Not long ago, I was an American living in Britain. I wasn’t extraordinarily unusual either. I started this blog, in part, to reflect on the two countries in which I have spent my whole life. It turns out that others have had a similar idea, which isn’t surprising. Today I randomly came across a blog called Americans on Britain. It’s an interesting project started by a writer who wanted to find out what kind of special relationship the United States and the UK still have with each other, if any.
He has asked ordinary Americans to comment on the ‘special relationship’, a much-favored political term that denotes how the US and UK negotiate with one another on international and diplomatic matters (this is my naive understanding). The relationship was something I seem to recall former Prime Minister Tony Blair referring to when he justified the very controversial decision to lead Britain into war in Iraq. The British didn’t seem to think much of the special relationship then.
Agatha Christie and council estates
This topic got me thinking about what I would say. To explain how I feel about Britain after the many years I lived there, I think I have to explain the past. So here goes. I was never intentionally an Anglophile. I started out reading English classics because I happened to like them. I absolutely loved Pride and Prejudice (well before it was a BBC adaptation), Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Jane Eyre. I kind of tolerated Tess of the d’Ubervilles; truth be told, I could never quite get into Hardy. In contrast, I fell madly in love with Agatha Christie. As a teenager I must have thought that England was all tea parties, rose gardens, quaint villages, murderous butlers and country estates. I wouldn’t know what a council estate was until I got there and ended up living across the street from one. I bought into the dreamy spires of Oxford and Cambridge; I grew up thinking about boat races and bracing walks in the countryside under moody skies.
I was sold these truths or fictions as a child growing up. I first arrived on British soil back in 1995 when I took a study abroad course on Shakespeare over the summer. Our base was Stratford-upon-Avon, which vaguely conformed to some of the cliches I had in my head about what the country was like. There were cute cottages, quaint cobbled streets and plenty of tourists. My abiding memory is getting a headache from drinking Pimms and lemonade, which I didn’t know had alcohol in it. I have pictures that verify I went through London, but I remember very little about it.
The harsh reality of a hard floor
In October 1996 I landed in London with the intention of living there for six months. It was surprisingly warm. I remember this well because I was concerned that I would be cold almost as soon as I stepped off the plane. I was to meet a friend at Euston Square in central London. This area meant nothing to me then, but the surrounding streets would become my home for a short while. I would become familiar with the traffic, the incessant noise and the pollution. I have a hazy memory of standing in BT phone boxes and seeing tacky postcards of scantily clad girls, begging me to call a number. It was seedy. In the early days, I felt like nothing more than the chewing gum that littered the streets. That’s how little London seemed to care for me.
I slept on the hard floor of my friend’s dorm room and learned to become indifferent about the freezing-cold showers. I took a very average job in a restaurant/cafe and it was then that London started to change for me. I met friends and I fell in love. And I now realize, with the distance of many years, that it was falling in love with my English husband which helped me to fall in love with the place he came from. Without that experience I suspect London would have remained a blip in time and no more significant than a visa stamp in my passport.
An English love story
But he opened my eyes to London and much of it we discovered together. Some was good and some was bad. I loved the tight streets, walking to shops and bars, hopping on and off buses, and the parks. I loathed night buses full of drunk people and the bitter, depressing cold of January. I started to dread going through Leceister Square and Piccadilly Circus – always full of tourists, full of noise and the unpleasant smell of decay and too many human beings crammed together. I fell in love with Stoke Newington and its cemetery off Church Street, a place that seemed full of Gothic romance.
We took trips to the countryside and there were castles and gardens. It was like revisiting the pictures of my childhood. This, though, is not the England I think about now. The England I know, and will always know, is London.
Funnily enough, I don’t even think of London as particularly English. What I remember is this huge multicultural melting pot, defined largely by the number of immigrants who end up calling it home. There are over 300 languages spoken in London and you hear them everywhere. I believe it gives the capital its vibrancy, its constant movement and flux. I remember the excitement of being part of this pulsating throng of humanity who passes through this extraordinary city that has seen it all – and, yes, it can seem indifferent and cold. No matter what, London will always just be.
What I enjoyed best is London’s mixture of old and new, of innovation and tradition, of history and propulsion, its constant transformation and yet the feeling that certain things will never change. It’s not so much English as belonging to the world. What is Britain? I can’t condense it into a statement because it would mean reducing it to a cliche. But if I judge it by London, I think Britain is more innovative and forward-thinking than people give it credit for – and it’s a damn good place to get a drink.
So, what do my British friends think of America? Anyone dare to leave a comment…