In about a week I mark my 16th year as a permanent resident of the United (but for how long?) Kingdom. Sixteen years is a fair chunk of time, and it’s safe to say I’ve changed during that expanse of day and months. Which changes are specifically a result of living in Britain, versus those caused by aging from 37 to 54, or alterations caused by my marriage? Here’s your starter of five:
1. I talk about the weather. This comes as a shock to me and defies the prediction of one of my oldest friends, J, who told me, when we were still at university, “You could never be British. You refuse to engage in small talk.”
Darling, my talk’s become positively miniscule. Back home, if conversation dwindled or strayed into dangerously upsetting territory, all you did was say, “So, what about those Mets?!” to spare your blushes. Suffice to say that baseball’s not a British thing, and even when you find someone who follows the sport, they’re unlikely to know the Mets, much less the meaning of this conversational body swerve.
Bring on the weather. Luckily I live in a country famous for having “four seasons in a day” (sometimes within one hour), so conversation rarely falters for long. I still despise small talk, but living here has taught me that it serves a valuable purpose.
2. The C-word no longer stresses me out.
I grew up in a house where profanity was allowed because Mom believed that curses were harmless words lacking any meaning. I just read a 1961 Paris Review interview with Henry Miller (a favourite of mine) in which he explained this philosophy perfectly: “Words, words — what is there to fear in them? Or in ideas? Supposing they are revolting, are we cowards? Haven’t we faced all manner of things, haven’t we been on the edge of destruction time and again through war, disease, pestilence, famine? What are we threatened with by the exaggerated use of obscenity? Where’s the danger?”
But we never, ever, used cunt in casual conversation. It was the word too far. Here in the UK, however, it’s everywhere. I have grown accustomed to its place in conversation and no longer flinch. With its hard starting and finishing consonants, it’s a good, sturdy word, full of zing and meaning, and I suddenly see the point of it.
3. Viewed from this distance, America looks kind of insane sometimes.
I used to have friends who lived in that part of the Eastern seaboard where Maryland and West Virginia are nearly indistinguishable, an area of the country rich in Civil War battlefields and junk shops where you could always find a bargain. But every time I ventured south on a visit I felt more “fish out of water” than I did during my trips to Europe. The same ill at ease feeling occurred during trips to Boston, so it wasn’t a Yankees v Southerners issue.
Having moved to Europe – and especially having lived here during the George W Bush years – I am even more baffled by my native country. I realise it’s probably because I can see more of it, from this distance, and am not blinded by the bright lights of the big city. New York is sui generis, and hardly representative of the greater whole — and New York is my prism. Growing up on Long Island it was always my point of reference, and that didn’t change during the fourteen years I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey – partly chosen for its stonking views of Manhattan.
To put it bluntly, MY America was never so right wing or so Bible bashing. Am I denouncing my homeland? Goodness no. But then I’ve never been as patriotic about my entire country as I am about my small corner of it. Maybe the expanse of those fifty states is more than I can get my head around. And I cannot be alone in the awareness that my people, my DNA, came from the Old Country – and not all that long ago, either.
4. Oh my god are the British hung up on class distinctions! It’s one of their least admirable traits and getting worse, since they’re increasingly hell bent on keeping people from bashing through those barriers. The longer I’m here, the more noticeable this is to me, for I’m more attuned to subtle turns of phrase and sidelong looks. To misquote a former queen of this land, “We do not find this amusing.”
5. My fifteen-year-old-self was right. That’s how old I was the first time I visited Edinburgh on a day trip and thought — the memory is crystal clear — “A person could live here.”
Some cities you visit are astonishing and magnificent – Venice, New Orleans (Latin Quarter), Paris – but I cannot picture myself going about my day to day life there. (And I say that having spent a solid month in Paris once.) Other cities immediately invite you to contemplate the quotidian, and how lovely that might be. Berlin and Amsterdam spring to mind. I have no idea how my teenaged self knew this about Edinburgh, based on a quick glimpse of the castle and Princes Street Gardens, but she was 100% right.
I love living here, amid the historic buildings with their ghosts and their stories. I love the easy access to every amenity of city life, without the hassle of BIG city life. I never fail to marvel at the way the city sits amid beautiful natural vistas, including parks, extinct volcanoes and canals.
It is a blessing I count daily.