It’s funny the things you miss when you’ve been away from home a long time. When I was a kid, home meant two things. It was the house we lived in but also the word mum used interchangeably when talking about Nigeria. I didn’t realise how loaded that one word could be until this week.
I’ve been living in LA for the last year or so and don’t get me wrong, I love it. The weather alone is enough to make any Brit a convert. When I arrived I made a big fuss about getting an umbrella such was my conditioning coming from the UK. Don’t leave home without it. But if people use them here at all, it’s to protect them from the blistering heat. Nice problem to have.
There is a particular type of optimism that infuses Californian life. A bonhomie that puts a bounce in people’s step. And I’ll never tire of supermarket checkout people insisting I "have a great day”. At first, I’d avert my eyes mumbling, “Um, yeah. Cool. You too” because it was alien to have such enthusiastic service. In Britain, as a customer you often feel like a necessary inconvenience rather than the very reason shop staff are in employment.
On arrival, after the surprisingly pleasant security check (mentioning you’re a comedian completely changes the demeanor of border security), the first thing I noticed was the evening warmth. Like standing in front of a hot fan. The next was what a curiosity us Brits are and I was all the more exotic by being black. Outside the Comedy Store one evening, an African American comic barked at me “Daaaamn. I didn’t know there was black people in the UK!”.
I looked at him to make sure he was serious or hadn’t ODed on dumb pills. I thought, this is going in my sitcom… or a blog at least.
There is a perception that the British accent is somehow more refined. I’ve given up trying to explain Geordie Shore, TOWIE and all the other accent gravel pits the UK has to offer and instead, play up my Britishness, using slightly longer words than I normally would to sound more intelligent. I say give your audience what they want!
It’s a fun game and means I’ll never lose my accent. That would be the worst. Though it’s no crime here, once you return to the UK and your friends hear your strange Lloyd Grossman/ Madonna transatlantic drawl and that peculiar rounding of d and t sounds they'll mercilessly let you know you sound like an utter bellend. And long may that continue.
But as marvelous as it is here I realized this week, I miss feeling at home. Having a sense of home, of being grounded is so fundamental but so subtle that sometimes its absence can be imperceptible. It’s like trying to feel the Earth travelling through space.
I miss living in a city where transport is a communal rather than solo activity. I miss getting on a tube to get where I’m going and even more, I miss getting home by tube after a few drinks. There are literally thousands of DUI (drunk under the influence) arrests here. In the absence of a safe go-to after hours transport system people do the 'sensible' thing and take to their cars.
There’s a certain amount of social compromise that comes with having a unifying transport system on which people from all walks of life make their daily commute. Seven figure salaried CEOs and McDonalds staff alike, armpit to face. Occasionally you'll even spot the odd politician or celebrity publicity-stunting their way to the O2. I can’t see Rihanna boarding the Number 4 down to Santa Monica while a bloke draws a picture of Madonna on the back window with a dog poo.
I love that London has a centre. LA is made up of small pockets of concentrated activity that can be as small as just a few blocks surrounded by vast stretches of bland nothingness. It’s not actual nothingness but it’s… nothing, the backs of warehouses or the fronts of storage companies, unoccupied buildings, workshops… nothing that generates a throng in the way that a busy high street can. There’s no Oxford Street. No Hyde Park Corner.
Oxford Street can be supremely annoying when you're there to do something other than gawp at the new Primark or stand unhelpfully in the entrance to shops but I do miss that bustle.
It’s in the little things, the knowing where to buy stuff, the being familiar with brands and knowing which ones you can trust, understanding the rules of the road, getting utilities hooked up, the local social etiquette and most interestingly, the language.
The saying, Britain and America are divided by a common language, could not be truer. It wasn't long before I realised quite how many British sayings and turns of phrase are completely idiosyncratic to us. I said “Rod for my own back” the other day and my friend had no idea what I was talking about.
So often, we’re speaking the same language but use completely different words and as a foreigner you have to decide, do I acquiesce and start to fold this new language into my lexicon or do I stand my ground and continue to say “’Scuse me, where’s the loo?” and suffer the bemused looks.
Actually, to be fair, in LA, home of the Anglophile, a few British words and phrases have crept in. It always takes me by surprise to hear an American thank me with a pleasant “cheers!” I have to resist double-taking them.
Sometimes, second guessing if I’m being understood or am understanding what’s being said to me can be tiring so when I meet a fellow Brit or Australian even, we gabble away like old friends, the cultural similarities forming an immediate bond.
When away from those you love, you have to create your own tribe, no matter how big or small, a few people who've got your back and you can call in times of crisis or just when a sofa needs moving.
I can see why people are predisposed towards creating ex-pat communities because it seems no matter how long you stay, part of you is still a foreigner, an other, an exotic artifact.
We take feeling at home for granted but this time away has made me aware of how important it is to create your own sense of community. When I spoke to my mum about it, she said, in her soft Nigerian accent, “yes, it’s hard living in another country”
I was floored by that. It had never occurred to me what she’d given up, as an economic migrant to 1960s Britain, giving 35 years of her life to the NHS, leaving behind the place she called home, the food, the aromas, the people, the familiarity, the sense of belonging, leaving being surrounded by people who looked like her, coming to a place where people were still adjusting to the discomfort of having the “other” live among them, plus the added challenge of being married to my dad, raising children, saving in the hope of returning home whilst barely being able to make ends meet.
Just from her saying that one sentence, I learned so much about my mum and the quiet dignity with which she carries all of this. For her there is no wringing of fists and gnashing of teeth. She knows that Nigeria isn’t perfect, that she has plenty to be grateful for in the UK and that after some 45 years this place is home too.
However, there is something indelible left upon your spirit by the place you grew up in. The other day, driving down Santa Monica Boulevard a thought struck me, I’m an East Ender. It hit my like a brand new thought. The East End seemed far away but still it lingers in the back of my mind, bubbling up in the most unexpected moments. I delighted in having a silly conversation the other day about all the typically British phrases Yanks may not know. My friends were horrified when I described Chinese Whispers and we all decided it was racist, we laughed about fanny packs and bumbags, the tramp and the bum, pants and trousers, fags and cigarettes and it made me feel that home wasn’t so far away.
I pondered with my mum if perhaps “feeling at home” was something you had to generate internally for yourself. Recently I bought house plants to make my apartment feel more homely. It made such a huge difference. And perhaps, in lieu of returning, those little touches will help keep generating a sense of home in me without, of course, blocking out the culture I'm in. Perhaps this is something specific people who relocate have to do, straddle the divide, juggling home and here. Here and home.
Next week the World Cup begins and I'll definitely catch the England matches. I’ll be in the Cat and Fiddle on Sunset Boulevard at nine in the morning sipping a Guiness (it’d be rude not to) and in that moment, I’ll be here and home.
Other posts you may enjoy: More Notes From LA, My LA blog which I did during my first visit here and GoodBye To The Games - my farewell to the London 2012 Olympics