One of the prices you have to pay for moving abroad is culture shock. You’re perpetually over-stimulated by seeing so many sights for the first time and confused because you get basic things wrong. It’s like being a child again but without the helpful parents or overflowing energy.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1997 to escape from the Tony Blair Terror, I spent three years in a state of wide-eyed astonishment. I was amazed by the sheer Americanness of the place. Shop attendants really did say “Have a nice day!” and often seemed to mean it. The police really did pack heat. On one occasion my wife and I were woken by the sound of footsteps on our roof. I phoned the police and within five minutes our house was bathed in light from a helicopter. I opened the door to two polite Los Angeles Police Department officers who entered, guns drawn, to check the house and surroundings. We eventually found the source of the noise: a family of racoons.
My biggest problems were car-related. I’d scraped through my driving test a month before moving to the car capital of the world. In my imagination I was a character in a Quentin Tarantino film, driving a hard bargain with a used car salesman in a bad suit, cruising along Sunset Boulevard, music blaring, and dropping off my hot new vehicle with the valet parkers at swanky restaurants.
The reality was more Mr Bean. I quickly learned from valets’ smiles that the word “loser” was invisibly painted on my boxy Nissan. I repeatedly scratched the paintwork. A couple of weeks after buying the thing I left a super-sized mango smoothie in a cup holder while I went shopping: it exploded in the hot sun and did a full Jackson Pollock on the interior. I still remember the look of horror on the face of my successor in LA when I handed him the keys to the stained, battered wreck.
On returning home to Gordon Brown’s Britain after three years in LA and ten in Washington, DC, I learned that culture shock can operate in reverse – with far more debilitating consequences. The shock of the new is both exciting and exhausting. The shock of the old is just immiserating. The “end of all our exploring” may well be to “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”, as T.S. Eliot wrote. But what happens if the place where you started is a dump?
I became obsessed by the gap between Britons’ conception of themselves and the reality. Brits are convinced that they are the funniest people in the world and Americans don’t do humour. Yet British comedy has been dismal for decades and America has produced masterpieces such as “Dumb and Dumber”. The British think they are Greeks to America’s Rome. Yet the intellectual standard of discussion in Washington, DC, is far higher than in London.
I also became obsessed by the vexations of British life. It’s as if the people who make all the decisions positively hate the rest of us. Parking spaces are about the same size as the cars they contain so, if you’re lucky enough to find one, you can’t get out of the vehicle. Railway guards seem to relish the suffering that frequent travel disruptions impose on the public. I once complained about a train being late only to be informed that “it’s not late. It’s been re-timed.” My American-born daughters were even more appalled by their new country, not least by its relative shortage of ice-cream parlours and hamburger joints. When I showed them a video of Gordon Brown smiling for the camera, and informed them that this was Britain’s equivalent of Barack Obama, they demanded immediate repatriation.
On a recent dog walk with a friend the conversation turned to reverse culture shock. He told me that, on returning to Britain after ten years in America, he became so infuriated by his old country that he wrote a whole book denouncing it. His publishers turned it down on the grounds that the market for books bashing Britain was saturated. I commiserated. But as we walked through the South Downs, buffeted by the wind and rain but enthralled by the glorious countryside, I realised that, far from being aliens in our own land, we were actually English stereotypes: travellers returned from colonial adventures who enjoyed grumbling about our compatriots while secretly delighted to be back home.