It’s mid-summer cleaning time. As I pack myself up for a very permanent-feeling move to California, I’m purging myself of old books and clothes and knickknacks and CDs, hopelessly attempting to maintain the myth that I still maintain the student ideal of a life that fits into two duffel bags. Cleaning has taken a digital form, too, as I attempt to squeeze an extra year out of a laptop that has seen one-too-many tours of duty in the developing world.
Last night I was deleting old photos, working forwards from the appearance of digital cameras among my peer group—circa 2004. I reached the folder containing my early photos of Oxford, taken during that first term in 2009 when I felt the need to document every remotely gothic-looking building I saw, which, in Oxford, meant pretty much everything. Maybe it’s because I am back in the town where I grew up—to me, the most comfortable and familiar place in the world—but those photos already feel incredibly distant, just one week after I have left England. I almost had to pinch myself: yes, really, I lived in England for two years. No, seriously, I went to Oxford. Me.
I sit down to write this hoping that a bit of detachment will help me articulate something I have wanted to write for some time, but never quite felt able to capture. As I returned from my jaunt around Europe, and confronted that sad finality of leaving, I was overwhelmed by a simple sentiment: I absolutely love England (okay, Wales, you can be part of this too). While the whole business about the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. may be a bit of a wash, I know that, for me, I will always feel a strong connection to the place, even as I acknowledge that I will probably never again call it home. I am, you might say, a consummate Anglophile.
At the same time, however, my time on the continent reminded me of why finding quick explanations for my chronic and incurable Anglophilia is difficult. England doesn’t fare particularly well on the generic metrics by which American tourists judge countries. Things aren’t as efficient in the U.K. as in Germany, and—I’m afraid to say, after some rigorous experimentation in the last two weeks—they have better beer too. I haven’t been to Italy, but I’m told it tops England in one of its own country’s biggest selling points: history and old buildings. The night life is better in Spain, and the food superior in France—unless you’re vegetarian, in which case, curry saves the day. But that’s Indian, anyway.
Many of the Americans I met during my time at Oxford never could seem to get past these comparisons. Even people for whom I had a great deal of respect often could not say much more about the country in which they were temporary residents other than that it was crowded, rainy, and bureaucratic. Of course, I’d like to think that I have more than such a superficial take on this place, but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain what I like about it.
For every positive stereotype I can conjure, there’s a quick counter-example. Yes, I suppose I’ve encountered the classic plucky English demeanor that insists that, with appropriate quantities of tea, any obstacle can be overcome—but thinking of the irrepressible rudeness of the Gloucester Green bus-ticket salesmen reminds me that it’s not universal. Claiming that I love England for the quaintness and antiquity of Oxford seems dishonest when I think of every visit to multi-cultural London, or even my most recent walk down Cowley Road. And while I’d still probably prefer a Tory government to a Republican one, the recent phone-hacking scandal has thoroughly dispelled any illusions I might have held about the British political system. Socialist utopia, England—like the rest of Europe—is not. Just ask the people rioting in London.
When I look back on it, though, the reasons I can offer for my all-consuming Anglophilia—quickly becoming Anglo-nostalgia—are a bit like my photos: disjointed and disconnected. It’s a series of mental snapshots that are neither truly representative of England nor, in my mind, capable of being disconnected from it. It’s discussions of everything ranging from ecological Marxism to the latest antics of the boat club, held in pubs which—for reasons ineffable—have always felt a far cheerier environment than American bars could ever be. It’s the way that sunny days are talked about for weeks thereafter, and how any weather even slightly above-the-rainy-norm must be seized upon and enjoyed with a picnic in Port Meadows. It’s that night in Cambridge where I realized that going to Grad School doesn’t have to mean growing up. It’s the brilliance of my English undergraduate friends, whose hours spent making fancy-dress costumes and drafting absurd JCR motions would have, at Princeton, been used panicking about this or that resume-building extracurricular activity.
No, that’s not it, or at least, not all of it.
This time last week, I was closing out my British bank account. As I drew out my last £9.12—it seems my scholarship calculated the stipend just right—the teller remarked:
“Heading back home to the states?”
“Yes,” I replied, “But I’m sad to be leaving.”
His response seemed almost tailored to be put into a blog post: “I can never figure out why people would say that about leaving England.”
I wish I could have explained it to him, but some things are beyond words.