ALMOST five years ago I took the gigantic step of moving from the suburbs of NewYork City to Chester.
When people find out where I am from, their reaction is always the same: “Why on earth did you move to Chester?”
Their disbelief can at least be partly justified as this is a city many in America probably never would have heard of.
I first arrived here as a foreign exchange student at the University of Chester in January 2006, with the intention of staying six months.
Prior to that, I had been studying at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, which is a sister institution.
It did not take long to see how similar people from both countries are, but there were also vast cultural differences which shocked me since coming here from Long Island.
The first thing I noticed was how much more polite people seemed in this part of the world.
That might sound like something typical coming from a New Yorker – the truth is we big city folk do not mean to be rude, we are just in a rush to get to where we need to go.
I had got somewhat used to the Pleasantville mentality while studying in Asheville, a city of about 80,000, but Chester took this to a whole new level.
There was almost no such thing as being in a rush here. I noticed far less grumbling while people waited in long queues.
And as crowded as Chester’s streets could be, most people strolled along while peering into shop windows, saying “excuse me” and “sorry” as others walked past.
Even the homeless wished me a nice day on several occasions when I refused them change – something unheard of in New York.
The nightlife was another shocker.
Between 5pm and 6pm most shops and businesses here close.
At first I could not believe my eyes as in both Long Island and Asheville you could go shopping for clothes until after 11pm.
Most grocery stores and petrol stations back home close between 3am and 4am for routine cleaning, but otherwise are open all the time.
It was also a bit disappointing to see Chester’s only theatre and town-centre cinema close as that left not many things to do for residents.
However, with nothing else to do, I began to hit the pubs and realised closing shops up early was not such a bad idea.
Pubs appeared to me the equivalent of American churches – a place where people of all ages congregate to socialise.
While Long Island has its fair share of ‘Irish’ pubs, and the Appalachian region is strongly rooted in its Scottish-Irish ancestry, there was nothing to compare to the centuries’ old pubs of Chester, some built not long after America was even “discovered” by Europeans.
On these nights out I found it much easier to make friends than I would on a typical night back home. I also thought people dressed very well for a city of this size, more on par with Londoners or New Yorkers if nothing else.
I found myself often running into a language barrier despite English being my mother tongue.
The English tend to speak more quietly and the local dialect was unlike anything I had previously heard.
While I had been somewhat aware of the spelling and speech differences, I was not prepared for the sheer number of words I had never even heard of.
This was especially troublesome when I first began my job as a reporter. When people would phone in with stories, I would sometimes have trouble understanding a sentence – no matter how many times they repeated it.
Funnily enough, I never had that problem when visiting Ireland and Scotland, which makes me think our dialects are probably more closely related.
The food differences were another issue I had to get over.
Contrary to this country, there is no staple dish in any region of the United States and what you eat depends on your background. For me, that was Italian and German.
Here, as in every European country, there is more of a unified tradition with food – and a focus on certain dishes.
Being a food lover, I indulged myself with food I had never tried before, such as pasties, bangers and mash, bubble and squeak and Sunday roasts.
I was also surprised at the popularity of Indian dishes here as I had not been expecting the English to like anything spicy.
Although Chester is much smaller than New York, I have learned to appreciate its many offerings, which seem to exceed its size.
Moving has taught me places are not always what you expect them to be and they often contain many hidden surprises.