A couple of weeks ago I was congratulated (yes, personally congratulated) on the birth of 'the new royal prince'. I wasn't sure at first how to respond. After all, I don't believe I put much personal effort into the affair, unlike the births of my own children. But I realised I was being congratulated as a citizen and subject and I managed a gracious 'thanks'.
It happened, of course, in the US. The well-wisher spotted my British accent and clearly wanted to find something pertinent to say about the UK. The royal birth seemed safe and pleasant territory.
The irony perhaps was not that she had chanced upon a Brit with slight republican (i.e. anti-royal) leanings (can you be 'slightly' republican? I think so) but that the exchange took place in one of the museums where New England's 18th century revolutionary history is celebrated - in fact, not far from the spot where the first shot is said to have been fired in the war that led to America's severance from monarchy and empire.
As my locally produced guidebook told me, the actions of the colonial patriots in Massachusetts "laid the foundations for America's greatness and inspired other freedom-fighters around the world".
Two hundred and fifty years on, Americans (like my museum lady) can afford to be sentimental about what they got rid of, but not about what they gained. America's greatness is still taken largely for granted and patriotism is part of the fabric of life. Even in liberal Massachusetts, with its heavy concentration of globe-trotting academics, its Obama healthcare bumper stickers and its superficially European-feeling culture, every other house seems to fly the Stars and Stripes. Friends with whom we stayed said the flag (unhoisted in their case) came with the house purchase.
I don't go to the US very often - I was last there about five years ago - so every time it takes me by surprise again. I like the place and by and large - as a tourist - I find Americans friendly and charming, brilliant at service and flatteringly concerned for my wellbeing. On one museum visit, our guide was apologetic about describing the British Redcoats as the enemy. That's ok, I thought, it's history, just a turn of phrase. I've been the enemy before and I felt much worse traipsing over the graves of butchered Scots at Culloden.
But attitudes and values seem different in the US, very different. This is definitely abroad - not like France where the national manner may be rather curt and the service often lousy (I have a shocking story from a recent holiday but that's for another time) but where at least patriotism comes with an edge of humour and tricoleurs are confined to town halls.
America remains a mass of contradictions to an outsider. While I was there, the US media were gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's great speech, and also bathing in their country's superiority when Oprah Winfrey received a national apology from Switzerland after a Zurich shop assistant implied that a black woman couldn't afford a $38,000 handbag. At the same time Obama was still facing an uphill battle to introduce gun-control laws (America's failure to stop its citizens shooting each other is, of course, incomprehensible to everyone in Europe). The US is one of the most open democracies: as my guidebook reminded me, its constitution has served as a model for others to follow. And it certainly knows how to celebrate success. Inexcusably, however, it remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet.
But back to the trivial. American food portions are still too large, their coffee too weak and they have far too few useful road signs (in France all roads lead to Paris, but try working out the way to Boston at a Massachusetts crossroad). Their bookstores are great, their museums neat (if expensive) and their community theatres an inspiration. And they love royal births - as long as it's someone else's royals.Suggest a correction