When I first moved to England from Detroit in 2007, I was still in the euphoria of the phenomenon of Anglophilia. I thought England was a happy land associated with the Beatles, Winston Churchill, the Queen, and tea. I had no idea of the realities that awaited: the Argos catalogue, the Theory and Practical tests, Nigel Farage, and mushy peas. Still, after over six years of living in the UK, and after becoming a citizen myself, I have people ask me, “why did you come here?” with emphasis on the last word, as if “here” is such an implausible concept. I then usually mention something about being from Detroit, and then they seem satisfied. To leave America is unfathomable, but Detroit? That’s a whole other story – surely like me in regards to England, they are conjuring their own images about Detroit – car jackings, 8 Mile, hookers and shootings. It’s hard not to think of it that way myself sometimes, but birthplace dictates pride regardless, and technically, I am not from Detroit Proper anyway, (I grew up about ½ a mile outside it, but still within the Metro Detroit area) so I can’t ever say that I was car jacked, shot, et cetera. Hence I get to promote the things like Motown, Pewabic Pottery, techno music and cars while drawing people’s attention away from the other things they have heard about it. Many are the times when I have had to explain that Detroit is not all that bad. It’s a harder sell these days, with most people now associating the word of “bankruptcy” with Detroit as well. But then, I get a little irritated and just show them a photo of the Monument to Joe Louis.
Another question I am often asked is, “which place do you like better?” This is a dubious question, because the person asking will most usually want to hear his or her own country. It’s a nationalistic trick question, and one that I often find hard to answer. I don’t prefer one country over another; if it were up to me, I would create a country that had the land mass of the United States, with the health care system of the UK, the electoral system of the UK but the parties of the USA; American food (yeah, I said it!) cooked by British chefs, and American roads with a British transport system. Wouldn’t that be a perfect country?
In reality, British roads are tiny, and American landmass, much like most other things American, is huge. Everyone knows this, and yet Americans get harassed because they make and drive big cars. Well, Americans have big roads, so this seems logical. America is a big country, with plenty of land to lay out big roads – four lane freeways, with a High Occupancy Lane thrown in for good measure. I never realized how huge the United States was until I moved to the tiny island nation of Britain. Britain, whose people decided to drive their horse-and-carriages on the other side of the road just to irritate the French, claim to drive smaller cars, but I have not seen much evidence of this. When I came to the UK back in 2002, for the first time, I was more than slightly nervous being a passenger in a car driven in London, and not even in the touristy, heavily-populated areas of London, but the outskirts of Abbey Wood. My friend’s driving was quickly calculated, sometimes questionable and her entire manoeuvring of The Roundabout seemed to come together outside of the laws of physics. The French cars that dominate the tiny British roads do not match in size. Tiny roads dictate tiny cars, and the British market has not embraced a tiny car since their own Mini was purchased by the Germans. The Smart Car was a trend that never really took off; I’ve probably seen about three since being here. So driving a Vauxhall Astra down a three-lane road that is lined with parked cars on either side requires some skill. Alas, British driving continues to exist, albeit illogicially so. (Is it any wonder that it took me eight attempts before passing my own driving test?)
The world’s largest car at the moment is not actually American. In fact, according to Zero to Sixty Times, a car enthusiast blog, an American car does not make an appearance on their list of Top 50 Largest Cars in the World until entry 13, the Lincoln MKS, at 204.1 inches. The previous entries were German, or at least British brands that were purchased by German owners some time ago – i.e. Rolls Royce, Bentley, Jaguar. The largest, at 239.8 inches, is the Rolls Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase, a car that actually features Iceberg Slim driving it in the magazine adverts. (No, not really.) I don’t know who actually drives cars this size, except for maybe the Kardashians.
Size in Britain tends to be an issue in other areas, not just cars. The American “Way of Life” tends to follow the mantra that Bigger is Better. Big refrigerators, big houses, all-you-can eat buffets at Big Boy and the waistlines to match. This Bigness has not gone unnoticed in Britain, and they strive to adapt that Bigness to their lives, despite having the space to accommodate. Bigness, I believe, gives a person a sense of domination, of control over their lives. This is why a normal nurse or schoolteacher feels perfectly justified in driving a Hummer; this extends to the entertainment provided by a Monster Truck rally. Think of it – the ridiculously huge wheels propping up a probably otherwise normal-sized vehicle, crushing the tinier, laughably weak cars underneath. Bigness provides a sense of control, but it’s also a status symbol, and one that’s freely available to the public for 60 payments of $299.99 a month with $0 down and 12% interest.
This applies to both sides of the Atlantic, or “The Pond” as my father affectionately calls it. The British Weltanshaung is adjusting to this imposing Bigness making its way to their shores – but for a price. A two-foot perimeter of grass surrounding your house will cost you an extra £150,000. That amount of money could actually buy you perhaps 80 houses in Detroit at the moment. It’s conceivable that you may be shot unloading your U-Haul, but hey, at least the house would be – well, big. There would be a big garden and a basement, at least two bathrooms (with one on the ground floor!) and probably a fence and even a sign on the door that says “No Soliciting” which actually means “No menus/no Jehovah’s Witnesses/no charities requesting donations/no gypsies trying to sell key fobs.” Unlike in Britain where soliciting actually refers to prostitution. (I’m sorry, but the No Soliciting Sign is one that needs to be adopted in Britain, for the love of all things Holy!)
There is actually a style of refrigerators in Britain, which is named, “American Style Fridge Freezer”. These of course, are the biggest. They tend to be vertically-positioned with the freezer on the left, the fridge on the right and an icemaker features. Yes, I do want one of these in my home. I would actually need to modify my kitchen however to accommodate one. Currently I have what I call, the dorm-room fridge. Americans know what this is – you keep one in your room at college. It holds your Pizza Rolls and Busch. There is also a tiny freezer on the top. I would love to be one of those mothers who can take one day a month, cook 30 meals and freeze them all, but I couldn’t do that because I don’t have enough space. I try to explain to my husband that my defects of character can all be easily attributed to not being able to adjust to Smallness, but so far he doesn’t seem convinced.
Words by Shannon Oxley
Fist picture by Bob Jagendorf