Postcards from home – watching familiar TV abroad

Tuesday, July 18, 2000

It’s 7:30pm on a Wednesday, and on television the theme from the English soap Eastenders starts up.  Then Ballykissangel comes on, with its gentle humour and relaxed Wicklow pace. Nothing strange there, then. 

Except that I’m watching these familiar programmes in my apuartment on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, and I’m not sure it’s a very good idea.

It’s not really the characters and plots that threaten to rupture the divide between my life here and my former life in England and Ireland – although the storylines are a bit less clumsily uplifting and the actors a little less perfect-looking than their American counterparts. 

What really matters are the incidental details – the idioms, the streetscapes and even the products on display.  When Niamh goes to the (suitably small) fridge and comes back with some Avonmore milk my heart was tugged very firmly.Who knew I was so attached to dairy products? 

The narrow streets, the dirty cars, the flat grey light (even though they shoot BallyK in the summer), the way everyone looks a little ill . . . these are things I have no protection against. 

Especially when they creep up on me in the completely different surroundings I thought I was comfortable in. That’s partly physical environment – the ridiculously beautiful fog-bound San Francisco mornings, or the high blue sky and gentle 70-degree breezes of an afternoon on the Peninsula. 

But it’s also the televisual surroundings. I can now find my way around the 60 or so channels that muscle their way into my living room. On the at the same time as Eastenders was ‘How to Get What You Really Really Really Want’ – a self-actualization, self-help, self-development special on PBS (shame on them); next as I zap through is the news in Mandarin, next the US version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, then a buxom Spanish language drama and elsewhere 3 baseball games (go Giants), 2 shopping channels, the Sci-Fi Channel, Animal Planet, the Weather Channel and all the rest. 

Most of the time I pick my way between these in the same way I do my food choices here – choosing each one on its merits, and embracing the local options. I don’t pine for Marmite, Barry’s Green Label or batch loaves over here (nor will you often find me in Irish bars in the city) – I’m too busy eating veggie burritos, sushi and knocking back double lattes and Anchor Steam. 

I’ve gone native – the only way to go. Similarly, most often my tv diet is made up of local good stuff too – Will and Grace, the late lamented Sports Night, baseball, the guilty pleasure of Survivor, good documentaries (although I did get a shock the other day when my lake monster-hunting housemate from Dublin was beamed into my living room in a Discovery Channel show). 

So when I stumble across shows that so abruptly drag me back into my older life, I feel at once happy and regretful. They remind me that however comfortable I am here, there’s a home that has a claim on me I can’t shake. 

It’s much easier to live a new life here without being nudged into thinking about what you’ve left behind, especially when you least expect it. A little like coming across photographs of old girlfriends – you get some pleasure from recalling a your past, but when you return to the present you’re not quite as confident of your place in it any more. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, July 2000)