The week of the Fourth of July is a lonely one for Americans here in London. The Brits just don’t appreciate the Revolutionary War the way we do. And you see other occasional signs of hostility, too. When I arrived in London nearly two years ago and wrote a column about my initial reactions, a British legal website promptly linked to my work and illustrated the piece with a picture of Old Glory in flames.
I’m back for more, to celebrate the Fourth in style.
When asked, how do I describe my current living arrangements?
“I have an apartment in Chicago and a flat in London.”
Isn’t that odd? I automatically translate from American English — “apartment” — to British English — “flat” — as my brain imagines the transatlantic journey.
I also now naturally think in Celsius — 0 is freezing; 20 is room temperature; 35 is miserably hot — without doing a mental detour through Fahrenheit. But I still think in dollars. When I see that a half dozen eggs cost two pounds, I’m outraged that I’m being charged nearly three fifty for the item in my shopping cart. I don’t (yet) naturally think in sterling.
So I’ve generally adjusted to my new life, but things can still occasionally get spooky . . .
I was back in the States last month — why do I think of it as “the States,” but the Brits call it “America”? — at my favorite Italian restaurant in Chicago. I looked at the menu and saw that a bowl of minestrone cost “8.” I was quietly surprised for a second: I didn’t remember Riccardo as being that expensive, and 13 bucks seemed pretty steep for a bowl of soup.
I recovered, and shook my head. “Herrmann, you idiot! You’re home now. When you see an ‘8’ on a menu, it means eight dollars.”
And I surprised myself crossing the street recently. I now regularly cross streets in London without putting my life at risk; I know to look right. But I occasionally try to catch a driver’s eye before I step out into a street, thinking that a driver is less likely to kill me after we’ve made eye contact. When you first arrive in London, catching a driver’s eye can be a startling experience: “Jesus! There’s a six-year-old at the wheel!” Or: “Oh my God! Nobody’s driving that car!” Or: “What the heck? The driver is reading a book!” And then you realize that you’re looking for where the driver sits in an American car, staring at the passenger seat in England.
But I swear I was crossing the street in Chicago recently, looked up to catch the driver’s eye, and jumped: “Nobody’s driving that car!” And then I remembered that I was back “home” again.
I struggle (very gently) with choice of words in London, too. It’s obviously no skin off my teeth to refer to the game played in the World Cup as “football.” Using that word would accommodate the locals at no cost to me. But as soon as I open my mouth, everyone hears that I’m an American. Does it seem like I’m a poseur when a guy with an American accent uses a British word? (So, too, with going on “holiday,” rather than “vacation.” But I still struggle with “public” schools, which, in England, are the fancy prep schools. I just can’t refer to “private schools” as “public schools.” It’s too mind-bending.)
Finally, one last observation, which may prompt the posting of another illustration of a burning American flag on a British website.
When a Brit recommends a historical attraction for you, the Brit will probably steer you right: “You should go the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. It’s of historical interest.”
You got that right. They’ve been doing that ceremony — locking up the Tower for the night — every evening at 9:53 p.m. for more than 600 years. (The ceremony was a few minutes late one night during World War II, when a Nazi bomb exploded nearby and knocked the Chief Warder off his feet. King George VI wrote a letter excusing the offense.) To my American eyes, that qualifies as historically noteworthy.
But ask the locals to recommend places of scenic beauty, and they’re far more likely to whiff: “You really must hike in Dartmoor. It’s incredibly beautiful.”
Well, no. I guess if your whole country is basically the size of Michigan, Dartmoor passes for spectacular scenic beauty. But that’s just because you don’t have a Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains. On recommendations for scenic beauty, I’m relying on folks who have a broader perspective.
On the other hand, how do I feel, after two years, about my life’s little detour to London?
It’s a great education. Every day you hear or see something that makes you realize how terribly parochial your earlier life has been. Last week in a pub, for example, I head a guy from Wales (part of the U.K.) sniff, “There’s never been a British Empire. There’s only been an English Empire.”
Who’d a thunk it?
If you ever have a chance to live overseas, seize the opportunity. You won’t realize how deeply American you are until you stop breathing American air for a while.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.