The first bite of pasta and tomato sauce for an Italian-American baby is a momentous event. This is what they’ve been building toward since birth: getting past the milk and mush to a plate of macaroni. My Italian-American baby, C, had his first bite of the stuff at a wedding in a country house in England. And this was exactly how I wanted it to be: a perfect marriage of his inevitable upbringing, with a little bit of balm on the raging case of Anglophilia I’ve had since I was a teenager. Can we blame Morrissey? Maybe, I don’t remember when it started. But it remains.
So when our good friends were getting married in Devon, we popped onto a plane to Heathrow with a nine-month-old C. Along with a car seat, and case; stroller, and case; diapers, clothes, a bear and an extra bear. He squirmed and cried in a strange baby hammock given to us by Virgin Atlantic, which was hooked onto the bulkhead wall. People walked by and grimaced. But we made it. And it was all worth it when I pushed him out into his first bit of British air: the sandwich aisle inside the airport Marks and Spencer where I immediately ate a well-deserved egg and bacon sandwich. I swear I love England for those triangle sandwiches alone. They know exactly their worth; they’re not trying to be heroes.
On the way to Devon we stopped at Stonehenge so C could commune with representatives of his ancestry: German tourists. We had come dressed for our idea of English spring: cozy tea behind rain-fogged pub windows. But the sky in the Salisbury Plain was perfect blue, stretching on cloudlessly without end. C covered his eyes with his blanket, and I listened to the audiofuhrer, as the Germans call it.
In Devon before the wedding we stayed at a thatched cottage with friends. I mean, really. It was awesome. In the early morning, before everyone else was awake, I fed C Tesco-bought baby fruit from those little squeeze packs that we didn’t have in the US then. It was a wonder. I squeezed and looked past him at the sun coming up over sloping fields, and far-off forests that probably held fairy cottages and cairns. Or not – I couldn’t hike that far with a baby on my back. But even in more reachable places like the patio, the pub, the village church, or Tesco…oh please let me put in this Wordsworth quote – even though if you read the whole thing it doesn’t really fit: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!”
For the wedding, we dressed C in a seersucker suit and took pictures of him with a fascinator on his head. I wanted to wear one myself, but I knew I couldn’t; people from Long Island can’t wear feathers or insects on their heads and not look like they made far too much of an effort. Look here’s Kate Middleton laughing: ah heh heh ha! ha! ha! Oh, it’s all just too grand being you.
The England that I love, that I imagine, and that I see (or choose to see) when I get to go there, is something I can only peer at from outside a window. In fact, as someone said to me at breakfast the day after the wedding, as I tried to open a leaded window in the dining room of the impossibly beautiful Elizabethan estate that we were so lucky to stay in: “Careful, that window is older than America.” Duly noted.
I think that remark sums up what I find so beguiling about Englishness or what I, as an American, perceive as Englishness. First off, that was a quick, funny remark; it’s why I love British comedy television so much I’ll admit membership to New Hampshire Public Television’s Britwit Club. But it’s also emblematic of how the English, unlike we here, live in the shadow of a long history – a history that gives England a rich culture and community life: quaint Medieval villages around a green, gnarled hedgerows, listed homes, Iron Age remains by the layby, the local pub, a rich language for Americans to destroy…Ordnance Survey maps. Anthony Trollope. Only Fools and Horses. But with the legacy comes the stewardship of it: living up to its glories, facing up to its wrongs, keeping the best of it alive while trying to move forward. I don’t mean to dissect the entire English psyche here, and I don’t think that the person who made that joke to me was getting at some huge meaning, I am just saying that perhaps part of being English means sacrificing a little bit of yourself to maintain that history. Stiff upper lip and all that. Choosing to schvitz, say, rather than risk breaking the lovely old window. Unless you’re Kate Middleton. Then you can do whatever you want and people call you a duchess. No, I’m not jealous.
I think this is why in a lot of great English TV comedies (which is where I get many of my ideas about England, for better or for worse), there is such a strong sense of irony – the people in these shows aspire to better lives, higher things, more money or status, but those attempts are foolish, to be mocked. Look at Basil Fawlty trying to put on a “gourmet night” at his sad little seaside hotel. Look at Del Boy Trotter, who says, poignantly, “This time, next year, we’ll be millionaires!” but he never (quite) makes it out of Peckham. There’s the ridiculous Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet), Blackadder, David Brent, Edina Monsoon…on and on.
Meanwhile, in America, it’s all meritocracy, the sky’s the limit! The road stretches on forever! You can be anything you want to be, darn it! President? Astronaut? Go for it! It’s what we tell our kids, and look at the TV shows that are produced here for children. So few of the kids on them are typical; most of them are extraordinary. Look at Big Time Rush, Hannah Montana, iCarly, even Dora the Explorer: everyone’s a rock star of some kind or another (this is why I prefer Caillou). It’s an impossibly positive message, it’s the vastness of land and mind that this country is built on, which is great…but it’s annoying, isn’t it? Because, and I think the English know this, one in a million of us will make it to some higher eschelon, fame, fortune, whatever we determine to be outsized success, but most of us? Won’t. Which is fine. And in the face of that, you need to take comfort, more than comfort, pleasure, in everyday things: a cup of tea, a good joke, a well-done day of work in whatever it is that you do. We all have dreams, of course, we all want to be as good as we can be, and we should always try. The British themselves have achieved a bit of success over the years. And I’m not saying in London jigs of glee are being danced every day at elevenses. But look how happy they look on TV when someone brings them a cuppa! That’s nice.
Anyway, there’s got to be a halfway between the UK and USA in this way of thinking. That you can dream but not let the dreams overtake you. What’s halfway? The middle of the ocean? No, look at the Titanic. Canada? Have they got it figured out? I don’t know, ask Caillou.
So back to the kid. When C’s off being president of the United States of the Moon, how will be remember his dear old mother and her fondness for the English way of life? How will he build on those first experiences of British sun and pasta coursing through his little body in those tender years? After the wedding dinner (in England, do you call it a “wedding breakfast” even if it takes place at dinnertime?), he went up to his crib while we danced to Parklife in the old hall, the baby monitor straining to transmit through ancient stone. And then it was time to go home.
On the flight back to Boston, desperate to stop him crying so that we (and everyone aboard) could have a peaceful flight, we jettisoned the baby hammock, propped him up in his car seat, and turned on the seatback television. We discovered Pocoyo, and he watched a string of episodes whilst shoveling Virgin America pasta and tomato sauce into his face. Now that’s his first AND second bowls of pasta outside driving distance of Flatbush Avenue. But it worked. And he discovered a show that he loved, narrated by Stephen Fry.
Like the Italian language, I think it can only do him good to get the tones of Stephen Fry in his young ears. Pocoyo is a Spanish children’s show, narrated in translation by Fry. Against a white backdrop, Pocoyo and his animal friends (including Pato, the fussy duck) have a series of silly adventures. It’s sweet – a sort of whimsical Caillou, that Fry enhances with a gentle wit. It’s just fun, none of the characters have Grammys or their own talk shows. And when he is a little older (but not much), together we’ll read my favorite English author, P.G. Wodehouse, and watch Fry and the incredible Hugh Laurie portray Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. Why? That deserves its own blog post. To come. In the meantime, I know Fry’s voice can pull C out of a cranky mood, which I understand. It’s what I do to stop myself from crying sometimes. I turn to Fry, Laurie, to Wodehouse, and to the comforts of an imaginary England.
I like to think, maybe even in England, there is someone that might find some romance in the place that we live. I hope so. That would make me feel less like running away to run a post office in a small village in the Cotswolds. Maybe someone there wants to come see Mass. Ave., that looks so straight and dreary to me, full of nail salons, pizza parlors and CVS stores – and find some beauty in it. The streak of Paul Revere as he rode to Lexington, say, or the start of a western trail that blazes across a country, full of hope, without limits. I don’t know, maybe I can squint and see that myself. I’ll keep admiring those worn old colonial route markers that pop up along the way. I’ll drive out of my way to pass them, and pretend they’re Stonehenge.