Sarah Lyall ' s London Reflections
Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome.
By SARAH LYALL
Published: August 17, 2013
EVEN after 18 years, I never really knew where I stood with the English. Why did they keep apologizing? (Were they truly sorry?) Why were they so unenthusiastic about enthusiasm? Why was their Parliament full of classically educated grown-ups masquerading as unruly schoolchildren?
Why did rain surprise them? Why were they still obsessed by the Nazis? Why were they so rude about Scotland and Wales, when they all belonged to the same, very small country? And — this was the hardest question of all — what lay beneath their default social style, an indecipherable mille-feuille of politeness, awkwardness, embarrassment, irony, self-deprecation, arrogance, defensiveness and deflective humor?
Now that my spell as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times has ended and I’ve come back home — if a place counts as home when you’ve been away for so long — I’ve had some time to think about how Britain and America have changed, and how I have.
When I got to London, it was a calmer time. The only terrorists anyone worried about were the ones from Ireland. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative revolution was winding down. Princess Diana had yet to reveal that there were three people in her marriage. David Beckham had yet to learn that he could make extra money by posing alluringly in his underpants. Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had yet to close in disgrace.
Meanwhile, Loyd Grossman, an American-born food-show host and purveyor of his own brand of spaghetti sauce, radiated from my television set like a piece of performance art representing the pitfalls of long-term expatriate-ism. The problem was his accent, a bizarre strangulated sui generis concoction that sounded as equally incomprehensible to English people as to Americans. It was not even mid-Atlantic, except in the sense that perhaps it was the way they used to speak in the lost city of Atlantis.
I resolved to hang on to my own accent, mainly by watching a lot of American TV, and to assimilate as best I could while remembering where I came from. What happens then is that you begin to see through the looking glass from both sides. I began to understand how America appeared from 3,000 miles away — not just the things Britons admired, but the things they didn’t.
And so a country where even Conservatives are proud of the nationalized health service cannot comprehend a system that leaves tens of millions of people unable to afford basic health care. A country that all but banned guns after the slaughter of 16 small children in Scotland in 1996 cannot understand why some Americans’ response to mass shootings is to argue for more gun rights, not fewer.
Despite the sometimes immature behavior of Britain’s legislators, they manage to enact laws without deliberately obstructing the running of the country. Britons are perplexed by the sclerotic hatred infecting so much political discourse in America. And not one Briton I ever met understood why being able to see Russia from Alaska was at one time apparently considered an acceptable foreign-policy credential for a prospective vice president.
Britons admire and consume American culture, but feel threatened by and angry at its excesses and global dominance. They are both envious and suspicious of Americans’ ease and confidence in themselves. They want American approval but feel bad about seeking it. Like a teenager worried that his more popular friend is using him for extra math help but will snub him in the cafeteria, they are unduly exercised by the “special relationship” — endlessly deconstructing what it meant, for instance, when in 2009 Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, gave President Obama a handsome penholder made of wood from a Victorian anti-slave ship, while Mr. Obama reportedly gave him a stack of movies that were incompatible with British DVD players.
Also, Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities — straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters — and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.) Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons’ unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you’re supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.
“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded. The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.
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Sometimes in London I felt stupidly enthusiastic, like a Labrador puppy let loose in an antique store, or overly loud and gauche, like a guest who shows up at a memorial service wearing a Hawaiian shirt and traumatizes the mourners with intrusive personal questions.
Britain became more American while I lived there — everyone did, thanks to the Internet and the global economy. By this spring, 25 percent of the adult population was obese, and doctors were calling the country “the fat man of Europe.” Like a pale cousin of the Republican Party, the Conservative Party began squabbling with itself.
The rise of the right-wing British National Party, coupled with the populist influence of the popular Daily Mail, shifted the political axis to the right; the government cut welfare spending and tightened the borders. Even as London transformed into an international town square, there was talk that Britain might pull out of the European Union.
But the British character lay underneath it all, and that never changed. Many of the stories I covered had to do with the question Britons have asked themselves incessantly since their empire fell: Who are we, and what is our place in the world? It wasn’t until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last summer, with its music medleys and dancing nurses and quotes from Shakespeare and references to Mary Poppins and sly inclusion of the queen and depictions of the Industrial Revolution and compendiums of key moments in British television history, that the country seemed to have found some sort of answer.
It was a bold, ecstatic celebration of all sorts of things — individuality, creativity, quirkiness, sense of humor, playfulness, rebelliousness and competence in the face of potential chaos — and more than anything I have ever seen, it seemed to sum up what was great about Britain.
AMERICA has always been secure about its place in the world, though its self-belief is fraying a bit. But while Britain was figuring itself out, America was changing, too.
I’ve come back often, so it’s not like it was a total shock. But while I wasn’t paying attention, Arizona for some reason got its own Major League Baseball team. New York City’s center of gravity shifted to Brooklyn, at least according to the people who live in Brooklyn.
In other developments, available phone numbers ran out, forcing the introduction of unpleasant new area codes. “Awesome” went from being a risible word used only by stoners and surfers to an acceptably ubiquitous modifier, the Starbucks of adjectives.
New York City Transit began kindly informing passengers how long they would have to wait until the next train. A few Americans started going only to restaurants with lovingly reared, locally sourced unpronounceable ingredients; the rest started going only to restaurants with All-U-Can-Eat Fat Plate specials.
The Kardashians arrived and would not leave.
Now that I’m back, I feel somewhat Loyd Grossman-ish. I am thrilled to be in a city that has the cultural advantage of having a garbage can on every corner, but sad to leave one whose mayor speaks off-the-cuff Latin, employs expressions like “inverted pyramid of piffle” and last summer compared the Olympic beach volleyball players to wet otters.
After years of using pound and euro coins, I find dollar bills cumbersome and idiotic. After years of living happily among Britons who by New York standards would be considered functioning alcoholics, I now find my old friends’ tendency to order wine by the glass, not the bottle, unnecessarily Puritanical.
I’ve grown accustomed to British friends who, when it comes to personal matters, don’t ask much, don’t tell much and really, really, don’t want to get into it. We lived for more than 15 years next to a couple who corresponded with us almost exclusively by letter. I have become an expert in the art of the anodyne weather discussion. I’m chronically sorry.
“Sorry,” I said to a Metro-North conductor the other day, when I disrupted the swift completion of his progression through the train by asking what time we would get to my stop. “No problem,” he said, looking surprised at my apology, and so I apologized again, for apologizing.
It is enough to make your head spin. There I was at the Apple store the other day, asking basic technical questions and trying not to take up too much of anyone’s mental space. I told the salesclerk that I had to change my address, since I’d just moved back.
He asked me a million questions: Why? Where was I going to live? How about my family? How did I feel?
He considered the whole thing for a moment — me, the move, New York, life.
“Awesome!” he said. And I think he really meant it.
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large for The New York Times and the author of “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.”