When you move to a new country, people advise: “Immerse yourself.”
Jump in – body and soul – and before you know, you’ll be local.
We moved to Britain a few years ago. Like any expat, I read the definitive account of British life to prepare myself: Voltaire’s Letter’s Concerning the English Nation. It was quite good (which is “British” for absolutely terrible).
My problem is that I read about British life. I didn’t jump into it. I rectified this by getting trousered in a pub and befriending the Queen.
Didn’t work. Still an American expat.
I’d have to “jump in” more literally; clearly, I was going to live in a castle. A proper one. And by “live” I mean “spend the night in.”
This adventure would
a) allow me to feel British;
b) involve alcohol, surely; and
c) end with me sleeping in a castle.
What could go wrong? (That’s called optimism, a symptom of American expat-itis.)
Step 1: Find castle. Easy. Castles abound. The Romans, Saxons, Normans came, saw, conquered, and erected castles for posture and protection.
Today, British castles suffer a new threat: absent tourists. Domestic tourists want beaches; foreign tourists want things pertaining to Harrods or the current monarchy.
The less-frequented castles defend against bankruptcy by closing weekdays, opening gift shops, and fortifying themselves with creative revenue streams. They’re one bad quarter away from themed cruises or prom nights.
This is why, for a decent price, you can fulfill your childhood dreams and spend the night in a castle. (Well, not all your childhood dreams, Paddington Bear (fellow expat, I might add) doesn’t take your hand and lead you to the Browns for a nice sit-down dinner.
Dover Castle, a place that holds as much of British history as one castle should be allowed, also holds a sleepover one night, five times a year. “Sleepover” was their word. They also used words like royalty, hearty, and cavernous. I signed up. To plunge myself into British living to such an extent I’d never be recognized as an American expat.
That’s what American expats secretly want: to be mistaken as British.
Step 2: Get to castle. I took a train to Dover. Dover used to be a lovely seaside town that is now a port city. American think they need to go to Dover. Brits politely talk you out of it. Like I try to talk them out of going to Florida.
Tourists who visit Dover do three things: see castle, see cliffs, leave. Seagulls lurk like panhandlers.
I walked to the castle and arrived at a guard wielding a clipboard. “I’m here for the sleepover. Brave Sir Knight.”
He grimaced and, thinking me an idiot, gave me complicated directions that should have been “See the castle? Get there.” And then apologized four times.
It was magical being inside after hours. Beyond the inner walls, treading where kings had tread. I had the urge to run, hide, and begin life anew as the Phantom of Dover Castle.
But the brochure mentioned dinner, and I never miss an opportunity to throw myself into British cuisine. I walked to the Keep (also called the Tower as in the Tower of London) and was led into the hall by more clipboard-ed attendants. We exchanged apologies. They directed me inside.
A few guests were already there. About to demonstrate another truism in Britain.
Entering a room of people you don’t know is uncomfortable. It is unbearable if they are British.
I’m highly introverted, but even I haven’t quite got the hang of not talking to, not noticing, or in any way not acknowledging strangers. I announced my name, where I was from – nothing ghastly. Except, that is not done. You’re a pedophile until proven otherwise. I got weird looks, red faces, and, of course, a few apologies.
So, we were standing there in silence, having this awesome thing in common (staying overnight in a castle). Thankfully, the staff plied us with quaint, old-timey drinks, like mead and elderberry wine.
Were we in America, I’d have co-signed mortgages for my new friends by now. Become a godmother.
I drank more.
I found someone who was paid to talk to me. A staffer. And she demonstrated another weird thing about British people: they never talk to you, but when they do, it’s expedited personal talk. The staffer announced she was recently divorced. Huh? Awkward. I wasn’t prepared, “Yeah, this would be a great place for a second honeymoon.”
Back to silence. Drinking. For the first time, I felt very British.
Next was a ghost tour of the Secret Wartime Tunnels.
The tunnels were built in the Napoleonic wars and expanded in WWII to include a hospital. Imagine going up in your Spitfire being shot down, and waking up in a place with no light, a smell like Gollum’s cave, and random bouts of electricity. Spirit of the Blitz? Should be Spirit of the Secret Wartime Tunnels.
Ghost tours are the fad in Britain. It’s more enjoyable if it’s your first tour. Actually, it’s only enjoyable if it’s your first ghost tour. Actually, it’s only enjoyable if it’s your first tour and your guide plays the part.
This experience. . . fell short. Our guide was the happiest person. Ever. Nothing bad had ever happened to this man. Certainly not a ghost. We got the one Brit who wasn’t sullen.
We pushed into one of the rooms, and our clown guide suggested a “presence” made the room feel heavy. Sure enough, I started to feel heavy. Like something was pressing on my chest!
Not a ghost. An old man — very much alive — who had mis-negotiated the stairs. What made me think it wasn’t accidental was his additional “If I faint, will you give me CPR?” His wife threw me a look. I apologized a few times for being in his way.
He was Italian. Not British.
After a few dozen cold spots, heavy rooms, and moving doors, we were all a bit perturbed that there were so many damn ghosts and couldn’t they just consolidate and make the tour 30 – not 60 – minutes? No one complained, of course. But I sensed the groups’ perturbation. Or it could have been a ghost.
We finished in a gift shop. I bee-lined for the old-timey drink samples. Happy to avoid eye contact since mine were quickly becoming red from drink.
We returned to the Castle and had dinner in the hell – HALL. Sorry.
I had to move twice, so couples could sit together, lest they catch my leprosy. There is a limit to how long you can pretend to be curious about utensil alignment before you start to look OCD. I broke through that limit like Roger Bannister.
At this point, I had given up conversation. Even the recently divorced staff was avoiding me, lest I embarrass myself again. She was actually doing me a favor.
Time for more mead.
Next, a Tower tour. The Tower was built around 1170 by Henry II. You know Henry: he married Eleanor of Aquitaine (there was a movie about them), sired Prince John, Richard the Lionheart (also known as Richard I, but that was only after he became king), and Geoffrey whom history has forgotten. Henry had Thomas Becket killed in Canterbury Cathedral. No, he was stabbed, not axed – you might be thinking of Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More. Henry II (we’re back to Henry) built Dover Castle on the site of Iron Age ruins. It became a fabulous B&B where his friends stayed when in country. The whole thing is just so British! (Says the American expat sentimentally.)
Centuries later, the castle housed French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and functioned as military storage during the World Wars. It had been redone and modernized, but original stonework remained. Our tour ended in a gift shop. And more free samples. Elderberry was preferred, I won’t lie.
At last, we retired to our sleeping quarters. I was in the servant’s hall refurbished as a medieval kitchen. I was next to the vats that would have held wine. I tried not to read into the staff’s choice of my sleeping location.
Owing to the 30 communion cups of wine, I had to visit the facilities. Bathrooms were outside. Everything was dark. Afterwards, I sat against a wall of Kentish ragstone. I imagined what transpired during so many lifetimes. This is where the real ghosts were. The castle felt timeless and powerful, and I with it.
Americans deeply revere Great Britain. Although it’s hard to admit. We bemoan the customer service, the icy strangers. Life seems less efficient. One can feel unnoticed, unappreciated. But life is also deliberate. Thoughtful. And old, which gives it authenticity that America lacks. But there is something more: British history is the world’s history. The British Empire influenced so many people and cultures. There are many things that feel familiar as an American expat here: respect for lines, solitude, spectator sports, language. I don’t need to be accepted as British to feel a connection here.
I felt a sense of home. Distant home. Home with better accents. Awkwardness. A Queen. And egregious day-drinking.
In the morning, I walked around. It wasn’t the same. Tourists were arriving. The magic was gone.
I thanked the staff, apologized, and slipped out. No need to say goodbye to people I hadn’t met. Although I felt closer to them, as you do with people with whom you’ve shared an experience. Or a history.
I walked towards the White Cliffs, and as I did it dawned on me:
No one lets you be a thing like British. Or American. It is much deeper than nation-state parameters, visa restrictions. It isn’t something for which you have to ask permission. You start to belong when you feel the place, see the culture, when you let it in and let it affect you.
And you do belong when you love the people and country as your own.
And I do, deeply.
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