The Adopted Country

Vintage Postcard from
Vintage Postcard from

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.”

The Ivory Bangle Woman

The Ivory Bangle Woman of York, reconstructed from her remains.

The Ivory Bangle Woman, so called because of the jewelry she was buried with, was seemingly one of the wealthiest women in Eboracum, or Roman York.  Archaeologists have recently proved that she was African.

Glass jug from Cologne, buried with the Ivory Bangle Woman of York.

Where Rome was, so was the world.  (The Mediterranean, North Africa and Europe, at least.) In Roman York, one did not have to be from one tribe or another– one could be Roman despite being born elsewhere.  It is difficult to imagine this in modern Yorkshire,  where ideas of what is British can often seem quite narrow.  But these ancient streets were once full of people from many different places– and they were not just slaves or men hired to be laborers or soldiers.  The modern tourist trade here may give us a glimpse of this diversity, but a migrant is not a tourist. (Though I’m often mistaken for the later, despite living in England for over seven years now, but I digress.)

As an immigrant, you become a paradox, of two places at once, and none but another  such stranger can understand this way of being.

I wonder at this woman, far from her first home in the sun.  What did she make of this green island, her new home?  She died here, accumulated wealth and was loved. Her grave goods on display in the Yorkshire Museum have fascinated me.  The beautiful objects, 16 centuries old, are simple, elegant and evoke the mixture of who she was. A perfect blue glass bottle from the workshops in Cologne and two bangles: one of African ivory– the other, Whitby Jet.

Eboracum: Glass earrings inspired by the grave goods of the Ivory Bangle Woman.