My Expat Life
Enjoy the Water
The novelist David Foster Wallace told this story: Two young fish are swimming along one morning, and an old fish swims by. "Good morning, boys," says the old fish, "Enjoy the water." The two fish swim on; eventually one fish turns to the other and asks, "What the hell is water?" Wallace thought the job of a writer was to notice the water.
Noticing the water may be the writer's job, but it's an expatriate's inescapable fate.
Or at least that’s what I can report as an American expatriate in the UK since 2002.
Growing up in Corning, New York, I thought the foreign exchange students were much more fascinating than anyone else. I was all model-UN and goosebumps-on-the-It's-A-Small-World ride at Disneyland. I became a Washington lawyer who specialized in the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. I read the Economist every week. My mother is Welsh and her family lives in Britain. I married a Welsh man and moved to London. I really fancied myself an international sophisticate.
But none of us know our own water. And it can be not fun to get to know it. When the Iraq War started in 2004, I got on a bus in North London and my American accent led to an onslaught from another passenger: a woman yelled at me the length of Kilburn High Road about how the evil American press only reports on the number of American soldiers who die, when in fact they are over there killing tens of thousands of Iraqis.
I'm ashamed to say that until that woman yelled at me on the bus, that fact had escaped my notice. Of course American lives are worth more than the lives of people from other countries, they're American. So goes the (un)thinking subconscious of a woman who grew up believing that all Canadians had an inferiority complex because the United States was so much better. I got home and called my girlfriend in Philly. We only announce American dead on our news, I complained, that's horrible. Of course we only count the Americans. This is America, she replied.
Yikes. Americans can be kind of blind sometimes. Especially to their own exceptionalism. And yet, and yet, I desperately miss the American restless energy to get things done and try things a new way and face barriers with optimism. That water is sweet.
The British water is starched with duty, murky with apologies, bound in tradition. The need to do things a certain way. In all of Europe it seems to me there is a presumption of 'no' – that you're not allowed, that you can't go in there, that things don't get done that way, that things are out of your control. And yet for all that the Brits are remarkable. The Irish write the best plays. London breeds the best actors and builds the finest sets. The British have the NHS and a respect for the eccentric. They have the Secret Garden Party and excellent traditions. Sunday roast! The Brits love to eat 'proper' food. Proper in that sentence means: unchanged for at least one hundred years.
In America, part of a child's birthday party is sitting in a circle and opening up all the presents in front of all the guests. The other children are treated to a real time unfiltered reaction to their present. British children aren't allowed to open their presents until their guests have gone home. Thank you notes later communicate the appropriate message. Somehow I think the Brits find it quite dangerous to have an actual emotional response. That is reserved only for your coconut milk.
They say that Americans are peaches and Brits are coconuts. Americans have a soft skin, it's easy to break through it: easy to chat to an American, easy to be invited to their home. Peaches have pits though and there is a hard pit in the center of an American you won't break into, a secret self you will not know. Brits, on the other hand, are coconuts. It is almost impossible to get through their hard shell, their thresholds, their hearts and homes. If by some miracle you succeed, then you are in the wash, and you stay there, thrown in with their families in this creamy wash of gooseberry fool and blackened meat on Bank Holidays in perpetuity. Where your hard shell is: also part of the water.
So are the Americans too reckless at birthday parties, or are Brits too fearful? Or really, is the whole point just to see the water?
Swimming to a new stream
Imagine a British playwright. She flies to Washington, DC and walks into a courtroom. She watches a jury trial. She's entranced. She decides to move to Washington and do one herself. The lawyers all laugh at her.
That's what happened to me in reverse. I was a trial lawyer in Washington and decided to be a playwright in London. Everything I had written in DC had been performed gorgeously, and I loved it. The way a play gets at the truth, what a play tells us about justice in the world: man, something in that experience is unique in all the world. It's the best. This almost sacred gathering. I don't know if it's pheromones or karmic energy, but there is something about being in a theater watching a play that is absolutely unbeatable – for the immersion, for the truth.
About the highest job satisfaction a trial lawyer can have is a jury coming back in your favor. It is an awesome feeling. Oddly enough there is even a better feeling: sitting in the darkened house of a theater while your play is being performed and hearing people sigh in recognition. My first play was called Baby Love Time because at that stage in my life I didn't have those three things. It was kind of lament of a workaholic lawyer. A thinly veiled version of myself wondered about all the hoop jumping, all the photocopying, all the late nights. As she did, the audience sighed, and the muscles around their eyes relaxed. That dumb moment of that dumb ten minute play competition was worth ten jury verdicts. What was inside me, being spoken by that character, was being recognized - recognized and understood. It made me feel less alone.
So when I fell in love with a Welshman living in London I quit my job and moved here.
It just took fourteen years to get to my 'jury trial' – my play. I did some other stuff, like get married, gave birth to children, served as general counsel to a wifi start-up and then continued working for the buyer, Swisscom. I organized Occupy Half Term along with Occupy London in that unbelievably magic October of 2011. I may be the only person to have successfully gathered half a dozen members of Anonymous and ‘forced’ them with my mom energy to submit to a question and answer period with children. I spent more than a year writing a sitcom season based on the wifi start-up and it went nowhere. I wrote plays that I needed to write, but weren't quite ready for anyone to see. I have had London and Edinburgh for teachers. I haven't taken a degree in writing for stage, I've just seen lots and lots of plays. I've been to lots and lots of plays. I feel that connection, I look for the water and I come back for more.
Rachel Mariner is an American expat playwright living in Cambridge, UK. Her plays have been produced and developed in Edinburgh, Belfast, Chicago, London, Washington and Kansas City. A reading of her play Wedding at Cana is available on Soundcloud via OneWheaton. She is currently working on a true courtroom drama with Jason Kuller called Kerching and a play about the birth of the Magna Carta called Treason. She has two children, a guitar-playing husband and a thirst for justice.
Rachel's play Bill Clinton Hercules (Bob Paisley as 'Bubba', pictured left, Photo by Anna Woolman) is at the Park Theatre, London May 17 to June 11, 32016. For tickets visit www.parktheatre.co.uk
Click here to read about how Rachel came to write Bill Clinton Hercules.