01.07
Metamorphosis

Something strange has happened to me.

The other day I caught myself sauntering out of the ‘Little Gift Shop on The Corner’ on Rose Crescent, Cambridge, clutching a bag of Union Jack key rings and tacky tourist trinkets. I stopped outside the shop, hitched a pair of bright primary coloured shorts over an expanding waistline and removed my baseball cap to marvel at the antiquity all around me. I think, but am not sure, that I may even have uttered, “Gee, that’s old”. And I couldn’t help but notice the lack of skyscrapers.

Ten minutes later we were back in our hire car. Somewhat unexpectedly the steering column was in front of Ros. We changed seats.

I stalled only a couple of times as I struggled with the stick shift while exiting the rather quaintly named multi-story car park (it must have had all of three levels). I then tried to execute a manoeuvre straight out of my Illinois Driver’s Manual.

The near death experience of witnessing her husband turning right on red in the face of a looming articulated lorry made my wife extremely excitable. We changed seats again. Her suggestion.

Relieved of my driving duties, I tried to excuse my error by explaining that it wasn’t my fault, but that I had imperceptibly become an American. My appeal for clemency, on grounds that I had at least been on the right side (in other words, the left) of the road, met with silence. The kind of silence that suggested I should curb that very American instinct to talk my way out of trouble.

With my simmering wife quietly contemplating whether she now had sufficient grounds for divorce and the children unusually quiet in the back (not even the graphic quality of their gory computer games had prepared them for the vivid real time experience of turning right on red in a country that drives on the left and believes in the absolute authority of the traffic light), I ruminated that I am no longer the man I used to be.

I’m not quite sure how or when it happened. Certainly nothing so dramatic as the cotton-ripping green muscle transformation experienced by others, but now I think of it, I have in the last month outgrown all my favourite clothes. I had been inclined to blame the tumble dryer, but maybe my clothes haven’t shrunk after all. Maybe it’s me.

I could have woken up a beetle, but it seems instead that I’ve metamorphosised into an overweight American.

Blighty looks different through Yankee eyes. Older, smaller, greener.

(Not unlike Yoda, in fact.)

Furthermore, as I found on arrival at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, England is less evolved. The very first thing I did was to turn sharp right immediately after Customs, straight into Starbucks. (My default mechanism.)

“A Grandee Cappuccino and a Strawberry and Banana Frappuccino, please”

“A what?”

“A Strawberry and Banana Frappuccino.”

“We don’t do that.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, we don’t. We don’t have a button for it on our till.”

“Why don’t you just charge for a Banana Frappuccino with an extra shot? That’s what your colleagues do in America.”

“No, I’m sorry, I couldn’t do that.”

The trouble with progress is that there’s no return. Once split, the atom can’t be put back as it was before, as if nothing had happened. It’s the same with a Strawberry and Banana Frappuccino. Once you know it’s possible, it’s difficult to accept an argument that says it doesn’t exist.

Some say that travel broadens the mind, others that it’s the ruin of all happiness. I guess it hinges on whether you like Strawberry and Banana Frappuccinos.

After Starbucks we walked into the maelstrom of World Cup Fever. While I had watched every single first round game, three a day, in the States, it’s a very different experience being outside the goldfish bowl to swimming in the middle of it.

Fleet Street (or wherever the hell they are now), it seemed, was willing their team to lose. Only when Sven’s boys were eventually defeated, did the press change their tune. Reviews in the immediate aftermath wrote in glowing terms about a heroic defeat. What the English really get off on is the nobility of courageous and ultimately futile resistance.

Conversely, the handful of Americans who knew there was a World Cup going on convinced themselves that they had a team of world-beaters. Getting knocked out by Ghana, somewhere smaller than Texas, was a bitter pill to swallow for a nation that only believes in winning.

That they can’t win at it is a key reason why Americans don’t like the game. (It’s the very same reason, incidentally, why we love it so much. Our failure to win reassures us of our inferiority and touches our melancholia over losing the Empire).

The American desire to win at all costs was brought home to me recently when I was late for a local league tennis match. Out of a sense of English courtesy I offered my opponent a walkover, fully expecting him to appreciate the gesture, but to turn it down and agree to play at another time. (We did after all have eleven weeks in which to play it.) He accepted my offer.

Why bother, is the thinking over here, with a sport in which you can’t be World Champion? Baseball is great because the geographical horizons of the World Series begin and end with the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It’s only when the whole thing becomes global that the world becomes messy and unmanageable. Much better to stick with the known world: a world that doesn’t require a passport (and knows how to make a Strawberry and Banana Frappuccino).

One of Ros’s clients, senior executive at a global company, said to her, “Do you know, I just heard an astonishing fact – more people watched the World Cup final than the Superbowl. Can you believe that?” Ros could. Her client couldn’t.

An American commentator hypothesised that soccer appeals to the innate nihilism of the European, arguing that its dearth of goals makes it a perfect metaphor for the meaninglessness of life.

Americans like their sports to have numbers. Soccer just doesn’t lend itself to statistics (a 1-0 score-line is just that, there’s no other way of cutting the numbers, and Americans hate it for that – they want numbers, lots of them, in their sports to dissect, analyse and pour over). They can’t begin to appreciate the abstract beauty of a nil-nil draw.

And, of course, as it involves the foot rather than the hand, it can’t possible count.

It has also been suggested that Americans don’t like the theatrics of soccer. The tendency to crumple on the slightest contact as if receiving direct hit from a sniper in the stands is just not manly. To the American way of thinking, real men don’t get felled by a head-but. Mind you, had Zindane tried out his Raging Bull impression on an American footballer he would have suffered rather more than a dent to his reputation.

That I still love the beautiful game, that I still religiously read the cynical English press every day, let alone that my caffeine of choice is still a cappuccino, suggests that my metamorphosis may only be skin deep.

(My teenage son, on the other hand, not only is the Strawberry and Banana Frappuccino drinker, but also chose basketball practice over the World Cup final. A straightforward case for disinheritance if ever there was one. Had I anticipated that I might father a fourteen year old boy who could choose basketball practice over the World Cup Final, I would have voluntarily sterilised myself with a scalpel at a very early age.)

But I’m hoping that, along with my whiter teeth, some of that American optimism and self-assurance might stick.

And that I can continue to see a sixteenth building through the eyes of someone who thinks the world begun in 1776.

I’m also now resolved to thrash every other American in my tennis league to avenge being walked over by one of their compatriots.

None of this Old World defeatism for me.

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