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Across the Pond and Back Again

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Imogen Watson, Online Features Editor, dips her toes into the US of A and finds it not as much to her liking as her home across the sea…

Image credits: Imogen Watson
Image credits: Imogen Watson

There’s something about earning money when you have few real responsibilities that helps make you just a little bit reckless, which I assure you is a word that had never applied to me before in my life.

That’s how, five years after a cancelled promise from my secondary school to take all politics students to the United States, and having earned a decent wage for the past eight months without spending much of it, I found myself hovering around Heathrow Terminal five (far bigger and scarier than my usual Birmingham International) on a Monday afternoon in May. I was both ridiculously early and ridiculously alone. My destination? New York City, and a brief sojourn in Washington D.C.

Stepping off my seven-hour flight into Immigration Control at New York’s JFK airport, it soon became apparent that despite my meticulous planning of everything I was going to see during my five days there, the apparent lack of a language barrier (I’m making an exception here for the hostel worker with the inability to understand ‘post box’ despite my waving postcards at her) would not prepare me for the culture shock I was about to experience during my eleven days spent on the other side of the pond.

“What do you do in Germany?” As part of the only flock of waiting arrivals, all landing from London, I thought it was a trick question. I had filled in my visa waiver form and told them that I wasn’t a Nazi and promised that I had never tried to overthrow the US government – what more did they want? The immigration officer seemed far less than impressed as I took a step off the footprints painted on the floor to point at the front of my British passport at the words ‘United Kingdom’ and answer that I didn’t live in Germany. When he rephrased the question and I then had the audacity to nit-pick and tell him that neither did I live in London, it crossed my mind that I might never make it past Immigration if I didn’t somehow tone down my personality, cease being contrary and stop irritating government officials with the power to send me home.

“I’m a student,” I quickly said. He let me through. So far, so good – until a police dog started sniffing my bag and I thought I was going to be shot there and then. (The cause was just a sandwich I’d not eaten yet, and the dog hadn’t been fed in a while.)

It took me another hour of collecting baggage and working out my route across Manhattan to get my next shock, one that would follow me throughout the eleven days: American patriotism.

Although I, like most of us, have been well versed in American culture since my early years through television and the US being simply everywhere all of the time, experiencing it for myself was somewhat different. As the subway train pulled into the station to cart me off in what I hoped was the right direction, the first thing I noticed emblazoned across each single carriage was an American flag the size of a small bed. Two hours in and if I had been in any doubt as to which country I was in, there was no excuse for it.

Perhaps it was the stark contrast between our annual single evening of in-your-face patriotism at the Last Night of the Proms and the masses of flags hanging around these two major American cities all year round which struck me most. The symbolism of 50 flags – one per state – across Washington was blatant; I even saw one hanging from an unused construction crane. Conversations with friends in California suggested to me that, in fact, patriotism in New York has perhaps understandably been on the rise since 9/11. What then appeared most suspicious to me was that none of them had seemed to have noticed until I started pointing it out. It is not automatically wrong to be proud of your country but it is better, at least, to be aware of why you’re doing it.

It wasn’t only me that seemed initially confused by the intensity of the American way of life; despite the number of British tourists flocking to the States every year, the Americans seemed to take their time understanding me as well. Whilst I encountered several squeals of “Oh my God, I love your accent!” waiting for my tour group at the Washington Monument on D.C.’s beautiful National Mall, I was approached twice by a leafleter who couldn’t tell from my accent that I was British, and subsequently was only able to identify Big Ben as a part of England. Safe to say that when he rather forwardly offered to “show me the town” that evening, I politely declined.

Image credits: Imogen Watson
Image credits: Imogen Watson

As I was frequently the only British person on my tours, the guides also took particular delight in telling me multiple times about when the Brits burned down the White House in 1812, to the point where I just decided to take the credit for it. Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I give you my ancestors. Possibly. Nevertheless it demonstrated a fascinating American captivation with their history, one surprising for a country only three hundred years old.

I have been told on numerous occasions that such a solo trip to such big cities well outside what I’ve experienced before was brave, but in all honesty, the States are a great place to visit on your own, once you have accepted that there are probably going to be odd people talking to you on occasion. That happens everywhere, at any rate. If you can cope with that, well, the city of New York literally never does sleep. There is always someone to talk to and somewhere new to see, and no one to hold you back from doing so if you want to. There’s a whirlwind to get involved in, but rest assured that you will go home more tired than when you left.

Although it was incredibly fun and everyone was generally kind to me whilst I was there, the sheer intensity of being surrounded by Americans asking me questions about England also left me feeling somewhat exhausted. After two weeks of my American adventure, Britain beckoning to me across the Atlantic, with its calming cups of tea, Doctor Who on the telly and Big Ben chiming my arrival home, was certainly a welcome thought. I’d take hope and glory over the free and the brave any day.

Imogen Watson, Online Features Editor

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