Want to know the most-commonly remarked statement you make when I'm 'on vacation', my American cousins? No? I will tell you regardless.
“Chicks must go mad for your accent.”
(You don't really say 'chicks' but I thought the word more American than 'women' or 'birds'.)
Alas, it's not only the female huddled masses that are driven wild by my rich vowel sounds. All you Americans love my accent. Verily, it's like catnip. Sadly, a particularly platonic catnip. With every hit, my sexual inadequacy becomes more oppressive. If only I didn’t possess such a hideous face.
I often travel to America (waiting for the day my accent finally works a fruity angle) and not through business. As a teacher, my opportunities to travel with work extend no farther than the Thames Barrier or British Museum. And, yes, the Mummies are terrific.
But I am observant. When abroad, the important details are those you notice only after visiting a country more than once. America! Witness your cut-away doors to toilet cubicles, your awkwardly-sized newspapers, the way ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ is so casually employed. It’s an DVT-inducing eight hour flight from my London (England) and although we share a language (fanny/pants confusion notwithstanding), a visit to Stateside is far more alienating than holidaying in France, Germany or Russia. It’s the details, yes, but it’s far more than this: it’s the conversation on trains.
I hear your protestations. You’ve read all this before or, more likely, heard it spat from hoary stand-ups. I’m sure a shared US/UK cultural truth is that when a comic has run out of hysterical comparisons between men and women, he’ll move to juxtaposing New York and London. New Yorkers are rude! Londoners like drinking! Hell, even the early-20th century's answer to Ricky Gervais, George Bernard Shaw, made his ‘two nations separated by a common language’ gag.
I don’t want to write about the inequality of portion sizes. I don’t want to talk pizza dough. I don’t even want to describe the time a Texan couple accosted my girlfriend and me in Bloomingdale’s and asked if we’d ever met the Queen. No. I want to write about the most profound difference, one that’s never mentioned and one that pulls me back to the States – the conversations on public transport.
Although I don’t subscribe to the tick-box form of travelling that my Facebook friends promote with their alphabetically-sorted photo albums, I know that I should soon visit Brazil or sub-Saharan Africa. I know that I'm missing out. A work colleague recently visited Iran. She claimed the holiday ‘life enhancing’. She possessed a faraway look in her eyes that meant I believed her. I could travel on the underground (or metro or subway or whatever I’m supposed to call subterranean transport in the States) in Rio or Tehran but to what end? Sure, I’ll reach my destination but by speaking no Portuguese or Persian, I’ll experience no joy in the journey. I may as well be in London, travelling silently between North Greenwich and Green Park.
Is it our natural reticence that sees us Brits sit mute in the underground carriages? Are we really 'naturally reticent'? What does this mean when applied to a nation? Our youth aren't 'naturally reticent'; they're always shouting with their mobile phones and hoodies. Recently, I saw a woman lean across the aisle to ask a fellow commuter where she’d bought her bag.The interviewee looked startled. She gabbled ‘Topshop’, and then made an ostentatious show of inserting earphones. The whole carriage winced in acknowledgment of the social faux pas. It’s a cliché, it’s a stereotype, but I’m living this every time I travel into town for afternoon tea. It’s real, America.
But not so for you.
Taking an upstate train from Manhattan, I thought that I’d been accosted by a fellow with mental health problems when my neighbouring passenger turned, having secured his briefcase, offered his hand and asked what I did. At the very least, I expected him to be selling something. I was wrong. We spent twenty minutes discussing Edgar Allan Poe. And it felt ... natural.
I have spoken of teaching on a suburban commuter train in Chicago. I have explained the difference between the British accent and the Australian accent on the Hollywood subway. In Milwaukee, I angered a man by telling him I preferred English beer. The one place in which I sat in English silence was the ferry between Hyannis Port and Nantucket. Having walked around the boat, it became clear why this was – it was tourist season and there were very few Americans onboard.
Your national chattiness doesn’t always create positive situations. On a horrific flight from London to LA, myself, a friend and a pretty health worker from San Francisco were the only three in our section of the cabin who weren’t teenagers from a rough school in Central England. Her natural loquaciousness was charming. I abandoned my friend, Clive, to picking his nails and watching his onboard entertainment. Having grown up British, the attention, the questions, that this girl offered could mean only one thing – she wanted access to my trousers (pants). Alas, I was wrong. She was only being friendly. She was only doing what one was meant to do during long journeys – making conversation.
I think the scale of American cities can make it easy to feel lost and insignificant. Such disconnection from the urban landscape is remedied by social interaction – conversation. The sooner that us Brits realise this, the better. I shall continue to holiday in America. I shall continue to shun car hire. Amtrak: if I speak loudly enough, often enough, there waits conversation.