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A Brit’s experience of America’s Key West


Sometimes it’s very difficult to like America, for the simple reason that I’m British. Ignoring the fact that we have been allies since World War One, British people seem to like disliking Americans; in fact I’d say we rather enjoyed it. We’re not very patriotic people and never will be, we can’t stand our weather, our justice system or our Government (no matter who is in power – Jesus could be the Prime Minister and we’d complain he looks too hippie-ish to run a country). Despite this if an American were to come into our country and point out the exact same things we’d soon change our minds. We would say that actually, there is nothing wrong with a bit of rain, that our justice system still isn’t twisted enough not to provide people with the right to reformation, and that our Prime Ministers never used God or oil as an excuse to bomb another country. As a nation we are united only in our hatred of the Westerns. Perhaps it is an ancient bitterness, provoking every history lesson at GCSE, when you watched our great empire get crushed by the financial crippling that was the Second World War, or resentment at how they stole our language and then try to correct us on it. Perhaps it is anger; we don’t like big bad America pushing the other countries around on the playground, or annoyance, that Britain is constantly linked to this figure, like the brother of a dim but very strong bully. Or maybe, and this is the most likely option, that we’re a bunch of grumpy bastards who just love something else to complain about.

It was, therefore, hard for me to give an accurate and unbiased account of my journey as I believe I am rather British. It took quite a long time for me to crawl out of my defensive ways and appreciate my new surroundings. When I did I was truly surprised and amazed, I found there was much more to these American lands than strict religious views, poor sport, overwhelming ignorance, and McDonalds. Although my patience was tried a bit when constantly asked ‘If I knew the Queen’, it is advisable for any Brit who wants a peaceful time to then practise hiding their accent, or perhaps taking on a Welsh one, this seemed to successfully confuse them.

My experience of America was in a little known place called Key West. It is little known only to the British. It is part of the ‘Florida Keys’ and is the most southern point of the USA. It is 60 miles from Cuba and shares a similar climate. We got a plane to Florida from Heathrow airport, an experience in itself. Seeing as we were at least eight hours early for a plane I was rather hoping to bump into a celebrity, alas I did not (my mother however, was in Heathrow for a separate occasion for all of two hours to pick up my sister and caught sight of P-Diddy – I was not impressed). The plane took an awful long time I remember because we practically flew over every other Eastern state first. This was done of course to avoid the infamous Bermuda Triangle, which I thought was quite silly. I was also alerted to the fact there was no seat number thirteen on the plane. There were only twelve and fourteen put together. This was, I was informed later, because I was flying on American Airlines and this then made sense.

Had we been flying on a British airline we would have flown straight through the triangle and had the pilot sitting in seat thirteen if necessary, either because we have a devil-may-care attitude to superstition or because we really do hate being late for anything. From there we were made to catch a connecting plane, Florida to Key West. It was the smallest plane in the history of mankind; there were twelve seats altogether, six on each side, two air hostesses, and one pilot – all of whom we could see. Every adult boarding it had to crouch slightly until sat down because it was so tiny. Flying was worse as every slight gust of wind that passed the borrower’s sized plane made it feel like hurricane Katrina was upon us. From take-off to landing my hands were glued with rigorous passion to the arms of the seat, constantly rehearsing the exit points in my head as I was almost certain I would need to use them.

A short while later I was there. Key West is the biggest island out of all the Keys despite it being only two by four miles long so fair play to them for being able to stick a runway on it at all. Some effects of the island were instant. I found it hard to breathe for the first few days, the air was constantly thick, humid and hot. It was like having a blanket set over the island, not a friendly blanket, a suffocating one. I missed the crisp air of home or the cool, clean air from the mountains of Wales. Over the course of my stay a number of conversations were held between a ‘Local’ (my Dad’s wife) and I over the differences between the countries. She agreed that there was a difference in our air; she had travelled to Wales to see the place where my Father grew up and as an active person suddenly surrounded by so much free space, went running. She described a painful stinging she received in the back of her throat when running in Wales that she didn’t get at home. She said it was similar to the feeling you get when you use a powerful mouthwash or suck a strong mint then inhale sharply. Other things we discussed included the landscape. Key West is entirely flat and incredibly bland, the only time you are raised is when you’ve walked up some stairs and the only plants you see are artificial. Holly, my Dad’s wife, explained that the heat was so severe here that any plant would have difficulty surviving and although it doesn’t rain often there, when it does it can be torrential, therefore drowning any survivors of the heat. I asked her, as she had visited both, what did she like or miss so much about Britain. Strangely, her answer was; roundabouts – or more specifically – flowers at roundabouts. Apparently Britain likes to dress up her roundabouts with scenic trees and pretty flowers. I never even considered or perhaps noticed it as a citizen of Britain, probably because we take it for granted. If you have visited France however, we certainly don’t over-decorate our roundabouts like they do. So there were no mountains in Key West, no bright colours and no forestry, but there were quite a number of pretty palm trees, and of course, the sea. It was the crystal blue waters that, if you were British, you’d only ever see on a postcard. It was still most of the time, too. It gave the island a peaceful tone, which it didn’t necessarily need because life there was so relaxed anyway. It was hot, beautiful when you got used to it, and very laid back.

After these couple of days to get used to the weather we starting doing ‘touristy’ things. We visited Ernest Hemingway’s house which was a source of great interest to my Nan as she too is a writer. As we toured we heard of his views of Key West. He too was influenced by the unsophisticated and laid-back nature of the place, plus he quite enjoyed fishing. It was admittedly difficult for me to concentrate on being in this legendary figure’s house as we were surrounded by cats. The tour guide said that there were near sixty cats now living on the grounds. They were everywhere; it was quite literally raining cats and… well, cats. It began when a ship captain gave Mr Hemingway a seven-toed cat; many of the cats there now have this condition too. After removing the polydactyl felines from my head and shoes, we made way to the neighbouring lighthouse. It is said Hemingway built his house next to the lighthouse so he could always find his way home, whether this was because he loved going out on boats fishing or because he was a bit of a drunk I can’t be sure, but because he was a writer, I would say it was safe to assume both.

Another interesting and eccentric fact about Key West is that they have ‘chicken crossings’. They’re exactly like zebra crossings, but for chickens. As I enjoyed walking around the small island, I also enjoyed the company of these small feathered friends, protected by some sort of association. They have a shelter for food and nesting and such but it is an open place so these chickens are able to mingle in the community. As a British person I find this terribly odd and terribly exciting at the same time, so we went to visit the chicken hospital, a place for all the chickens in need, no doubt they had expected to have a nice day trip to the Hemingway house having been fans of his work and were then ravaged by one too many cats with one too many claws. Despite this I thought the chickens have it quite good here in Key West, I could only wonder if they got dental and pensions also.

Other places we got to visit included the set of ‘Licence to Kill’ a James Bond movie filmed in Key West. We went out on boats, ate food at restaurants and swam in the ocean. In a fortnight I discovered many things about this island, it is a place of eccentricities, full of tattoo bars and pirate memorabilia (Key West like so many other Caribbean islands was run by pirates at one point), despite this the people are friendly and relaxed, not loud and annoying like we think they are back home. There isn’t just fast food here but delicious sea food having been freshly caught that morning most likely. The landscape, though barren, is always bright and framed by a crystal ocean. The thing that made me fall in love with Key West though was the evening.

Every evening in Mallory square, the sunset is celebrated in Key West. As a member of the British public, this idea originally horrified me. People going out, getting drunk every night, I didn’t think that was what ‘land of opportunity’ truly meant. Turns out it didn’t. It felt like becoming part of an ancient ritual, every night street performers such as jugglers and escape artists take to this square to celebrate the sunset; many people are there, old and young, couples and families. Some are eating local delicacies, some are drinking, but it’s not drinking like how we know it, it’s having a laugh with some friends, it’s meeting new people. All of it is held outside, on the street, beneath the stars, and no matter how patriotic I am this will always be better than watching some woman throw up outside a pub in Essex.

It is easy to see why any writer would want a summer house here, the warmth, the relaxation, the luxury of having time move so slow, and then for a couple of hours in the evening having it speed up again for a moment of true enjoyment. The eccentricities of the place only makes it what it is. America’s religious rules and media stereotyping don’t stretch all the way to out there, no-one cares if your black, Jewish, a pirate, or a chicken because you’re going to have the same amount of rights and the same treatment because the people here are laid-back and honest. If you have a huge tattoo of a shark on your head and you want to eat fire then great because I’ve met other people like you in Key West and they’re polite, entertaining and perfectly suited to the place.

I wanted to go there and hate the place on principle but I couldn’t. That island is a place of true contentment and that’s exactly why I had to leave. Being happy all the time isn’t natural, that’s why people have holiday homes in Key West, not full-time homes. British people aren’t used to it and we’re always going to want something to complain about. I’m going back to my homeland, to the smell of pine and the sound of dead leaves beneath my feet, I’m going back to our murky and untamed sea, and sarcastic barkeepers, but most of all I’m going home to our over-decorated roundabouts – never to be unappreciated again.

All I have to do is get on the mini plane of death again.

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