RiffRaff – from across the pond

Jon - pinnacle ollie

Here’s an exceprt from Jon’s blog :

I’m sorry to do this to you, but take a gander at the following quote:

“It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudices, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by name of neighbor; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of townsman; if he travel our of the county and meet him in any other, he forgets the minor divisions of street and town, and calls him countryman, i.e. countyman: but if in their foreign excursions they should associate in France, or any other part of Europe, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of an Englishman. And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countryman; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the divisions of street, town, and county do on small ones; distinctions too limited for continental minds.”

Thomas Paine wrote those words in his infamous Common Sense in 1776. Before coming to England, I read these words and had an epiphany that should have been obvious: I was going to be, for the first time really, an American. I was going to represent an entire country. Now, I don’t use the verb represent in the diplomatic sense, or the way a teacher will warn a student on a field trip: “Jon, remember, you’re representing Pickerington here. Don’t act like a brat.” I simply mean that my identity will be, to use Paine’s term, enlarged.

The only time the idea of my nationality ever came up before has been in that rah-rah rallying nationalistic sort of way exuded during the Olympics or after a major tragedy (or especially, I would imagine, if there were a tragedy at the Olympics). But, now, I thought, I was going to be seen as an American and that identification would mean something: it may mean that someone will hate me automatically or incorporate that fact into their judgment of me.

Or it may mean nothing.

So far, I have yet to experience any anti-American sentiments directed toward me. I’ve had conversations with Brits in which they describe their anti-American sentiments, but there always seems to be a presupposition in these discussions that their feelings do not include me.

Maybe this is because I ask them straight out.

I’ll say, “What are your feelings about Americans?”

And they say, “Well, we think you’re kind of bullies, aren’t you?”

Or, “You do seem to love stuff, things, in the States.”

Or, “I don’t know…sometimes you seem to be a bit…fat.”

They come across as reticent to express these stereotypes. Sometimes I can’t tell if this is because they don’t want to offend me or because they are merely reaching in their minds to find some sort of answer to be polite.

Although, one drunken Brit kept insisting that “England is still the most powerful country in the world. We really are.” And his friend kept saying, “I don’t think that’s true, mate.”

Anyway, the point being that I haven’t yet felt too much like an American, in the sense that I thought I would. But, there is one aspect of my identity that has become pronounced.


I’ve always had a strange relationship with skateboarding. Actually, that’s bullshit. Ibegan to have a strange relationship with skateboarding as a direct response to my growing relationship with fiction-writing and literary academia. The two, I thought, did not match. I exaggerated the disparity in my head, imagining that the two could not work in concert with each other, as if I had to pick one: Was I a well-spoken, well-dressed, wine-drinking, literary intellectual? Or was I a loose, torn-jean-wearing, beer-guzzling, curse-ridden skaterdude? On different days, one felt truer than the other.

Since arriving here, I haven’t been able to skate in the conventional way that much. That is, I have not been able to skate spots. I mostly go out on the road in front of the complex I live in and skate flatground. This usually satisfies the basic urge I have to skate, but it leaves a lot to be desired. Flatground is to skateboarding what a driving range is to golf or masturbation is to sex: it can be fun, but it in no way compares to the real thing.

No one in my study abroad group skates and, obviously, Oxford is not overflowing with skaters, so I am relatively alone in this. And when English people walk or ride their bike by me while I skate, they show absolutely no interest. In America, people will at least get annoyed. I’m not saying people are always supportive or encouraging; but they at least show some awareness. The people passing me, at best, pretend like I’m not there.

So, it may be due to this loneliness or the sense of isolation, but, now, when I watch skate videos, I get sad. I miss skateboarding, and I miss my skater friends. And in missing them, I see how much skateboarding is a part of my life – nay, is one of the most important components of my life.

A story:

A friend of mine is getting a tattoo. It’s her first, so everyone from our flats goes with her for comfort’s sake. It’s a gorgeous day, so I decide to bring my skateboard. At this point, I have yet to venture into Oxford with my board. This is for three reasons, the last of which is the most pertinent: 1) the weather has been shitty; 2) I’ve been busy with school; and 3) I’ve been weary of the attention a skateboard would elicit here.

You see, skateboards are fucking loud, especially when you’re on a well-peopled street during the day. In America, people turn their heads, realize what it is and, most of the time, move on with their day.

Here at Oxford, everything is different.

It’s as if nobody in Oxford has ever seen a skateboard before. Earlier, I mentioned the fact that no English person showed interest in me when they passed me. Well, that was not at all representative of how they are in the city centre. Now, as I skate through town, they stare at me with a mix of curiosity and disdain. Or, more aptly, I can’t tell if they’re more curious or disdainful. Either way, they can’t keep their eyes off of me.

We come to Cornmarket, a very busy street lined with stores and restaurants. I shouldn’t skate here, but the ground is so smooth and the day is so beautiful and I’m so elated to be skating something that isn’t the street in front of my apartment, I say fuck it and skate.

Now, people are afraid, a feeling I’ve never quite experienced before. They don’t know that I’m not going let my board slip and hit them. To them, I am a volatile image.

I draw so much attention that a man playing guitar for money asks me to move away from his spot.

What strikes me during all of this is how proud I am of my skateboard. Though I was worried about what Oxfordians would think, I now realize that I don’t care. I want to skate and that is that. I think about the skate videos I’ve been watching lately and how they now make me feel. I see clips of groups of guys traveling around and hitting spots, drinking and laughing and filming. This is who I am. Skateboarding means the world to me. Now, this is something I’ve always known, but it took me coming to a prestigious university to study literature for me toreally know it, to allow it to exist in me naturally, like eye-color or shoe size. Riding around Oxford, amongst scholars and intellectuals, I’ve never felt more like a skateboarder. It feels great.

Until, that is, a cop tells me to stop. Some things are the same everywhere.

*Thanks for the piece Jon. Can’t wait to skate with you when you get back.

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