Dazed and Confused in America: My Homeland Makes Me Feel Like a Foreigner
America is my homeland, but it hasn’t been my home for almost 25 years. Whenever I return I spend a lot of time pretending not to be lost or bewildered by changes effected in my absence.
I’ve just returned from a week in Nashville with English friends who constantly deferred to my local knowledge. I’d never been to Nashville before, but I still knew the difference between a dime and a nickel.
I remain capable of explaining the procedure for negotiating an intersection governed by four stop signs. I know that the man on second base can run even if the ball is caught, provided he tags up first. When asked for my opinion I can confidently assert that cream soda is, at best, an acquired taste. But a lot of the time I’m as confused as any foreigner and hiding it.
As we pass the Capitol building I announce that this is where the Butler Act, banning the teaching of evolution in schools, was signed into law in 1925. Nobody needs to know that I had to look up the date on my phone first.
I am sent to buy beer on the grounds that I will know what kinds of beers are good, but I don’t recognise any of the brands. I pick one at random and read the label in case someone asks me what it’s like. “It’s got a bready malt aroma, balanced with maize sweetness,” I will say.
The man at the counter regards me blankly as I put down my beer. I hold out a $20 bill. He doesn’t take it. Could a six-pack possibly cost more than $20? How would I know? For a long moment neither of us speaks.
“Can I see some ID, please?” he says finally.
“Sorry?” I say.
“ID,” he says.
“I’m 51,” I say. “Look at the state of me.”
He stares back. Clearly the only absurdity he sees in the situation is my failure to furnish him a valid photo ID as required by Tennessee state law, like everyone else does. I have to go back outside to my English friends and make a deeply humiliating request.
“If I give you the money,” I say, “will you buy me some beer?”
Please release me
While in Tennessee I get into a discussion about methods for politely ending a phone call with someone who seems determined to prattle on ceaselessly. “Well, I’ll let you go,” remains popular in America, where the ironic implication that the prattler has stuff to be getting on with is rarely detected at the other end. And yet it almost always works – if you credit someone with a busy life, they seem to feel the need to act on your assumption.
I don’t mention my wife’s slightly more direct method, which I fear might not translate. “That’s enough,” I sometimes hear her say. “Ring off, caller.”
On our way to Nashville airport at the end of the trip we stop to fill our rental with gas (hire car with petrol – I’m bilingual). After a few minutes I am summoned from the back seat to work the American pump. I deftly flip the pump handle latch to begin the flow, but the machine won’t accept my card because I have no zip code. I must go inside and pre-pay, like a tourist.
“How much?” says the dead-eyed girl behind the counter.
“I want to fill it up,” I say.
“How much is that?” she says.
“I have no idea,” I say. I don’t know how big the car’s tank is or how much gas costs in America these days. She suggests I credit the pump with $50. If I end up needing less, she says, I can bring back the receipt and she’ll give me the change. I hand over the money.
“Reward card?” she says.
“I don’t have one,” I say.
It turns out I need more: the pump spins up to $50 and quits before I’ve got three-quarters of a tank. I go back inside and tell the dead-eyed girl I’ll need another $20, handing over two tenners.
“Reward card?” she says.
“Not yet,” I say.