Today signifies the casting-off of the yoke of British oppression. The date we thumbed-off King George 3rd, denouncing his imperialist abuses and told him and his twit subjects to leave us alone.
I say us — I mean you. You see, I myself am English scum.
Thankfully in print there are no accents. For one thing it means I can hide my shameful heritage. Also, it’s a welcome break from being almost constantly misunderstood. If I read the previous sentence out loud, for example, you might hear something like, “Mumble, mumble, mumble, more tea guv’nor?”
It’s something I have learnt the hard way since arriving on the Vineyard last October. The defining moment came one night in March, talking to an American friend at a bar. I asked if he had ever been to Cuttyhunk, having just returned from there myself. He replied no, and so I launched into my impressions of the tiny island, with its miniature municipal buildings and even smaller population numbers. I’d heard that in the summer locals jumped into the harbor from the ferry. I couldn’t wait to go back, I said. Did he know that during one recent winter the harbor froze over, cutting the island off and leaving some inhabitants to eek out a living on canned rations?
On and on I went, while he nodded enthusiastically and tried to get the bartender’s attention. At some point, he interrupted to say that recently he went to Cuttyhunk. Confused, I said I had been talking about Cuttyhunk for the past few minutes.
“Oh, well, it’s your accent,” he said, “a lot of what you say sounds like gibberish.”
It was a blow. How long had this been going on? Was everyone politely nodding, totally oblivious to any meaning in my chatter? Why did no one mention anything? Was I just some kind of sideshow attraction to the people I considered friends? The amazing, drivel-talking man?
Then it struck me: Vineyarders must be even friendlier than I had thought.
The friendliness was something I had been aware of from day one, after my Vineyard Haven uncle casually dropped his keys into the bucket between the front seats as we exited his parked car. This he explained was a rare example of caution. More often they would be casually thrown on the passenger seat, or simply left in the ignition. In London, where I grew up, you would no sooner leave your car unlocked than abandon a baby in the street.
It turned out the Island had a built-in security system — someone might steal a car, but without ID for a ferry reservation it wouldn’t take them far. Still, it showed a level of trust I wasn’t used to, or expecting. America was supposed to be about gun crime and terror alerts. And in the next few days I met people who literally did not own keys to their houses. I was flabbergasted.
Over the proceeding months I was invited to watch the World Series, the Superbowl and have Thanksgiving dinner at peoples’ homes. Half a dozen people who hardly knew me asked if I had somewhere to spend Christmas. And all, I now realized, in spite of my inability to convey basic information.
The other thing I began to notice was that if people came within a radius of yards they would started speaking in their best English accent. They didn’t even have to be talking to me. Along with Jamie Oliver and Charles Dickens character impressions, people would start incorporating phrases like “Cor blimey” and “Toodle Pip” as soon as I was in the same room. Was there anything Vineyarders wouldn’t do to make people feel welcome?
Before I arrived I thought that on Independence Day it might be best to lie low and keep my mouth shut. Now I know that, should anyone be angered to hear someone mention that they are English, I will be protected. “I’m English,” the person next to me at the parade will say. “I’m English,” their girlfriend will echo, and then her father, and so on. Soon, like Spartacus, I will be completely insulated from any danger, shielded by Islanders who are more welcoming than I could have ever imagined.