Sunday, October 15, 2006


Last night on the bus there was a boisterous group in the seats behind me. I shared my seat with an elderly woman. The group got louder and louder and when they finally disembarked, all six of them were making some sort of ungodly whooping noise. The lady next to me met my eye when they were finally gone.

"Americans!" she said, rolling her eyes.

I chuckled and muttered "quite."

Before I left for England, I had heard that Americans can have a tough time overseas. They are perceived as loud and rude, impatient and difficult. I read that to avoid trouble, one should purchase something with a Canadian flag on it (a backpack or a sweatshirt) to aid in the pretense of being Canadian. Surely all of this is an exaggeration, I thought. After all, some of my best friends are Americans.

I have noticed, though, that many of the stereotypes seem to be true. 90% of the time I hear someone talking very loud on the street or (sadly) inside the otherwise quiet National Gallery, I have recognized the flat pitches and pronounced "r"s of American speech. When a bus stop queue has choked off the sidewalk rather than forming a line along it, I tend to hear Americans chattering within the group.

The room next to mine was, for a couple of nights, occupied by an American woman who seemed to neither leave the room nor adjust to the time difference. She made incessant calls from her cell phone, which always began with a statement of the time and an expression of exhaustion.

"It's 12:05 here. I'm so tired." She began one call as I began trying to fall asleep. The walls are thin enough that I could hear every word of each conversation she had. Sometimes I could even hear the voice of the person on the other end.

When I heard her say "Oh, I'm just exhausted. It's 1:37 here..." I had finally had enough.

In a normal speaking voice I said, "Why don't you try going to sleep, then?" Which seemed to startle her and she was quiet after that until she checked out the following morning. But it was too late. By this time I knew all about the problems her son, Robbie, was having at school and was concerned that he would not make good on his promise (repeated in three separate calls) that he would feed the fish that night. I knew about the server malfunction at work, and that Greg was taking steps to correct it, even though he was ill-suited for the task.

Some of my irritation undoubtedly has to do with a dislike I seem to have for tourists. Which apparently holds true even when I am one. In Chicago, when I used to work in River North, I was forever being asked for directions by people with cameras. That's not so bad. It's easy to get lost in an unfamiliar place, even (I suppose) when that place is laid out in a very easy to understand, North/South grid with major intersections every half-mile.

Whenever my hair was dyed blue or green or red, however, I couldn't so much as go to a bookstore on my lunch break without having to pose for pictures with an Asian group who would excitedly yell "Punk Lock!" while I was within their sightline. This seriously happened many times. I am no doubt a minor celebrity in some foreign land: the embodiment of the ubiquitousness of punk rock in America.

In a way, it's worse when I am a tourist as well, because in addition to irking me with their cries of "Jesus! That's 60 dollars!" they are embarrassing me as well. They are making my country (and by extension, me) look bad.

I guess I don't consider myself a regular tourist. I have spent most of my time away from the tourist traps, as crowds irritate me. I try not to make my getting lost someone else's problem. I have access to (and an ability to read) maps. I tend to ask for directions in only two circumstances: 1.) I have been lost long enough (usually several hours) to begin to freak out a little or 2.) the person from whom I am getting directions is someone I find attractive. So far in London, I have really only had to rely on the second reason.

I have been pleasant and polite to virtually everyone I have met. So much so, in fact, that I am often mistaken for English.

"You are English, you know," my mother said the other day. "Your father was purebred."

"My father was inbred. There's a difference," I replied. We both chuckled, although it was meaner than it was true, because you can never go wrong making fun of my father in my family.

But English descent really isn't the same as being English. I am no more English than I am Persian or Ethiopian. Except that I've seen more English movies, listened to more English music, read more English books.

Which I keep in mind now that I've been in the area long enough to have lost that frantic, tourist look which so readily marked me as an outsider. Now that I pass for English (in crowded or noisy places, this lasts until my third or fourth sentence) I am asked directions several times a day by visitors to the city.

"Shit, I don't know," I say. "I just got here myself."

1 comment:

Daniele said...

Just came across your blog. Love the England posts - very funny and I can relate to many of your experiences, being a foreigner here too.
Thanks for entertaining us :)