american idiot

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“Um, I’m sorry, what?”

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“I’m–um–sorry, one more time?”

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“I… no. No, thanks.”

 

I am in London, in a cafe on Charlotte Street, where I learn in short order that drip coffee is an American thing, and there is something else that I could have on my avocado toast, but I don’t know what it is and I’m not going to say yes on the off-chance it’s Marmite. That seems like the kind of stunt they might pull in a country where coffee is served in cups that look like doll furniture. Nobody’s awake enough to know better.

It’s the first time I’ve left America in nearly a decade. I live in a world where this is rare: as an employee of a multinational corporation, and also a white person who went to liberal arts college, my unmarked passport is a curiosity. (“Is she on the Do Not Fly list?” “Is she afraid of Canadians?” “Was she banned from crossing the border after trying to bring an agricultural product through Customs?”) The State Department sent it to me in an envelope the December before last and I’m fidgety with excitement when it finally makes sense to fly to Europe for this project I’ve been working on for months.

The last time I flew to Europe, I was seventeen, on a school tour. We took photos of ourselves posing in a circle around a Beefeater at the Tower of London and walking the crosswalk at Abbey Road. This time, I’m 25 and I spend the flight pounding out the script for a marketing video on my laptop. I feel wildly sophisticated until I remember that I’m sitting in a middle seat in economy wearing leggings that I bought on sale at Nordstrom Rack.

I feel nervous walking through Customs. People in uniform terrify me. I am even impressed by the TSA employees at security in the U.S. who hold up the iPads and stare at you to see if you do, indeed, follow the arrow to the left. (As an aside, I’m a tax-and-spend liberal to the point of socialism and I think you should be paying for my tampons, but even I think this is a bizarre place for the government to be spending money. Why not buy the TSA agents more impressive uniforms?) I know all I have to say is I’m traveling for business, here’s when I’m returning, I work in software, but I open my mouth and suddenly I’m waving my arms around telling a Customs agent in my most sophisticated vocabulary (read: lots of syllables) about how I’m here to work on presentations and I’m staying in Soho and I used to have a passport but it expired and now I have this new shiny one and–and then he stamps it, compliments my handwriting, and tells me my presentation skills are very un-American.

I take this as a compliment and glide into the London night, where I am immediately alarmed at the sight of my driver climbing into the passenger seat. Unfortunately, this is a harbinger of things to come; in spite of the trust the Customs agent has placed in me, I am as American as flannel and Michelob Light.

I’ve spent most of my life living in tourist traps–from Las Vegas to D.C. and now in New York–and as a result I’ve developed a healthy distaste for tourists and their fanny packs and their standing on the left on the goddamn Metro escalator, I swear to Jesus I don’t care if you’re from Podunk, Nofreakingwhere and you’ve never seen an escalator before, I WILL SHOVE YOU BODILY DOWN IT IF YOU DON’T MOVE TO THE RIGHT. I take great pride in being mistaken for a local and have possibly given bad directions because I’m so excited that someone asked me for them that I didn’t have the heart to say “No, I’m not actually from here, I don’t know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge.” Instead, I draw on my street cred and tell them to go left.

I have no such street cred in London. I am suddenly and painfully aware not only of how American, but how Californian I sound. I picture the girl at the cafe after I take my avocado toast out into the rain turning to the customers in the shop and mimicking my hyper-American chatter: “Do you have coffee? I mean, I know you have–like, just a–I’m sorry, can I just get that thing? That thing that that guy just got? I’m so sorry. Also, avocado toast? Um, I’m sorry, what?” I consider learning key phrases like “Can I please have avocado toast?” in sign language and communicating exclusively through gesture for the rest of the trip.

It’s the coffee that gets me more than anything. When I moved to New York, I made the mistake of ordering my coffee “regular” and was horrified to discover upon my first sip that the man at the bodega had given me what you would give a five-year-old to introduce them to coffee. (It was two ice cubes and a trip through the blender from being a Frappucino. I won’t touch cigarettes and I don’t like spicy food, but God help the barista who serves me coffee that looks like anything but tar.) I wonder if there is a magic word in London like in New York, where now I order my coffee every day from the cart on the corner: “Large coffee black in a bag” and the man hands it to me and says, “No sugar because you’re sweet enough without it!” and then I spill it down my front.

In London, there is no magic word. There are only Americanos.

I overcome the indignity of being served espresso water and continue down the street toward Soho Square. This street has changed names at least twice since I’ve started out from my apartment–my flat, which sounds so posh when you say it in a British accent and so dimwitted when I say it (same goes for “posh,” for the record). This is just one of the several challenges I encounter as an American walking down the street in London. Half the time I can’t find the street sign at all–why is it plastered up on the building? In America, we paint our street signs green and stick them in middle of the sidewalk so we can watch people who are texting-while-walking walk face-first into a street sign!

I also find it quite hard to locate the Walk/Don’t Walk sign, which is ridiculously small and should be enlarged for my tiny American brain which is so accustomed to large things, like Big Gulps and the Mall of America. This is of secondary importance to the fact that I am apparently so constitutionally incapable of overcoming my instinct to look to the left for oncoming cars that it’s a wonder I’m not plastered on someone’s undercarriage. This all bodes ill for my dreams of becoming an international jetsetter or even a functional human. Apparently, I have mastered street signs in one country and there shall be no more. If I value my health and safety, I should probably take my next trip to somewhere less exotic, like Vancouver or maybe Pittsburgh.

I want more than anything to go to Japan, though. I think this is mostly because I’ve been tearing through Haruki Murakami’s ouevre and I love the idea of getting to be a manic pixie dream girl without having to do a bunch of drugs. I have this fantasy where I show up and somehow my kind of grungy elementary art school teacher wardrobe is replaced with a bunch of dresses from the Japanese version of Ann Taylor and I deliver messages to a mild-mannered salaryman who needs to have sex with me to, you know, self-actualize. I don’t know how this is ever going to happen if I can’t even cross the street in a country where everything is in English.

This trip is a well-timed reminder that I’m just as much of a buffoon as the tourists who wait for the Walk sign to change before they cross the street in the Meatpacking District. I like to pretend I’m worldly and cosmopolitan because I’ve lived in cities all my life, but my passport–now with one stamp and a sticker on the back!–is proof that I’m as provincial as everyone in the line for Georgetown Cupcakes on M Street. (Maybe not as provincial as them. I know at least to go to Baked and Wired.)

I will try to remember this sensation–the flush in my cheeks as I pull coins out of my wallet one by one and hand them to the counter girl until I’ve given her enough to pay for what I’m hoping is oatmeal, because when I was a kid I always assumed “porridge” was something like an edible form of glue–the next time I’m frustrated by some brigade of West Virginians wearing matching neon T-shirts climbing the marble at the World War II Memorial and hanging all over the left side of the escalator on the Metro. I’ll remind myself that I’ve been a fish out of water, too, and I’ll take a deep breath.

And then I’ll tell them to STAND ON THE GODDAMN RIGHT, YOU MORONS, PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO GET TO WORK HERE!

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99 thoughts on “american idiot”

  1. That’s where the word comes from: “idiot” means stranger. O.k. Japan in 1974 was very strange indeed, although I had the impressions that people there were … human beings. What really intrigued me, though, were the pachinko parlours – much much stranger than anything you’ll find in Britain – and remember London is really a global city these days – no more bowler hats in the City of London! And where is coffee simply coffee these days?

    Liked by 8 people

  2. The UK government is more strict about passports to enter the UK than the American custom officer. It is impossible and illegal to enter the UK with an “unmarked” passport. To exit the UK the government officials are stricter about passports to leave the UK. Before I board the plane in London to return to Seattle. I had to show my passport two times. One with a police officer who took my picture and look up all my records and before I enter the plane by airplane stuff member. In Seattle. They were strict too but the TSA didn’t look at my records, an TSA officer look at my passport with some type of magnified glass and the airplane stuff at Seattle look up my passport records on their computer. One British citizen at Seatac airport, was denied to enter the UK, somehow the British government block his passport.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. LOL! Your self-depricating humour made for a great morning read (oh, whoops, it’s afternoon but I just woke up…so technically, morning).

    On another level, your honesty about being a tourist speaks why I think it’s so important to travel — to have that eye-opening experience that shows you there is life and ways of living beyond what you know. And that our pre-conceived notions of a certain place are often wrong, OR if we do encounter them in reality, that there is often a different perspective we can take on them.

    Great writing – keep it going! :)

    Liked by 4 people

  4. New to WordPress..while exploring found this post, the first one I read. As an Australian living in America I do sometimes find my Australian accent not particularly helpful when ordering at, say, Whataburger…anyway, like your work!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Dear Fraught With Anxiety. You need to get out more. The tourists from Podunk, Nowhere seem to be much more laid back and sophisticated about travel than you. And maybe even daily life. “Excuse me” may work to get people to move out of your way. And leaving for work a few minutes early might make your life less manic. But the rest of us wouldn’t get to read your blog then. Peace out.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I don’t live in London, I live in the North, but I understand your struggle. Although the worst thing in London, is using the underground, if you take longer than 2 seconds to get through the barrier, someone will shoot you – or at least curse you out

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Loved this. I am a born and bred American (Philadelphia and NJ if that counts) and have lived my last thirty years overseas mostly Australia with an Australian wife. Sad to say I have become so un-American. Your post makes me want to be be all-American again. So from today on I will say, “move to the right you morons, some of us want to get to work. I will let you know how that works out for me. Ha

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Great post. Made me laugh. I like London. Just keep turning left if you think you are getting lost. That is what I did, when I use to visit London. Enjoy your trip.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Reblogged this on Postcards from Casa del Wacko and commented:
    Very funny blog post. Well written and entertaining.
    A snippet from this post :
    “This is just one of the several challenges I encounter as an American walking down the street in London. Half the time I can’t find the street sign at all–why is it plastered up on the building? In America, we paint our street signs green and stick them in middle of the sidewalk so we can watch people who are texting-while-walking walk face-first into a street sign!”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hahahahaha I totally sympathize with this. I’ve been living in England for five years and I still feel like an American idiot.
    Insider tip: drip coffee is known as filter coffee here. It can be found, but you have to be very specific about it (and a lot of places don’t differentiate between filter coffee and Americanos, so I have a lot of conversations like this:
    Me: Do you have filter coffee?
    Barista: Yes.
    Me: Filter coffee, not an Americano.
    Barista: Oh. No.)
    But it is possible to find it, especially in diner-type places and places that serve breakfast. Best of luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I resent how hilarious you are. I also resent the disparaging tone you take toward Nordstrom leggings because on a scale of 1 to LV, they rank a solid 5 and I don’t think I’ve ever even touched anything above a 3.2.
    Anyway, you deserve this follow ten times over.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. If it makes you feel any better, I feel exactly the same when I go to America as an English visitor. I’ve very nearly landed on someone’s bonnet after looking right to cross the road and don’t get me started on my inability to comprehend the traffic signals, why do people make turn on the red lights? I still don’t get it.

    The security staff at JFK must be trained to bore terror directly into your sole and I too have practically recalled my entire itinerary when asked about the purpose of my visit, as if they care that I intend to go to Central Park every day.

    Keep up the great blog and remember, for every American fish-out-of-water, there is an equally bumbling British counterpart across the pond.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Lol Americans have a way of making first time visitors feel like idiots too. I was speaking English, but no on except my fellow Nigerian friend understood what I was saying, I feel you lol

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This made me laugh and I’ve been a fish out of water for a very long time. FYI, if you ever come to France, you can order ‘café américain’ and get something watered down that you may find drinkable. Bon voyage!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I assure you, there is nothing shameful in ordering espresso water. My wife has the loveliest British accent and Americanos are her drink of choice…in more ways than one ;-)

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I was starting to get worried when I read you were going to consider peoples’ feelings who stood on the left of the escalator. I mean, seriously, even a country bumpkin like me knows the ancient, sacred escalator law: stand right, walk (or run…) left

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I will send this to my (America) Wife… Its very odd the slight racism the some of the English aim towards the Americas, all born out of jealousy
    The none racists say to my wife :”Wife the hell did you move here?” This is a question I often ask myself

    Liked by 1 person

  18. As an American who lived in England and married an Englishman, I remember the awkwardness upon my first arrival. Fortunately, I was such an Anglophile that I knew some of the differences already before I stepped off the plane, but it still is a shock when you get there.

    The best thing you can do in a foreign country is not go at an American pace. Slow down and just try to take in the important information you need to get from one place to another. To get what you need to eat. To find a bathroom. Otherwise, your brain will explode.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Pretty much what all of these other people said; you write well, have a nice flow, good style and a solid sense of humour. You also remind me of myself when it comes to tourists, which I can only love you for. :p Because anything else would mean I’d have to acknowledge that I hate it when people can’t work the escalators and stop to take pictures of traffic lights. *amused smile*

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Reblogged this on R.R. Wolfgang and commented:
    Oh, my, this is wonderful. It reminds me of my first few weeks in England, the most noteworthy moment was when I went into The Royal Bank of Scotland (because, being American, it was the closest bank to where I lived, so naturally, it was where I thought I’d do my banking). I walked up to the counter and informed the teller that I was an American student on a student visa and would like to set up a student bank account. The conversation (if one could call it that) went something like this:
    Perky 23-year-old me, proud of herself for studying abroad: “Hi! I’m doing a master’s degree here and would like to set up an international student banking account! Do you do that here?”
    Clerk (who, to my surprise, is actually Scottish, imagine that, in the Royal Bank of Scotland): “Oh, why, certainly , and we can do that today, if you’d like.” Me : “Um, I’m sorry, I didn’t get that, could you say that slower?”
    Clerk “Oh, certainly! You’re American, are you?! Well, we have , if one of those options works for you”. Me: “Gosh, I’m really sorry, but I still didn’t get that… Could you go just a little slower. I’m jet-lagged.”
    Clerk: “Why, CERT-AIN-LY, dear, .
    Me : “Do you have a pamphlet?”
    When he handed it to me, I sputtered a thank you and fled in shame. I spent the next two years learning how very little I knew about the world. Like, telling my housemates I didn’t like pudding, then trying to describe why I was sad when they brought out Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for everyone but me. To me, pudding was, well, a sugary paste you make for people who’ve had their wisdom teeth out. Or put in a pie and cover up with whip cream. And a biscuit is NOT a cookie, and if you ask me if I left my jumper over by the piano, I would tell you I haven’t owned a jumper since I was four. Oh, you mean my sweat shirt? Yes, yes, that’s mine. Yeah, there’s some adjustment, and in the first few weeks, you feel like the people speaking your language are more foreign almost, because they’re speaking familiar words, but they’re using all the words differently.Oh, and don’t get me started on the pronunciation of “skeletal” and “aluminum.” *shudder*

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Love, love, love your writing style. It is both personable and hilarious, while also being elegant in its own quirky way. My fears of studying abroad in Europe next year definitely align with your thoughts here. Thanks for being so refreshingly truthful.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. This is my favourite. I’m an Indian living in the U.S. and I’m working on developing something along these lines too, so your post came to me at the right moment.

    Like

  23. Detailing was awesome, quite spontaneous. Flip every tangible thing american, that would be close to british. Historically, I believe it must have been Americans who flipped it.

    Like

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