In 2001, Michael Harling was enjoying a quiet life in an American suburb and planning to continue doing so. Then, in August of that year, while on vacation in Ireland, he met a woman from England. Six months later he was married, living in Sussex and attempting to come to terms with a new life and a startlingly foreign culture. So began Postcards From Across the Pond, the blog he created for the purpose of keeping in touch with the friends and family he had left behind. But as his wry, witty and often laugh-out-lout funny commentaries gained in popularity, the blog became a book, entitled, appropriately enough, Postcards From Across the Pond.
Now he’s back, with more humorous vignettes from the second half of his first decade among the British. No longer baffled by simple tasks—such as mailing a letter or buying shoelaces—Mr. Harling, turns his eye toward the minutiae of daily life and the follies that challenge his sanity both as a newly minted British citizen and as a human being. More Postcards From Across the Pond is a chronicle, not so much about what divides us, but what makes us the same.
I am not a trainspotter—one of the bevy of men and boys who cluster at the ends of the platforms with notebooks, cameras and packed lunches—but I seem to be unable to resist the urge to take a photo of every railroad station I stop at. And not just the ones I have never visited before; I take a photo of every station every time I’m there.
I can’t help it; I find train travel romantic. Admittedly, train riding in the UK isn’t quite the same as riding through the night in a boxcar making the long and lonely ramble across the American prairie, but I was never able to do that (the guards caught us and sent us home to our moms), so I have to settle for the remnants of British Rail. Still, nothing offers such hope, inspires such despair, weighs you down with such dark desolation or lifts your spirits with such heady promise as a train station.
The joy of arriving at a desirable destination and the ache of leaving one (or the joy of leaving Haywards Heath at 11:14 PM) is as unmatchable as the purposeful bustle of a busy terminal or the quiet contemplativeness of a deserted platform. If you are heading out on a long journey, you can stow your luggage, take off your jacket and settle down with the beer you bought from the bubbly blonde with the Slavic cheek bones and unintelligible accent pushing the beverage cart, or, if you choose, you can nap to the subtle sway (or violent lurching) of the carriage. On a short, commuter run, you can jam in with your fellow commuters and, even on the most depressing of mornings, feel at one with humanity and take succor from the fact that you are not the skinny young man wedged between the two curvaceous council estate queens, one of whom is applying rouge with a paint brush while the other is shouting into her mobile phone—in graphic detail—about her adventures of the previous night that, unless you overheard wrong, involved a Panamanian midget and a golden retriever.
Who but the most jaded of travelers would not find himself gazing about in country-boy wonder when first arriving at St. Pancras station? How could you fail to be inspired by the technological and aesthetic achievement of the coastline run between Totnes and Taunton? And where else could you get a palpable sense of having been transported back in time except by stepping from a train onto the platform at Torfaen in Wales?
And nothing on this earth can conjure up such simultaneously lugubrious and wistfully idealistic imagery as sipping a cup of coffee in an old-fashioned cafe at an isolated station in the rain. I’m there now, at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Totnes, staring out the window as the trains chug through the driving rain and it’s hard to imagine a setting which could inspire a more reflectively pensive mood than I am in right now.
It’s a sweet feeling; nostalgic, aching, lonely and buoyant all at the same time. The juxtapositions abound—the wet chill outside verses the warm comfort of coffee, the cacophony of the trains versus quiet contemplation, the loneliness that clings like stale cigarette smoke to the scarred plastic table covers, dusty windows and well-trodden door mat versus the homecoming that is now merely hours away.
A freight train is rumbling past. I don’t see very many of them in Britain, but when I do they never fail to remind me of the States. Back there, they were so long that, when we had to stop at a crossing to let one go by, people would get out of their cars and watch. Together we would stand with the other families on the dirt road, counting the boxcars until we lost track. They would roll by so slowly you could run and catch up with one, jumping on board to ride the rails with the hobos and men of the road. But you wouldn’t; you’d stand with your parents, watching the impossibly long train disappear into the distance like a ghost.
This one didn’t take so long to pass; it only had eight cars, hardly enough to make me thoughtful, let alone melancholy. Time to finish my coffee and step out into the rain. My train will be here soon, and I want to get a picture of the station before it’s too late.
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