Bryson's America: You've always got a friend in New Hampshire

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The Independent Culture
I WAS intending this week to write about some exasperation or other of modern American life when Mrs Bryson (who is, may I say, a dear woman) brought me a cup of coffee, read the first few lines off the computer screen, muttered, "Bitch, bitch, bitch", and shuffled off.

"Pardon, my dewy English rose?" I called.

"You're always complaining in that column."

"But the world needs righting, my luscious, cherry-cheeked daughter of Boadicea," I rejoined tranquilly. "Besides, complaining is what I do."

"Complaining is all you do."

Well, excuse me, but not quite. I believe that on these very pages I once wrote a few words of praise for American garbage disposal units, and I clearly recall commending our local post office for providing me with a free doughnut on Customer Appreciation Day. But perhaps she had a point.

There are many wonderful things about the United States of America that deserve praise - the Bill of Rights, the Freedom of Information Act and free bookmatches are three that leap to mind - but none is more outstanding than the friendliness of the people.

When we moved to this little town in New Hampshire, people received us as if the one thing that had kept them from total happiness up to that point was the absence of us in their lives. They brought us cakes and pies and bottles of wine. Not one of them said: "So you're the people who paid a fortune for the Smith place", which I believe is the traditional greeting in England. Our next-door neighbours, upon learning that we were intending to go out to eat, protested that it was too dreary to dine in a strange restaurant on your first night in a new town and insisted that we come to them for dinner there and then, as if feeding six extra mouths were the most trifling of burdens.

When word got round that our furniture was on a container ship making its way from Liverpool to Boston, evidently by way of Port Said, Mombasa and the Galpagos Islands, and that we were temporarily without anything to sleep on, sit on or eat from, a stream of friendly strangers (many of whom I have not seen since) began traipsing up the walk with chairs, lamps, tables, even a microwave oven.

It was dazzling, and it has remained so. At Christmas last year we went to England for 10 days and returned home late at night and hungry to find that a neighbour had stocked the fridge with both essentials and goodies, and filled vases with fresh flowers. This sort of thing happens all the time.

Recently, I went with one of my children to a local college basketball game. We arrived just before game time and joined a queue at one of the ticket windows. After a minute a man came up to me and said: "Are you waiting to buy tickets?"

No, I wanted to reply, I'm standing here to make the line more impressive, but of course all I said was: "Yes, I am."

"Because you can have these," he said and thrust two tickets at me. My immediate thought, born of years of stupidly misreading situations, was that he was a tout and that there must be a catch. "How much?" I said warily.

"No, no, you can have them. For free. We can't go to the game, you see." He indicated a car outside, with the motor running and a woman sitting in the passenger seat.

"Really?" I said. "Well, thank you very much." And then I was struck by a thought. "Did you make a special trip here to give away two tickets?"

"They were going to go to waste otherwise," he said apologetically. "Enjoy the game."

I could go on and on about this sort of thing - about the young man who returned my son's lost wallet with nearly all his summer's wages in it and wouldn't take a reward; about the employees of the cinema who go out if it starts to rain and roll up all the windows of cars parked along nearby streets on the assumption that at least some of them will belong to cinema customers who don't know it is raining; how after the wife of the local police chief lost her hair during chemotherapy treatment every member of the force had his head shaved to raise money for a cancer charity, and to make the chief's wife feel less conspicuous.

That people leave their cars unlocked and the windows open tells you something more about the town, of course. The fact is, there is no crime here. People will casually leave a $500 bicycle propped against a tree and go off to do their shopping. If someone did steal it, I am almost certain the victim would run after the thief shouting: "Could you please return it to 32 Wilson Avenue when you've finished? And watch out for the third gear - it sticks."

No one locks anything. I remember being astounded by this on my first visit, when an estate agent took me out to look at houses (and there's another thing - estate agents in America know how to stand up and move around) and she kept leaving her car unlocked, even when we went into a restaurant for lunch and even though there was a portable phone on the seat and some shopping in the back.

At one of the houses she discovered she had brought the wrong key. "Back door'll be unlocked," she announced confidently, and it was. I subsequently realised that there was nothing unusual in this. We know people who go away on holiday without locking their doors, don't know where their house key is, aren't even sure whether they still have one.

Now you might reasonably wonder why, then, this is not a thief's paradise. There are two reasons, I believe. First, there is no market for stolen goods here. If you sidled up to anyone in New Hampshire and said, "Wanna buy a car stereo?", the person would look at you as if you were off your head and say, "No, I already have a car stereo." Then they would report you to the police and - here is the second thing - the police would come and shoot you.

But, of course, the police don't shoot people here because they don't need to, because there is no crime. It is a rare and heart-warming example of a virtuous circle. We have grown used to this now, but when we were still new in town and I expressed wonder about it all to a woman who grew up in New York City but has lived here for 20 years, she laid a hand on my arm and said, as if imparting a great secret: "Honey, you're not in the real world any longer. You're in New Hampshire."

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson is published by Doubleday, price pounds 16.99