In the last chapter of my book What Am I Doing Here? A Bewildered American in Britain, I wrote this, as I prepared to leave England after ten years:
“This is Home. There was an indefinable feeling of rightness I felt when I came here and saw lush gardens and an abundance of green, green grass. It felt, inexplicably, like I’d come home, after long years in an alien Midwest, and in the dry heat of the Southwest. Some vestige of my ancestry, perhaps. A strand of DNA encoded with the geography of Southern England as well as instructions for ginger hair and pale skin.”
Now, after being “home” in the US for more than a year, I’m still convinced that home isn’t here, the land of my birth, the land of my passport.
The grass isn’t as green here, the roads are too wide, and the history is too young. It’s the last thing that is the most startling difference between the two countries. The United States is little more than two hundred years in the making, a fact that’s brought home to me very vividly every time I drive anywhere. I live not too far from where George Washington lived and died in 1799—in what’s known as the Georgian era in England. I have furniture that’s older than America.
Everywhere I went in England I was face to face with history: a past that is rich in recorded events, and unrecorded monuments as well. I lost count of how many times I went to Stonehenge and nearby Avebury, where one can walk amongst the stones and, literally, reach out and touch ancient history. Windsor Castle was not far from my home, built by William the Conqueror and enhanced by many other monarchs, including the present one.
Sure, there are ancient monuments here, but none within driving distance (that I know of, anyway). The Native Americans were too few and sparse for there to be a great many of their mounds and other structures in this vast country.
And, I’ve realized that I lack more than a passing knowledge of my own country’s history, steeped as I’ve been in that of another continent. I’m trying to rectify that: I’ve got a couple of biographies of my neighbor George I’m reading, and I’m also hoping to visit Jamestown, one of the oldest settlements in America, soon.
But there is just something about Britain that is, well, different. History is alive and well in England, and ever present.
I remember when I was getting ready to move to England, and someone I met at a party gushed about how much I’d love living in London. She was from another European country and told me about how I’d walk on steps worn down with the passage of time and footsteps. It sounded nice, but I wasn’t particularly excited: I wasn’t looking forward to moving, and besides, I couldn’t really imagine what she was talking about.
I thought about that often, those worn steps she described, every time I visited a Roman ruin or a medieval mansion. She was right; the stone steps were worn and ancient in a way that I’d never experienced. I remember a time when I visited Chenies Manor House, located only a few miles from my house. The tour guide was telling us about the time Queen Elizabeth—the first Queen Elizabeth—had visited, and I got a chill, thinking, I am treading on the very same floor that Queen Elizabeth walked upon! One of my heroes from history, right here in this very room!
I didn’t feel the same way when I was hustled through Mt. Vernon, with no time for more than a peek into the room where George Washington died. I don’t yet feel the closeness to George as I felt to Elizabeth, oddly.
Maybe it’s true—maybe my genes really are descended from Elizabeth herself. That would explain the ginger—red—hair and greenish-brown eyes. And more, it would explain how I always felt so at home in Britain, so connected to the very earth. The genes of the ancients resurrected in me, an American who wasn’t, as it turned out, quite so bewildered in Britain after all.