particular opinion rather than facts for the viewers to interpret for themselves. Even when the agenda is more attuned to my own politics, it is not something I want from the news. Worse is the news broadcasting where someone sits behind a desk and just rants and raves about their particular perspective on a subject. Worse still is when that same format is applied to a group situation, where serried talking heads banter back and forth as if the camera caught them in mid conversation instead of actually delivering information, you know, like basic facts, that the viewer can consume. Instead it is all just opinionated, biased punditry, people arguing back and forth often over the top of one another, and often appears ill-informed. It reminds me of watching people in the pub arguing over current affairs. No thanks. Back to channel 171 I go.
Fish and chips. I think I miss fish and chips. What I certainly miss is the smell of searingly hot fish and chips just lifted from the fry basket and wrapped in paper, the intoxicating aroma of malt vinegar heady in the air. So maybe I just miss hot malt vinegar. I have many fond memories of eating chip shop chips (by which I mean fluffy steak fries) to warm up on a cold day out exploring somewhere, perhaps sat in the car, the windscreen getting steamy from the food, looking over a choppy sea under a slate grey sky. Chippy chips are evocative. Growing up on the east coast of Scotland, we would also douse our chips in chippy sauce which was like a brown sauce cut further with vinegar, liquid and pungent. There goes my drool again.
School Dinners. Back home in Scotland, it was rare for my kids to not eat a school dinner. That was great for me because I didn’t have to endure the early morning chore of making packed lunches. Their school became the subject of a bit of controversy regarding school dinners when one of their peers started a blog about the small portions offered which led to a whole discussion about what children were being fed at school. My kids personally never had any complaints about portion sizes and I was happy for them to eat school dinners there because the food was cooked from scratch, nutritious and – so far as they reported to me anyway – tasty. And it meant I didn’t have to make packed lunches. Here, quite frankly, the school dinners on offer are junk. My Middle Schooler has a school dinner every day because he manages that better practically and logistically in the mere minutes they are granted for lunch. I accept that he is eating healthy, balanced, cooked from scratch meals at home so a small portion of junk in the middle of the day counts as moderation. And it saves me making one packed lunch. Of my three Elementary School aged kids, however, one has a school dinner once a week on average (when pancakes are on the menu) and the other two have never had a school dinner. That is disappointing not merely because it means I have to make packed lunches but because we all know there are some kids for whom a school dinner represents their one hot meal a day, maybe even their only meal that day, and yet what they are being fed is junk. I don’t think that is acceptable. On a personal level, it means I have to make packed lunches. You may be detecting the fact that this is a chore I do not enjoy. First thing in the morning – even before I have had my mug of tea to start balancing me out – I have to do production line packed lunch manufacturing and it is more of a chore than you might think when you have kids who change their minds about what they will and will not eat on a daily basis – because nothing is more annoying than spending time making packed lunches just to scrape most of it into the bin on their return from school. I see elaborate kiddie packed lunches from time to time on Pinterest – sandwiches shaped like Picasso portraits, bento boxes containing sushi in the shape of panda faces – but no matter what lengths I went to in order to be arty, creative and elaborate with their lunches, they would probably still leave half of it. So mundane it is. Which makes my kids miss Scottish school dinners too.
Alcohol in supermarkets. Random one this and it is not a big deal but it does annoy me that I have to go to the liquor store to buy wine or the beer store to buy beer. Grocery shopping is hassle enough without making runs to different locations. I just want a bottle of wine to drink each week and wine and beer to cook with. It’s aggravating to want to cook root veggies in mustard and lager or to need wine for a particular recipe and then have to go to two separate stores to buy all the ingredients. I can’t imagine it bothers people with a drink problem so I am not sure the policy works. It just harasses busy people.
Light summer nights. In Scotland, sunset varies considerably depending upon the season. In Summer, sunset can be as late as 10pm which – with sunrise at 5am – provides long days of daylight. Those long summer nights are lovely and make up for the dark winter days where all we seem to do is go from darkness to twilight to dusk and back to darkness again. With sunrises as late as 9am and sunsets as early as 4pm, the winters leave us deprived of sunlight. The long summer days are our reward for getting through those dark days. Overall, I possibly prefer the stability of light levels here in Pennsylvania – and I certainly enjoy the blue skies in winter – but I wish I could somehow ditch those short winter days but keep the long summer evenings.
The language. I miss Scots and I miss patter – that mixture of Scots vernacular vocabulary, with all its specificity, sardonic wit and pithy humour. I miss bantering with people who understand absolutely every word I say. I miss language coming easily to me, not having to fumble around my brain in search of the word people will understand. The flipside of this, however, is that I am rather glad to find that my accent and intonation has not altered in the least, that my gob is as Scottish as ever. Except for “awesome”. I have started using that word.
Toilet cubicles. Obviously it is not that toilet cubicles don’t exist here, of course. That would be silly. That would be like some European nations I could mention but won’t. What I miss is properly private toilet cubicles, ones whose doors entirely fit the frames. Here, most cubicles in public toilets have considerable gaps around the door which leaves one feeling rather exposed. Dealing with the whole hygiene aspect of public toilets is challenge enough without having to also keep an eye on the door frame and be as covered up and discreet as possible in case someone does choose to peek in. Because that happens. Instead of looking for signs of occupation, instead of perhaps gently pushing on the door with a finger tip to see if the cubicle is in fact vacant, there are people who just look through the door crack to see if there is somebody in there. It’s excruciatingly awful. When queuing up in line in the ladies’ room – often inevitable for women – one also has to be mindful of keeping one’s eyes on either the floor or the ceiling in order to avoid inadvertently seeing someone going about their business. I hate public restrooms as it is, avoid them entirely if at all possible, so the lack of privacy definitely escalates my phobia of them.
But there are also things I don’t miss.
Distance to the city. Where we lived in Argyll was 90 miles or at least 2 hours drive from Glasgow, our closest city. There were towns closer but not big enough to provide us with all of the things we might need on any given shopping expedition. If my kids destroyed their school shoes (which happened with annoying regularity) then we could either travel north to Oban and hope the small shoe shop there had the right style in the right size or we could travel to Glasgow in order to have access to multiple, larger shoe shops. We would keep a running list of things we needed from the big smoke and would spend a long day in the city ensuring that we bought every item on that list any time we needed to go into the city. A cinema reopened in Oban in the last year of us living in Argyll but otherwise we had to travel into the city to see a film in the cinema. Museums, art galleries and theatres also necessitated a day trip to Glasgow. Worse, because I was not low-risk enough to give birth at our local midwife-led unit, I had to travel into the city to deliver my babies. I once did 90 miles along crinkly roads strapped down in the back of an ambulance. Severe travel sickness and contractions are not a pleasant combination. The experience was not much better seated in a car. And each time I was hospitalised, I was too far from home for my children to come and visit me. Now, the same time in a car that could get us to Glasgow can get us to Baltimore in one direction and New York City in the other and all those places in between. If we want to go to a cinema, it’s a 15 minute drive. When my 9 year old recently destroyed his school shoes – and he had hobo toes so it was urgent – I was able to nip to the mall and buy him new shoes in no time. We can access all the amenities and culture of a major city in a 40 minute drive.
Television. I do not miss British TV at all. The British shows I followed get imported to the US anyway, broadcast on channels such as BBC America or PBS or – if I wait a bit longer – Netflix. The only show I can think of that I miss and cannot view here in the States is the original UK version of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ That’s it. Granted a lot of the TV we watched back home in Britain was American anyway but overall what has happened is that I just watch a lot less television. We have a different schedule to our day as a family here, are busy with different things, so we just don’t sit down to watch telly as often as we did back home. It’s probably the weather too: we were more inclined to watch television during the day on grey, rainy days. Now my TV viewing is much more discerning, more focused, because I do less of it. That’s a good thing I think. What I do miss is the operating system. We had Sky+ back in Argyll and the functionality of that was much more sophisticated than the streaming, on demand and recording services we have here. I find myself frequently frustrated by how clunky the system is here.
The weather. I do not miss the climate on the west coast of Scotland. I recall my first winter in Argyll and wondering how on earth I was going to get through it. Here in Pennsylvania we have experienced hard winters because of the snow and ice but I would still take that over the incessant, lashing, cold rain. It rains in every single season on the west coast of Scotland. My kids regularly walked to school in wellies and waterproofs. We could set out on walks in glorious sunshine and suddenly rainstorms would roll up the loch and unload a deluge on us that left us soaked to the skin. We packed layers to handle every possibility not just for day trips but even for local excursions. The weather was so unreliable and the forecasting so inaccurate for where we lived that it was necessary to be a pack mule and carry both sunscreen and wellies, sun hats and rain jackets. Then, in the summer, when we might be blessed with some warm and sunny days, the midges would appear. Midges are small, biting insects native to the north-west of Scotland who delight in travelling in clouds and feasting upon people. They are horrible. Completely awful. Not only do I not miss them but I am very much glad to see the back of them.
So that – quickly and off the top of my head – is the ying and the yang of what I miss about home 18 months in to life in America. I wonder if I will miss those things more or less when I reach two years.