Beyond, behind a few white clouds, there was only the blue. This was my reflection, after sitting in a German town square, looking at the sky. The centuries-old buildings of the town looked suddenly like features of a designer’s scale model, an installation set up against, into, yet not forming part of a natural world that was vaster. These constructions were concrete but they were temporary, mere squatters occupying the sky.
My eyes tried to give dimensions, a shape to this limitless sky that seemed old and real. I wanted to stretch my hand into the ancient air and put a crease into it, to feel its texture. But this was like running towards the sun, or putting oxygen in your pocket: You were chasing a retreating reality; you could look but you couldn’t touch. If you tried you were left groping, fiddling with the bra straps of the invisible. This particular afternoon, feeling the effects of jetlag, I think I was trying to locate myself, but I found I was climbing into the clouds. Was I trying to find Germany? Was this blue Germany? Deutschland? I wondered how the invisible, the unreachable could have borders.
I thought back to the early morning blue skies of the New Haven winter: cloudless, lighter, somehow younger than the German sky, as if the clouds, like shaving foam, would come sometime in later life. And I thought of the English skies of my homeland, the air a cloudy, misty gray like the smoke you no longer see in American bars. It was then I realized that even the borderless sky wore national, or at least regional colours. I’d seen that the clouds from Europe never make it to New Haven unchanged. And as a European emigre, I wondered if the people do either.
Going back to England last Christmas (rightly or wrongly, we say ‘Christmas’ and not ‘holiday season’ in England) I realized my England was like a cubist artwork. It was a collection of fragments: Glyndebourne Opera, BBC Radio, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, tea from a teapot, drinking whole milk without feeling guilty. In my mind, I had unconsciously done what I always do when moving house — I’d thrown out what I no longer wanted and kept only what I valued most. Coming back to Heathrow Airport was thus a jolt, rather like landing in a landfill of your own discarded items. (And I’m not just talking about the souvenir shops here.)
I’d forgotten what the people sound like. I thought I liked the London, or Cockney, accent. In fact, ask me today and I’d say I like it. But in Terminal Two late last December, hearing the shouts of “Oiyya! Melissa! Cam an’ git yowrr laaaggiddgge!!!” made me think of someone trying to speak calmly while slowly sitting down on a needle.
A few days later, after buying cappuccino, garlic bread, bruschetta and a cranberry juice at 40 minute intervals, I remembered that there were no coffee shops in my hometown, Knutsford, that would let you sit an afternoon long, just reading. What’s more, I’d forgotten about the yuppies and that you can’t look into a Knutsford bar with the naked eye because, although no natural blond has been sighted in the town since 1944, the light intensity from peroxide-treated hair will leave you blind. Perhaps more importantly, now I noticed the sparse, leafless trees, the veins in a countryside that a year before I’d ignored, as if nature were merely a wallpaper lining the roads. After being abroad, my senses had got used to a different reality; England was no longer an interior, inside my head, but an outdoors, something out there.
Reading about the increased importance of absentee voting in the upcoming U.S. elections, I thought back to my travels in the United States, England and Germany. I wondered if an American abroad is like any other American, and if you needed to leave your country to discover that it’s a place that exists somewhere outside of your mind. Americans, like many other national peoples, know their country as a story: of settlement, of cities, of institutions and of ideas. Yet, it is also a huge landmass that stretches over seven time zones, that’s always hot somewhere, always cold, simultaneously dry and wet, light and dark.
This may be comforting for U.S. citizens to remember. They live in a country that is described in so many contradictory ways: as a beacon of freedom, as the Great Infidel, a global policeman, a global polluter, as the Promised Land for many immigrants. On Thursday night at the first presidential debate, they will be offered conflicting portraits of the nation. If then it seems that the American national identity is being lost in a party political game of Chinese whispers, the people of the country might like to look outside and see that they’re part of something real, that’s bigger and older than their thoughts and their stories.
Christian Bailey is a second-year graduate student in the history department.