My friend who is into psychology says that losing a country is a kind of bereavement. She says that I have been through all my stages of loss - denial, anger, analysis, bargaining, acceptance - and have now emerged as a new chrysalis or butterfly or whatever. But now I seem to be regressing. I blame Kosovo but, really, there is no excuse. Increasingly, I have started to act like an American again and the whole thing is too embarrassing.
This week, for instance, I found myself driving through a lovely private estate on the edge of the Derbyshire Peaks. I was with a man whom I had met only once before and he was very enthusiastic about the scenery. I noticed that the sheep were on the road and realised that there were no fences. "This reminds me of America," I said. "There is a lot of free range there, you know."
I could not believe what I was saying. I looked at what was in front of me. The grass was green, the sheep and lambs were frolicking. I was driving at about 2mph down a tiny but well-tended road, and at the end of it there was a Lego-sized cattle grid. Free range in Derbyshire was very cute indeed.
This was nothing like America! A picture flashed up in my mind of a place called Stinking Horse Gulch in eastern Oregon on the West Coast. There I can remember having to go from 70mph to zero very quickly indeed - the skidmarks were black - to avoid smashing into a herd of mangy cattle that had meandered on to the Interstate. Nothing was green; everything was brown. There was lots of tumbleweed, and a road that carried on to the horizon. The cute factor was zero.
"Well, it would remind me of America," I said as I stopped the car and waited for a sheep to move, "if the entire thing were completely different."
My passenger laughed politely and then there was silence as I pondered my behaviour. I knew that I had just tried to play the American Linking Game. This is what all Americans do when faced with a new situation. We have to find a link. Perhaps this is because in a nation full of differences, it is imperative to try to find a common thread. Whatever the reason, though, we are addicted. Listen to Americans when they meet a stranger. They ask where they are from, where they grew up, where they went to college, etc. The questions go on until you find a common link and then everyone sighs with relief and one of them says something like: "Oh, yes, I've got a cousin in Minnesota. Nice country, isn't it? Course, gets a bit cold in winter. When were you last there?" Etc.
I have been trying to visit the American Museum near Bath for years; it seems to operate in a world in which opening hours are optional. But the other day it managed to fit me in - the hours are 2pm to 5pm except for Mondays - and so I went along. Now, I wasn't humming "Yankee Doodle Dandy" or anything, but I think I was expecting to feel a little bit at home. This is pathetic, I know, but that's what happens to people who lose their nationality. They look for it in museums.
Well, I had a good hunt round but it was hopeless. The American Museum in Bath is the most English place I have been to in ages. Claverton Manor is a lovely, huge house made out of Bath stone and designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, architect to George IV. The grounds are stunning, manicured and completely lacking in tumbleweed. The staff are eccentric volunteers who know a lot about floor patterns and Greek Revival curtain treatments. The museum has rooms with names such as "17th-Century Keeping Room" and "Deer Park Parlour" and "Stencilled Bedchamber". As we went round, I heard these English accents telling me what it was like to be an American in days of old and I decided that I didn't want to listen any more.
Instead I am constructing my own museum. In it people can play the Link Game, eat lunch in their cars and go through a maze devoted to trying to avoid paying taxes. And there will be a Flag Room. This may sound strange, but American patriotism is nothing if not sentimental. Visitors to my museum would find out soon enough that Americans get their patriotism not from politicians - whom they distrust on principle - but from their own lives.
Every school day of my life began with my putting my right hand over my heart and saying these words: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all." I did not think this strange because the flag was a fact of life. Every older woman in my family had a twinkly flag brooch and, more often than not, my mother would have a flag flying outside our own front door, too.
My grandparents went one better and had a flagpole in the front garden. The only thing I can ever remember my grandfather giving me, other than money, was a little book called Flag Facts. It was red, white and blue and included an illustrated guide on how to fold the flag up into a triangle. Whenever we visited (once a year; it was a 3,000-mile round trip) my sisters and I would be on flag-raising duty. This involved marching out of the house, carrying our triangular bundle in front of us atop outspread palms. We walked past the yellow rose garden to the pole. We would then unfold the bundle (as per Flag Facts) and the day could begin.
My grandfather was first-generation German and so it was all very precise. And very American. See, it's all coming back to me. Last year I was given a twinkly flag brooch, but some things are better left unworn.
Kosovo has made me realise that I shall never think like a European. My main reaction is one of guilt. I do not trust the Serbs but I also do not trust Bill or Tony or Jamie or the map-readers at the CIA. People here keep coming up to me and asking me things like, "So what do you think of Bill then?" or, "So when do you think Bill will send in the troops?" Not long ago, everyone in Britain thought Bill Clinton was a has-been with a cigar problem. But we are all allies now and suddenly they want to be able to trust the guy.
Americans do not think this way. We know - absolutely - that most politicians cannot be trusted. "They're all crooked in Washington," says my mother, who is hardly a radical. This attitude is as old as the country. The three branches of power - the executive, Congress and the courts - were put in place to make sure that no one had too much power, and so the whole thing is predicated on distrust. Watergate only confirmed what we already knew.
I don't think Brits understand this. The parliamentary system gives the Government a huge amount of power and people here seem to accept this as not a bad thing. They think the Prime Minister is trying to make the world a better place. I would never say the same about a President. As sure as eggs are eggs, Bill Clinton will do exactly what he thinks is in his own best interests in Kosovo, regardless of Nato or the UN or anyone else. And he will do it with an expression of the purest concern on his face.
One key sign that I am regressing back to being an embarrassing American is that I am losing my ability to be nice about Canadians. People often assume I am from Canada and I usually just smile as an answer. So I was a bit surprised to observe my reaction last week in Derbyshire when my companion said something about Canadians and looked at me pointedly.
"So do you think I am Canadian?" I demanded.
"Why, yes, I had assumed that," he said.
"Well, I am not Canadian! I am American."
He made no response.
"In fact," I said, "most Americans would consider being called a Canadian an insult."
"Oh," he said. "I thought it was a compliment. I thought a Canadian was a cultured American."
I snorted. "Well, I think `boring' is more like it. Being a Canadian is not considered an interesting thing to be."
He ignored this. "Plus, there is always the possibility that a Canadian can speak some French," he pointed out.
Now this jerked me back into reality, because I speak no French because, well, I'm American. We spend all our time studying citizenship, and not languages. Finally, I felt ashamed enough to shut up and smile.
Ian Jack is on holiday and will be returning next weekReuse content