I Conquer Britain, page 1
You Never Can Tell
TO EXCHANGE: ONE SLIGHTLY USED LIFE IN BROOKLYN, NY. INCLUDES INSANE FAMILY, ESCAPEE SACRIFICIAL ROOSTER, DESTRUCTO PIG AND INCONTINENT CAT. WILL CONSIDER ALL SERIOUS OFFERS UNLESS YOU LIVE IN A WAR ZONE OR SOMEPLACE REALLY COLD.
That’s the ad I would have put in the paper if I’d thought of it, but I didn’t think of it. Even though I spent a lot of time dreaming of being in a different place or with a different family (somewhere more interesting than Seventh Avenue with people who don’t make normal seem like some unachievable goal), it never ever occurred to me to swap my life with someone else. I mean, you wouldn’t, would you? Who would want it? (If you don’t want it why should anyone else?) I never thought of going to Europe either. I knew Europe was out there, over the ocean, but I’d never thought about going there any more than I thought about visiting the North Pole (which is obviously not something I would consider for one minute). Not until Mr Magoo (otherwise known as Mr Apolony, our principal) announced that the school was sponsoring a trip that summer. I was pretty much in sleep mode by the time he said it, but as soon as he did, my mind woke up and my soul leapt with the joy of destiny seen. A summer in Europe! Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I didn’t just want to be on the trip – I had to be on it. All of a sudden, I could practically hear the narrow, cobbled streets of The Old World calling plaintively. Come! Come! they cried. Cherokee Salamanca, we’ve been waiting hundreds of years for you! We can wait no more!
None of my friends was interested.
Angelina said she didn’t “get” Europe. Angelina said that as far as she was concerned Europe was just a bunch of old buildings. (To be fair to Angelina, you can’t really expect her to get totally warped out by the idea of Continental Travel. Her ancestors were murdered, lied to, enslaved and cheated by Europeans. Whereas my ancestors were mostly the ones doing the murdering, lying, enslaving and cheating.)
Bachman didn’t “get” Europe either. He couldn’t see why I wanted to traipse around a pile of old rubble.
Bachman’s my best friend, but let’s face it: he can be a real pain in the butt when he wants to be. And this time he really wanted to be a major annoyance.
I said Europe isn’t old rubble, it’s a treasury of great architecture and art.
Bachman made a face like he’d just swallowed a beetle. “You mean all the great architecture and art that wasn’t bombed into oblivion or stolen in some war, right?”
I said that was the stuff I meant.
Bachman said if he wanted to see old paintings he could go to a museum, which he wasn’t likely to do since he doesn’t like museums. (To tell you the truth, I’m not really a museum kind of person, either. They’re sort of like zoos for paintings. I always feel sorry for the pictures, stuck in a room with all these other paintings they don’t know and all these people trooping past them who are probably thinking about lunch or what they’re going to buy in the gift shop.)
“Europe isn’t exactly a museum, you know,” I informed him. “It’s a real place. People have lived there for millions of years.”
“People’ve lived in caves for millions of years, too,” said Bachman.
“Well, maybe you missed this, Robert, but most of our ancestors came from Europe.”
“Not mine,” said Angelina. “Mine came from Colombia.”
“Only some of them,” I said. “The rest all came from Spain. Which I’m pretty sure is part of Europe.”
“Well mine totally came from Europe,” said the ever-helpful Robert Bachman, Jr. “And the reason they came was because they were either starving or going to be killed if they stayed.” He smirked. “So why would I want to go there?”
Well, obviously he wouldn’t.
And I couldn’t go because my mother’s economically challenged. (She could be the poster child for the Working Poor.)
“Who’s going to look after Gallup and Tampa if you’re in Europe?” asked Jake. (And I could be the poster child for Slave Labour.) “And anyway we can’t afford it.”
Beginning, middle and end of story.
Or so I thought.
But then Jake came home from work on her birthday with the news that she’d made a deal to send me to Europe.
I said, “Who with? The devil?”
She said with Caroline Pitt-Turnbull. Caroline Pitt-Turnbull is her friend from when she went to art school in London. Caroline has a daughter my age, and this daughter was desperate to get out of London for the summer and she’d jumped at the chance to come to Brooklyn (she was obviously also clinically insane).
I said, “But England’s not in Europe.”
Jake said that it’s in the European Union, which she figured was pretty much the same thing. “And it’s a lot closer to the continent than Brooklyn is.”
This was true, but so is Greenland.
“Except London’s not Paris, Athens or Rome, is it?” I figured London was pretty much like New York, only they don’t have yellow cabs and the accents are different. “Maybe it has queens and princes and stuff like that, but that doesn’t exactly make it the ancient cradle of civilization or anything.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Cherokee.” Jake made one of her what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this? faces. “Do you want me to call Caroline back and tell her it’s off, and you can stay here and spend the summer keeping Gallup and Tampa from destroying the neighbourhood?”
Well, if she was going to put it like that. I mean, I wanted really old and stuffed with the ghosts of history and time but I wasn’t above compromise. Let’s face it, there wasn’t really much of a choice between sweating and eating pizza in Brooklyn and riding double-decker buses (possibly with guys who look like Orlando Bloom) and drinking tea from china cups in London. So although I was disappointed, it wasn’t exactly like being impaled on the horns of a dilemma (as my grandmother, who knows about a trillion hokey old sayings and never gets tired of repeating them, would say).
“No, that’s OK,” I said. “I’ll go to London.”
(Lesson for Today: Take what you can get, or you may not get anything.)
I Come Up With a Lot of Really Good Reasons Why I Should Have Thought of Swapping Lives With Some Poor Fool Years Ago
I’m a very adaptable kind of person (because, with my family, you have to be), so I got over my disappointment at not seeing Paris, Rome, Madrid and places like that pretty quickly. I Googled “London, England” and discovered that it has just as much history and old buildings and stuff as they do anyway. It also has tonnes of ghosts and pagans dancing naked in the moonlight. There might be voodoo ceremonies in Prospect Park (which is how we got the rooster, who really is a runaway ritual sacrifice), but you’re not likely to run into any naked Wiccas in Prospect Park, that’s for sure. Since I like to keep in constant touch with the Earth Goddess, I found this all really interesting. More than interesting. It suddenly seemed pretty obvious to me that (even though I hadn’t known it) England had always been part of my destiny! And Mr Young in the grocery store said that even though they might have a few ghosts and pagans hanging around, the English are still the most civilized people in the world. “They’ve got the best accents,” he informed me. Then Mr Young did his impression of an English accent for me. “Jolly good, old bean… I say, what a good show… Toodle pip… What a rotter…” That pretty much exhausted what he’d learned from old movies. “And the best tailors and the best gardens,” he went on. “Don’t forget, Cherokee, England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.”
I knew it has the best tea and that it’s the birthplace of the Beatles, the mini skirt and the punks, but not those other things.
“I’d like to know where we’d all be without the Industrial Revolution,” said Mr Young. “That’s what I’d like to know.
According to my gran, Sky, we’d all be a lot better off if we still had to make our own clothes and bread (the Industrial Revolution is just one of the millions of things she holds against the civilized English), but I didn’t say that to Mr Young. I didn’t want to burst his bubble.
Bachman, however, wanted to burst every bubble I had.
“What about me?” asked Bachman.
I said, “What about you?”
“You know.” He looked down at his feet. “I thought we—I thought we were going to hang out this summer.”
What he thought was that we were going to start going out together officially. We were always on the brink.
I acted like I didn’t know what he was talking about. “But this is my big chance. You can hang out with Sophie while I’m away. She’ll need someone who’s sane.”
You’d think there was an entire, miniature solar system on the toes of his boots, he was staring at them so hard. “Yeah, right. And who are you going to be hanging out with?”
He meant boys, of course (he’s about as subtle as a nuclear bomb). He was afraid I was going to fall in love with Orlando Bloom (or someone who looked really like him) and never come back. I kept acting like I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Well, how do I know? I’m not a mind-reader. I’ll hang out with whoever I meet.”
I wanted to punch him. “Will you please stop saying ‘Yeah, right’, like that? It is right. I’ve never met any English people before, have I? I don’t know what to expect.”
But Bachman did.
He finally tore his eyes from his boots. “You mean you don’t know that the English are all snobs and the guys are all gay?”
“Oh, really? Does that mean they reproduce through mitosis?”
Now he was looking like he wanted to punch me. “OK, so maybe they’re not all gay. But they’re definitely into cross-dressing.”
I asked if he meant like that man in Texas whose wife divorced him because he liked to wear her old cheerleader’s outfit, and Bachman said that you can’t count Texas.
By the time departure day dawned I figured that the only downside to going to England was that I hadn’t done it sooner. I could think of about a zillion reasons why I should have.
The first fifty or so were my family.
As an example of the kind of thing I have to put up with on a daily basis, we didn’t have even one teeny, tiny suitcase that was suitable for intercontinental travel. I know for a fact that all other families have at least one, and most have a whole set that matches and has working locks and stuff like that. I had to trawl around the attic for something to put all my stuff in, and all I came up with was Grandpa Gene’s old army duffel bag. I dyed it purple and painted silver bats and stars all over it but there was no way anybody was going to think I bought it at Gucci’s or that it was part of a set.
What also happens in all other families is that everybody you don’t actually live with calls you up days before you leave to wish you a safe journey and give you whatever good advice they’ve got (you know: don’t drink the water, don’t sit on the toilet seats … stuff like that). In my family, they all called up about an hour before I was supposed to leave for the airport – and good advice was about as abundant as water on the desert.
“Don’t forget, honey,” said Grandpa Gene, “if any of those Limeys give you a hard time over there, you just remind them that we won the war for them.”
“Don’t you forget that through your veins runs the blood of Irish martyrs,” warned Sky O’Leary. “You can’t trust the English. They’re heartless, bigoted oppressors. Everything they did to the Indians they did to the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh first. If you’re smart, you’ll keep your eye on the door and your back to the wall.”
Even my dad called (collect, of course). Sal said if there was one thing I needed to know about the British it’s that they call erasers rubbers.
Most other families also have regular pets like a dog or a hamster. We have the runaway rooster, a cat with a really bad attitude and Bart (otherwise known as Destructo Pig). Living up to his name and his reputation, Bart ate the satchel I was going to use as hand luggage. I found what was left of it under the kitchen table approximately five minutes before we should have left for JFK.
I couldn’t find anything to use instead so I had to run to the corner to Mr Young’s store and get a cardboard box that used to have cans of peaches in it. Everybody was already outside, waiting for me impatiently (tapping their feet and looking at their watches) by the time I was finally ready.
Another thing normal families have is regular cars that can go over thirty without something falling off so it doesn’t take them half a day to get to the airport but we have a VW van that remembers Woodstock. You can live in it, but it’s worth your life to try and ride in it.
The next two reasons why I figured I should’ve swapped my life aeons before were Bachman and his dog Bruce Lee. They went with us to see me off.
Bachman was in one of his dark, surly, argumentative moods.
“Mark my words,” he said as he threw my duffel into the back of the van. “You’re going to wish you’d changed your mind. The English are all wusses. You’d have a lot more fun if you stayed here and went camping with me.”
“Yeah, sure.” I mean, what girl would want to go to London, one of the most exciting, cosmopolitan cities in the world, when she could be trekking through the Catskills with a fifty-pound pack on her back and a bear-alert out? I passed him the cardboard box. “In your dreams.”
The entire Scutari family was on their front porch across the street, waiting to give me the official Brooklyn send-off.
“Yo, Cherokee!” Mr Scutari winked. “You look like a refugee with that duffel and that box. Only you’re going the wrong way!”
Mrs Scutari and her daughter Barbee came down to the van. Mrs Scutari had a box of Oreos and Barbee had her baby.
Mrs Scutari shoved the cookies into my hands. “Just in case they don’t have nothing to eat.” Somebody told Mrs Scutari that the English eat cucumber sandwiches (which she says is the same as bread and water), and ever since she’s been convinced that the only reason the British colonized the world was to get a decent meal.
“It’s going to be great,” Barbee assured me. (And this from someone who probably can’t find Brooklyn on a map, let alone England!)
I said I was counting on it.
“I mean, at least they speak English, right?” said Barbee. “Instead of something else like in those other countries.”
Mr Scutari and his sons stayed on the porch. The Scutari men all dress exactly the same – T-shirts, jeans and baseball caps that say Scutari & Sons – and they all look pretty much the same too (like they’re the last people you’d want to see come through the door if you ran one of those all-you-can-eat buffets). Since it was more or less the cocktail hour, they were sipping from cans of beer.
“Cheerio, Cherokee!” George Scutari raised his can. “Have a good time.”
“That goes for me, too,” said Errol. “Don’t drink too much tea.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Did I tell you what my uncle told me?” asked Mr Scutari.
“Yes.” Mr Scutari’s uncle was in England during World War Two. “Yes, you did.”
Mr Scutari told me again. “The only thing the English have is rain. No chocolate, no oranges, no nothin’. They didn’t even have toilets in the house when my uncle was there. You had to go outside. No heat neither. But it never stopped raining. That’s why they’ve all got arthritis and such bad teeth.”
“Don’t you listen to him.” Mrs Scutari patted my arm. “They’ve got the Queen.” Mrs Scutari has gone on record as saying that she doesn’t care what people say about the Queen being stuck up and everything because she wears that lovely tiara all the time. Mrs Scutari is a fan.
“I know.” I’d also heard Mrs Scutari’s opinion of the Queen bef
“That’s right,” said Mrs Scutari. “Maybe more. What with that husband of hers and her boys and those grandsons, and poor Princess Diana, may she rest in peace.”
Jake honked the horn. “Let’s go, Cherokee! You won’t get to London before Charles is king if we don’t get a move on.”
“Don’t forget to take a picture of that big clock they’ve got for me!” called Mr Scutari as the van rumbled into the road. “I really like that clock.”
I sat up front to navigate. My mom can get lost just going around the block. Bruce Lee sat on my lap.
Bachman leaned over my shoulder, talking, but I wasn’t totally listening. I was thinking about England. Crumpets and cricket … bowler hats and double-decker buses … Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes … the Beatles dressed in mini skirts…
I was just sitting down to my first cup of real English tea in a real cup (as opposed to an old, chipped mug with a broken handle) when Bruce Lee brought me back to the moment by throwing up all over my lap.
“You see?” said Bachman. “He misses you already.”
What Jake missed was the road to JFK.
“Goddamn,” Jake muttered as La Guardia appeared over the horizon. “How did we wind up here?” She took her eyes off the road for a second to glare at me. “I thought you were supposed to be navigating.”
I said I didn’t think I could be held responsible for Bruce Lee’s digestive problems. (Lesson for Today: Never take your eye off the map, even if it’s covered in dog barf.)
By the time we finally found the John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport there was no time for long goodbyes.
They all walked me to the entrance to International Departures.
Gallup gave me a picture he painted of the whole family (including Bart, Pancho Villa and Houdini) on the front porch. He wanted to know if I was going to come back with an English accent.
“Toodle pip, old bean,” I said. “You never can tell.”
Tampa gave me a wooden box to keep my hair clips and earrings in that she had decorated with pictures from magazines, glitter and beads. Tampa wanted me to say hello to Harry Potter for her.
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