A WELCOME MAT
you behave yourself,
NEW AMERICAN GRAFFITI?
the English will charm you
By CHUCK McFADDEN
From what you read in the papers, much of Europe regards
the United States under the Bush Administration as an arrogant,
naive bully. But if true, that attitude doesn't seem to
have permanently affected one-on-one encounters between visitors
and natives, at least in Britain. There, if an individual Yank
appears to be a person of good will, the natives seem to be happy
There are undoubtedly pockets of surliness around. Nonetheless,
during a recent visit to London, I saw demonstrated time after
time the inherent politeness of most Brits. They've been greeting
visitors for centuries, of course, and it shows.
It's not a question of truckling. My wife, Barbara, is
an outgoing soul who will chat up anyone. She promptly
got into intense and mutually satisfying political discussions
with every shopkeeper within hailing distance from London to
the Cotswolds, and routinely heard denunciations of the Bush
The shopkeepers told us that the military might of the United
States is such that whoever gets elected president over here
has a real effect on their lives over there. So they resent
it when American voters (or the U.S. Supreme Court) imposes on
them someone whose world view, they believe, is dangerous. Someone
such as George W.
"I'm just now getting over hating every Yank I see,"
admitted one gray-haired, grandmotherly type.
At a theater, I edged down a row of seated people only to discover
that I was disrupting everyone to reach seats in the middle of
the row that turned out not to belong to me. As I edged
back out again, profusely apologizing for my idiocy, I was repeatedly
forgiven. "It's all right--the play hasn't even started
yet," I was told in British accents. Can you imagine
that happening in New York?
On the way to see "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in the
West End, Barbara and I asked a group of young Brits for directions,
and were told "Come on, we're headed there, too. Come
with us." And off we went.
A few nights later, I was buying Barbara a glass of merlot at
a very loud and very crowded restaurant-bar when a young woman
seated at the bar with her boyfriend helped me sort through the
mystifying set of English coins in my palm to come up with the
required three pounds 95 pence. She was one of those women
who are so beautiful that it startles people, so I'd like to
think it was my devilishly handsome James Bond persona that prompted
her to lean in close and help me pick through the coins, but
the truth is it was sheer kindness on her part.
Even the pavements demonstrate thoughtfulness. In past
years, if you were a visitor to London for the first time, you
stood a fairly good chance of getting hit by a bus or something
when crossing the street. That's because you would look
carefully in the wrong direction before starting across. But
the London authorities long ago did something about that. They
painted "Look Left" and "Look Right" on the
pavement at street crossings so that foreigners won't get run
over by something coming from the opposite direction from what
they're used to at home.*
International tensions apart, some things never change. To
someone who hasn't been in England for a long, long time, one
of its everlasting charms is the delightful way public announcements
are phrased. Stepping out of the train onto the platform
in the Underground? "Mind the Gap!" says the
recorded voice. "Help Wanted"? No, no,
no. "Part time assistant required" says the sign
in the shop window. "Exit" signs? Of course
not. "Way Out" is the phrase in the Underground
that tells you that here is, well, the way out. Bus drivers
at a busy depot are cautioned not to back up without "rear
Kindness to animals is a well-known professed belief among the
English, but it was brought home to me by an ad in a major British
newspaper. Under the headline "Iraqi Animals in Crisis"
the ad asked for donations to treat Iraqi horses, cattle and
donkeys that have become ill or injured as a result of the fighting
Courtesy, of course, is a two-way street. American tourists
I observed on this theater tour were low-key, polite, knowledgeable
and good-humored enough to joke with the Brits about the temperature
of the beer. Admittedly, I was traveling with well-educated
people who were somewhat familiar with England, had been there
before (some of them many times) and knew their way around the
world. But in a week and a half of mingling with the Brits
and Yank visitors all across London and in other parts of England,
not once did I hear or see an American ask how much something
was worth "in real money." Not once did I hear
an American complain about how the British were too dumb to drive
on the proper side of the road.
The same relaxed attitude was present as well in the Americans
I observed during visits to Austria and Russia during the past
two years. For the most part, the old Ugly American stereotypes
were absent, or at least I didn't see any.
I'd like to think that notwithstanding European distaste for
the Bush Administration, Americans traveling overseas are, one
by one, quietly maintaining trans-Atlantic cordiality. A
stay of less than two weeks doesn't provide a real basis for
any conclusions, but it's a pretty thought.
* That happened to Winston Churchill, of all people,
back in the 20's when he was in New York for the beginning of
a lecture tour and stepped out of a cab. Accustomed to
the British traffic pattern, he looked the wrong way, took a
step, and Whomp! Landed in the hospital, he did. Of course,
Winston being Winston, he wrote an article about it--"My
American Misadventure"--and made a little money.
©2004 by Charles M.
McFadden. The McFadden caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel.
The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895
Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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