Once upon a time I was a paperboy, 1st Avenue the spine of my beat. I started when I was 11 years old, splitting the route with my older sister in the beginning. There were bitter cold mornings and sweaty summer days when the newsprint bled inky headlines onto my hands as I practiced my perfect pitch to those 60 porches. I broke a window or two. Don’t blame the Tribune, folks, blame this budding Nolan Ryan.
My sister got a job at the library, and after 5 seasons rubber-banding and delivering the news I moved on to B. Dalton Bookseller in the mall. She later joined the Air Force, stationed overseas. I caught a case of wanderlust and moved to New York City. One year I decided to visit her in England. It was the first foreign land I’d been to, if you don’t count Michigan.
She lived off base in a cottage in the countryside surrounded by farmland, so it was a little like being in Ohio again, except everybody drove on the wrong side of the road. The roads were sometimes so narrow — skinnier than our driveway back home — that it could be hard to tell whose side was whose.
I loved her little house, though it was spooky in the evenings; reading Stephen King novels didn’t help. I’d hike to the nearest village a few miles away, marvelling at the quiet quaintness of it all and the fact that I was in a country that actually had a queen, like in a fairy tale. Everything seemed so familiar yet so different, beginning with the language itself: English as spoken by actual English people. No need for a language dictionary, but there could be occasional translation errors (handy hint: probably best not to ask where somebody got their pants, as ‘pants’ means underwear here). Petrol, not gas, and boy was it expensive. Telly, not TV, which we didn’t have in the cottage. I nearly burned the place down while reading by candlelight one night, but that’s another story.
A decade later I was married and still in New York, or close enough. (It sounds better than admitting you’re in New Jersey.) My wife, who had lived for a while in England as a girl, got a job with a British company and was offered the chance to work in their London headquarters. She grabbed it, and we never looked back.*
There are a lot of Americans in England. You can visit the Tower of London or some other famous spot, throw a stone in a random direction and probably hit a couple of Ohioans if they don’t duck. However, we’re far enough off the usual tourist trails that an American accent can still raise an eyebrow. We’re comfortably settled in a small house in the countryside, down a very long driveway that I wouldn’t have been thrilled about as a paperboy.
When we go to sleep at night we can count real sheep, as they’re often right outside our window, the lambs bawling because they’ve lost their mums. There’s an honest-to-goodness castle that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy tale not far down the road. When I left home base my parents gave me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. I can now walk to the house where Kipling used to live. We’ve been nestled in these hills outside the village for a dozen years; in Britain for two decades. It’s home. It’s where the heart is.
I claimed we never looked back, but that’s not quite true. As time marches forward I still revisit Tiffin in my wandering thoughts. They say the past is a foreign country; 1970s and 80s Tiffin seem that way to me now. The library is still there and looks better than ever, but B. Dalton’s is long gone, the mall a ghost of what it was, though fingers crossed it’ll make a comeback. Ballreich’s still knows how to make a potato chip (we call them crisps). It’s also said you can’t go home again, but I manage to do that every now and then to see family and ride my bike down memory lane, also known as 1st Avenue, where the porches look much closer to the street than they used to, my pitches far less fantastic.