American dream, part two

So, the strawberries incident dominated the first 24 hours of my American experience when I arrived in the LA suburbs in 1978 for a three-week family vacation. Looking beyond that berry bonanza, I now realize that I learnt everything I ever needed to know about the US of A on that first trip.

Lesson One: Anglophilia is good for you (if you’re English)
I felt like I was in an episode of Happy Days every time we went to a restaurant and Tiffany or Brandy or Angela appeared with a pearly white smile introducing herself as our waitress for the evening. To an English sensibility, the name of one’s waitress is far too much personal information, but Tiffany saw it as the mere beginning of our relationship and went on to declare how much she loved our accents and wondered where were we from. I was astonished that the descendants of the former subjects of His Majesty King George III could not identify an English accent, but I forgave her as I realized how much Anglo-love she had to give…and thus I was spoilt for life.

Lesson Two: More is more
My second favorite food, after strawberries, was steak. This may come as a surprise to those of you who know I have been a vegetarian since I was 16, but prior to my enlightenment I devoured meat at every opportunity. The bloodier the better. Steak in England was available on a similar basis to strawberries, so I was overjoyed to find that in American restaurants I was allowed to order 8oz steaks without it being an extravagance. And I ate, and ate, and ate. Rationing ended in England in 1951, but we are all children of the “waste not, want not” generation. Other food revelations included the discovery of avocadoes growing on trees (who knew?), donuts in shapes other than round, including a bear claw, 34 flavors of ice cream (I tried bubblegum), and the mouth-exploding pleasure of fresh papayas with lime juice. I felt like a refugee who has inadvertently stumbled into a land of milk and honey and throws herself into a frenzy of consumption…no cow was sacred, no fruit was safe.

Lesson Three: Jesus saves…on the liquor bill
My Mum brought lots of gifts for our LA hosts—nighties for the girls from Marks & Spencer, florid soaps, and duty-free scotch and gin. We spent a week or so with this English family and my parents slowly realized that our former neighbors were not drinking the gin or scotch and never offered it. In fact, there was scarcely a glass of wine to be had. Turns out they had been abducted by aliens and chemically altered to reject alcohol. Or, was it that they had been abducted by American evangelists and started to practice Christianity? Religion in England is something one might accommodate, if it’s not too bothersome, for an hour a week, because anything more would be unseemly and inconvenient. So we were shocked to find that PEOPLE WE KNEW were not only Christian, but were TEETOTALERS! Conundrum: how exactly could they celebrate Christmas without a glass of sherry?

Lesson Four: Bi-flavorism is harmless and can be fun
On our way to a youth hostel in the mountains, we stopped at a diner for brunch. People swarmed around us acting in an alarming manner. First, they piled their plates up as if to replicate the mountains we could see in the distance; then, my Dad and I stared at each other in astonishment as we realized they were putting sweet and savory food ON THE SAME PLATE. We saw prunes next to sausages, and pancakes next to bacon. At this point we’d become accustomed to chatty waitresses, doggy bags, and Christians—but this bi-flavorism was about to push us over the edge. Didn’t they know the difference between the main course and the dessert?

Lesson Five: Entertainment not knowledge
To make the most of the cultural experience, and to get me off their hands for a day, my parents dispatched me to my friend’s school. It felt chaotic compared to my Catholic girls’ school: the teacher did not appear to be in control, and I quickly learned that I was ahead of the class when I completed twice as many fractions in half as much time as the other kids. But once we got down to business in recess, the Americans whooped my ass with their intricate and impressive playground chants and claps. Let’s face it, I never use fractions, but I do want to win friends and influence people.

Lesson Six: Medical Care = Money
In San Francisco, my Dad ate abelone and had an allergic reaction. His tongue started swelling and he was having difficulty breathing. They rushed to the ER and then, according to my mother’s accounts, they waited for treatment while they were steered through a mountain of insurance-related paperwork. All the time, my Dad’s tongue is swelling more and he can’t breathe. Eventually, a major credit card turned out to be truly priceless and he got the treatment he needed. The NHS may be crap these days, but at least it’s free.

Lesson Seven: It’s like TV!
Much of the vacation was like stepping through the wardrobe, not into Narnia, but onto a movie set. And that was never truer than the visit to San Francisco. Not only did we drive down Lombard Street (and yes, we were all Streets of San Francisco fans), but we rode on trams, and crossed the Golden Gate bridge, and visited Alcatraz. Yet, it was all real and real people lived there. America is not just a movie, though it surely looks like one.

Lesson Eight: The gays have good taste and kinky sex
My grandparents had befriended a gay couple (oohh!) who lived outside San Francisco in what seemed like a mansion—a hillside house with an enormous pool and designer Dalmatians. The gays were away, but their house was a revelation. I slept in my first king-size bed…shared with mum and dad who claim to have found whips and other accoutrements in the bathroom. I’m sure it was the #1 vacation story in the Cheshire suburbs for months.

Lesson Nine: Nature is cool
In Sonoma my grandparents live in a wooden house built into a canyon on stilts. It was fabulous and open plan and I got to sleep in a tent on the balcony, which meant I woke with the sun every morning at 5:30 and watched hummingbirds feed. We also camped in Yosemite, which was unspeakably lovely. There were birds and deer and snow at the same time as sun. I was of course fascinated by the horror stories of bear attacks and waited daily to witness this destruction, but mosquito bites were the most violent creatures I encountered.

Lesson Ten: History sometimes repeats itself
When I got home to England I would lie awake with jet lag wishing I was back in California and knowing there was no more Disneyland or papayas or canyons. I lay in bed and cried, wondering how I’d ever be reconciled with my regular, boring, rainy life and fantasizing about moving there. Of course, my American dream quickly faded and life went on. I wasn’t interested in the U.S.A. in the 80s or 90s—Reagan was despicable although the movies were good. But 20 years later I came back and in a strange repeat of history had another fabulous vacation, and this time it stuck.

6 responses to “American dream, part two”

  1. Dave says:

    Loved this. Fridays are getting to be Anthropology Fridays around here. Such a finely observed post.

  2. my favorite line:

    Lesson Three: Jesus saves…on the liquor bill

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Welcome to America- What’s your Dream? It is interesting that you liked steak, but became vegetarian, have you ever written about that?

  4. Stella says:

    I’ve never written about, but now you’ve planted the seed for a future post…

  5. PB says:

    One of my favorite lines: “Religion in England is something one might accommodate, if it’s not too bothersome, for an hour a week, because anything more would be unseemly and inconvenient.”

    This was post was so great, I love that though this is an essay about discovering America, the comparisons are as much as discovery for us of your family’s English-ness. You are so amazing at placing us in your head, letting us see through the eyes of you at the time, your parents and you as the adult musing backwards. There is such a nice balance of sensual detail and funny commentary.

    I remember going to Japan, experiencing all the “quaintness,” trying to be all “oh, the odd ways of these foreigners,” and inside being wildly, madly jealous of a million things. It is weird to feel smug and wanting at the same time.

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