Are they marketing to expats in Oxford or Americanophiles?
I feel more American living abroad. It happens every time I open my mouth. It doesn’t matter that I’m wearing a battered Barbour and muddy wellies or even that my husband is English. My accent declares that I’m not British.
We Americans grow up with a sense of England from watching Masterpiece Theater on public television. We expect Oxford to be just like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, forgetting that it’s fiction and from another era.
In the two decades I have visited and occasionally lived in England, I’ve seen a great deal of convergence between our countries. There was the spread of first McDonalds and the GAP and now Starbucks etc. I wouldn’t call this a good trend, but my kids appreciate the super-sized “American cookies” (instead of “biscuits”) at train stations. A "coffee Americana" in Europe is what we could call "coffee black."
I am happy to find bagels in the supermarkets now even if they taste more like bread. My first homesick year living in London (1980’s) I actually called the American Embassy to ask where to buy bagels. They didn’t know. My fiancé found them in Leicester Square, and later I discovered a Jewish area in Brick Lane.
My notion of England must sound warped to British ears, and British concepts of America sound just as funny to me. In the very English department store Debenhams I found this display of “Maine New England” clothing. Where can I start? I have never seen landscape like that in my home state. I’m guessing the photo was shot in Cornwall, not in Maine. The pink-red shirt color is native to New England, but it’s called "Nantucket Red." It’s popular with sailors and preppies on an island in Massachusetts. Button-down, short sleeve shirts are much more prevalent in England than in the USA.
One advantage of living abroad during an election year is to have a filter from all the frenzy. I check the primary results in The New York Times on line and see the race covered by the English media. I’ve been less than impressed. Mary Dejevsky’s commentary in The Independent was typical of the English coverage, and I’m sure there are American equivalents. Too many articles focus on race vs. gender when discussing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Of course that is a key issue, but I find it demeaning to the candidates to reduce them to inherited characteristics.
There are clear policy differences between Clinton and Obama. Living under the National Health in England is bliss: no insurance forms or co-pays and everyone is covered. I can admire Clinton for wanting that for our nation. Then there’s the war. The British are very concerned about the War in Iraq, and yet they seem unaware that Obama has opposed the war since day one, without waffling, whereas Clinton voted for it before doing an about face.
Obama is a fascinating candidate for reasons that go beyond race. I’m reading his incredibly well written memoir Dreams of My Father. I found it prominently displayed at Paddington Train Station. The most compelling article I’ve read on Obama was by Andrew Sullivan in the Atlantic Monthly. Sullivan is British and Oxford educated but lives in the USA. If you read only one article about Obama, read that one to understand the political culture and the meaning of his candidacy. You can buy American magazines in England, but they cost as much as books. This one was worth it.
Walking through Oxford, I found this sign in a dorm room window. I’m guessing there’s a Rhodes or Marshall scholar in residence. President Bill Clinton was one himself, but I haven’t seen any Clinton signs for his wife. Ironically, I believe this window is at Univ, Bill’s college at Oxford.
Another memoir I’m reading is Rosa Ehrenreich’s A Garden of Paper Flowers about her time as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford. I can’t say I’m enjoying it. It’s a very subjective and whiny account that plays to stereotype: the American can’t fit in with the rigid, class-bound Brits. Her naivety is almost humorous. She chose Christ Church and then complains that it was too upper class and religious, when even a spot of research could have told her that.
Ehrenreich finds fault in the Oxford system compared to Harvard without realizing that she’s comparing undergraduate education to a graduate program. Of course graduate education in political science is going to be more theoretical, narrow and full of jargon. It’s a big part of the reason why I left academia myself.
It is much more fun being an undergraduate, especially in the American system. I took elective courses in music, forestry, literature and art history while studying politics. English students enjoy their undergraduate years too. Like Ehrenreich, my husband had fun rowing, but he also received a first rate education at Oxford and then at Harvard. Henry appreciated both despite their differences.
Ehrenreich does do a good job describing what it feels like being a confused ex-pat American at Oxford. Her personal reactions will help guide character development in my third novel. I’ve also talked to my cousin Peter Nohrnberg, who was another Marshall Scholar but at Magdalen College. I have 3 American friends who very much enjoyed their junior year at Oxford.
I studied abroad during my junior year too but at King’s College London. Last time I lived in England (2004), my husband was leading Colby-Bowdoin-Bates semester in London for Maine college students. This academic year Henry is doing a research fellowship at Oxford for his sabbatical while I'm researching my third novel. My work in progress places an American student at Oxford in the 1980’s and now.
The true experience probably falls somewhere between my good years and Ehrenreich’s misery. If there is misery, I’d like to find the humor in it as well. There is nothing like living abroad to give insight on a foreign culture but also on one’s own. We see ourselves in another’s eyes better than by looking in a mirror.
If you know of other books (fact or fiction) about Americans at Oxford, please comment below. I’d also love to hear some personal accounts. You can comment anonymously.
In case you were worried after my last post, the flood waters have receded. The sun has been shining for days! The crocuses are blooming through the muck, but there's snow/rain in the forecast. It's just like late mud season in Maine. Doesn’t this photo (click image to expand) look like an oil painting? It’s the digital zoom and the winter light.