A few weeks ago we took a train ride from London to Canterbury, Kent. It was a long ride from London Bridge station to Canterbury, about 90 minutes. But pretty enjoyable. You get a chance to see England beyond London, which for us London expats is always a treat. There’s some beautiful countryside out there. Some lovely hillsides. Some charming villages.
And yet….and yet….
I kept straining for evidence of English suburbia. You know — car dealerships and shopping centers, single-family homes and ball fields, generic chain restaurants and congested boulevards, Golden Arches and 24-hour convenience stores. I didn’t see any. I don’t think there are any. England, from what I’ve seen, is made up of three things: cities, villages and countryside. No suburbia. No exurbia. Just cities, villages and countryside.
I’m probably wrong. I’m sure England thinks it has suburbs. I just haven’t seen them. And I’ve looked, trust me. I keep an eagle eye out for single-family home developments with green lawns and picket fences and basketball hoops by the driveway. My heart quickens when I actually spot a single-family home that’s not located on a farm, but they’re mostly the outliers. What you do see a lot of are homes chopped in half and turned into duplexes. Fair enough. So be it.
I’m not sure why this has become a thing with me. I guess it’s just part of adapting to a different culture. You sometimes find yourself looking for the familiar, even though you have no reason to expect it’s there. England shouldn’t look familiar to an American any more than America should look familiar to a Korean or Guatemala should look familiar to an Egyptian. They’re different countries, with different histories and cultures and value systems.
It’s odd what you miss, though. It’s odd that I should miss American suburbia, since I spent so much of my life thinking about how much I wanted to leave it for something different. I grew up in a classic suburban neighborhood that was built during the mid-1960s, during the second or third great wave of American suburbanization. You were surrounded by similar-looking houses that housed similar-looking families. The neighborhood is still there, though now it’s referred to as “Midcentury Modern.” I enjoyed it; don’t get me wrong. As a kid you played ball and rode your bike and went to the neighborhood swimming pool and generally didn’t worry about a damn thing.
When I got older I decided I wanted a more urban existence, and so when I graduated from college I went to…well, I landed in a small town in South Carolina working for a small-town daily newspaper. But after that I…..well, I landed in a couple other small towns. But I eventually made my way to different cities in different places, including New York, Los Angeles and, now, London.
But there have been stops back into the ‘burbs.
The first house my wife and I bought was in a prototypical 21st Century cookie-cutter exurban neighborhood, not too far off the freeway and about a 20-minute drive to the city. The neighborhood was developed by Centex (I think) and had maybe a couple hundred single-family homes (I think) and a few dozen townhouses (I think). There were four designs available for single-family homes. We chose the smallest and the least expensive one (and, on balance, the best value per square foot). It had a smallish backyard where we could play ball and plant a vegetable garden. It had an even smaller front yard where we could sort of putter around if we were a mind to. One neighbor was planted right up against us but they were nice people with lots of kids. Since we chose a corner lot the other neighbors were not planted right up against us. The house had an attached garage. 2.5 baths. A bonus room and three bedrooms. A “great room.” A living room we turned into a library.
We moved after several years to buy a house in the city but we still own that Centex house. We rent it out now and probably will for the next decade or so. I still have an odd affection for it.
I likewise have an odd affection for suburbia even though the second I get caught up in one of those traffic jams I want to pull my eyeballs out with a socket wrench. I like the planned housing developments, even though if I never live in one again that’s fine. I still get a certain comfort seeing a giant Target parking lot and a few Applebee’s and Paneras and Barnes & Nobles scattered about. I honestly dig those planned suburban “city centers” where the homes are located within walking distance of the shops and restaurants. They’re like little villages, only with a Gap and a CVS and a couple of Starbucks.
You don’t see those ‘round these parts. That’s as it should be. Living abroad means living within its rules. London is an iconic city; it doesn’t need me telling it how to go about its bidniss.
That’s why we have brains. To help us see what isn’t really there.
Even if the traffic is backed up for miles and miles….