Fourth of July, British style

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LONDON — There was supposed to be a barbecue.

Back “home,” beef patties sizzled and charcoal smoked in whatever direction people were sitting. But with the Royal Parks’ ban on barbecues, American students abroad Julia Conley and Denise Bennett had to find some other way to celebrate Independence Day.

“Denise made hot dogs” in their Kensington flat, Conley said. “It was a nice piece of home.”

As Americans spread out picnic blankets and watched fireworks back in the United States, Americans in the United Kingdom found other ways to celebrate Independence Day, ironically, in the country from which they gained, well, their independence.

The U.S. Embassy in London estimates that about 250,000 Americans permanently reside in the United Kingdom at the moment, with more than 4 million Americans visiting or staying in the United Kingdom temporarily each year. That's half the population of New York City, or the equivalent population of Los Angeles.

Lynne Sayer, chairman of the American Society in London, an organization for Americans living permanently in the United Kingdom, has been a permanent resident of the United Kingdom since 1986. Although she can often find the American comforts of home in the United Kingdom, Sayer said she gets homesick on the Fourth of July.

“There you are, the Fourth of July, everybody at home is off at the lakes, barbecuing,” she said. “You really get homesick.”

Bennett, the student, said she’d spent all of her previous Independence Days with her family. This Fourth of July was “out of sorts.”

“The big difference is being in the States, you know everyone is celebrating on the same day,” she said. “Even here, being in the park, there may be Americans coming out here, but you don’t know who’s who. On the Fourth in the States, you feel some solidarity in that no matter where you go, everyone is American and everyone is celebrating the Fourth.”

The American Society in London usually holds a Fourth of July celebration with the American ambassador, but without an ambassador named yet by the Obama administration, it decided to hold off this year, Sayer said.

Last year’s celebration took place in the House of Lords, Sayer said.

“We got a big kick out of it,” Sayer said with a laugh. “There we were, celebrating our independence in a place where there were a million debates about the Revolutionary War raised from that spot.”

Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of Revolutionary War hero and America’s first president George Washington, has hosted a Fourth of July celebration for the past five years. This year’s two-day celebration involved performances by the Princeton University Tigertones, Appalachian dancers and “Punch and Judy,” a traditional English puppet show. The puppeteer for this year’s Punch and Judy introduced a President Barack Obama character to this year’s show.

Barnes said she does not think the British harbor any resentment toward Americans because they fought and won their independence so many years ago.

“If you look at the history of our two nations, the War for Independence was very long ago,” she said. “The War for Independence is superseded in people’s memories in that we’ve fought on the same side of every war since 1814. That’s a lot longer.”

Sulgrave Manor was refurbished and opened to the public in 1921 to mark 100 years of peace between the two nations, Barnes said.

“Our reason for existing is to be a symbol of friendship between the peoples of the United Kingdom and the United States,” Barnes said. “We have links of friendship and family. We share democratic values. Those things continue, no matter what silly things our governments are getting up to at those particular moments.”

Most expatriates Sayer has met in the U.K. moved there because of a job.

“Today, it’s so global,” she said.

“When it first started out, we used to have a big Fourth of July party,” said American Apparel employee and British citizen Natalie Prince, folding brightly colored clothing behind the counter of American Apparel on Portobello Road. “We’d dress up in red, white and blue.”

American Apparel has more than 260 stores in 19 countries, according to its website.
“Now, it’s so multicultural and a lot of people here are tourists. It would just get lost in translation.”

Sayer said living in the United Kingdom is easier in this new global culture.

“I get home a lot,” Sayer said. “There’s Skype. We can talk to each other on the telephone for two pence a minute.”

In Kensington Gardens, Conley thinks of what her family is doing to celebrate the Fourth back home.

“I know right now, my mom is probably inviting the entire neighborhood over,” she said, a bit wistful. “Thinking about it makes me miss it a little bit.”

Despite the distance from California, her home state, and the “supreme” irony of celebrating Independence Day in England, Bennett said she enjoyed her first Fourth of July away from home.

“I feel like I learn a lot about the British culture and about the history here, but at the same time, I’m learning a lot more about being an American than I ever have,” Bennett said.