A citizen of the UK and USA I'm a writer living in the Netherlands observing the oddities and absurd...
More Postcards from Across the Pond12 August 2011, by Jane Dean
Last May, American native Michael Harling published his second book, More Postcards from Across the Pond, following the success of his first, Postcards From Across the Pond - dispatches from an accidental expat.
Both chronicle his journey from the naive, wide-eyed expat to sage and seasoned observer as he arrives in England from the USA; his tales are woven with a wry humour as he learns to adjust to his new surroundings. Inevitably he will be compared to Bill Bryson but while sharing the same nationality, their experiences are very different.
Harling arrived in the UK after meeting and marrying a Brit, waving goodbye to a settled and ordered life in small town, upstate New York and moving to a slightly less settled and a slightly less ordered existence in Horsham, Sussex.
Initially he documented the oddities of his new life on his website, set up prior to moving to Britain. It saved his sanity in the early days of cultural adjustment when he assumed England would be the same as America.
His fascination with the differences in the bureaucracy and social niceties between the two nations makes for lively reading, and his disorientation will be recognised by every expat and traveller who has ever stepped, bleary eyed, into a new country.
Postcards From Across the Pond - dispatches from an accidental expat came about by accident rather than design. The fan-base Harling established on his website encouraged him to put his musings into a book and when he felt he had enough material under his belt he began the rounds of agents and publishers with his manuscript.
The initial response was positive but with a general reluctance to publish an unknown. Eventually he was offered a contract with a micro-publisher, Lean Marketing, and the book was published in 2008.
Surprisingly, Harling chose not to take his second manuscript to a mainstream publisher, despite having one book published and a dedicated audience in place. His reasoning will strike a chord with many writers, "Improvements in POD technologies and the astonishing rise of the ebook has made self-publishing, for the first time in history, a viable option. At the same time, cutbacks in traditional publishing houses have resulted in lower quality books, low - or non-existent - advances and the shifting of marketing responsibilities onto authors."
The premise of both books is Harling’s journey from overwhelmed expat to settled, integrated and naturalised citizen; reflected in the changing tone and pace of his writing.
The first book has a frenetic, almost haphazard feel as he struggles to understand and come to terms with cultural differences, engaging with everything around him like an enthusiastic puppy.
This is not a man supported by the relocation department of a multi-national company. In his own words, "My early days in Britain were characterised by an astounding sense of wonder. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this and I found everything fresh and new and exciting. Like many Americans, I lived a very insular life until I moved abroad."
His writing captures that wonder, along with a growing affection and understanding of his adopted country. He has a unique skill of making dry observations without causing offence to anyone; a quality endearing him to fellow expats and natives alike.
He is not the first American to be overwhelmed by a move to Britain. Many find it more daunting than expected. It is the assumption that because both countries speak English the culture will be the same too, Jaime Flamand an American living in London can relate, "I think what surprised me the most was the culture shock. I was lulled into this false sense of security because I was moving to another English speaking country. For some unknown reason I expected things to be the same because we all spoke the same language. People would ask me how I found something and I would explain the route I used to get there - not realising they were just asking if I liked something."
Harling’s second book More Postcards From Across the Pond is more measured, something he acknowledges, "These days, I'm a bit calmer. You can't sustain that level of excitement for very long, and after a while your everyday life becomes, well, your everyday life."
He expands his horizons from the domestic to the more exotic, recounting his first forays into foreign travel as an Englishman after officially becoming a Brit. We feel his sense of becoming adjusted, settled and accepting.
His writing is stronger and this a sharper, more entertaining book perhaps because he learned from the errors he made with the first. It is better edited and more tightly drawn.
Having recently completed his first novel Harling has said he would like to write one more book relating to his expat experience, going back to how he met Mrs Harling in Ireland which started his British adventure.
His spirit may be calmer but the sense of wonder and the excitement he feels for where life has bought him have not diminished. His mantra for life can best be described by something he wrote himself: "Being amazed by your life is a great way to live."
No-one can argue with that.