I’d carried a chip on my shoulder about the US throughout most of my youth, derived in part from my father’s attitude to the place and partly through my own observations and concern about factors like Ronald Reagan. Britain does tend to have mixed attitudes towards America anyway. Some people love the place, whereas others loathe it.
However, I’m not the kind of guy that really likes carrying chips on his shoulder, especially now out of the sprinted rush of teenhood and into the marathon run of adulthood. I had to put these ideas I had to the test, and so I tried living in America for a while. Lo and behold, I discovered that just like anywhere, there are some really good people in America. Just like everywhere else too, it also has its fair share of not-so-good people, but it was the good ones that turned my prejudices around and made me look at ‘that place across the pond’ in a different light.
Early on in 2007, I stumbled across a chance to write something that could end up in a book. A couple of Brits living in Denmark had come up with a home-made book project about ‘moving away from home’, named Being Abroad. Having written extensively about my experiences of living in Japan, I decided that I should exhume another story from the memory banks instead and tell my American tale.
In the end, my piece didn’t make the final cut. I don’t know what it is but I often don’t seem to have a lot of luck in getting anywhere with UK-related ventures! Perhaps I am forever bound to remain on the outside, looking in.
Rather than let my long tale of youthful adventure under the Floridian sunshine languish on my hard drive, it is instead presented here. Although it’s a lengthy tale, it is somewhat edited down from the original size.
‘A Sunshine State Of Mind’, then – the tale of three plucky young British men and the scrapes that pulled them apart out West.
Remember fearing a nuclear winter? Remember Ronnie and Maggie? Perhaps, perhaps not. We’ve all interacted with the big beast in different ways and at different times, and while it comes in many guises, none of us can really ignore it. As a kid, I grew up with a fear and loathing of America. My perspective on the world was reasonably narrow, being an island boy at heart. The US was the big beast across the pond, the playground bully in the world schoolyard. A place stacked to the back teeth with intercontinental missiles, where the police not only had guns but used them too. And in Reagan, a man with his finger on the apocalypse button who seemed to have no clue of the implications of that.
It is also, however, laden with contradictions. The musical pioneers and outlaws, such as the old blues guys, the jazzers and the hippy crowd had great essences of cool and looked much hipper than any home-grown heroes. And somewhere that produced the likes of Martin Luther King and Jack Kerouac had to have something going for it. Yet my overall impression was negative – the perfect, white-toothed fake smiles and ‘have a nice day’ platitudes, the plasticity of Mickey and the Golden Arches and the camera-toting tourists who thought cultural relics were ‘cute’.
When the sign went up on the university notice board for an exchange trip to the US, I laughed it off. Why on earth would I actually want to go there? Somehow though, the opportunity seemed to stick in my mind. After stages of denial about taking the opportunity up, I finally settled on the idea that if I was going to carry this prejudice around with me, I might as well actually put it to the test.
Applied, got it, so where to go in that vast land? From the options, I decided to ignore the apparent backwaters of Arizona and South Carolina, plumping instead for America at its boldest, brashest and most plastic – Florida. After all, if you can make it in your most challenging point of a destination, you should be able to make it anywhere, right?
Two of my college friends had taken the same decision to head for the Sunshine State, and I’ll call them Matt and Richard here. We approached the situation as three cocky young Englishmen bent on plunder and adventure, heading West to take on America. In those days, there wasn’t a smoking ban on trans-Atlantic flights. We stocked up on cheap fags, then spent the 14 hour flight adding to the cabin fug and competing over who would be the first one of us to pull an American girl.
Landing in Orlando, the first thing that hit us was warmth. Coming from the wintry gloom of England in early January, it was a damned good start. First challenge, make it through the long lines of serious looking customs officials, second challenge, find a car rental place and the next one, drive an hour to Tampa. The Pet Shops Boys were singing about West End Girls on the radio in the rental joint, sounding utterly out of place but somehow comforting at the same time.
I was the passenger in the back, under glass and staring out at all this alien newness. The highway was so wide and the streets so utterly uncramped. Such a change from the terraced, identikit streets I was used to walking that wore their age on the outside. The neon-flanked highway flashed by, as huge billboards and brightly coloured fast food drive-in signs rose and fell.
We arrived in the early morning at a vast green campus and made our way to the international dorm that was set to be our home. I don’t recall it as that culturally diverse, but it was almost certainly the first time I’d met people with Mexican or Native-American blood. Matt and Richard were sharing a room while to my great luck, my American roommate spent most of his life at his girl’s place.
January 1994, and America was still basking in the relative calm of Clinton’s early days. The twelve long years of Republican rule in the White House had finally come to an end. It might have been before the dot-com bubble, but it was also before Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Tim McVeigh, Al-Qaeda and the bombs dropped in Afghanistan and Bosnia left their own stains on the man’s tenure. There was an optimism around that you could scent in the air. I remember one American student carrying around a cuddly Clinton toy. Try as I did, I couldn’t imagine our then unesteemed premier being treated in the same way.
In an early meeting, we had the house rules of the dorm laid out to us. No smoking inside. No drinking outside. No opening the windows. It seemed that the Land of the Free insisted on treating its young adults like kids for as long as it could. The dour greyness of England began to look a little more libertarian than I’d previously given it credit for. We were also told that as the American academic semester was longer than a British term, we wouldn’t be able to get any grades to send back home anyway and therefore it didn’t actually matter if we didn’t attend every class.
I tried. Made all my classes in the first week. Pictured some sort of ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of set-up – the cool kids, the pretty ones, the dorks and the misfits, all sitting on chairs in rows with an armrest attached to write on – and it was pretty much like that too. I had good intentions for going again in my second week, but it never quite happened. And that was it – I never took another class there. I dropped out of college, soaked up the Florida sunshine, grew my first beard, let my hair grow long, and took three months off from my life.
I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun, at least at first. Once you figure out how to break someone else’s rules without getting caught, you can largely maintain a lifestyle you’re used to. Being a Brit in the States had its advantages too. That ‘cute accent’ can open doors otherwise closed to someone who’s just a part of the crowd. Whilst trying to open a bank account, the teller had me repeat the stalwart British word ‘bloody’ a number of times, as it sounded cool to her. I’d grown up feeling apart from the crowd, but this was the first time that I’d actually felt ‘exotic’! Despite the plunder committed in the name of Queen and Country, the pioneering imperial swashbucklers that carved out a quarter of the globe for Britain established the reputation of the Englishman as a gentleman. It might not always be true, but sometimes it’s beneficial not to shatter someone’s preconception of you.
There were other noticeable differences too. Nobody actually walked anywhere. If the convenience store was 15 minutes away on foot, hop in the pick-up when you need to go. Even just a short trip across campus was done by car. With the cafeteria, you bought a monthly pass, then could stock your tray up with as much food as you liked. My first time in there, with eyes bigger than my belly and essentially a free banquet in front of me, I piled it high and gorged myself till could fit nothing else inside – and this was only lunchtime. But it was too much to keep up, so I imposed some sense of moderation on what I lined my stomach with.
Of the three of us, I was the first to land an American girlfriend. I’ll call her Dionne. We met at some club or other and the British accent did the trick again. Back at the dorm, stood under a lamppost and with no-one else around, we got to know each other better. At some point, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a scrawny kid approaching. He turned his head as he passed us, and then realised that his girlfriend was locked in an embrace with another. He ran off, screaming and threatening suicide and she ran after him. I was left standing there.
Matt came by, having been out in pursuit of his own quarry. I told him what’d gone on and he commended me, as if the situation were a badge of honour. I’d earned my first plunder stripes.
After that, I had no particular desire to get any further involved. Over the course of a week, notes got passed, meetings hooked up and the next thing I knew I was in a relationship. A nice girl at first, the disturbed streak didn’t really surface until a little later on, by which time it was a little too late. A stranger in a strange land, I’d fallen back on a local to be my compass and guidebook, not quite the bold and intrepid explorer I’d imagined on the flight over.
Despite the challenges of this alien landscape and the undercurrent of a relationship on the edge running through my days, life was pretty good. The weather was knockout. I was a young man stuck in an adventure with a lot of partying to do.
Contrary to my youthful expectations of Americans, I met some fantastic folks there. As warm as the sun on my head, genuinely friendly and peaceful people who also liked having a good time. I discovered people who were just like me, yet lived on the other side of the vast ocean that divided us and were just brought up with different TV shows and cultural reference points. We fell in with a like-minded crowd pretty swiftly, and before long I located the musicians amongst them and joined up as one of their singers. We almost even made it to a show once, were even packed into the van, instruments at the ready. Never quite got there though.
Being so far away from home offered a unique perspective on the life I led and the kind of person I was back in England. It was as if I’d put that person on pause and could assess him from a distance. The vexations that had troubled the soul of that young British boy smoothed themselves out in the Floridian sun. Fairly early on in my stay, it dawned on me that I had made peace with myself and my past.
Of course, to find a silver lining you also need the clouds. In any environment, new or old, you can always find downers to piss on your parade, some circumstantial and some that you carry with you. No matter how far you run, you always bring yourself with you. I was funding my trip with a meagre Student Loan. Matt and Richard tripped off to New Orleans for their own Mardi Gras adventures, sleeping rough on the banks of the Mississippi in the process. As close as I got to steeping myself in classic Americana was sitting on the dock of a bay whistling Otis refrains.
The keg parties at friends apartments were good-time affairs but they’d be countered by others that got completely out of hand. We ended up at a frat house party once, with far too much testosterone on display for my liking. A gang of the house frat rats chugged back whatever was fuelling them and decided to throw a large couch onto the fire. Naturally, the police arrived. Not wanting to be implicated, we made a sharp exit when word got out that someone had taken it upon themselves to steal the car the cops had arrived in.
Adding to the element of danger, there were a couple of shootings near the dorm, one on the campus itself and another in the parking lot of the convenience store we used. The entire place usually seemed to be crawling with cops. As the only one in the gang over 21, I was often called upon to be the guy that went to the liquor store. I didn’t particularly mind, but I didn’t want to get deported if I was caught. The amount of rules and restrictions on the freedom of the individual made England’s nanny state look like a negligent babysitter in comparison.
One road trip near the end of the stay left me with a tale I still tell. The Grateful Dead had a tribe of followers that would throw parties and festivals across the country in the spirit of the original 60’s cultural explosions. Florida’s own Rainbow Gathering that year was to take place deep in the heart of the Ocala State Forest. I and another English pal decided to go and hang out in the woods with the hippies for the weekend and convinced a couple of girls to give us a ride. I picked up the goods at the liquor store on the way.
Dionne had warned me about the state law on not having open bottles of alcohol in a car. My friend Tim however, was much more carefree and as soon as we were on the highway, he opened his first bottle of Mickey’s Malt Liquor. We were looking forward to a little hedonism in a natural environment.
We exited the highway at our turning and headed down a dirt track surrounded by deep forest. A mile in, we were stopped by a police road block. An officer approached and gestured to us to wind the window down. We did as we were bade and he asked in an officious tone whether we had any drugs, liquor or weapons in the vehicle. Another officer had begun snooping around the back of the car with a torch. Naturally, we replied that we didn’t have anything. He asked a second time and we replied with the same answer. He then asked all four of us to step out of the car.
Jail? Deportation? Four kids, breaking the law with an American cop in the post-Rodney King era. It called for some quick thinking and my instincts kicked in with a solution. I was going to have to take the rap for Tim’s open bottle to prevent us all getting into even hotter water.
Having spent much of my time there changing my vocabulary and slightly Americanising my accent to be better understood, I suddenly switched to ‘genteel and naïve Englishman’ mode.
‘Well officer, now you mention it, I do have a bottle of beer.’
He asked me to step over to his car and bring the quart of Mickey’s with me. I did as I was told and he informed me about the state law on open liquor bottles in cars.
Ramping up the ‘gentleman abroad’ act, I replied something along the lines of:
‘I see, officer. I was unaware of that, but I’m awfully grateful to you for having alerted me to it. We don’t have such laws in my country, you see. I hope I haven’t caused you any inconvenience.’
‘You realise that you could have gone to jail for this, son?’
‘Could I really? I’m terribly sorry. Would you like me to put my hands on the bonnet?’
‘That won’t be necessary. Please dispose of the liquor by the side of the road.’
I emptied the bottle out next to the car and got a $25 fine. We were all a little shaken by the experience but they were very grateful that I’d stepped in and saved everyone’s skins. Best of all, it had taken attention away from the further seven litres of red wine we had stashed in the boot.
On another weekend, I trekked down to the Everglades with Dionne to meet the folks. Despite the pleasant warmth and subtropical feel of the place, there was more than a hint of retirement village about it. ‘So this is where rich old Americans go to die, slowly’, I thought to myself. Mom was nice and friendly. Pop was strict and keen that I kept to his house rules, but welcomed me anyway. After arriving, we took a trip to the beach. I lounged in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, basking in the glory of being somewhere so exotic sounding. Occasionally, I’d keep my head down to avoid the gaze of the beach police, who had laws to uphold even that stretch of sand. Nevertheless, watching pelicans fly past backdropped by a Mexican Gulf sunset made for a remarkable contrast to the scavenging English seagulls that tried to grab at your fish and chips on Brighton seafront.
As we rolled into the campus parking lot back in Tampa, Tom was standing in her space, awaiting our return. Before the car had stopped, he began kicking the fender and smacking the windows. Clearly, I was going to have to deal with the situation.
The following day, I agreed to meet with him. I found him under a tree. Sitting down, I told him that I was in a relationship with her and that he had to give up on what he was holding on to. He was broken by this news, but appreciated my directness and honesty in coming clean to him. After that, he slunk away. I sought Dionne out to bring her the good news. To my surprise, she flew off the handle and disappeared. Unbeknownst to me, she went to seek solace in the arms of Matt, my fellow explorer.
In the weeks that followed, what should have been a turnaround in our fortunes turned to shit instead. I stepped into Tom’s newly vacated shoes as the spurned and paranoid lover, trying to find out where she was. My mood spiralled downwards. Confused and dejected, I eventually wrote her a letter with my suspicions – no reply.
It finally dawned on me that my American fling was over. I sat on the bench outside the dorm, broken-hearted. Once again, I was alone, a stranger in a strange land, and I wanted to go home. Broke and on a heavy downer, my father was in the US at the time and wired me some cash to bring my flight forward. I said my goodbyes to the good guys, packed my things and got out.
A friend from LA offered me a ride from Tampa to Orlando. Out on the open highway, my mood began to lift as I left the life I’d led behind me. We reminisced about the times we’d had and my experience of expatriation. As every road trip needs a soundtrack, we switched on the radio. I flipped through the channels in search of something good.
‘…sitting in a railway station, got a ticket for my destination…’
Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’ drifted out of the speakers and hit me. Sometimes a song has an uncanny way of jumping on you unannounced and perfectly summing up your moment. I was going back, homeward bound, my American dream tried, tested and put to rest.
Reflecting on it all once the jetlag had worn off and I was used to narrow streets and bad weather again, I knew that I no longer hated America as I’d done as a child. I actually rather liked it, even loved some parts of it. I’d learnt more about myself, the country I’d visited and my own one too, and by extension I’d learned more about the world itself.
One thing to be said for expatriation though. Once you’ve tried it, you’ve opened a door and there’s no looking back. Your country will seem that much smaller than it used to and you develop a taste for exploration. In 2003, I did the same thing. I said goodbye to the good guys in Brighton, packed up my things and got out of Britain.
I’ve been living in Tokyo ever since. But that’s another story.