Pawns and Playhouses

 

 

I had my first impression of the British before I ever left the “home of the brave” for Cambridge University’s Medieval Summer courses.  Contentedly watching the gloom drizzle from the sky to the black tarp during the plane’s wait to taxi, my peripheral vision noted the screen in the headrest before me light to life; the flight attendants had turned on the BBC World News to entertain the passengers.  A BBC World Newscaster was broadcasting from my home state of Pennsylvania.  The cause?  Nine miners trapped 300 feet underground with life-broadcast, the flooded cavern had been silent for hours.  I recall the pity and hope I felt for the families gathered around the rescue site, women clutching hands as they pulled their jackets tighter to themselves, trucks, boot-clad men, and police-tape barricading the restricted area, and massive spotlights filling in for the fading sunlight.

            As the reporter, a thin middle-aged man in a suit, concluded his segment, he wrapped up by saying that although the American never-say-die spirit supported the small Somerset County community for now, the reality of the tragedy would soon hit, extinguishing any hope.  I fumed.  “How dare you imply that those men won’t get out?  You’re damned right that Americans won’t give up.  It’s what makes us American.  Go back to Britain if you’re going to give up, why don’t you?!”  I flicked the television off and went back to watching the gray drops plop against the plane window.

        

But England was enchanting.  Not the drippy, high-brow, rain-soaked London that travelers describe for others as they patronizingly and politely point to Rome and Paris as the preferred destinations; instead like a child’s love-worn playhouse England props itself up against the cumbersome boundaries of its parent continent.  Modern cities and towns dot the farmland--hedge-bordered multi-colored squares on hills that dip and rise as if a breeze from the North Sea danced underneath the quilted soil. 

         

          These settlements resulted from nourishing conveniences taken from larger neighbors, such as the Roman city grid, that the British adopted and tinkered with to make life more comfortable on this Atlantic outpost - the milk crates, flashlights and portable television scattered around the legs of chairs supporting the patchwork quilt that defines a playhouse.

            If Britain is the backyard clubhouse then America is the nearby woods.  Out of earshot of the conservative elders, surrounded by natural wonders and ample space, Americans exist as the band of neighborhood kids with whom you want to romp around during the day, but to whom you would not extend an invitation to your grandmother’s formal dinner.  A friendly but unruly bunch, many sprang up from previous generations of play-housing woods-trekkers and because of their ancestral associations they have an ambiguous trust associated with them.  For the American woodlings, all of the neighborhood, not just the woods, serves as their playground.  They automatically and unconsciously defy stigmatization as wild children of the woods and simultaneously refuse recognition by the stuffy, clubhouse stereotype, confusing outsiders (and sometimes insiders) about their true nature.  And Americans love to play up to the confusion; “I am American” religiously drummed into their heads, they wear it as a badge that few understand but all recognize. 

            I am American.  The BBC Newscaster is British.  When that broadcast aired, I assumed that the British had been in their clubhouse for too long, definitely not American.  Nice people of course, but that was all there was to them -- Nice. 

      

The first thing that struck me about Cambridge was the homeless population.  An American classmate in my French Arthurian Legends class also noticed them.  At one of the first dinners she expressed her concerns to our advisor.  A fan of morning jogs, she noted that there seemed to be a large amount of homeless people -- she nodded towards the hall door as if they were standing outside, hanging on her words -- and asked if they would bother her.  He answered that they were simply panhandlers and that she would have more to worry about from the drunken pub-goers in the evenings.           

   

I suppose she had asked an important question, yet it struck me as peculiar.  The fact of their existence had not alerted my attention, but the realization that I had not perceived them as homeless did.  They were a different breed, not the layered, wild-haired, grime-covered humans that one spots on the corner vent and carefully sidesteps, avoiding eye contact in the hopes that they do not notice that you notice them.  This sidestep is the urban dance of a guilty conscience, a voice that sounds like the one in your head but that you section off as another being -- one that tacks up in neon green letters a message that not only do you not need that spare five dollars but that if you keep it you will unavoidably break your diet and buy a chocolate dessert.

            Cambridge’s dispossessed more resembled the street peddlers of Harvard Square (oddly enough also in a Cambridge) who come out in the slow-baked August evenings.  At Harvard you find students armed with sleeping bags and poster board willing to share their story for a few bucks, or jugglers who draw crowds outside entrances to small, subterranean coffee shops.  Those in Cambridge are distant cousins to the American entrepreneurs.  Decked out in camouflage green, hair cut short, and carrying a green backpack, they set up camp outside storefronts, idly people-watching until someone drops them a coin.  Sometimes four or five of these people-watches would gather, leaning against a stone wall to chat, usually one having a bottle.  A short-cropped-spiked hair member played a woodwind for his earnings, the mellow resounding notes wrapping around the tight city corners and wafting through the open market.  Collecting enough pence, he would check his dog’s box of Milkbones to ensure that there were some left, and if he had enough money, he would purchase wine from the supermarket.  Whether the summer months, the University atmosphere, or the tourist spot gives rise to this type of homelessness, the camaraderie and persistence which I had classified as American in previous summers had just found its equal in non-American Britain.  Surprised, I shook off the feeling that “American” might more accurately describe them than me.  After all, I explained to myself, a small group of British founded America; therefore, you are bound to find similarities in the population today.  Plus the “just nice” persona did not apply to the Cambridge homeless.

A Barnes-and-Nobles reception for the Medieval students propped up my hypothesis that the “nice” British persona clashes with the requirements for American status.  In the front of the store was a circular display of anti-war, anti-Bush, and anti-American literature.  Blazing red, black and white covers forced me to take a step back.  Not that I was oblivious to the existence of these types of books, but as a daughter of a former Marine they had never confronted me.  I shied away from that section, but while I perused the medieval history shelves, I replayed living room arguments over America’s foreign policy.  With a father who followed the it’s-our-oil-God-just-put-it-in-the-wrong-country mentality, those debates ended in a stalemate at best, and yet here was the material to counter his arguments.  Resolved, I returned to the display, grabbed three books, and purchased them while a voice (perhaps my patriotic conscience) snorted that it figures that the British would have so much of this for sale.  What did they know about America anyway?

            Spending three weeks in the clubhouse accomplished what history courses, news articles and even mass media could not, the slow and sometimes painful realization that the British are not so different.  The St. Catherine’s Porter, the attendant who locks the doors at night, sells phone cards and provides directions for everything from how to work the laundry room to how much to tip the Dublin cabbie, acted as my first teacher.  An older, plump gentleman, he jabbed the Americans about President Bush, displayed photos of his ancestors’ homes in Ireland (taken personally with his new silver digital camera), and discussed the economic imbalance between America and the rest of the world as portrayed in the film industry.  He, I was embarrassed to admit, knew more about political leaders than I did - British or American.  Perhaps non-Americans understood Americans better than Americans themselves. 

           

        Another lesson jumped up at me at a bookstore the day before my flight home.  Heading for the children’s section with a friend for British copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which are identical to the American versions except for a few words (sweater becomes jumper, and Sorcerer transforms to Philosopher), we stopped beside a life-size checkerboard surrounded by toy boxes and plopped down on checker stools to watch Harry Potter the film.  Shortly after, a pair of blond, pig-tailed, three-year-old twins tiptoed up behind us.  After introducing ourselves, we invited them to join us, but Emma spoke up “No, our mum says that’s too scary for us.”  Seeing Charlotte’s nod of agreement we twisted around on our checkers and entertained them for over an hour.  Three-year-olds are amazing.  They tell you exactly what they want, what they think, and what you should be doing.  They have no fear.  Charlotte and Emma saw two American girls as funny-speaking curiosities that would naturally belong in a bookstore.  Americans and British are both like three-year-olds:  Limitless energy matched with an insatiable curiosity thrown into a world that is three times their size, and they manipulate it with ease.  Before borders, boundaries, or national identities comes three.

            My final lesson wiped out nationalities altogether.  The summer of the missing girls hit home in Britain too.  While America’s FBI scoured the country looking for teenager after teenager, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, two ten-year-old Manchester United fans, disappeared from Sohamin, Cambridgeshire England.  Weeks later the police found the girls dead, but during the ceaseless hunting, homemade and professional posters plastered the walls of Cambridge.  Store windows pleaded for the return of the two girls in red shirt smiling from the flyer.  Newspapers from London to Dublin headlined the story; some called for the formation of a national bureau of investigation like the American FBI.  Money was raised, search parties were organized, and England was picked through with a fine tip as though everyone knew Holly and Jessica.

        

          At that point the boundary between the British yard and the American neighborhood disappeared.  Everyone

tenaciously grasped hope and determination to find the girls, and as the weeks passed the support did not dwindle but grew. 

American and British are superficial titles designed to describe the division caused by the Atlantic.  When I entered the

clubhouse, I did not understand; the British live in their clubhouse in the yard and the Americans live in their tree fort in the

woods, but they are identical in foundation and spirit.

 

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