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An American Dumbass In London

A general view of The Den ahead of the Sky Bet Championship match between Millwall and Leicester City at The Den on April 9, 2024 in London, United Kingdom.
Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

"Don’t make any loud American noises."

That’s the 15-year-old. He’s sitting next to me at The Den, home of Millwall F.C., a South London EFL Championship club known more for its rich legacy of hooliganism than its accomplishments on the pitch. Today, Millwall is doing battle with West Bromwich Albion, a 146-year-old club that’s been promoted to and relegated from the Premier League several times this century. Our seats are tighter than coach class and the stadium is a dump in ways that are far from charming. But we made it to the match all the same, which is saying a lot given how long it took us to get here.

Despite the fact that I was born elsewhere, I am unmistakably American. It’s in my chestiness. It’s in my outrageously loud speaking voice. It’s in how I like my toast done on both sides. Spend five seconds with me and you’ll never think to yourself, that guy’s definitely a Liverpudlian. Like my fellow countrymen, I wear my American-ness loudly.

And, like most current U.S. citizens, my bloodline flows across an ocean, where it then breaks off into infinite, frothy tributaries. For decades, my father attempted to sort out exactly where those channels led. He bought all kinds of nerdy genealogy software for his PC. He visited tiny libraries in even tinier towns. He traced part of our roots back to the Mayflower, and then across the pond. He thought he’d at least find out the origin of our last name, Magary, which he had long presumed was a bastardization of “McQuarrie” (given that our last name is pronounced muh-gary, it would have made my life a touch easier if the “Mc” had stuck). At one point, he thought he had the name nailed as Dutch in origin, a light upset. But he couldn’t 100-percent prove it. He never did, eventually giving up his family tree research to do other things, like enjoy himself.

But I didn’t need Dad’s scholarship to know where I came from. I can see it in the mirror. Just as I’m unmistakably American, I am also, unmistakably, an Anglo-Saxon mutt: fair skin, blue eyes, no ass. That might be why I’ve been an Anglophile my entire life. It might be why I grew up on a steady diet of Monty Python, Benny Hill, Def Leppard, and Ozzy Osbourne. It’s definitely why I chose to go to England for a semester abroad. Sometimes you go to a place and you sense, instinctively, that you are home. It can be a trick of the mind, but it’s a wonderful one all the same. Once I was in England, I felt like I belonged there. That I always had. This makes sense given my complexion, and given that America is England’s prodigal son run amok. They loved beer. I loved beer. They loved fatty food. I loved fatty food. They loved naughty bits. I loved naughty bits. Me and England were always meant to be.

So when I left England after that semester abroad—easily the best time I had while in college—I promised I’d go back. And I’d take my family with me.

About the boy. He’s 15 now. A freshman in high school. Every new parent is warned about the nightmare ages, usually ranging from two to five. No one warns you about freshman year. No one tells you, "Hey man, it’s when they turn 14 or 15, that shit REALLY hits the fan." So I wasn’t prepared for my kids enduring the confusing hell of ninth grade. I certainly wasn’t prepared for my now 18-year-old to spend all of it at home during a pandemic, making strange friends online and charging shit to our credit card without telling us. My wife and I made it out of that phase of the girl’s life alive (barely), but that experience still wasn’t enough to prepare us for all of the shit her younger brother would later confront while attending high school for the first time, in person. The relentless course loads. The insanely crowded hallways. Living inside a body that seems to grow an inch a month. The trick of meeting new people and navigating your way through friend groups that you’re not certain you fully belong to. Our son had to, has to, deal with all of that. It hasn’t been easy on him.

Not that he’d ever say it. Teenage boys say roughly 25 words per day, and most of those words are a variation of “I dunno.” I never quite know what’s going on in my son’s head, which is ironic given that I make a living telling the general public everything that’s inside of mine. And nagging my son, or any of his peers, to open up more is a waste of time. At one point, I even told him, with all the earnestness I could muster, “I’d really like to get to know you better.” Sometimes I’ll say something dramatic like that to my kids and hope it gets through, the way it does in movies. It never does. My son still kept his cards so close to his chest as to be concealing them.

Except on the soccer pitch. Throw any kid onto a team and they’ll talk with their feet, their hands, their bodies. My son started playing soccer when he was two, and has not stopped. While I’m an American football obsessive—one who grew up in a time when soccer was treated with the utmost disdain stateside—my son preferred the original model. He studied tape of EPL games on TV. He glommed onto one of those teams, Tottenham, and became a lifer. He took a soccer ball with him anywhere he went, even on vacation, so that he could drill himself stupid. And he cold emailed coaches in higher level youth leagues to get a tryout, one of which paid off handsomely. If I couldn’t talk to the boy at length, I could always play soccer with him to watch him come alive, and to get my ass beat.

So, ever the busy mind, I became intent on taking him to England, to show him where part of him came from. I also wanted to take him to a Spurs game, but they had no home matches on the schedule while we’d be there. He could take a tour of the Spurs home stadium. But for live action, shit-ass Millwall would have to do.

As the crow flies, it’s eight miles between Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and The Den. But those eight miles involve traversing the near entirety of London from north to south. It’s a city that, as you might have guessed, is quite large. In fact, no other city in Western Europe is even half of London’s size. It’s a city that just keeps going, and going, and going. That makes it tough work to navigate for anyone, let alone an American who hadn’t been to the city in 27 years. When we touched down at Heathrow and rode the Tube into London proper, I had that welcome feeling of familiarity that I was hoping for. But that doesn’t mean I knew what the fuck I was doing. I almost got hit by a car a dozen times because I forgot that they drove on the other side of the road. I got crossed up at the coffee shop because I asked for two percent milk in my wife’s coffee and not “semi-skimmed.” And I had no idea how to get from Tottenham to Bermondsey in an efficient manner.

This was a problem, as I’d booked me and my son for a tour of Tottenham Stadium in the morning, with West Brom-Millwall kicking off just after lunch. Being a parent means spending most of your time bogged down in logistics, so I gave myself a break and told the boy that he was the boss on this day. He would take the lead and get us to the top of London and then the bottom. Well shit, did he ever take that order to heart. He got us to the Spurs stadium via GPS dot, yelling at me whenever I walked on the wrong side of any sidewalk or station corridor (a lot). When we got to the visitor’s center, he chastised me for walking in front of the welcome video playing on a giant screen. And when we entered the locker room and I asked which keeper was the starter between Guglielmo Vicario and Fraser Forster, he snapped, "VICARIO," like I was the stupidest asshole who ever lived.

This was me getting to know the boy. Turns out he’s not one to suffer fools.

We joined our tour group. While Spurs are a perennial bridesmaid in the Premier League—I might know something about rooting for such a team—their accommodations suggest otherwise. Their stadium cost $1 billion and looks every bit of it: all clean gray walls and sleek club levels. We entered the press room and I "interviewed" my son, asking him if he was happy with how he and Spurs had played in the match. He tried on a British accent for his comments, and it suited him nicely. We gazed into the production room. We walked out of the concourse and ogled the pitch. We sat in the player’s bench seats, which were exactly as luxurious as you expect. Gawking at the stands from our little visitor area on the sideline, I promised my son I’d take him back here for a real game one day.

But first, we had to get to Millwall. This involved taking four different kinds of London mass transit: the London Underground (that’s the Tube), the London Overground, the London commuter railroad, and a bus. At London Bridge station, we got a bit lost because we thought the commuter train we had to take was a Tube train, and then I heard a gaggle of drunken chavs screaming hooligan shit and immediately knew where they were going. I even summoned up the nerve to ask one of them how to get to our train. He couldn’t have been nicer. Hooliganism in the UK isn’t what it once was.

Once we got to The Den, we walked through a club entrance because I’d spent extra to spring for box seats. This turned out to be a mistake, as box seats provided you with a free three-course meal prior to the game and zero food thereafter. We’d missed this sumptuous repast thanks to our initial Spurs detour. When I asked security if my son and I could go out onto the regular concourse to hit a concession stand, we were forbidden from doing so. Turns out the groundlings are the REAL VIPs at The Den. So my son and I each had to rely on a bag of crisps for sustenance. I was starved. The boy, still nursing a sprained MCL that had sidelined him longer than any injury ever had, only cared about the match.

I tried my absolute best to be as un-American as possible once we took our seats, but sometimes I slipped. The sports fan in me can’t help but make shrill, awkward sounds anytime something important happens. So when I let out a big ol’ "DUDE!" after the refs made a shit call, my son nudged me and waved his index finger. No no. I was chastened, and vowed never to break vocal contain again. I wouldn’t have much reason to after Milwall blew a 1-0 lead on a cheap penalty and then staggered to a 1-1 draw. We hopped back onto the Tube and I asked the boy if he’d had a good day. He said, “Yes,” and it was the clearest thing I’d heard him say the entire trip. He was smiling because he couldn’t help himself. This was where he’d always wanted to be, and perhaps where he one day will be.

Because before we left for home, my son told my wife he’d like to live here and work at a pub one day. Then we touched back down in America and he told me he’d also like to write books one day, the way I do. He wants to be a soccer writer, and he knows just where he wants to write about it. It’s all over his face.

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