‘Twas the day after Valentine’s, and Deanna and I had decided to get out of town together for the afternoon and get a change of scenery on our day off.
A forecast blizzard had proven to be a no-show, but as we drove around Waterville – around 30 miles north of Augusta, for those not in the know – it was plain to see that plenty had decided to play it safe and shut it down for the day.
In short, it was a ghost town.
After experiencing mediocre service at one establishment, finding the second stop completely shuttered, and balking at an overly expensive menu at the third, we opted for a national chain joint that shall remain nameless, but whose name rhymes with Snapple-Cheese.
And during a bathroom break at said chain bar and grill, something weird struck me like a bolt from the blue.
“Oh yeah. I live in America. Huh.”
Now obviously that’s a pretty goddamn weird thing to have pop into one’s head, given I’d been here permanently for around 15 months by that point. And I used to say every now and then in these very pages that I would occasionally have an “oh shit!” moment wherein I’d remember that I’m actually living the dream I’d had for half a dozen years.
This one was less “oh shit!” and more “oh yeah,” more a reminder than a high-five moment. That also sounds weird because, like, how the hell do you forget the country you’re living in? Are you stupid?
Shut up, that was a rhetorical question.
I feel, though, that if I were living in a larger city, somewhere a little less “off the beaten track,” I probably wouldn’t have been hit by that reminder. Augusta isn’t a big place, and my new home of Hallowell is even smaller, with a distinct lack of anything resembling a national chain restaurant. So when you’re spending your money in local bars and restaurants, it’s easy to forget that that outside, corporation-driven America even exists. Hallowell’s just home, that’s all.
Everything else in daily life feels as natural as anything though. I’m knocking on wood as I say it, but driving on the left side of the car/right side of the road is like second nature. I can’t even really remember the sensation of sitting on the other side of the car and street, although I’m sure it’s something that will come rushing back on my first visit home when I have not much other choice.
Money is the same sort of thing. I spent a good couple of months trying to work out the conversions from U.S. to Australian dollars – partly because I wasn’t earning anything and was burning through my Australian savings accounts – before I finally stopped caring. And nowadays, working in a position where I’m counting out change for people at The Maine House, I don’t have any real issues with identifying and dealing with cash money either.
But on the odd occasion I do hit Applebee’s, or Walmart, or some other retail giant that has real estate from coast to coast, I get that little wake-up call. It’s not necessarily just a mental thing either – that Sunday, it was triggered by the smell of whatever air freshener the chain uses to lull diners into thinking they’ll have “just one more $6 22oz PBR.”
Television commercials also get me every now and then, although far less frequently, given I don’t have cable TV. More specifically, fast food commercials get me every now and then. Like I said, it’s not a huge town, so we have the usual suspects (McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, the pizza joints, etc) and that’s about it.
But when I’m watching a basketball game on ESPN at work and an ad comes on for Sonic (141 miles away) or Chick-Fil-A (162 miles) or Whataburger (766 miles), the first thing that comes to mind – after “Damnit, I want that,” of course – is “oh yeah, those places exist somewhere in this vast nation.”
In saying all that, though, none of this is a bad thing. From a lifestyle perspective, it’s fantastic to be able to spend $7 on a sandwich from a iconic joint like Damon’s and support a local business than be sidetracked by the convenience of a McDonald’s drive-thru.
I think to an extent it will probably be a good thing for later this year when my mother and sister come to visit. Their last visit to the U.S. was New York and Boston, and they’ve seen plenty of the bigger cities, so central Maine’s gonna be something quite different.
But if a lack of “American reminders” gets visitors out of their comfort zones and shows them what Vacationland has to offer, then you can keep your Whataburger.