By the dawn’s early light: An Englishman in California

Dear readers, I have a special treat for you. My wonderful Will came to visit me in California for two weeks. Here are his reflections from the British perspective on our two nations divided by a common language. Without further adieu, I give you Will:

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What to say about America? Only that it’s incredible, addictive, thought provoking, undeniably beautiful and utterly bonkers.

Oscar Wilde claimed it to be the only land to have traversed from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between. More favourably, Stephen Fry judged it to be simultaneously preposterous, laughable, oppressive, charming, ridiculous, expensive, overpopulated and wonderful, describing its people as “slightly too perfect.”

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Make no mistake, the USA is a very different place to Europe. Europe’s culture is founded on our history, built up steadily over thousands of years. There is no beginning, no start date. We have no founding fathers and our nations were not conceived in anything, least of all in liberty.

It can be hard therefore for a European to understand how a country can have a culture without a history, or at least without a long one. Hence the negative stereotype caricatured by Wilde. If nations were people then the US would currently be going through young adolescence, enthusiastically reveling in newfound power and optimism, yet lacking calming experience. Although as most European countries are in the midst of their midlife crisis, this is arguably an enviable position to be in.

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What I discovered was how right Margaret Thatcher was when she said that while “Europe was created by history, America was created by philosophy”. Americans enjoy a culture no less rich than Paris, Rome or Vienna yet at the same time fundamentally different. It is built on values, founded on ideas and fuelled by dreams.

Take the 4th of July as a case in point. As a European I took this to be a commemoration of a historic event, much like how in England we celebrate the capture of Guy Fawkes on the 5th of November. It seemed ridiculous then that a whole nation would celebrate independence from the British, given that the overwhelming majority of the country never was a part of the British empire, with many of today’s states having been part of other European empires, and indeed remaining part of these empires long after the thirteen colonies formed the USA. Never mind the fact that most Americans’ ancestors were still in the Old World at the time anyway.

What this is then is a celebration not of history but of identity, of being American and everything which goes along with that. There is no equivalent of this in the UK. Each constituent nation has a saint’s day, St. George for England, St. Andrew for Scotland, St. David for Wales and St. Patrick for Northern Ireland. Yet there is no unifying British day, and our union is undoubtedly weaker because of it.

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My earliest introduction to America was Disney’s take on Pocahontas when I was about five years old. Appropriate, given that Janelle’s introduction to London was Disney’s version of Mary Poppins. From the outset I was captivated by the vast mystery of this New World, its majestic wilderness and unending possibilities. What then for my own adventure to this strange land?

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American customer service is an experience. Generally in England I will be helpfully told where to go, and then left to manage at my own pace. Perfection. Never before have I met someone who was so excited to tell me where to put my hand luggage. The enthusiasm is contagious though and before long I was thoroughly enjoying being whisked across the Atlantic, an experience made even better having been semi-upgraded to the front row of economy. Helpful when you’re 6ft.

As the coast of North America came into view, I was introduced to another American institution, portion sizes. “Would you like a snack sir?” said the flight attendant. “What’s this?” I thought, “I’ve already had my snack. They brought ice cream around not one hour ago.” Regardless, I was handed a box which clearly said “snack” on the top. Upon opening it I discovered a sandwich, side salad, biscuits, chocolate, crisps, crackers, dried fruit, and some weird yellow plastic claiming to be cheese. It was what could only be described as a second lunch. Thinking I’d misread, I checked the label again. Yep, definitely a snack.

Many hours later, Janelle and I were at last reunited in LA, having had only a slight incident at immigration in New York, when I was asked if I was aware of what happened the last time an Englishman tried to bring tea into this country.

Los Angeles is unlike anywhere I have ever been. In much the same way that Egypt was built along the Nile, LA is a land constructed along the freeway. The car made the city what it is and it has radically left its mark on the city’s culture.

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A big highlight was the chance to go watch the Dodgers play baseball. Not knowing much about the game, I was surprised by how unlike cricket it turned out to be. Once you get a feel for the strategy you can see very easily how people can get so obsessed with its intricacy.

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What makes American sports such an event for a European though is all the ancillary entertainment which goes along with it. Surely the game itself should be the primary driver of excitement? Interrupting the play so that the stadium could hold quiz games and prize draws as a way of motivating the crowd was rather odd. And being told when to sing? It felt like I’d stumbled into a madhouse. Nonetheless, a unique and thoroughly charming experience which I’ll always remember.

In contrast to the otherworldliness of LA, Santa Barbara felt almost European. The genuinely historic buildings, an authentic high street and a normal amount of traffic, made one feel like one was walking along the Mediterranean. The fact that all the signs were in Spanish only heightened the illusion. San Francisco too felt very European. Strolling along the promenade one almost felt like one was in Weston, Portsmouth or a slightly tidied up Brighton. By contrast, our epic road trip to get there showcased the vast emptiness of America in a way which has no European comparison.

Heading back south, we stopped by Sacramento to visit my old youth pastor, who moved to America a decade ago. It was a joy to meet with Marc and to catch up after so many years. Without a doubt he was one of the biggest influences on my life growing up, teaching me to know God at the time when my parents’ faith became my own. We also got to visit Old Town, which basically looks like it wandered right out of a Wild West film set. There was a uniquely American feel to the place, and I look forward to exploring it more next time.

 

 

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Back in LA, and with only a few days left, there was just enough time for a spot of surfing. Completely new to the sport, and having been assured by my travel insurers that I was covered for “everything from a broken wrist to being eaten by a shark”, I was keen to give it a go. Catching a wave it turns out is very easy. Standing up? Not so much. Perhaps more practice is needed.

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What then of America? I don’t imagine I’ll ever fully understand why the game itself is not enough to entertain the crowd, the endless distance between places is still a little overwhelming, and I definitely ate far too much of the food. But never mind all that. Americans are the nicest and in many ways the most generous people you will ever meet. They are intensely patriotic and have a great deal to be patriotic about.

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You can’t visit America without bringing something back, in my case, 2 kg in weight and an immense respect for the way ideas and values can shape culture. I already have a deep fondness for the place; a seed which I’m convinced will only grow. Thank you to Charlie and Rosemary for their hospitality. You are welcome in London any time!

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~Will

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