Saturday, March 13, 2010

What does "home" look like?

As our unusually mild Winter tries to hogtie Spring with a last few frosty tentacles, we have started getting our trailer ready for more camping expeditions. The cover came off last weekend. Today we fitted an adjustable arm to the power awning so we can get it to drain properly if it should happen to rain - heaven forbid! Still a bit cautious about fully de-winterising because we had a couple of hard frosts last week and the pets' water bowl outside was frozen solid one morning. Maybe another week or so before we tempt fate.

But the anticipation of forthcoming vacations brought to mind something which I observed on our last trip up-island last year. Looking at the countryside we were driving through - evergreen forests, scrubby verges and hydro poles by the side of the highway, distant mountains - it suddenly struck me how different this was from where I grew up.

That should hardly be a surprise, and yet the realisation did surprise me because the landscape I was looking at didn't feel foreign. It felt comfortable and familiar. It was home.

Many years ago, whenever I watched American-made films (which were pretty much in the majority), I used to marvel at how strange and exotic the settings were. ET, Close Encounters, Gremlins, Back to the Future, and many other films set in small town America. A place utterly foreign to me. So strange, in fact, that for many years I simply assumed that it was all made up. Hollywood fiction.

Strange things happening in a strange place. And yet the point of many films like that is that they are meant to be strange things happening in a familiar place. The settings themselves are fictitious, of course, but they are an amalgam of things that I assume most Americans would immediately recognise and be comfortable with. But the tension between the exotic events and the ordinariness of the setting was lost to me.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. You will get that disconnect whenever you see a foreign film set in the local culture. I wonder what an American audience makes of films and programs set in Britain? Would they get the same appreciation of, say, The Full Monty as I do?

But sometimes the American media make bigger assumptions that seem to show complete disregard for viewers outside their borders. One example I recall: the plot in one episode of a popular series in the seventies revolved around a corrupt policeman using a school bus in a scam, leaving it parked and empty by the side of the road with its lights flashing, then booking anyone who passed. The entire episode made no sense to me at the time, because - get this! - Britain does not have school buses like that. No special treatment, no flashing lights to stop traffic. I only became aware of that law while studying for my Canadian driving test, and suddenly a piece of an old jigsaw fell into place.

My realisation, last year, was that all this is now as familiar to me as my old home. Suburban sidewalks set back from the road by strips of grass and trees. Streets and avenues laid out in a grid. Colonial style homes. Traffic lights hanging over the road. Yes, and even the school buses.

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