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Jolly Good Vibrations

When the Brits start behaving like Californians, anything can happen

A couple of weeks after my wife and I returned to England, my brother-in-law suggested a surf session, my first since we’d left Orange County. We made a beeline for the Welsh coast near Cardiff on a rare rain-free day, to a small cove with a decent right break. Arriving at noon, I was stunned by the mass of humanity crammed into such a tiny space. The waves (OK, wave) coming

in off the Bristol Channel belonged to all comers, and they all had come: a hundred surfers—ages 10 to near 70—on top of one another, while in the breakers another hundred wannabes on blue foamies charged on and off the beach. It was like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan,” except with a greater disregard for life. 

We’d exchanged the serenity of surfing Sunset Beach for this? 

 

Before leaving Dana Point after three years of SoCal living, my wife and I discussed what we’d miss most about California, and Orange County in particular. Our friends, she said. Laguna Beach ice creams, I said. The legalese of erectile dysfunction ads on TV, she said. The Swallows’ Day Parade. The friendliness of strangers. As for the weather, time would tell whether distinct seasons would win out over yearlong shorts-wearing. 

We returned to England last summer in time to experience the wettest June, July, and August in more than a hundred years. Thanks to the marine layer to end all marine layers, those sun icons that greeted me daily on my personalized BBC weather Web page in Orange County were supplanted in England by clouds with sprays of yellow, as if they’d switched on their fog lights. The daily temperature had fallen by an average of 10 degrees, and from the surrounding woodland, I could hear the pigeons struggling with catarrh. 

The first eight years of my life had been spent in Dana Point, before my family relocated to the U.K. Twenty-or-so years later, I returned to my Orange County roots, to make use of my dual citizenship, to walk the beaches of my youth, and to see if some mystical communing occurred between self and surrounds—like the quickening in “Highlander,” except with less lightning and the chopping off of heads. 

No such luck. 

I learned to surf, rediscovered tri-tip, and came to terms with my situation in life. I have something along the lines of the immigrant experience: a simultaneous sense of belonging and separation in both countries, reinforced by an accent that’s never taken sides. I’m split down the middle; it’s something not to resent but to accept as a privilege, especially when both countries have so much to recommend them. 

Which isn’t to say that our return to England to raise a family hasn’t been without adjustment. The restaurant bill takes forever to arrive. You have to include extra letters in words such as “labour” and “programme.” And the cars seem like miniatures. I can’t imagine the carnage one of those mindlessly raised pickups that blithely cruise the 405 might wreak upon an English country lane. Although with petrol at 138.9 pence per liter—or roughly $8.50 a gallon—it wouldn’t go far. But the profoundest shift in our perspectives would take place courtesy of the Olympics, which we watched on the telly. 

Cold, too tan, in exile from In-N-Out, we found solace on the couch, beneath a blanket, before the small screen: We tuned in to the Games and—saw a people united. Now, the London Olympics shouldn’t have been such a success. The U.K. has a talent for having large public projects go wrong (see: the Millennium Dome, the new Wembley Stadium, and the centralization of the National Health Service IT system). Even Mitt Romney expressed his doubts over the country’s readiness during his pre-election visit.

But, somehow, the Games came together (over budget by £6.4 billion, but hey-ho), and to top it off, the U.K. managed its best medal haul in more than a century, a landmark that cost about £4.5 million per medal, according to The Guardian. 

But what price national unity? How do you attach an economic value to countrywide optimism and hope? News outlets overflowed with tales of Olympic bonhomie; local communities came together in rapturous street parties—despite the rain—and, most extraordinary of all, the English talked to strangers! Yes! It was happening on buses, trains, and throughout the subterranean stress factory known as the London Underground. The Olympics had turned the English into Californians. A highly convenient occurrence for us; indeed, the best of both worlds. 

 

While the U.S. political schism was one of our least favorite aspects of life in America, it’s fair to say that the British citizenry also regularly clash over topics as varied as immigration, membership in the European Union, and whether Page 3 of The Sun is an institution or an outrage. Even Orange County—“where good Republicans go to die,” President Reagan once said—is home to an evolving electorate, one that’s changing from bright red to purple.

 You can say that variety brings division; you can also say that it brings balance. Paradoxically, if anywhere demonstrates the benefit and color that variety can bring, it’s the cities of Orange County: the San Juan cowboys, the Vietnamese of Westminster, and the keepers of the Nixonian flame in Yorba Linda, to name a few.

Through the Olympics, the English were able to focus on something larger than difference and political affiliations, and find unification through that. And that, in turn, helped my wife and I overcome our Dana Point blues. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going surfing before the ocean freezes. 

Illustration by Pushart.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue.

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