Expat Chronicles, Fourth of July

The Brits, as you might have guessed, do not celebrate the Fourth of July. No breaking out the bubbly to commemorate the day a former colony gave them the finger and told them to kindly pack up their kingdom and ship out. Brits don’t celebrate the independence of India, either. Or Canada. Or Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Pakistan, New Zealand, Jamaica, Ireland, Guyana, Saint Lucia or any of the other 5,000 or so lands they used to rule.

July 4th is just another day in London. My wife Susan will go to work as usual. The mail will come as usual. The stores will open and then close way too early, as usual. The kids will go to school as usual (or they would if it weren’t Parents Day, which is set aside for parents to meet with teachers in the morning and get their kids’ report cards, after which the kids go home and disrupt Daddy’s well-oiled routine of work and chores and PEACE AND QUIET AND….).

You have to make the day special in your own way. Last year we attended an expats’ July 4th picnic in Portman Square. They gave out little flags, or maybe flag decals. There were some food stands and games and such. Live music. It was hosted by Democrats Abroad, so it was partly a political event designed to make sure people were registered to vote. But we mainly attended just so we could surround ourselves with fellow Yanks in the sweltering heat.

This year we’ll grill hot dogs in the backyard (I’m sorry, the back “garden”). Afterwards, maybe I’ll have the girls play this States game we got last year at a shop in St. John’s Wood that sells secondhand items for charity. The game has two different sets of cards – one set of 50 that includes each state, its capital and its nickname; the other with clues about different states. Whoever gets the most state cards wins. Because of this game, Lena has memorized every capital in every state, and every nickname, too. Lauren now knows a lot about states she didn’t know before. They don’t learn much about the states at school here in London, so this game has been worth its weight in gold in that respect.

It’s hard to say what we’re missing by being abroad on the Fourth of July. For me personally, it was always just a day to cook out and watch fireworks. The highlight was the food. Grilled hot dogs and burgers. Chips. Slaw. Watermelon. Maybe potato salad if I was feeling ambitious. The occasional baseball game. That’s pretty much it. It’s been a long time since I got all goose bumpy with overt patriotism, so it’s not like I’m weeping in my ale over it.

As a kid, though, I was enthralled by the United States. I loved those classroom texts showing the packed skyscrapers of New York, the endless acres of Midwestern farm land, the drooping magnolias and green swamps down South, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the big sky above the Southwestern deserts, the crashing waves of Southern California and volcanoes of Hawaii. At home I would spend hours poring over the encyclopedias, reading about U.S. history and all the dead people who helped make it. Fascinating stuff.

We sang “This Land is Your Land” in school. We wrote letters to the president, which in my case meant giving LBJ advice on how to win the war in Vietnam, which he OBVIOUSLY ignored. We memorized the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t guess that’s the case anymore. The times are still a-changin’.

You do miss certain things about home when you live abroad. The smells, for example. Every place has its own smell. Nothing can conjure up memories better than your nose. It might be the honeysuckles in North Carolina, or the dust in west Texas, or the sea air in California, or the piney woods of New England. The smell in London is different. It smells Thamesy I guess.

You miss the vastness of the United States. One thing you realize living in Europe, with its dozens of smallish countries stacked right up against each other, is that the U.S. is a BIIIIIIG place. If you’ve never driven across the USA before, try it sometime.

I’ve driven across country five times, and you really get a glimpse of America’s immensity when you travel its highways and byways. Leaving North Carolina on I-40 and driving across Tennessee for an overnighter in Memphis. Hauling 700 miles the next day and arriving in Amarillo late at night. Waking up the next morning and seeing this flat, dry, endless land all around you. Motoring on through the mesas and mountains of New Mexico and Arizona and the deserts of California, and then on to where I-40 hooks up with I-10, which delivers you straight to the Santa Monica pier. More than 2,500 miles. Two highways.

One of my cross-country drives came after I got a promotion at work and was transferred from the NYC office to the Los Angeles office. It was November 2000. Bush and Gore were involved in that infamous election where nobody knew who won until a few days later, and maybe still don’t know who won. I was totally clued out to the whole thing at the time because I was holed up in my burgundy Nissan Sentra (RIP), blowing west. I didn’t listen to the radio and didn’t want to. I listened to my cassette tapes over and over, through thousands of miles, the windows down, the volume up, me singing along, totally oblivious to the rest of the world and loving every minute of it.

The searing memory of that trip was plowing through a blinding snowstorm in Flagstaff, Arizona, up in the mountains. I could barely see. Could barely drive. A real blizzard, this one. It went on for 30 miles or so, maybe more. Me trudging forward, foot by foot. Finally, it cleared. An hour or so later I was in the desert and it was like 90 degrees outside. I kid you not. The snow had completely melted off my car in the time it takes to play “Like a Rolling Stone.” I had to crank up the A/C an hour after I was stuck in a snowstorm.

When I finally reached L.A. and made it to our office in Culver City, the presidential election was still undecided. Everyone was talking about it. I didn’t even care. Honestly, I didn’t care. I cared later, but not at that moment.

I’d just driven cross country, through rain and snow, cold and heat, and it had been a mind-clearing and soul-cleansing experience that I wanted to hold onto as long as possible, presidential politics be damned.

That’s the kind of patriotic memory that rings dear to me here in London. Not the other stuff. Just hitting the road and seeing the best parts of America from the driver’s seat.

1 Comment

  1. America is like another planet on its own, and I understand why you guys are so territorial and proud of your hometowns.

    It’s pretty easy to be isolationist and wrapped up in your own world when it’s such a vast territory.

    And despite all the negatives that the rest of the world complain about regarding your politics and influence on the world (which I won’t comment on here), I find the American people are largely very friendly and it’s actually a pretty pleasant place to visit for the most part.

    It’s such a huge contrast for us from South Africa, where crime is a constant worry; or people from London, for example – where it feels so cramped with the way housing is layed out.

    Liked by 1 person

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