Return of the prodigal son

Coming out of the Mercedes showroom I was bombarded with questions from two excited children.

“So what did you get?”

“The convertible. I like the rush of wind on my naked scalp.”

“What colour?”


“What, like that blue over there?”

“Actually I have no idea what kind of blue. It’s a new blue and they didn’t have any examples of it. But the sales girl said it looks really nice.” Quite why I had been prepared to take advice on colour from a girl in what looked like a crimpolene suit I don’t know.

“Oh no, it’s bound to be a girly blue like your Beetle.” Nothing upsets Jay more than having a father who expresses his feminine side through his cars.

Natasha was more supportive, “I think it’ll be lovely.” She gave me a big smile. Good things daughters. Always give their father the benefit of the doubt.

Opposite of wives.

“How much was it?”

I realised then I had no idea how was the thing was costing. I couldn’t even blag it.

“I forgot to ask. Ten grand? …Twenty? …Thirty? To be honest, I really don’t know”

“Hah, Dad’s gone and bought a car and he doesn’t know how much he’s paid.” Unlike daughters, sons view fathers as a source of derision, “That’s really funny.”

“That’s not funny, that’s unbelievable.” Not an ‘amazing’ kind of unbelievable but a ‘I can’t believe I’m married to this idiot’ kind of unbelievable.

It had, in fact, been a very English transaction. No mention of anything so grubby as money.

It also turned out to be a very English transaction in its execution.

With a guaranteed delivery date of September 14th, my new Smart car arrived at the end of October. Six weeks late and without the only two extras I had ordered – an iPod adapter and a coffee cup holder.

Smart car. Sold by dummies.

To compensate for the lack of music I found myself humming Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ on the way back from Starbucks. That is until I was forced to brake sharply to avoid being swept up by one of Ken Livingston’s bendy buses, causing a Grande Cappuccino swell in the polystyrene cup gripped tightly between my thighs. Thereafter my humming assumed an altogether different tone.

So how, I am often asked, does life in America differ from England?

There is only one significant difference between the two countries.

Starbucks don’t sell breakfast sandwiches or banana nut loaf in England.

Otherwise there is little to separate the two.

Interestingly in the land of the free, where the consumer is king, I could choose between Starbucks and Starbucks. Over here (in this nation of shop-keepers) I satisfy my addiction in Benugo, Café Nero, Costa Coffee, Dawnies and, only occasionally, Starbucks.

Already I am recognised as a significant customer in every one of them, even though each only enjoy a fifth of my caffeine consumption. In America businesses either grow big or they die. Over here they simply stay small.

Diversity is not confined to coffee shops.

The little England we left three years ago has become a racial melting pot.

There are East Europeans everywhere. I even stumbled across a Pole in our bathroom at eight o’clock one morning. It was quite a shock. Half-term week and I got up a little later than usual. Ros already left for work, the children were still in bed when I wandered into the bathroom wearing nothing more than a dressing gown loosely hanging from my right shoulder…

It was difficult to gauge his reaction, but I think he was quite impressed.

I’m in favour of immigration, but I hadn’t appreciated that the open market policy of the European Community means unrestricted access to your bathroom.

My enthusiasm for immigration increased substantially when the pretty Latvian waitress in a local Vietnamese restaurant gave me a big smile and said in broken English,

“Just try me and then later you can tell me what you think.”

I turned to my colleague, “Did she say what I think she said?”

He nodded, “I think she likes you.”

As a middle-aged man who has long since forgotten what it feels like to receive even a second glance I was hardly inclined to quibble over a possible muddling of pronouns.

A few weeks later my support for leaving our borders unmanned received another boost.

The removal men had arrived at the very moment Ros disappeared to New York (why didn’t I see that one coming?).

Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of directing our furniture to all the right rooms, an attractive French lady appeared on our doorstep. She was desperate to speak to me. As were six removal men. No contest. I left them to stagger around in small circles with their fully loaded boxes while waiting instruction, and gave my undivided attention to the lady who transpired to be my new neighbour.

Poles in our bathroom, French next door.

She explained in one of those seductive accents that have persuaded kings, they had to put some scaffolding up and she wondered if we might be interested in sharing the cost. So keen was I to create a good impression on our new neighbour I nearly found myself offering to pay for all of it.

My new French friend was surprised at my decisiveness. “Don’t you need to check it with your wife?” I assured her, with all the manly authority I could muster, that I didn’t. We exchanged names. She told me she was Corrine and said that we would probably forget and have to ask each other what we were called again.

‘I don’t think so’, I thought to myself.

We moved out of 53 Elsynge Rd in the summer of 2004. The country we left had sunny Augusts, a stable government, a Prime Minister who never stopped smiling, banks that were as safe as houses and house prices you could bank on. It was a nation that came nowhere in the Olympics.

We moved into 3 Elsynge Rd three years later (precisely the time it took for Chelsea to hire and fire Jose Mourinho and enjoy a level of success they had never achieved in all the years I had cheered them on through the sun and the rain) in the summer of 2007.

Same street. Different country.

Same street. Different house.

Same nanny, same cleaning lady, same ironing lady, same school.

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