Thursday, December 16, 2010

An American in London

Whenever I go to Europe I try to blend in and not look like a tourist. Sometimes I'm pretty successful. In France I've had numerous people come up to me and ask me directions -- in French, like I was a native.

Of course, the jig is up as soon as I open my mouth and reveal my very, very poor pidgin French.

England was an odd experience. On one hand, it felt very much like a foreign country -- the streets, the buildings, the food, the transportation, the general ways of doing things.

On the other hand, I spoke the language, albeit with an American accent. So I was quite clearly an American. Especially in the way I would sometimes give up trying to distinguish a 10 pence coin from a 20 pence or 5 pence (the size is no indicator!), and just hold my palm full of change out and let the clerks pick out the right amount.

But I stopped being self-concious about being from somewhere else since almost everyone I ran into -- store clerks, waiters, tube workers, museum staff -- was also from somewhere else. Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, India, Pakistan. Also there were tons of Americans visiting and living and working there.

The biggest concentration of actual British people were at a couple of parties we went to in some funky, out-of-the-way neighborhoods on the South Bank. Still, all of them were thoroughly accustomed to living and working with Americans, so I was in no way a novelty. People weren't stopping me and asking for my perspective on the fairness of US tax policy or my thoughts on the mid-term elections or anything.

In fact, there was a palpable feeling of kindredness. The shared heritage, the common bonds, the mutual sacrifice in war. I was especially touched that they devoted a significant space right behind the high altar of St. Paul's Cathedral to American soldiers and sailors.

Overall I guess I felt pretty comfortable. I visited Europe a lot in the late '90s and things were a lot more tense. America was on a roll and that sort of stoked the basic resentment to an even higher level. Between the problems we're having here and the worldwide economic crisis, I suppose we're all kind of on the same level for now.

Still there is something to be said for the challenges -- emotional, intellectual and otherwise -- of being in a more disorienting, unfamiliar environment. Travel shouldn't necessarily be comfortable.

No comments: