I like to play a game when I'm waiting for airplanes to land. After securing my tray table and returning my seat to its upright position, I flip on the miniature television screen on the back of the seat in front of me and tune it to the flight tracking channel. I hold my breath as I watch the aircraft's speed steadily decrease, inhaling and exhaling only when the numbers dip. It helps my ears pop, and takes my mind off of the stale smell the air has acquired. The rude bump of the wheels on blacktop and the soft ding of the "seatbelt off" sign after taxiing are inevitably accompanied by the impatient sound of one hundred seatbelts flying off as eager travelers stampede for the privilege of being the first to stand in line at baggage claim. I always wait for the crowd to die down. There's no need for me to rush. My line is always the shortest.
I don't bother to look anymore when I swap out my passports. I can tell them apart by feel. The EU passport won't bend -- the sensor chip on the back page forbids overly aggressive handling. The American passport is gummy on the back; a filmy residue left by years of baggage stickers. I fly out on the American passport, and I land on the British one. The reverse applies for trips heading Stateside. It makes traveling easier. Homeland Security turns a blind eye to the white girl with Midwestern hips walking through JFK International, and all that Big Brother: UK demands of me is a swipe of the sensor chip and a quick eye scan before I'm waved along.
I've been flying back and forth between the two countries going on 15 years. I was seven -- and hipless -- the first time, scared shitless and moving to an island where the sun never shines. I was leaving for a year to live with my father, the adventurous Englishman who had the rich luck and poor sense to marry a Wisconsin gal with California legs. The marriage was over within a few years, but the product -- a squalling, squirming bi-national baby -- cemented their union with eighteen years of child support, custody claim files, and frequent flyer miles. Since my maiden voyage in 1996, I've made an average of two trips per year. At roughly eight hours per flight over a decade and a half that's 480 hours of airtime, give or take. Just about 20 days of intercontinental transit. I've spent almost a February's worth of my life shrugging in and out of nationalities, swapping them like differently weighted coats with changing seasons.
When I pick up the phone to tell my father I've arrived, I know just how my voice will sound. My tongue curls around the vowels before they're stopped for inspection at my lips. Sharp. Crisp. Punctuated. English English. If I were speaking French or German this wouldn't be nearly so strange, but here I am, speaking a different language with a near identical vocabulary. My voice is higher, too, as though it's reaching up and over the swarm of travelers in Heathrow to find some room to breathe and expand without crashing into someone else's words. There's no room for anything in London; not even a sound bite of daughterly affection. It's not until I step out of the bus on the top of my street in Somerset that I can really stretch my legs. Being one of 50 million people in a country the size of Michigan means you never really shake the feeling that you're still flying coach.
When you artificially induce an increase in atmospheric pressure over a closed chamber of gas, the particles start to hug closer together. They start slamming into the walls of the container and into each other with just a little more frequency, losing their elasticity. Most of England sits just around sea level, but I could swear someone dunked us 20,000 leagues below. I hold my arms closer, swinging one foot directly in front of the other as I walk down the narrow streets, making room for the other guy who's invariably doing the same. These Midwestern hips don't swing like they ought to when I'm acutely aware of the erect English backbone they're supporting.
Out in West Country there's plenty of room, physically, but where the crowd of the city eases off, a millennium of increasingly conservative culture clamps down in its place. Church bells and the whistles of teakettles mark the hours. Two o'clock in the afternoon has a taste here, a blend of Earl Grey and Darjeeling poured from my father's heated teapot. Time runs at a cross section of Greenwich Standard Time and Tradition (with a capital "T"). Even rebellion has its regularly scheduled holidays. Case and point: Guy Fawkes Day.
With each trip I move through it all like a dancer calling on muscle memory, but I'm unable to tell if the waltz of propriety holds enough integrity or respect for quality to outweigh the soggy pathos that clings to the last vestiges of the imperialist attitude that one finds in the pockets of post-Victorian, post-Thatcher England.
Perhaps its an inevitable thing for a former empire gone belly-up -- when it runs out of third world brown folk over whom it can feel superior, it has to turn its searing criticism somewhere. As far back as I can remember, it has landed squarely on the one group of unfortunates that don't have a posse in the world to defend them: Americans. "They're over-sexed and over-paid, and they're over here," my grandmother once bemoaned, quoting a crotchety animated chicken from an Aardman studios production. She did so as she pressed a hand to the base of my spine, urging it to a perfectly postured seat above the legs that were unquestionably carbon copies of my mother's.
While Gran -- a contender for the corps of the English National Ballet - tackled my slouching, my father took on my elocution. He grew up as one of the best-spoken youngsters of Bristol's working class; a gift of a "passing" as member of the upper cut bestowed on him by an impeccable education; a gift which he was hell-bent on giving to me in turn. The magnitude of such a bequest is somewhat lost on a seven year old when it's conferred by making her read The Tempest out loud during school holidays. Even now, when I call home from the States, the comments fly with regards to my speech: "Con-tro-ver-sy, not con-tro-ver-sy, Gem." "Pardon me, but I must de-Americanize that last bit..." But it's never said with an air of superiority or without a deep and audible affection. He remains the ardent curator of the museum of my vocabulary, protecting my linguistic heritage and the quality of his native tongue in kind.
So what do you do? The coat might be a tight fit, but if the weather's cold enough, you put it on. You don't think twice about it. You stand straight, move lightly, speak softly, and if you carry a big stick you had damn well better be using it for Morris dancing1. Beyond acceptance, the reward of all of this is a glimpse of the richness that can only be experienced within the social edicts that bind. With so little room on the street, one is compelled to stop and exchange greetings with other cramped passersby. In the din of a crowded pub, it is necessary to lean close and listen with a quality that is lost in open spaces. With each cup of tea, deftly prepared, there comes a moment of pause, of stillness, that is otherwise absent from the day. The understanding of such moments of grace pulled me, flight after flight, into a version of myself that follows a uniquely conditioned set of rules. Perhaps that's why there was never an identity crisis attached to this change. I knew the overarching discriminating stimuli - the "green light" on and the "red light" off of my Englishness.
On my last trip to England, I flew in on an IcelandAir jet. Thirty minutes from landing, I watched a woman one row across from me fill out her landing card and tuck it into the spine of an Arabic-covered passport. She then stood up, and went to the washroom with her bag. When she reemerged, I could only tell it was her by her hot pink sneakers. She had donned a burka in the airport bathroom stall, going from modern American woman -- iPhone, lipstick, jeans, and a potential identity independent of her gender -- to the dutiful image of Muslim femininity. Unlike her, my costume change didn't necessitate that I get out of my seat, nor was it a requirement of my personal safety. The rules to which she acquiesced afforded no margin of error, no room for dissent. Watching her from my seat, I remember feeling intensely uncomfortable; as though, 10,000 miles above the airport, someone had plucked the continentally divided portions of my way of being into the cabin, and insisted they sit next to each other.
I had a two-hour layover in Reykjavík when I was on my way back to New York a month later. It was the first time in years that I was somewhere in between the suits of culture that I had hung in my closet. Sitting in an airport that was all clean lines and Nordic grace, I found myself staring at the photo pages of my passports. Both of the pictures have that touch of insanity that's inescapable with official documentation, but the American' snapshot is really a piece of work. Her mouth is open just a little, like she's about to say whatever's on her mind. Judging from the bloodshot eyes and mussed hair, it can't be anything pleasant, but she's got the right to say it and to suffer the consequences of the conflict it produces. She's not exactly beautiful, but she doesn't have to be. There's an agentive quality about her. This is the kind of chick a person can't help but like, just for her moxy.
In the English passport, the young woman is lovely; possessing an eerily pale face and eyes that have no business being that blue. I've never seen her in a mirror, but I recognize the look of well-maintained mania behind her eyes. The photo itself is at least a centimeter smaller in diameter than the picture in the other passport, but the look she's giving the camera seems to suggest that if it dares to squeeze her even a hair's breadth more she'll break the tethers of her passivity, climb onto the page, and start kicking things to make some room. She'll probably start with the line just below her name, declaring her a "subject" rather than a "citizen." Folding the maroon cover over her, I decided I liked her, too.
The flight from Reykjavík took off at 4:30, as the sun began to dip. The plane chased it westward, all the way to New York, losing it just after touchdown. Watching a sunset for six hours gives a person one hell of an atmosphere for self-examination. When I got to the customs desk at JFK I handed the tired-looking official both of my passports.
"Dual citizen?" he asked, after a moment of confusion.
"Yeah," I replied.
"You only need to stamp the US one."
I nodded. "That's fine."