America is not everyone’s destination of choice. Few people wake up and say to themselves, “I’ve had it with Tajikistan—let’s move to America!” After the war my parents despaired of England (a widespread sentiment in those dreary years); but like so many of their British contemporaries they looked naturally to the Dominions. In the high streets of my childhood, grocers and butchers advertised New Zealand lamb and cheese, Australian mutton, and South African sherry—but American products were rare. However, plans to settle in New Zealand (and raise sheep?) were scotched by circumstance and my father’s TB scars. I was duly born in London and was nearly thirty before my first visit to America.
Everyone thinks they know the United States. What you “know,” of course, depends a lot on how old you are. For elderly Europeans, America is the country that arrived late, rescued them from their history, and irritated with its self-confident prosperity: “What’s wrong with the Yanks?” “They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here”—or, in a London variant alluding to cheap ladies’ underwear provided under a wartime government scheme: “Have you heard about the new Utility drawers? One Yank and they’re off.”
For West Europeans raised in the 1950s, “America” was Bing Crosby, Hopalong Cassidy, and overvalued dollars flowing copiously from the plaid pants pockets of midwestern tourists. By the 1970s the image had shifted away from the cowboy West to the Manhattan canyons of Lieutenant Kojak. My generation enthusiastically replaced Bing with Elvis, and Elvis with Motown and the Beach Boys; but we had not the slightest idea what Memphis or Detroit—or southern California for that matter—actually looked like.
America was thus intensely familiar—and completely unknown. Before coming here, I had read Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and some of the extraordinary short-story writers of the South. Between this and a diet of 1940s-era film noir, I certainly had visual images of the United States. But nothing cohered. Moreover, born like most Europeans in a country I could cross on foot in a matter of days, I had absolutely no grasp of the sheer scale and variety of the place.
I came to the US for the first time in 1975. Upon landing in Boston, I was supposed to call a Harvard friend with whom we were to stay—but the pay phone required a dime, a coin I could not even identify (Kojak never used them). I was bailed out by a friendly cop, much amused at my ignorance of American coinage.
My English wife and I were planning to drive across the country to Davis, California, where I had been invited to teach for a year. I had thought to buy a used VW Bug, but the first salesman I met talked me into a 1971 Buick LeSabre: gold, automatic …