The Adopted Country

Vintage Postcard from Etsy.com
Vintage Postcard from Etsy.com

Last week I became British. Would that this transformation had been of the alchemical kind, mythic– involving epic blessings from ladies in lakes, land spirits or the like– but it was bloodless, merely expensive and full of bureaucracy, which is perhaps appropriate– expense and bureaucracy has marked my life on this island since I arrived.

Twenty of us in a beautiful gilded room in the Georgian Mansion House, in the residence of the Lord Mayor (she’s a woman, actually). Both she and the Sheriff welcomed us in their flowing, archaic robes. They shook our hands, congratulated us and gave us all commemorative gold coins and more forms.  A patient civil servant oversaw the ceremony with an admirable degree of sincerity. We were here now, she said, to share our talents and cultures with our new home.

And at one point we were all drowned out by a brass band– for a moment I thought they really do it up right here in York. But it wasn’t for us– all the ill-timed fanfare was for the 62nd anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation.

And the Queen was there– by proxy– in the form of a gigantic, garish gold sceptre laid upon the table before us, looking like some bling’ed out cudgel. We said the oath together– the faithful first, swearing on their various holy books, and then the rest of us heathens, affirming the oath of loyalty to the Queen.  And once that humiliation was over, there was a mean portion of tea– inexcusably tepid and too-strong. Maybe they thought the foreigners wouldn’t notice.

I did tear up a little. Maud knows why; maybe I’m a sucker for pomp after all. I’m an American swearing to the Queen– that waste of space in her miserable suits.  How many British folk would do the same? I’ll add this to the list of indignities we endure as immigrants. I rationalized it– didn’t my Viking ancestors willingly endure baptism with their fingers crossed behind their backs? It was good for trade, for their Master Plan.

To get through it, I closed my eyes and thought of England. I hummed Kate Bush’s Lionheart and envisioned this vintage postcard of the Queen laughing– so unlike her she might be someone else.  I might like her better if we could share a joke about all this. Other queens flashed before me:

elizabethThe ginger, eyebrow-less glamour of Queen Elizabeth the I, especially when played by Quentin Crisp in Orlando. Or how about Stephen Fry? I could swear to the entire cast of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. Corn Dollies. Turf Mazes. Megaliths. Moorland heather. The Brontes and the NHS. Yes, I’ll swear to all of them.

I was never an Anglophile. I fell in love with this place through familiarity, like an arranged marriage. I find, ten years later, it has become a part of me.

Particularly since moving to Yorkshire, I’ve found the people here full of gentle kindness. It is indeed a green and pleasant land. I’m a healthcare refugee from the richest nation on Earth. I fled the Bush Administration thinking it was a temporary thing. I told myself, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “As I woman, I have no country.” Didn’t I just? Now I have two. It was England that taught me how to love America and being American– the disonance of being a stranger to myself, to the land where I was born which became increasingly alien as the years passed there without me.

England has given me a home.  A place to nest, to make a business that earns me a good living, free health care for my chronic and not-so-chronic ills. A place of beauty and adventure where my soul can put down roots.

Now I have an answer for the most common question I’m asked– hot after “Where are you from?” is always “Why on Earth are you here?” With all the disorientation that implies, I can return, quite happily with “I’m British.”

From a place called Kentucky…

photo by rhythmzslave on flickr

I am a quiet American. At least compared to most Americans in London who, even to my ears, sound loud.

Recently a British friend said to me, “Americans like to talk, don’t they?” and I didn’t know what to say. I never really thought of it like that. Americans here are more extroverted than your average Brit. I will risk generalization and say it’s not so much that we like to talk but we are spared that shy awkwardness that marks the Londoner’s public face.

I have learned this face well and am mostly silent. This is interesting, especially when the idea of “the American” comes up. I have heard everything from “eating meat is in their blood” to “they have no right to be in England. Why are they here?” (said a knitter who glowered over her clacking needles while tsking the deportation of two of my fellow ex-pat knitters.)

Any American that doubts that we are hated the world over should do a bit of traveling. We are easy to dislike simply because so few of us do travel and those that do are often obnoxious. We come from a service culture where even if you have little money, you can go to a restaurant and eat well and be “taken care of” in a way that is unheard of in the UK or Europe. And that’s why so many people travel to the US, to partake of this hospitality. It’s also the reason that most of Europe and the UK find American tourists obnoxious– Americans are hoping for the service and value they find at home, and here that is reserved for the ultra wealthy. At a recent job I had to attend a seminar on “customer service” where many presenters apologized for the idea which they said was “very American.”

Of course, if one is an American living in London, there is a good chance you are one of the ultra wealthy– it is quite difficult to obtain a visa to live here unless you are rich, highly skilled or married to a Brit. Very few people here know what range of Americans actually exist. They fail to understand that most Americans, just like your average Brit, are struggling to make a decent life for themselves against a government that has stacked the odds against them. And we both love American movies, American shopping and American food too. Maybe there is some small comfort in the monoculture being exported. We now all have something in common.

In the gym locker room today I heard a few ladies discussing rude customs officers in America, and they began to generalize so that soon it was the entire nation that was thoughtless and gluttonous and rude. One woman said, “Well, if you were American, you wouldn’t want anyone to know because everyone would just hate you and slag you off.” And there was a hum of agreement. Another said, “And can they eat! They are like pigs! Eating enough for a whole family for one meal! The portions!” And they then went on to describe the many holidays they had taken to different parts of America and the food they had eaten there, and how marvelous it was but the drawback was having to eat it with so many gluttonous Americans. (More tsking). Finally I said, “I miss those big meals– especially a nice big salad. Or having a great big drink when you’re thirsty. You can’t really get those things here, unless of course it’s beer.”

And they looked at me wide eyed and then agreed that Unlimited Refills ™ was a revelation, and why don’t they have them here? Another woman mentioned what a great time she had at Sea World where she bought a cup with a whale on it that she could fill as often as she liked. And someone else had gone shopping in New York, and another had stayed at some posh hotel in Vegas, and wasn’t it a bargain?

And then another girl said, “And the KFC there is better. The biscuits aren’t sweet and crisp like here– they are warm and fluffy and so good.” Here in London there is a KFC on every high street, and countless “Yankee Chicken” clones which I have happily avoided for the past three years, but most people here seem to live on this stuff.

Another went on to wonder, “Why can’t they make those biscuits here?”

And someone else said, “Because it’s from there, innit?” She looked at me for affirmation.

“Yes. It’s from Louisville.”

Blank looks.

“Louisville, Kentucky. It’s in the South.” I thought about grits with butter, and the familiar twang of my great-aunt’s voice when she would say, well, good night! when something amazed her.

But they were already on to talking about lobster in New England.

Happy Christmas, Dearest Reader

Christmas in London is a serious affair simply because everything closes. No tube, no buses. No shops or restaurants. The bustling, crowded city turns into a kind of ghost town. Other Americans have said to me, “I always dreamed of a London Christmas” and I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant– surely not the apocalyptic stillness I’ve encountered, having no one to see and no where to go on that day.

There is the argument that Dickens invented Christmas. Perhaps these Americans are thinking of A Christmas Carol— ragmuffins in the snow, conscience-pricking ghosts? Or is it something quaint, mulled and jolly– a received protestant memory? I suppose it’s where the archaic “Merry” comes from in the American “Merry Christmas”– this throwback of an idea. London is the Victorian city celebrating in ye olde stylie. Except it’s not. The only truth in these fantasies is that London at Christmas is a heap of juxtapositions, and maybe that’s why it’s amazing. It’s the one time of year you might have a Londoner smile at you for no reason, and that shopkeeper who you’ve seen twice weekly for years now might just let on that he remembers you. Of course, after the New Year things go back to brisk, slightly hostile anonymity.

Yule has always been my favourite time of year. I love the long nights and in London the nights are even longer. It’s harder to forget the pagan roots of the holiday– the lights and decorations are consolation in the darkness and the bitter cold. There’s less “Happy Birthday Jesus” and more puddings, ales, mistletoe and holly.

It’s easier to avoid the consumer cataclysm in London. I’m sure it exists on Oxford Street, the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, but if you don’t go there you don’t have to deal with it. If you do have to go to a store you’re more likely to hear a bizarre (to my American ears anyway), new-wave take on Christmas: Wham, Band Aid or even the Plastic Ono Band and Wizzard instead of the same schmaltz you’d hear in American retail establishments. Less Chipmunks and more Fairytale of New York.

And there’s something modest about the celebrations. As far as I can tell the big festivity here is the office party, and barring that, the coach ride to see relatives. Last night I was at our local pub and there was a table of celebrants having roast dinner. They all wore paper crowns (save two killjoys who took themselves too seriously. I believe you can judge the character of a person based on whether they are willing to wear the paper crown.). They read each other the stupid jokes out of the crackers which they pulled with childish glee, even though the lot were middle aged.

But there is the bizarro mirror, of course– being an expat here I see the British indulge in a Yank-style Christmas with I kind of sardonic guilt– it’s full on Hollywood romantic comedy, credits rolling over Louis Armstrongs’ It’s a Wonderful World. (The film Love, Actually kind of sums up this adaptation in a horrifying way.) Today two Radio 6 DJ’s I love to hate– Russel and John– played christmas music as they got drunk on cider and rose petal vodka this morning. And they played typical Yank Christmas songs, snarking all the way but still loving it, probably because they were opening gifts that contained even more alcohol. Damn if I didn’t get all warm and fuzzy, too. Especially when they played the atypical Ramone’s Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight. *sniffle*

But then, this time of year, almost anything sets me off, a song, a string of lights, a commercial for an ipod, even.

So today, after listening to Christina’s brilliant Xmas song, Things Fall Apart, I went for an astringent walk down the canal near my flat– frost-speckled webs drawn across the skeletal vegetation, only the thorns were left clinging to the frozen bank. The fog was so thick and ghostly, it blanked everything out– every tinselled sentimentality.

Too Close to Home

Shovlin Last Resort

Shovlin’s “The Last Resort/The Black Room” acrylic on canvas.

America– and particularly the post-Sixties pop culture of the American west coast– is the tint that colours everything. Here is a hall of mirrors. Look back at 1980’s suburban England…and you find strange reflections of Woodstock and Altamont, the Sunset Strip and the American Dream…

–Ben Tufnell in the Introduction to A Dream Deferred.

On certain occasions culture shock can take the form of Chinese boxes– an other looks at the otherness of another looking at the familiar in some other place. And this was the feeling I had looking at Jamie Shovlin’s A Dream Deferred at the Haunch of Venison.

I had a similar feeling when I saw a window display in a Primark which featured tee shirts that said “Sunset Beach Summer Camp,” “Seal Beach Sports Club” and “Humbolt Surf Team” (ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea). Basically, the place I come from is marketed here as a fantastical, semi-ironic holiday destination.

Before seeing this show I was unfamiliar with Shovlin’s work and understood him to be a sort of young, art world prankster. While he was nappy-clad, crawling around in suburban England I was riding my bike around suburban Chicagoland, blasting AM radio playing most of the “classic rock” he riffs on in the current show. I begrudgingly grant him his nostalgia, simply because I would like someone to do the same for me, should the situation arise that I become, say, melancholy about France in May of ’68.

shovlin_flag_on_high.jpg

Shovlin’s “The Flag on High!” enamel on unprimed canvas.

I admire this play on the Op Art movement of the 60s, coupled with a nod to the sacred maze, superimposed over an Eagles album cover. This was the first album I ever owned, and this fact makes me terminally uncool. I saved up my change, and I remember walking into the record store in my clogs and hand-me-down rayon office lady shirt and laying down sweaty bills to buy it. The guy behind the counter frowned at me and even then I knew myself to be a rock-and-roll failure. But for a year or two this record gave me a solitary joy, which is all a suburban girl can ask of her vinyl.

I guess this is what troubled me about the show– I sensed nothing of Shovlin in it. It was as if he were yearning for other people’s memories. Even the title– A Dream Deferred– borrowed from Langston Hughes, is a kind of second hand bitterness. In America one would not “sample” Hughes and ignore race, but here it’s acceptable?  Reviews of the show and the eloquent introduction by Ben Tufnell seem to paint it as some kind of elegiac gesture for the Death of Hippie– not unlike the well loved film Withnail and I. To be honest I don’t see it.

And I don’t see the British gaze or context. Maybe I’m just too close to this material, too literal and possessive about it all.

Or maybe there just wasn’t enough there– I was most interested in the giant album cover paintings, and I wanted rooms full of them, in a kind of Christian-Marclay-esque, record geek fun house. I wanted them to reveal something, or perhaps start some dialog with the boomer generation, the children of the sixties, many of whom are still alive and well and who blew it– all that revolutionary potential– big time. To quote Hawkwind, “we’ve used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road.”

And the hangover gave us the grand cheeze of classic rock. I found the Foreigner album cover rendered in pine tar and terpentine entitled “At Home Abroad” to be particularly pithy in this regard. And strangely relevant to my own nostalgia for British hippiedom. (I did just quote Hawkwind, didn’t I?)

Only in “A Ghost is Born”, the hand-drawn reproduction of Abby Hoffman’s obituary, is there any sense of personal longing. Or maybe I’m projecting again. After all, Hoffman described himself as an “orphan of America” and this is a feeling I know well.