An American on Britain

Cambridge University

The England of my childhood - Cambridge in 1997

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…

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “An American on Britain

  1. I really liked your reflections on London, they resonate with mine.
    When I eventually moved to London it was my first taste of a really big city – I had travelled quite a lot by then, and lived for a few months in Melbourne which, delightful though it may be, is not a ‘big city’.
    London threw me. If I was not frightened then certainly I was deeply disconcerted, and for a while I stuck to what I knew – people from home and the places they introduced me to. Like you it took a partner to show me London properly, so I could enjoy some of it (no-one can like all of it) and find my feet at least in the rest of it – she lived in Clapham, only just becoming fashionable then. I changed to such an extent that when I was eventually mugged, it was done like a market trade, haggling over what to lose and what to keep – we all departed, I suppose, as happy as we possibly could be. I kept my ring and cheque book, they got cash – no one got any bruises.
    I grew up outside London, deep in the countryside, isolated and quiet, disturbed only by the howl of jets as they hurtled down the valley and the mumbled ‘bloody Yanks’ from my Dad.
    They were British planes actually, but Americans were not uncommon, there were a number of their own air bases around, and many of the more outgoing types had homes off-base. You could spot them easily, with strange haircuts and different clothes and these huge boat-like cars that they’d shipped over before realising they were completely inappropriate for English country lanes. The ones who had been here for a few years were harder to spot, English dress and cars, but when a couple came over for lunch one Sunday I spotted them instantly as obviously, fascinatingly alien. I was still very young, my brother and I treated most of the normal social conventions, including clothes, as optional, and we didn’t opt in very often.
    This high pitched, astonished and offended American accent still rings fresh, “You let your children go to the bathroom outside?” I turned my head and said in my most condescending voice, “Our bathroom is inside.” And my brother and I continued to pee on the back wheel of their car.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on London… « Americans on Britain

  3. I love spending time in the USA. Americans seem friendly, loud, opinionated – but without the bitterness that many of my fellow Londoners seem to have. You have space – acres and acres of it. You like your buildings big and shiny, you aren’t ashamed to showboat, you encourage creativity and celebrate success. Why does Britain not have a silicon valley? We have the brains but we don’t nurture the talent. sad.

    I need to spend some time across the pond again. I miss you guys.

    • I wish you could visit. I think you would like it here. I do agree with you – the British don’t seem to celebrate success in the same way as Americans do. They tend to be a bit more cynical and jaded about things. This attitude suits me (I tend to be the same), but I think it’s good to mix with my fellow Americans and get a counterbalance sometimes. Just don’t ask me to start waving pom-poms around.

  4. Juliana

    Great post, Carla. 🙂

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