Friday, September 2, 2011

Mom, I think I might be British?

This is another piece out of the attic dated 7/14/2009

I know I am not ethnically British. I get that. I come from very Germanic stock. Anyone can take one look and see that. 

And obviously, I am an American. It is the only place I can remember living. My parents are Americans, my siblings are Americans. 

And yet. 

I was born in England and lived there for about 500 days. I think that was all it took to plant the seeds that have flowered over the last 45+ years. 

There have been signs all along. Only now am I starting to see the patterns in the larger picture. I think it may be time to face the truth and come to terms. I don't think I can live a life of Denial any longer. 

When I was 4, a little bunny appeared in our back yard in a Pittsburgh suburb. I was convinced it was Peter Rabbit and went off chasing after him with no thought of anything but my old friend Peter. I didn't even notice I was tumbling down a flight of concrete stairs--I just had to get to Peter. I was sure this was poor little Peter who had hidden in Mr MacGregor's watering can--the very one who had lost his little blue jacket after sneaking into that carrot patch. He was the Peter whose mother put him to bed with chamomile tea for an upset stomach. I was too little at the time to understand how far away Peter's nest in the roots of a tree in the Lake District was.

L-R: Puf'n'Stuf, Jack Wild
When I was 7, I discovered an actor who was completely irresistible to me. My contemporaries watched Saturday morning tv and just saw Witchie-poo and that goofy giant dinosaur-costumed guy when they saw HR PufnStuf. I heard a boy speak in my mother tongue. I fell madly lin love with Jack Wild, the boy who played "Jimmy." The boy with that magic talking flute. I loved him before I had ever seen Keith Partridge.

It was the accent. I remember telling anyone who would listen how much I loved his British accent. It turns out that Mr. Wild wasn't just speaking with any old British accent. He was from Lancashire, the same county where I had spent those 500 days. I couldn't get enough of hearing him speak. And when the Bugaloos came out a year or two later-- a British-accented Saturday morning pop band -- well, of course I recognized them as "my people" too. 

I have always had a predilection for British movies, books, characters, actors, musicians etc. I didn't think that held any special meaning other than that the Britain that gets exported to the USA is probably a "best-of" collection. I wasn't the one with the big British flag hanging in my dorm room. Despite my affection for their exports, I never identified as British. 

I knew Anglophiles who had silver tea services and huge British flags hanging in their dorm rooms. They blasted The Who or U2 or the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards into the quad at semi-regular intervals. They stayed up all night to watch Diana marry Charles. 

I slept through that one. I caught the highlights later. I was not all that impressed by the monarchy. They seemed rather outmoded and a burden to the taxpayer. (I learned to keep these opinions quiet around the True Believers.) I felt unentitled to render my opinions about the Empire since I was less than enthusiastic about its colonialist tendencies. According to the Anglophiles, my ideas were so American as to make them invalid. 

But now, I am wondering if my opinion of the Empire and the Monarchy might actually have been borne of British attitudes and accents I had picked up listening to the telly for 500 days in North West England. Maybe the unquestioning Britain-worship was, in fact, actually emblematic of the Anglophiles' status as outsiders. I am wondering if I was looking at Britain as an insider despite having been outside it for my whole life. 

Recently, my sister posted hundreds of slides that my father made in those 500 days in the Lake District. My parents were living an ocean away from their family in NJ and had just had their first child. He took pictures and pictures and pictures. When I saw the images, for the first time since high school, I discovered the roots of my (until-then) inexplicable penchant for Laura Ashley. Daddy's pictures could have been out of a catalog-- the pram, the coal-burning fireplace, the hardwood floors, the moldings, the shabbyish overstuffed furniture, the view out onto the Irish sea... 

I always wondered where I had gotten my feelings about old historical houses and slipcovered sofas. My conscious memory was of living in plain old vanilla American suburban tract houses decorated in basic mid-century modern. But seeing my 1-year-old self crawling around an old patterned Victorian carpet bundled up in a blue "jumper" with the permanently-red button nose that can only come from a lack of central heating, I could see it. I was imprinted by England as surely as a newly-hatched gosling is imprinted by its mother goose. 

Mrs Rabbit doses Peter with Chamomile Tea
I have even begun to suspect that my life-long affection for Philly is really just a displaced love for a country where there were gardens everywhere, a nearby seaside and a sense of history in every breath, scent and sight. Philly natives complain about the occasional rainy days. I love them. They make me want to curl up with a cup of tea, a good book and a cat. Parents and grandmothers cuddling up to read me the collected tales of Peter Rabbit surely made this mark on me. Is it raining? Have some tea. Tummy hurt? Try the chamomile. Tea is the answer. And England is home.

These musings were brought into focus as I made dinner last night. Beans on toast. Specifically Heinz Vegetarian Beans-- in the turquoise can-- on toast. (Our local grocer just added a shelf of English food to the "foreign" section) This food comforts me to the core. It hits some primal "well-being nerve" first established in me in 1962. This food is not something I learned to love later on like sushi or lasagna. This is the definition of food. This is what I knew first. I knew Cadbury chocolate first too. My mother "mainlined" it when she was pregnant with me. It was the chocolate I learned the word for. That American stuff? Call it what you want, but it's not "chocolate" to my tastebuds or neural pathways. 

A long time ago, I worked with some guys who often did consulting work in England. One brought me a chunk of Lancashire County cheese because my mother had been telling me about her memories of it. I remember tasting it and having an "aha!" moment. This is cheese. This is what cheese tasted like when I first learned the word. I have had other kinds of cheese, but this flavor, this texture, THIS IS CHEESE. Everything else is a variant. This is the REAL thing. 

And so it was the first time I was reunited with the English version of beans. I heated them up, poured them over toast, sprinkled on a little cheese and tasted BEANS!!!! It triggered a flash of memory that must go back to 1963, the last time I tasted the British version. The first bite flashed me immediately to the moment I first  experienced American-style baked beans. I was sitting in a high chair. Wearing a plastic bib. I remember thinking that even though my parents used the same words: "baked beans," they didn't taste like baked beans as I knew them. I remember even commenting to an adult that they didn't taste the way baked beans were supposed to.  My parents assured me these were the beans we always had and I remember feeling frustrated because I couldn't communicate to them how they were different.  Now I know those are the beans they  always had growing up in America, but they were brand new to me.

I liked the taste. It just was different. Eventually the memory of the "old" taste was lost to time. But one bite of these "British" beans a couple of months ago and my vocabularly flipped back. The ones in the turquoise can? Those are BAKED BEANS. The other beans-- the ones I have been eating all of the life I can consciously remember are merely American baked beans. 

It turns out that I can explain the rosehips this way too. I have always loved tea with rosehips in it. I never thought anything of it. I like garlic. I like chocolate. I like rosehips. So what? But it turns out that they were another clue.

A few years ago, I came across something called "Rosehip Soup" at IKEA. I thought it might make a fun cold soup to accompany... who knew what? Eventually, I made the soup as part of an Easter Sunday meal and mentioned it to my mom when we were talking about Easter dinner. She was quite shocked to hear that I loved rosehips. (I didn't know there were "rosehip issues.") 

She explained to me that although it had been 15 years since "the war," a lot of foods were still difficult to get when we lived in England. Babies were fed rosehip syrup for vitamin C because they couldn't get orange juice. Yeah, I was one of those rosehip-sucking babies. No wonder I thought rosehip was mother's milk. It was just a blip in my mother's lifetime. Not even worth mentioning for 45 years. But it made ME who (and what) I am.

My tastebuds know chocolate is from Cadbury, beans come in a turquoise can, cheese is from Lancashire county and rosehips are part of the daily intake of Vitamin C. My ears hear that west country accent as my first language, though I never learned to speak it. The faded colors, textures and patterns of a coal-heated Victorian flat are "home." I would rather watch 4 hours of the complete uncut Hamlet than anything Bruce Willis or Will Smith have ever done. I think the monarchy is just a show put on as a tourist trap. Julia Fordham sings in my voice. It is not a garden without roses. Clive Owen. Richard Armitage.

This is a lifestyle I am not choosing, but one that I was born to. I have been this way since I came out of the egg. I am slowly learning to just accept this and live my life "out and proud." I am gonna go get my British passport. (in addition to, not instead of the American one) I am going to allow myself to identify with my community now. I have lived with this terrible secret eating away at me long enough. I will no longer be ashamed. 

I am British. It is my birthright. It does not define me, but it is part of me. I have gotten to a place where I can accept it. Now, I just have to figure out how to "come out" to my mother...