“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!