Sunday, January 10, 2010

A British view of those superior American social skills

One thing I hear a lot when visiting New York is "Are you from London?" It always makes me seethe with rage and indignation. Just because I have a British accent that does not automatically mean I'm from London. I wouldn't assume an American-sounding accent meant you live in New York. In fact, I don't assume it even means America even - as several disgruntled Canadians have pointed out to me.

But, being raised "British", I'm not allowed to show my emotions to strangers, so instead I politely say "Not really", and leave it at that. There's no point in telling them where I am from. Nobody has heard of it or cares. So when I was asked it at the hotel gym, I just added it to my mental tally, and continued drinking from the water fountain.

But some (actually all) Americans are very friendly, and this one wouldn't leave me alone. It turned out his name was Walter (!) and he was a lawyer. He was also trying to chat me up. Somehow I had ended up in a bad episode of Sex in the City.

This would never happen in my gym back home where everyone is painfully heterosexual and unrelentingly dreary. My hotel gym is like a mirror universe of my home gym. It is on Times Square and seems to be populated mainly by hyperactive show-boys who diss Angela Lansbury (performing next door).

So it was nice that Walter found me exotic enough to flirt with. London (British) accents have a cache in America. I kept hearing awful Britons, who would have been unemployable in the UK, doing voice-overs for burglar alarms or bed adverts on tv. Simon Cowell is much-loved, and even though British people always end up being cast as sophisticated villains in American films and tv, at least we're on the American radar, which is generally very inward looking.

And I have always wanted to meet a New York laywer - just like the one from Will & Grace. It turned out he was having a party at his apartment the next evening, and did I want to come? I said I'd try, but was very jet-lagged. He gave me his address, which was in a huge tower block a couple of blocks away. (If you are British and reading this you will probably be shocked by how "forward" Americans are. And this isn't even an isolated incident. I've had more men proffer me their business cards in the changing room at that gym than at any conference I've been to. Musical directors, immigration laywers, gay, straight - it doesn't matter - if you respond to a comment about the weather they're pressing their business cards into your hand).

Despite being somewhat anti-social and misanthropic (even by British standards), I decided to call in, more out of nosiness than anything else. I wanted to see if he had his own baby grand piano next to an arched window with a view of the Manhattan skyline. I wanted to see if his friends were all amusing and witty like Jack and Karen. And whether they all wore Prada and shopped at Barneys.

I should have left things there, scintillating in my imagination. In fact, Walter's apartment was miniscule and decorated by Ikea. Shockingly, the doorman let me in without asking to check my credentials (serial killers have British/London accents too!)

Having checked out the view (lovely, but no baby grand piano), and made small-talk with some people with Peru I decided enough was enough, and I was having trouble understanding everyone's accents. So I left. I actually said "It was lovely to meet you all but I must be going." I'm sure Walter and his friends complained about me "He said he was a British university lecturer! But he was nothing like Colin Firth in A Single Man."


I was talking to my mother on the phone this evening, and she was on about one of her favourite subjects - the points of the compass. My mother keeps a compass in her handbag because she "has to know which direction north is at all times". Because my mother sees her children as extensions of herself, with identical preoccupations, tastes and concerns, she's reached the conclusion that I must need to know where north is at all times also. And she got me a little compass for Christmas. It's shaped like a ladybird. Isn't it lovely.

We were talking about one of her favourite topics - moving home, this evening. "It took me a very long time to get used to living in this new house", she confided. Apparently the main reason for this is that the new house is south facing, whereas the previous house had been east facing. "And I couldn't sleep because I've always been used to the bed facing north!" she complained.

Now I don't know if it's just me, but I've never even noticed which direction my bed faces. I notice if there is noise outside, if the bed itself is lumpy or hard, if the sheets have been washed in fabric softener which sometimes makes my legs itch, if the sheets are too thick... These are all things which can keep me awake at night. But the direction that I'm facing - that's not something which I've considered as essential for getting a good night's sleep. Is it me? Either I'm crazy or she is....

Speaking of compasses, I love Nurse Jackie's rather unusual moral compass (for a nurse that is). In Episode 1 she flushes a patient's ear down the toilet, bursts the tyre of a bike messenger, steals money, has sex for drugs, takes drugs and forges a form for organ donorship. I bet she doesn't know where north is either...

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