Transatlantic or Bi-Polar?

On an overcast, chilly day in Allston that seemed ideal for little except a long and lazy nap, a number
By Anthony S. A. freinberg

On an overcast, chilly day in Allston that seemed ideal for little except a long and lazy nap, a number of out-of-shape journalists milled around on a softball diamond preparing for a meaningless intramural contest. As we tossed the ball around to warm up, I was suddenly struck by what I can assure you was a rather different thought than the other players were having: This is what I came back to America to do. At last, I’m home.

I was born in New York in 1982 and my parents moved to England eight months later. I don’t remember the flight myself, but apparently the TWA passengers who were treated to my best Frankie Valli impression for seven hours across the Atlantic have never forgotten it. Our sojourn in London was only meant to last 18 months, but we’re still there almost 20 years later. I guess my parents liked it. And, to this day, anyone who casually meets me will think that I am as English as mushy vegetables and sexual repression.

For the first 17 years of my life things followed a normal, if somewhat predictable, pattern. During the school year I would stay in England, where I’d be the local boy with the bizarrely foreign parents. During the summer I would head back to America, where I’d be the foreign boy with bizarrely local parents. And then, a year and a half ago, I ended up in Cambridge. Not in that “other Cambridge,” surrounded by my English friends and pints of deliciously warm, frothy beer, but in this “other Cambridge,” armed with little except a love of all American sports and a week’s worth of Dubya jokes from the Tonight Show monologue. My parents promised it would be easy to settle in. “You’ll be able to catch up on all the wonderful American things you missed out on in England,” they said. “The streets are lined with lattes and you’ll even have two different incarnations of ‘Law and Order’ over there.” (These were the good old days of 2000, a full year before the advent of Law and Order: Criminal Intent in America and the proliferation of Starbucks in England changed their simplistic outlook forever.) Unconvinced by my parents and terrified by the English stereotype of vacuous, air-headed Yanks, I arrived at Freshman Week and was greeted by a member of the Crimson Key, chirpier than a sparrow on speed. “Canaday. Oh my God,” she twittered, “that’s so awesome. My very best friend Jason’s very best friend Tamika lived there in 1998. I know you’ll love it.” Believe me, if I had been behind the wheel and had been able to turn that car right around, you would never be reading this endpaper.

Yet my parents were strangely correct. The first few months were wonderful. I binged desperately on American culture, trying to make up for lost time. I watched “Jeopardy!” every night, infuriating roommates with frantic cries of “What is Latvia?” Weekends brought trips to the Cheesecake Factory to dig into portions larger than entire European countries and countless hours strolling in the malls of greater Boston. Well, when you’ve lived in England all your life, it’s exciting to learn that all stores don’t close at 6 p.m. and that you can find a parking space within marathon distance of your destination. Ironically, in England, where indoor malls really would be useful to protect shoppers from the incessant rain, there are none. The English will probably have discovered them by 2020 but, heck, they’ve only just stumbled across toothpaste, so there are no guarantees. Now I have cooled down somewhat as the novelty wears off—and Channel 7 no longer airs “Jeopardy!” at 7:30—but I still get a tremendously illicit thrill out of eating good pizza at midnight when you can scarcely buy it at noon in London.

At the same time, I’ve never lost my Englishness. Haunted by a fear that my accent is the only thing that makes me interesting, I have resolutely refused to soften it. Saturday mornings are still spent huddled over my computer screen, “watching” the text updates from the soccer games back in England. Any number of TFs and Crimson proofers still chastise me for using the word “whilst.” I can’t quite bring myself to give up taking notes in fountain pen and I am still tempted to stop and explain the fundamental principles of grammar to anyone who tells me that they’re “doing good.”

In fact, it often feels like I have the worst of both worlds. My English and American halves are constantly chafing against one another and making me feel like someone who decided to try to straddle the San Andreas Fault line in 1989. It may seem like I have a foot firmly on both sides on the divide, but I feel liable to tumble into the crevasse below at any moment. Those who don’t know me are still keen to pigeonhole me as “that English kid,” asking tediously banal questions—just to set the record straight, no I do not know your friend Justin who comes from Sussex and went to the Northwestern summer school program with you—and insisting that I patiently bear their Austin Powers-esque impressions of me. My English friends, meanwhile, need only to hear that the drinking age in America is 21 before they fall about laughing and refuse to discuss anything else for the next, oh, three months of summer vacation. Being pretentious—because English people can be pretentious and get away with it—I am confused about where my true home really is and feel irrevocably alienated from both of the candidates. I’m a man without a country, constantly having to adapt to life in a semi-foreign environment, changing personalities as frequently as a chameleon changes color.

There are times, of course, when I wouldn’t trade my duality for anything. I love being able to follow—and I mean seriously follow—cricket and baseball, football and, well, football. I love being able to laugh at my friends in England who get hit movies four months after they open in Boston. And, yes, it’s great to be able to grab a few pints of beer without having to show identification. (Conversely, it is also great to have the option here of not boozing every day, when such temperance is sadly lacking at English universities.) But there are other times when I feel like strangling the “funny” guy in my entryway who asks what I think the “Brits” will do without “the Queen Mum” or like stabbing my Oxford friend who wants to know whether “all Americans really claim to have seen UFOs.” Often the mere presence of someone from another country makes people ask questions so facile and puerile that they would never do so otherwise. And just so you all now know the answer to this contentious issue: “Yes, there are highways in England. But, no, they do have speed limits.” I hope that clears up any lingering confusion.

On the softball diamond, however, it was different. Wearing my newly oiled glove—well, it’s not like it gets too worn in at home in London—I helped the Crimson team to another 23-2 victory. This was it, I thought: a turning point. Come what may, I was an all-American boy. England had much to offer, but the crack of the bat was just too much to resist. It was in my blood, you see. Nature had at last won out over nurture. And then the game was written up in Monday’s Crimson and I found myself described as an “expatriate Englishman.” Oh, bloody hell!

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Leverett House. Rumours that the whole British thing—including this endpaper—is a chick-getting ruse have not been confirmed as of press time.