Seventeen – Misplaced Sentiments

After encapsulating the alien culture of America in my last post, I now turn my attentions to the quirks, traditions, foods and general aspects, or lack thereof, of my home culture.

Seventeen things I miss about the UK and the People’s Republic of Sunlun’:

1. The biggest miss of course is my family, that goes without saying. They’re a huge miss. I often find myself seeing or doing something amazing and thinking, “it would be so cool if my family were here”. That being said, living in America is such a great excuse for them visit and make some amazing memories here with me. Something I’m certain they agree with.

2. Whilst living in the UK I must admit that I was never the biggest advocate of Greggs. Say the word and memories of greasy brown bags made translucent by saturated fat, chavvy mams shovelling sausage rolls into golden-boxing-glove-necklace toting toddler’s mouths and seagulls scrapping over an abandoned mince pie come flooding into my mind’s eye. However, that being said, I really miss the site of a Greggs on every other street corner; stottie bread and steak bakes… the Americans haven’t lived. You know, I once opened up a steak bake in front of Danielle, she cringed and said it looked like dog food; however, after some slight convincing, she took a bite. Her eyes rolled in delight and next thing I know I’m buying another one. Touched by the grace of the North Eastern baking gods. Greggs in America would be amazing, yet I fear their may be some form of international agreement already in place that prevents any such occurrence from happening – I don’t think America needs any obesity inducing encouragement, they’re pretty good at that kind of thing already in case you didn’t know.

2. Americans always joke around saying in a shrill, poorly imitated English accent, “Oh, would you like a cup of tea, old chap?” laughing and nudging me in the ribs with a dagger-like elbow. However, when I reply, “Oh, yes please, if you’ve got some” – the look on their face is priceless. Cue rummaging through every cupboard and pantry in the house whilst stating, “I’m certain we have some somewhere”. After ten minutes of tearing the house apart they emerge with a mangy old box of Lipton’s tea, a grin spread from ear to ear. The look on my face must say it all; “What is this, peasant? Have thou not any olde worlde English tea? PG tips perchance?” They trudge back to the kitchen apologetically, the look of defeat ingrained on their face.

Britain 1 – America 0.

3. I miss walking down the street and hearing the mellifluous, honeyed North Eastern accent.

“Ere man, ya radgie did ye just nick the dusties off me bmx?”

“Norr nah, divvint be daft ya divvy”

American faces reading this post must be an absolute picture. But, in all seriousness, I really miss hearing the accent that formed part of my identity; hearing my Mam and Dad talk is a whole new experience now and I treasure it so much more in an odd sort of way. (Note: my parents do not converse in the aforementioned vernacular, I’d like to clear that up).

Who wouldn’t miss this crazy kid?

4. I miss walking in general. Unless you live in an urban, cosmopolitan area, then you’re resigned to driving everywhere. I live in a residential development located off a main highway, if I wanted to walk to the nearest bar or restaurant, it would take an hour minimum; people don’t even walk in our neighbourhood, they drive around in golf-carts #’Murica. Now, I know this isn’t the case in all of America, and I also understand that there are areas of the UK where similar situations exist, but ultimately, America isn’t designed to be pedestrian friendly. Without a car it would be impossible to survive, it would be like living on the moon.

5. People from the UK always assume living in the Floridian sun is a big fat tick in the “Pro’s” list. Well, they’re wrong. As a pale (and when I say pale, think polar bear porcelain), ginger Brit, the sun is my eternal nemesis. I burn on the mildest of Floridian days; I could probably burn at night if I wanted to.  In my youth I was always the kid in the swimming pool with a long sleeve t-shirt and sun hat… Who am I kidding? I’m still the kid in the pool with the long sleeve t-shirt and sun hat *wipes tear from eye*. Joking aside, I really do miss the British weather, especially the reddening of the leaves signalling the arrival of Autumn. Walking home from school as a kid in the Autumn time, wrapped up warm, crunching your way through the fallen leaves, sunset at four p.m. Magical.

6.  In my last post I commented on the fact that Americans all seem to be extremely polite and pleasant. I fact, I was out running a few days ago and a little old couple stopped, clapped and cheered me on to the chorus of “keep on trucking!” – I couldn’t make it up if I tried. But, you know what? The politness can get old, I miss people being miserable. If you work in McDonalds and you’re smiling away to every customer wishing them a nice day, then there is something seriously wrong with you (unless you’re spitting into the arrogant fat guy’s burger). I mean, at least in the UK you know what you’re getting; you’re working in a dead end job, miserable? I can tell -your face looks like a smacked arse.

7. Americans have bars, and penty of them, yet I haven’t found one worthy enough of going toe-to-toe with the good old English pub. Sunderland has a fine tradition of pubs: The Chesters, The Museum Vaults, The Isis, The Saltgrass, The King’s Arms, The Dun Cow, Fitzgeralds, The Wheatsheaf, The Jackson’s and my personal favourite, The Willow Pond (Tha Willa) are but a few good haunts dotted across the Sunderland landscape. What is it that makes them so special? Well, for a start, the beer is a lot better in UK; I’ve yet to visit a good pub in Florida that sells a good real ale. Hoppy, fruity, cloudy, heavy I don’t care how it tastes, I’d just like to have one that isn’t an average commercial creation; Blue Moon & Shocktop are the American answers to a real ale *Spits on the floor in disgust*, but they pale in significance when confronted with a Deuchars or a hand-pulled Double Maxim. Also, the atmosphere in American bars is very different. That’s not to say American bars have a terrible atmosphere, but I really miss watching old blokes sitting in the corner of the pub playing dominoes whilst supping on a half of Boddington’s – you just don’t get that here. You don’t get the craic about the football or the decor that hasn’t been updated since time began. I love a good pub and as of now, America has failed to deliver.

8.  Pallion Road. If I ever felt a bit down, I would take myself down to Pallion Road. For those reading this from outside of Sunderland, I will do my best to describe the unadulterated joy experienced whilst driving along Pallion Road. The road in question is around half a mile long and is flanked on either side by shops,  known as the Pallion Road shops. However, when I say shops I really mean takeaways: fish & chip shops, bakeries, takeaway pizza, Chinese food, Indian food, sandwich shops, Butchers selling hot beef dips and savaloy dips as well as fried chicken outlets line either side of this relatively small street. There must be at least twenty takeaway restaurants in the vicinity, no word of a lie. What makes the place so magical, aside from the vast array of takeaway delights, is the people you find there. I once drove along Pallion Road with my Mam one day and we counted as many people as we could who were dressed in their pyjamas. The grand total? sixteen; sixteen people left their homes dressed in nothing but nighttime attire, a few of the classier shoppers wore a dressing gown and slippers, however, and they deserve a lot of credit for that. I’ve seen fights, thefts, break-ups, make-ups, kisses, slaps, cuddles, crying and laughter all on one road in the middle of the city. A melting pot of emotions set against a backdrop of saturated delight, there’s nowhere else like it.

Story of my life.

 9. I miss going to watch Sunderland AFC. I haven’t had a season ticket in a while (going to university in Edinburgh smothered any chance of that), but I would still catch two or three games per season in person. Everything about a match day is just brilliant, apart from Sunderland’s usual results. I love walking to The Willow Pond (Tha Willa) with my Dad before moving on down to The Museum Vaults for a couple in front of the coal fire. Then, we would set off for the Stadium, heading over the Wearmouth Bridge, a tide of red and white sweeping us on our way to our seats. The chanting would begin outside the stadium as we passed various street vendors, the smell of a hot beef sandwich filling my nostrils, and more often than not my gob, too. A bottle of lucozade and some bon bons would keep me company for the first half. Cue Prokofiev’s, The Dance of the Knights,  the players emerge from the tunnel and the stadium erupts in a cacophony of noise. Goosebumps. An atmosphere unlike any other.

10. British humour just isn’t compatible in America. I saw a kid fall off his bike in our estate and laughed so hard I started to cry, a typical British thing right, laughing at the misfortunes of others? Don’t dare disagree because ‘You’ve Been Framed’ is basically a slideshow of dad’s getting hit in the crotch after gifting their kids a cricket bat, and fat people breaking rope swings. I feel Americans, however, aren’t as mean with their sense of humour – laughing at the kid fall off his bike was “just plain nasty”. Sarcasm is a lost art here, too. When you’re friend says something idiotic and you laugh saying “Yeah, good one” before repeating what they said in a stupid voice… Plain rudeness to most Americans. But, if you can’t lightheartedly take the mickey out of people, then where’s the fun in life? I will laugh at the fat kid falling over, whether you like it or not *stamps foot and folds arms across chest*.

11.  Sunday morning walks with my Mam and Dad on Seaburn beach are also a big miss. Grey skies, angry seas and the threat of rain do nothing to dampen our spirits, we stop off at one of the seafront cafes for a spot of brunch and a pot of tea. Bliss.

12. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Someone please give me a kinder bueno or a bar of dairy milk (I’m drooling right now), none of this hershey’s nonsense. Gritty chocolate, seriously? Who thought that would be a good idea? American chocolate just doesn’t cut it, although peanut butter M&M’s are an absolute treat! Walmart sells cadbury’s, but it just doesn’t taste the same. Lord help the obese if America got their grubby mits on our chocolate recipes, diabetes would skyrocket.

Sunlun'!
Sunlun’!

13. Fish and Chips. The Brits are renowned for having a rather bland culinary repetoire, but I cannot stress enough how much I miss fish and chips. The Yanks try their best to emulate our most iconic of national dishes, but again they come up wanting. I made mushy peas for Thanksgiving, and they went down well, despite looking like the contents of a newborn’s nappy (that’s a diaper for you Americans). Can you beat fish and chip Friday’s though, in all seriousness? The fresh, flaky cod fillet coated in a crisp light batter accompanied by hand cut chips straight out of the fryer. Oh Lawd Jesus, get me to Merrill’s!

14. I miss hearing words pronounced correctly. Jaguar, oregano, aliminium, croissant, the word z are but a few innocent words butchered in the mouths of the  American people. When I first moved here I’d say something like, “oh, look at that nice jaguar (car) in front”, Danielle would reply using the incorrect pronunciation of ‘jag-wahr’, I’d correct her – she’d get annoyed. We soon put this issue to bed when I strongly reminded here that America once was Britain’s bitch, and yes you may have won a war of independence, however, that didn’t give her and countless others the right to pollute and alienate the wonderful language we bestowed upon them.

Britain 2 – America 0 (to be fair I think she gave me the dirtiest look imaginable and I shrunk into my seat like a naughty schoolboy. Still taking it as a win for Her Majesty, though).

15. I miss playing rugby on a Saturday afternoon. I can only describe rugby as a thug’s game played by gentlemen; we kick the living daylights out of one another for eighty minutes, then afterwards we all shake hands and have a few pints together. Don’t get me wrong America has rugby teams, but I grew up playing at Sunderland RFC, it’s where I became a man, so to speak. I miss the camaraderie in the club house, all clean and honest fun of course… Songs are sung, clothes are lost and copious amounts of alcohol are consumed before we make the pilgrimage into the city centre for a sophisticated evening of wines and cheeses…

16. I miss measurement systems thata actually make sense. There are like five countries in the entire world that still use pounds, America is one of them. Why continue to use an outdated imperial system? The same applies to writing the date 03-13-15 – no, just no. I care about the day of the month not the month itself, I know it’s March, I did not just wake up from a year long coma, stop patronising me America, I just want to know the bloody day of the month! Also, despite the using of miles per hour as a speed measurement, American speed limits are quite possibly the most frustrating thing around. I’m driving on a highway, it’s a 70mph zone… two miles later make that 55mph, then 45mph over this little hill, back up to 60, now 65 and eventually back to 70. There is no national speed limit, and quite often you don’t know what the speed limit actually is, great news when a cop pulls out from behind a bush wearing a big old smile on his face. The UK is so straightforward, national speed limit is a little sign that mean 60mph on a single lane or 70mph on anything bigger. Of course there are ares that have lower limits, but they are few and far between.

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Who wouldn’t want to play rugby here?

17.  I miss a lot of things, but I’m going to list my family again, because I couldn’t have been in the position to make this list without their help and support. They mean the absolute world to me and I love them to bits. So cheers for being such a fantastic group of humans. They’re funny, nuts, loving and always there for me, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Canny view.
Canny view.

For my next article the theme will be the number eighteen (shock horror). I have decided I want to put the overall theme out to tender, so if you have any suggestions as to what eighteen should be about, feel free to comment on wordpress or facebook and the most intriguing idea will be submitted to the annals for all eternity.

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Sixteen – American Lessons

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Sixteen things I’ve learned from living in America thus far:

1. Driving is an adventure in itself. The road system is so vast that a two hour drive is considered a casual drive; now to someone from the North of England, a two hour drive gets you halfway down the country, but in America driving two hours might not even get you out of your state. Alongside the vastness of the road system are the laws governing the roads, which vary state to state. You’re in New Jersey and want to make a left? There’s a good chance you can’t, because turning left is illegal. In Florida, you can turn right at a red light, but in Pennsylvania you can’t. Little changes in the law make for an interesting road trip… Especially when you’re explaining your case to a state trooper. These issues, however, pale in comparison to the standard of driving in the States. Americans drive on the right hand side of the road, so logically you drive in the right hand lane and use the outside left lanes to overtake? No. There appears to be no rhyme nor reason when it comes to driving in America. You want to drive slow in the fast lane? Fine. You want to undertake in the right hand lane? Cool. Driving in America is an interesting experience to say the least.

2. Americans are incredibly polite. “Yes sir”, “no ma’am”, “good morning”, “have a nice day”, “how are ya’ll?” – all of these expressions I hear on a daily basis. Maybe this a southern thing (I live in central Florida for those wondering)? After all, the South is renowned for its hospitality. Regardless, it is extremely refreshing to hear such politeness in everyday conversation.

3. Sweetened bread. I can’t find bread that doesn’t taste like it has been sprinkled with sugar, and I quite simply can’t get away with it. I honestly do not understand the need to sweeten bread, I always thought that’s what jam was for?

4. Iced tea is quite simply divine. There’s nothing better than cracking open a can of Arnold Palmer’s half iced tea and half lemonade on a warm sunny day. Sheer bliss. Something I’ve been missing out on for so long. I don’t think I can put into words just how wonderful the taste sensation is.

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5. Advertisements and branding are everywhere. Driving can be a mesmerising experience; neon signs looming large, radiating against the darkened sky beckoning you to pull in and sample their delights. True story, driving can feel like flipping through a telephone directory, looking for a fast food service, it is bizarre. Watching television is a similar experience. In fact, watching television in America is a truly frustrating experience. You are watching your favourite TV show, the tension is building, will they find the gold? Was that a gunshot? Cue an advertisement break, “ten chicken nuggets at Burger King only $1.29” – *television remote slams off the wall*. The need to continuously advertise is honestly such a farce, no the wonder streaming and illegal downloading are so popular.

6. The impressive world of high school and college sports. I played football (soccer to the Yanks) and rugby throughout my high school (senior school to the Brits) and University years. However, I certainly did not regularly play in front of lively crowds paying good money to come and watch. Maybe when representing the city or county I would expect a decent crowd to turn out and cheers us on, but not on a day to day basis. My wife coaches a high school softball team and I would estimate over sixty people come to each game and even one hundred at the important games; they play at least three times per week. Each person pays an admittance fee and also has the opportunity to buy snacks and drinks from the concession stand. High school and college sports are well attended and also generate revenue for the home side – incredible. This, coupled with the fantastic standard of facilities, creates an extraordinary extra-curricular program that can often lead to scholarships being awarded for University admittance. You play the sport you love and get a scholarship to go and play it at University, whilst attaining a degree… sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t.

7. At the other end of the sporting spectrum is the alarmingly low number of adults playing some form of sport on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, the gym is a popular venture; however, adult sports teams are surprisingly few and far between. Slow pitch softball is pretty popular, and so is soccer – yet the teams and leagues often lack competitiveness and structure. Youth sports and professional sports are lauded, heavily funded and watched en masse; yet, the options for the regular person wanting to play a sport are rather limited. Such a shame.

8. A lot of Americans have an alarmingly poor understanding of the world around them. Historically, geographically, politically and culturally, many Americans struggle to understand the different values that make the world such an intriguing place. “They speak German in the UK, right?” – yes I have seriously been asked that question.

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9. That being said, America has such a rich and varied set of cultures in its own right that it really isn’t too surprising that they don’t know a great deal about what goes on in the world outside of the borders of the USA. Think of America as a union of fifty countries, rather than one individual country. Each state has different laws, taxes and traditions, only specific laws are federally governed, giving the States a varied and interesting cultural landscape. America is almost a world unto its own.

10. The NHS is a fantastic idea, and when explained to Americans properly, they too think it is a fantastic idea.
Me: “Yes, we do pay for healthcare, but we pay for it through taxation.”
American: “Oh, so it isn’t free? Also, I heard that it’s terrible with poor service and waiting times?”
Me: “Actually it’s one of, if not the, best healthcare providing service in the Western World.”
American: “…”
And, you know what? That statement is true. Check out this article from 2014 backing up those claims: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/uks-healthcare-ranked-the-best-out-of-11-western-countries-with-us-coming-last-9542833.html

11. The sheer size of America is spellbinding. Drive across the USA and you will be amazed at how much land there really is. This might sound like a stupid statement, but when you’ve driven for over three hours without seeing anything except rolling hills, forests, rivers etc. then you will understand that America is truly enormous…

12. … And beautiful, too. The changing landscapes across America are picturesque. Mountains, plains, beaches, cosmopolitan cities, quaint villages; America has it all. The wonder of America is the ability to travel within your own country and to be continually amazed. The beauty coupled with the size of the place makes you wonder why you would ever want to travel outside of the borders when there is such a cornucopia of beautiful holiday destinations sitting on your doorstep?

IMG_0350  13. My accent is the most valuable tool in my possession. Never did I think my dulcet North Eastern English tones would be considered sexy, intellectual or charming, but they are. This is no joke. People eat out of the palm of my hand the moment I say the word “naughty”, they seriously can’t get enough. I don’t mind, it’s a great ice-breaker and very few people forget my name. Heck, it could be invaluable in my professional life.

14. Junk food is king. Junk food is everywhere you go, seriously. I already mentioned the blazing neon signs on the highway, but a McDonalds inside a Walmart… it took my breath away. That’s not to say there’s not a great deal of junk food outlets in the UK and Europe, in fact I really miss Greggs; however, America is overflowing with them. McDonalds, Wendys, Taco Bell, Hardees, Arby’s, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Popeyes, Chequers, Sonic, KFC, Subway, WaWa’s, Jimmy John’s and a whole host of independent retailers all provide America the greasy, saturated fat infused delicacies required on a daily basis.

15. Television Shows, in spite of the copious amounts of advertisements aired during the show, are fantastic. Want to watch a show about a family living in the Alaskan wildreness? We have a show for that. Want to watch a show about sickening criminal masterminds? We have a show for that. Want to watch a show about guys seeking their fortune catching tuna? We have a show for that, too. Honestly, American television has a show for every occasion, and it is fantastic. News stations however, are biased and offer poor news variety, in fact it can be shockingly biased at times.

16. Finally, the last lesson I learned is that America is welcoming to those who embrace it with an open mind and open arms. It’s a beautiful place with fantastic people that want to know more about the world outside their borders. Americans will help you as much as they possibly can, and will do so with a smile on their face. I feel America is a country full of sterotypes, and yes some of them might be accurate, but most of them are simply innaccurate. Are they rude? some of them: yes, but the same could be said about any peoples around the world. Americans work hard and always look to better themselves and their families; they have a strong moral compass and well grounded values. I haven’t lived here too long, but I love the place and I can’t wait to explore this fantastic country further.

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Fifteen – The Journey Ahead

March, 2015. Almost one quarter of the year has already been completed.

2014 was a watershed moment in my life. I graduated from university; proposed to, and married, my now wife; gained a nephew and emigrated to the USA. A whirlwind year, I’m sure you will agree.

But what will 2015 hold?

Since arriving in the USA I have had plenty of time to think; my visa was a conditional entry and now I am waiting for my work permit and green card. I cannot leave the country or work as of now. I arrived in country on November 22nd, 2014, and I am still waiting to be granted my work permit. Much like 2014, my 2015 thus far has been dominated by visa paperwork, interviews and meetings.

Yet despite the vexation of waiting for the cogs of the Immigration services to languidly turn, there has been a silver lining to the pain staking process: free time. Time to renovate our house, to test my aptitude at home improvements, to garden, to prepare for our upcoming wedding, to complete various menial tasks, to exercise, to read, to write and to think about our future. Time is precious, and once I no longer own as much as I once did, I’m certain I will look back with envy. I have realised just how important time is.

My hopes and dreams for the upcoming year are fairly mundane with a pinch of creative longing. I am desperate to work again; money is not a hardship, yet we do have to budget to be certain of where we stand financially, adding another wage to the equation will be a real bonus. The downside, however, will be that I no longer have as much time as before to utilise the newfound financial boost. However, having a meaningful role in life, helping others in some way, will be a most well received gift.

My other aspiration for the year is to finalise and publish my first novel – very hipster, I know. Like many other literature graduates I yearn to be the one writing and publishing, rather than the one reading and critiquing. This leads me back to the notion of the time I now have at my disposal. This precious time that I have at my disposal could in fact help me realise my dream of writing professionally, and giving the gift of literature to the world around me. I don’t claim to be Shakespeare reborn, but I hope that my writing my strike accord with the modern people of the world.

The journey ahead will be influenced by my utilisation of time right now. I may feel somewhat helpless as I linger in the house of visa limbo; yet in reality, I have been presented with the chance to pursue a dream, and for that I am thankful.

Fourteen – The Journey So Far

I have now lived in America for fourteen weeks.

I live with my wife, Danielle, in a small town called Lake Wales, located in central Florida – smack dab in the middle of the state. We are surrounded by orange groves, lakes and the occasional swamp. Florida has been a kind mistress thus far, the winter was relatively cool and has allowed me to acclimatise somewhat. Trust me, as a fair skinned red head this has been an absolute blessing.

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Lake Wales, as I have already mentioned, is a small place; however, there is a real rustic charm to the city. The historic downtown district, as pictured above, has a wonderful series of arcades that, despite their current vacuity, are a real set of hidden gems. The streets speak of a once prosperous and proud city that has fallen upon harder times, with the now derelict Dixie Walesbilt hotel standing as a symbol of the city’s resplendent history.

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The hotel stands tall in the centre of the downtown district and has fantastic potential. There are reports of a proposed renovation plan, which would most certainly be a revitalising shot in the arm to the city.

Since moving to America, I have found the people to be nothing but friendly and extremely polite, “No Sir” and “Yes Ma’am” are common terms of address and I have to admit it has been a refreshing change. Alongside the geniality of the Floridian people, I am also taken aback at how interested they are in me and my story; that is not to say that they are intrusive, they are merely interested. I, like many others, had an preconceived image of the American people as an ignorant, uninterested people. Yet, thus far I have been pleasantly proved wrong. That is not to say everyone is an expert on global affairs, I am merely making the point that the stereotype of the insular, uninterested, self important American is exactly that – a stereotype.

After fourteen weeks, driving on the right hand side of the road is no longer alien and I have recently ceased the constant mental conversion of dollars into pounds. Progress. My British sense of humour is sometimes misunderstood, as it would appear sarcasm is something of a lost art form on the other side of the pond. Yet my accent is often exalted; never would I have imagined my gentle, Northern, dulcet tones could be such a valuable commodity.

From April 3rd, 2014, though to November 22nd of the same year, is how long it took to be able to begin this new life with my wife, Danielle. This move was not about starting a new life, or career, or finding myself; it was about moving to be with Danielle.

Fourteen weeks into our adventure together, many more to come.

Thirteen – The Beginnings of a Journey

The number thirteen is my lucky number and has been since I was a young boy. A lot of negative imagery surrounds the number thirteen, it really gets a lot of bad press: Judas being the thirteenth apostle at the table and the Mayan calendar’s thirteenth Baktun being feared as a signal of an impending apocalypse in 2012 are merely two examples of its anathema. However, personally, I’ve always thought of the number as being a good omen.

So, I suppose it is fitting that in 2013 I decided to chance my hand at living in America for the summer before my final year completing my degree at the University of Edinburgh. Looking back, I think I just really wanted to travel and experience the world a little bit more. Call it wanderlust, if you will. And so, I ended up being offered a job at a sleepaway camp tucked away in the Pocono mountains, somewhere between Philadelphia and New York.

Ultimately, I met my soon to be wife, Danielle. I’m sorry to give you the fairy tale ending so soon, I guess I could have told you about how we fell in love over the course of a balmy Pennsylvanian summer, but those are my own, personal memories to cherish privately, they’re not something I want to put into the public arena, because they’re precious to me and I’d never be able to do the story justice in words.

But, if you’re asking yourself what our burgeoning American romance has to do with the number thirteen, other than thirteen being my favourite number, well I will divulge a series of coincidences to you that ultimately led to Danielle and I meeting for the first time in June 2013.

Before I begin, let me warn you in advance, I’m not a person who indubitably believes in fate: of the notion that our coming together was meant to be; that it is magical, preordained, mapped out before us by some higher order or supreme being, written in the stars. And yet, on the flip side, I’m also not certain that our chance encounter was down to just that: chance, numbers, rippling tides of our actions permeating throughout our existence carrying us unknowingly to a location in time and space where we would meet. I lie somewhere in between those two trains of thought, just thankful that we managed to chance upon one another and make something special of it.

I’ll begin in the January of 2013. A new year, the dawning of what was certain to be my lucky year, after all it had to be, I was certain of it. I began the year looking to do something meaningful and adventurous, to step outside of my comfort zone and experience the world; to make memories that would last a lifetime.

I remember talking to a good friend about what she had done over the previous summers, her answer was a summer camp in America, and she had nothing but good things to say about the experience. She gave me a couple of sites to look at, but warned me that most camps would possibly have hired their quota of overseas staff by now. I was one part excited, and one part apprehensive.

Walking home I remembered having had a conversation with my mother some years before where she had told me she wished that she, as a young woman, had been afforded the opportunity to work at a sleepaway camp in America. Now, my mother and Father aren’t people who have a lot of unfulfilled wishes, in fact they’re very proactive in fulfilling their ambitions and dreams – my Dad’s age old saying is that “you only have one life, and it isn’t a dress rehearsal”. So for my mother to say she wished she could have been given this opportunity had a kind of added significance. However, I took this new found sense of enthusiasm with a pinch of salt – there was a good chance I had missed my opportunity to apply.

So, the day after I made some phone calls to one of the recommended companies, Camp Leaders USA, and much to my delight I could still apply, though my friend had been right – a lot of places had gone already. This is where, I guess, the first part of the coincidence was born as I thought to myself, “do I take a chance?” – after all there was a chance I could lose money attempting to do this, with no guarantee of success. I gambled, and at the same time so did Danielle, looking for a summer job after returning from a spell of playing professional softball in Germany. She chose to apply to a camp in Pennsylvania near her grandparents summer home in Honesdale, a camp called Towanda.

The next piece of fortuity came when, after a couple of weeks organising and honing my applicant profile, I was put on reserve: a camp wanted me! After all the hard work, and the worry that I wasn’t going to be able to go, someone reached out, they wanted me. However, the camp’s name wasn’t Towanda, it was a camp near Boston – a camp mainly for young sportsmen. However, at this junction in my journey this was irrelevant, I was elated, it would appear my dream was achievable. My joy soon turned sour, yes I was on reserve, but the camp made no attempt to further contact me. What made this worse was the fact that whilst they reserved my application, no one else could view it; I was basically in camp purgatory, just floating around.

A couple of weeks went by, still nothing. I contacted the company and they told me were looking into it, however, they did state that if I rejected the camp’s advances then there was no guarantee someone else would come looking. Dilemma. I decided to stick it out. In the meantime, I was told that I would need to attend a visa interview in either London or Belfast and a conference regarding child protection and safeguarding, both were prerequisites of my visa.

And so I went, armed with a pen and notebook, scribbling furiously to capture the precious gems of inside information from the conference host, a British camp director who worked every year in the states. At this point, I would like to make it clear that, although I can be a shy person in some social situations, when I know things need to be done in an efficient and effective manner, I have no problem being confident and inquisitive. This was one of those moments. I threw myself in to the slightly awkward ‘getting to know you, ice breaking games” and spoke to everyone I could.

Early on in the day as I sat on the end of the front row, on my own obviously as everyone hates being on the front row, (heavens forbid that they ask you to volunteer for something), I got talking to a really genuine, interesting, kind man named, ‘Z’, or ‘Zee’ to us Brits. As it turns out, he was a special guest, invited to give a talk and add some words of wisdom – everyone held him in really high regard, he was like camp royalty. Anyway, we got on pretty well, he asked what I was writing and I showed him my pages upon pages on notes; he looked pretty impressed. He asked me about my degree, if I played sports and what were my hobbies – I conversed and opened up to him, and then he asked about my camp situation. I explained about my lack of contact and he listened attentively. Anyway, the conference lurched on until lunchtime and as I got up to stretch my legs, Zee called me over to one side, he said he really liked me as a person and would I be interested in working at the camp he represented? I was taken aback, this was nuts. He was offering me a job there and then. He went on to explain that he was really appalled by my current camp situation and he was going to get in touch with the camp in question to request that they drop interest in me in order that we could formalise a contract – ultimately it was my choice, but I was ready to snap his hand off. We shook hands, he gave me his business card and I scrutinised it; in bold lettering stood Zee’s contact info and also the camp’s name, ‘Camp Towanda’.

Subsequently, I went to Belfast and had my interview – everything went well. Somewhere around this time, over in the states Zee was looking for a softball specialist. He relayed this story to me the following year as I helped him run a recruitment event in Edinburgh. He told me that he was flipping through some applications and on one of the better applications he noted that the person in question went to a university in Florida called, Warner University. Unbeknownst to Danielle, the university and the camp have something of an affinity, they hire quite a lot of staff from said university. So, he rang up one of the Warner students who worked during the summer and asked about Danielle, he said he got a positive response, and decided she was the woman for the job. Danielle didn’t know any of this: the link, the recommendation – she just applied because it was close to her grandparents’ summer home.

The final serendipitous moment of our somewhat fortuitous coming together came to be about a week after Zee and I had met and verbally agreed that I would commit to Towanda; I was totally set: Skype interviews had been concluded, contracts had been signed, emails bounced back and forth – I was going to Honesdale, Pennsylvania for the lucky summer of 2013. My gamble had been worth it. Around the same time, Danielle was also finalising her contracts and was ready to go. We didn’t know each other yet. It was not long after my final agreement that I receive an email from Zee, he tells me that he’s spoken to the head boy’s councillor, Bob and the camp owner, Mitch and they wanted me to come and train to be a group leader – I would be the lead/ assistant group leader for an age group if I did well in the training. The other good news – I’d be going out to the states a week in advance.

And so I set off with a fully packed bag, landing in Newark on June 9th and travelled to camp by bus with a group of other international arrivals. It was exhilarating. The air was so much warmer, the scenery so different and we were driving on the wrong side of the bloody road. Simultaneously, Danielle was travelling from her brother and sister’s home in New Jersey. We arrived on the same day and the rest is a set of life changing memories that led to our engagement and application that I move to the USA.

After piecing this jigsaw of coincidence/ fate together (they’re listed by alphabetical order, not by personal belief), I clearly remember Danielle and I sharing a moment of silence. I think we both realised how many tiny decisions had shaped our path to this point – and how fragile that journey had been. And now as I sit typing this post, two days away from our final interview to determine whether our application for my moving to the states is approved, I’m thinking to myself, was this all just a sequence of chance and good fortune? Or did something help our paths to cross? I guess I really don’t know, but I am eternally grateful for the fact that I was able to meet Danielle in the first place.