Frances and I were coming home from the West End recently, about 10:30 or so, on the Bakerloo Line. We were chatting in our normal voices — louder than most Londoners would shout if they saw the number 189 bus careening toward their dear old granny but much quieter than my beloved and now-deceased Uncle Bob Borth talked over Thanksgiving dinner. We were alone in our car when two “young women” boarded at Baker Street.
They staggered in and plonked down in seats opposite each other next to the door. In their late teens or early 20s, they were white girls, tarted up for a night out, their eyes only more highlighted by red rims than sparkly blue eyeliner. Frances continued to tell me one of her humdinger Joe-and-Claudette tales. I slid my eyes over the girls and noticed them one listening to us (while mouth-breathing — females are great at multi-tasking). She smirked, slumped back in her seat and scoffed to her friend, chucking her chin in our direction:
She then dragged a 750 ml bottle of Malibu Rum from her backpack, unscrewed the top and slugged back a long draw. In fact, she drank on that bottle for a full two seconds before she passed it across to her friend, who followed suit. I smiled at her and implied with a cheeky grin I might take a swig (in a gesture of goodwill). She sneered, swigged, and slumped some more.
The interesting thing about the English is their absolute inability to recognize that the reason they dislike Americans — the deadly cocktail of our supposed wealth, isolation, ignorance, and superiority — is they look and see their own reflection, expanded. Nearly every time I ask an English person why they chuckle-guffaw-sputter-choke-sneer-cringe over the word “American,” they can’t give any reasonable reason that doesn’t sound suspiciously like their own history. “Because the damn imperialists think they own the world!” “Because they are all stupid” Well, not you of course.” The exceptions always spill out, as do the excuses for a history which is not all that distant.
I spend a lot of time arguing with English people about American politics and pointing out to them how cushy their life is (hello! free medical care, dentistry that they apparently never use, and prescription drugs that cost no more than 6.40. Why are they so cheap? Because Americans are regularly paying for the research). As a result, I have made of many English friends who respect my intelligence, but also question me over and over again, jokingly, whether I am, in fact, actually American (“Oh! That’s right!” They laugh. “You married a Canadian. He must have rubbed off on you.”) It is surprising that, for some of them, this never seems to get old.
I also tell them that my life in the United States (the term America refers to all of the Americas, including places like Venezuela and Chile, two countries that seem to understand real democracy, though W. would just as soon not include them in our protectorate. Most people in the States, though they call themselves Americans, never call their country “America”) is something that I miss. I miss friendly people who smile and say hello on the streets. I miss real customer service and technology that hardly ever hiccups. I miss some of that instant gratification culture that I wanted to get away from coming here. The truth is, in England– London especially — everyone is striving for that culture here and failing, so it is just plain depressing sometimes. The combination of huge metropolitan city clinging desperately to its Victorian past is exhausting.
If am in mixed company — meaning there are a few “Europeans” in the mix, say an Italian or an Irish or a Dane– I am generally met with funny, blank stares from the English and nods of sympathy from Europeans. “I went to New York last year,” one English acquaintance says, “It was really great.” New York City: the English glaze for America. It is all a heaping of Krispy Kreme donuts: odd, funny, other-worldly, worth sampling once without ever knowing the history. Of course, my European friends protest heavily: they never mock Americans in English company, though they sometimes discuss American politics with me. (England may be over here, but it most certainly is not European.) Europeans ask intelligent questions about my experience and wonder why I want to live in England. I ask them the same and together we shake our heads and drink another swig of our pint. We don’t have a good answer, other than the strong English pound. And, on my extensive travels in the 16 months since I have landed in England — Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, Egypt, and the Czech Republic.I have only been treated with disdain in England. My husband, a Canadian with a British passport, is met with a sigh of relief
When I think about England and the U.S., I think about my friend Cathy Lionello, a New York State native I met in 1999 in Florence at language school. God I couldn’t stand her. She grated on my nerves, her loud voice, her boisterous laugh, her pushy personality. All those outspoken opinions. We took one of those arranged group tours to see the opera in Verona. We hung out together because we were two of the few English speakers in the group. Flavia, an Australian woman, joined us. By the end of the late night and a very tight bus ride home, Cathy and I were weeping on each other’s shoulders. Both alone in a country where we struggled to communicate, both outgoing, independent single women, we discovered we were — well, exactly the same person, basically. When she met me early that week, she confessed, she couldn’t stand me either. But thrown together in our lonely, strained predicaments, we recognized our own weaknesses in each other’s reflection. And became fast friends because of it. Too bad the only people making friends here are Tony and George.
As for me? When English people ask me where I am from, I tell them I am from Iowa. Most don’t know where that is (hey! Do you know where God’s Blessing Green in Dorset is? We all have our geography blackholes). I just tell them my hometown is a three-hour drive from Chicago. I am from the Midwest, where the cheapest petrol is still the green-friendly, 89-octane ethanol, where blue-collar and agriculture is still the main work product, and hundreds and hundreds of miles separate people from city to city. Surprisingly, this does not create demented, closed-minded, fundamental Â?Â?mericans.Â? It creates an exceptional work ethic; well-educated, kind, friendly people; strong family units, and the core of the democratic value: liberal values tied to an understanding that a stable government provides protection of the freedom a free, wholesome life. It was only in the last two elections that Iowa went from blue to red state.
Because, unlike this tiny island nation, the United States is enormous. Americans may have some sense of national identity, but their real identity is wrapped up in their family units and their close communities: the regions they are from. These are distinct and very different. They love their college basketball and football teams. They have different dialects and accents. We don’t all talk like W. (he’s from Texas, and from the Houston area, a different accent than West Texas) and different speeds. I can’t tell you the number of English friends who think I don’t sound “American” because I don’t sound like either Bush or Clinton (they are both from the South and have distinctly different southern accents). They are sure, once again, I must be Canadian. No, I assure them. I have a Midwestern accent;my accent is considered “standard American,” like Chandler or Monica on “Friends.”
If you ask someone from the States (not America, but the “States” or the “U.S.”) where they are from, if they don’t answer a city or a state, they might answer by region. Some regions are actual census regions, others are so big or so well-defined, they are just their own states, or cities: New England (Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts; or by state, like Pennsylvania — which is so big it alone takes 8 hours to drive across at 75 mph on the turnpike, a toll road of four-lane highway and tunnels carved into the side of the mountains; the much-ignored Midwest, an absolutely gigantic swath of land from the Ohio River to the Rocky Mountains, miles and miles of forests, rivers, farmland, small towns and cities, home to 65 million Americans: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri); Southern California (anywhere between San Diego and 50 miles north of L.A., Northern California (from San Simeon north through the wine country to the Redwood forests); the Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and rest of northern Californian from wine country on up); the Southwest (centered on Arizona and New Mexico, including Oklahoma, Nevada, parts of California, Utah, parts of Colorado not in the Rockies or the Midwest, and parts of Texas); Texas — a country in and of itself, that takes more than two days to drive across; Alaska — a huge state north of Canada, even larger than Texas; rocky mountain Colorado; the West (Idaho, Wyoming, the flatland of Colorado, parts of Utah); Hawaii, another place all its own; Florida, part of the the South, but not, Â? another 81/2-hour drive from top to bottom not counting the Keys (on excellent flat interstates with no traffic going 70 mph); and finally, The South, ecompassing 1.5 million sq. miles , each state is its own cultural breeding ground, with different food, music, dialects and accents: West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi.
I wonder, considering the size and the power, would you dare to tease the Chinese the same way?
If you are English and don’t like “Americans,” I can tell you the real reason you don’t like them is the same reason so many have turned on themselves and the idea of patriotism, why literally millions (more than the majority population of England) don’t use that word loosely to describe themselves.
It’s the same reasons that 54 million Kerry voters (plus the 112 million Americans you never count, the despairing majority who can’t bring themselves to vote at all) cringe about: the failing two-party federal system, the mounting federal taxes that don’t seem to pay for anything except to line the pockets of the president’s oil buddies and vice-president’s defense supply company, and a corrupt health care system. All of this is piled on top of 50 independent states that each have their own Constititutions, their own corrupt senators and representatives, governors, laws and taxes. These people you mock aren’t ignoramuses: they are just like you. They get home from work, exhausted. They turned on the TV to see couples virtually fucking on primetime at 7 p.m. They let their children rape and slaughter hos and bitches mindlessly in the latest video games and gorge themselves on greasy junk food as their arteries clog. They listen to the soldier body count again and watch that Idiot cock his grin again and talk again about terror, now in Iran, now in Libya, and how “freedom” now means telling other people what to do, but with guns and bombs.
And they, just like you do, let their minds go numb. It is all too big.
It was only recently that blue collar vote started clinging desperately to their religious morals as they have watched their states let loose on their freedoms and our federal government system crumble. The Rove-Cheney-Bush Administration cashed in on this where Gore and Kerry refused to. Truthfully, it is no wonder people voted for Bush. In the last 50 years, the forefathers’ concept of being “American” has dissolved. No one has killed it. It is just gone. The American dream was once about working hard, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and achieving a comfortable and secure life. Now a $100,000-college education doesn’t even guarantee a decent paying job or health care. The first post-World War-II grown-ups are hitting their stride just at a time when comfort is a sickening given, but truly living well is not. The girth of the “easy life” is devouring the American middle class — the regular families who used to work hard with their hands and backs — and they are gutted. The fat life is a quicksand that is creating a backlash that looks like to a joke to the outside world. It isn’t. How quickly smart chap Jamie Oliver noticed this cultural disease is not limited to the United States.
The truth is, I am tired of hearing it. If you think there is something to dislike about Americans, I have two pieces of advice: first, ask yourself, what do you really know about those people? I mean, real, first-hand knowledge. One shopping trip to New York and reading a few newspaper articles does not constitute knowledge of the United States. Maybe you can’t afford a roadtrip across the States, but you can afford to do one thing: stop excusing the real knowledge you have. If you meet an American, and you find them intelligent, interesting, funny, complex, why excuse them as the exception? Try associating America with its people again, and you will again remember that a country is made up of its people and not its government. At least, that is what a democracy is supposed to be.
Second, stop trying to make Americans be from some imaginary place you have never seen. Instead, ask them where they are really from. If they are from Idaho or Oregon or West Virginia, don’t ask how far that is from L.A. or New York. The English sense of scale won’t work here, so give it up. Instead, ask what town they are from, what it is like. What American football team do they support (they are bound to name a city you recognize: Dallas or Detroit or Chicago or New Orleans)? Sure, it isn’t your football, but does that matter? People who like and respect other people are interested in their lives. They don’t make fun of them. And while you are at: try being truly kind. Explain cricket whenever you can, comparing it to baseball, if possible. We are curious. Making these little connections are the first real inroads to understanding.
By the way, if you are very nice to me, I might make you a real martini. And I don’t mean a 25 ml measure of vermouth on an ice cube. I mean, the real thing, shaken over lots of ice. Because this American knows how to make a proper cocktail, and it does not include swigging Malibu from the bottle on the Bakerloo line.