Reading the news, it is so easy to become disheartened about the state of the world. Every day there is a new crisis, a new conflict, a new scandal. People are killing and being killed. The leaders of countries are making decisions without considering the well being of the citizens they govern.
As American citizens we absolutely have privileges when traveling internationally. Our passports protect us in ways we could hardly imagine. I have never felt threatened on the basis on my nationality, and that is a huge privilege that many do not have. That doesn’t mean that people don’t notice we are from the U.S., though. They absolutely do, and many don’t hesitate to ask us about current events that our country plays a key role in. The first time we were asked about politics, I was terrified of coming off as an ignorant American. Jake and I had made plans for such conversations before leaving on our trip. First and foremost, we were to be humble and apologetic for any harm that has been brought to others by our country. After our first few dialogues of this nature, we realized that people (at least in the U.K.) tend to bring up politics as a way of determining whether we are kind, rational individuals. Once they realize that we can hold an intelligent and nuanced conversation on current events, any feelings of tension quickly dissolve.
I feel some pressure to be a positive ambassador of our country. Through my actions, I hope to show others that we aren’t so different from them, and that our government does not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the people. Above everything else, though, I strive to be kind.
Almost every time we are out in public and happen to be talking, even just to one another, if people can hear our accents, they will ask if we are American. Before our trip, I had no idea that it would be so obvious where we are from.
One exception to this occurred at a pub in a little village in West Sussex, England. A server asked us what we would like to drink, and after we ordered, she asked Jake if he was American, and me if I was Irish. At first I assumed she was asking this based on our appearances, as Jake was wearing a Carolina Panthers hat and perhaps looked more stereotypically American than I did (casual attire, light hair, beard), while I have freckles and was wearing a chunky scarf and thick-rimmed glasses. However, when we asked her what she based her observation off of, she said, “Your accents.” We all had a good laugh, since the only thing she heard me say was, “I’ll have a Guinness, please, a pint.”
The first few times people asked if we were American, I was nervous about what the reaction would be when we confirmed where we were from. However, I have since found that this question tends to be born out of simple curiosity. They just want to chat with us, ask us where we are from in the States, tell us about their friends who live there or where they personally have visited (almost always somewhere in California, New York City, Florida, or Las Vegas). Yes, politics are often brought up, but more than anything we tend to commiserate with folks about the various issues in our world today. Our interactions with others are almost always positive, and I believe that is because all parties have chosen to speak the international language of kindness. If we answered questions about our nationality with defensiveness or boastfulness, I am confident that we would have had strikingly more negative interactions. But when we react with kindness, we are in turn met with kindness.
Kindness in Housesitting Culture
As we are now almost a week into our fifth housesit in the U.K., I can definitively say that kindness is what makes housesitting possible. In my last post I listed some of the incredible things our hosts have done for us. Since then homeowners have also offered to meet us for lunch with their dog in December when we will be housesitting nearby; hosted us for three nights in their home so that we wouldn’t have to arrange accommodation between sits; driven us around and shown us nearby sights, towns, and the coast; and allowed us to cook fajitas for them. I am constantly blown away by how open-minded, friendly, and accommodating those in the housesitting community are.
Again, it is about kindness. We are kind in all of our communications with homeowners, we offer to help out around the house when they are hosting us, we respect their boundaries, and we show them through our actions that their pets will be in loving hands. As we have gotten into the routine of meeting new people and staying at their homes, I experience less stress before, during, and after the sit. I am becoming more flexible and relaxed, and find myself actually looking forward to meeting new people, not just their pets. Some of those that we have housesat for in the past have even become friends (you know who you are, and I hope you know how much we appreciate you)!
When I first decided I wanted to travel long term, my dream was much different from this reality. I thought that Jake and I would stay in hostels or couchsurf, make minimal plans, go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted, see every major sight in Europe… Honestly that doesn’t sound all that fun or even remotely realistic to me now. We won’t always have back-to-back-to-back housesits like we have had these past couple of months, but I have discovered the value of slow-paced travel. We are able to get into routines, build relationships with people, animals, and places, and are settled enough to be able to work, both on Jake’s business and on ourselves. We cook, exercise with the animals, work, relax, dream about the future, and enjoy the present. I feel as though we are really living and that was my main goal, back when I thought we would be dirty backpackers. I stripped my life down to its foundations, and have gradually been adding pieces back in over the last couple of months to determine whether they fit. No, we aren’t seeing all the “sights” or “doing” Europe. But we are creating relationships, learning what it is like to live in the places we visit, and are living our own lives in simpler and more meaningful ways.
Updates from our Housesits
We absolutely loved the tiny village in West Sussex that we were in for 12 days. It was filled with historically listed cottages on narrow lanes bordered by stone walls, and was surrounded by gorgeous green countryside.
We have loved walking in the U.K., because it is so pedestrian-friendly. Many roads were built with pedestrians and horse traffic in mind, not automobiles. It is often the opposite in the U.S., where it may be a joy to drive, but in many areas it is not possible to walk from point A to point B. In the U.K. there are designated paths with public right of way, labeled footpath (pedestrian-only) or bridleway (horses and pedestrians).
These routes often pass through and between private lands, connecting one farm to another. You can find them by signs at crossroads, or on local maps. Many of these roads have been around for centuries, and are considered to be “ancient rights of way.” I’ve become enamored with the idea of holloways, which are ancient roads that have been hollowed out by centuries of human and animal traffic. Atlas Obscura has a great article on the subject that conjures up images of people wearing cloaks and traveling by foot or horseback to the nearest market town.
We have also discovered the common usage of “stiles” here, which allow you to step over a fence rather than going through it by a gate. These are simple structures, which I assume are utilized as an alternative to gates since they are cheaper to implement and maintain. They often consist of a board or two placed horizontally through the fence to act as steps. There is also usually a gap in the parallel boards of the fence for dogs to pass through, though when walking a dog on leash this does require some skill to pass the leash under the fence. Although stiles aren’t particularly accessible, I do admire their simplicity and ingenuity.
We have been blessed not only by beautiful places to walk, but also by delightful animals with whom to walk. In West Sussex we cared for a sweet and energetic Jack Russell Terrier, who trotted through the lands as though they were his kingdom and marked his passage so that every other animal would know it.
He was crazy about pheasants, and as it is pheasant season we had to keep him on lead (leash) while walking.
He had one of those nice retractable leashes though, and took advantage of its full length by running back and forth.
We are currently watching three gorgeous Golden Retrievers. One is older and can’t go far, but the other two are great on walks. We like to take them out to the nearby fields where they can romp and roam off lead. They zoom around, plow through puddles, and get nice and soggy.
We are in a town in Norfolk now, just a mile or so from the coast. Our host brought us out to see the North Sea on a dark, cloudy day, so it looked an awful lot like the Oregon Coast to us with steely gray water and skies.
The town itself is cute, with a nice village green, some historical homes, and a couple of pubs. It’s windy here, and it’s great to see that power being harnessed for wind energy with big turbines.
We will be here for three weeks, so expect more information on Norfolk in the coming weeks. ‘Til then, check out these big, lovable balls of fluff!