Dispatches from the Motherland

Andrew Wickerham

I begin my first dispatch from the Manchester Study Group with a topic familiar to many. Much has been written about the cultural divides that separate Americans and their British counterparts. For two centuries, commentators have noted many supposedly minor differences in language and daily life on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Their editors must have downplayed the issue so as not to frighten tourists into pre-peak-oil staycations.

Walking down Oxford Road outside my dorm provides a daily reminder that I’m not in Kansas, or even Pennsylvania, anymore. It may sound strange, but the sensation of a ten-ton bus approaching from behind on the wrong side of the road is really quite disconcerting. Whilst jumping away from the rush of air, I’m wont to trip on the devilishly uneven sidewalks that are the product of a far less-litigious society. At the junction — read: intersection — with Cavendish Street, I am kindly reminded via roadside placard that the corner has seen 18 Casualties in the Last Three Years. Good thing this country doesn’t have stop signs or any other such nuisances to distract drivers more than they already appear to be.

Having conquered ambulation down the British pavement — read: sidewalk; it’s best not to get that one wrong — I arrive at the building I wish to enter. Without fail I pull at the door and am instantly reminded that should fire break out, I should kiss my silly American arse goodbye, for the British seem completely oblivious to fire-safety construction measures and doors here only open inwards. Add on the peculiarities of dual-faucet sinks, non-refrigerated milk and the wonderful world of Electronica — who’d have thought Kanye West could be played at 175 beats per minute? — and you may start to understand my occasional Oz-like disorientation.

I mustn’t forget, however, that as an American abroad, I’m seen as a bit of an oddity, too. Actually, here they seem to view our group as creatures from the black, albeit friendly, lagoon. But I suppose that might be partly my interpretation of the situation. One of the first things I noticed about our American selves here is how bloody loud we are. I’m not one to rail against certain nationalities as dour or particularly bitchy; however, I can safely say that Americans really do represent themselves like histrionic warriors sent forth from D.C. to proclaim the wonders of capitalistic hegemony. And that’s when we’re actively trying not to be the ugly Americans in the room. I can only imagine how cacophonous I will find New York when I return.

I attempted to downplay this attribute the other day at a bookstore in downtown Manchester by going in alone. Unfortunately, I still found the clerk behind the counter staring back at me as if I were an alien recently arrived from Neptune asking for directions to the Queen’s house. While the clerk hustled off to find my book, I turned around and realized the problem: as usual, I was the only person in the city wearing anything besides a Manchester United jersey and black nylon skinny pants. My pink shirt made me feel like an extra in Where’s Waldo? Spot-The-American Edition.

While I don’t feel the need to buy a new wardrobe, I think initial cross-pond shocks are behind me, and I’m off to Venice and Munich for a week. Hopefully there won’t be too many adjustment problems there. Stay tuned for updates, including the aftermath of a Manchester United game and the looming arrival of my British freshmen roommates.