Hello London, and Goodbye
I arrived in London on the red-eye and took the Piccadilly line from Heathrow to the New Caledonian tube stop. From there I wheeled my luggage through the streets of London. My brother, who lived in London and was expecting me, would likely not be up yet. I gave a whistle when I got to his place and he popped his groggy head out of the window. Brunch, a long nap and an all-night party would follow later that day. I didn’t think much of the deejay at the party, and neither did one of my fellow partiers, the comic and writer Stephen Merchant, who nevertheless proceeded in his gawky hop, as did others. Another notable feature of the party was a false fire alarm, the first of several during this trip. The fire brigade showed up, and to my foreign unfamiliar eyes their helmets were bizarre space opera. This is probably universally true for fire brigades. One party-goer found these brave men irresistible, and attached herself in a swoon to the shoulders of perhaps the captain as he strolled around in lackadaisical inspection.
The next day I slept in and then took an interminable bus ride to my rented room in South London.
The reason I was in London if I haven’t explained well enough- I was to undergo training as an English teacher. From the web-site of my school: “The CELTA Course is an introductory teacher training programme for candidates who have little or no previous English language teaching experience or who have substantial teaching practice but lack a recognised qualification”. I had never taught before and was on a gambit to find a way to make a living during the horrible jobs situation back in the states. Teaching had always seemed in the cards for me, but I had always been distracted, you might say, by what was otherwise going on in my life. Now, with nowhere else to turn, my attention had sharpened. We began teaching the second day while we were being trained, – our students from all over the world, drawn to London. I was the only American in our group- there were two on staff at the school, but no other American teacher trainees throughout the entire program. Often at the beginning I was asked why I had come to London. Wasn’t there training available in the States? Yes of course, but I wouldn’t have saved any money, and I wouldn’t have been in London. Why wouldn’t I want to be there? A fellow student, a Russian, seemed to be giving me a hard time on this point. When I discovered that he grew up in Siberia I was awestruck and insisted on shaking his hand. He was disgusted. “You Americans are so easily amused”. Apparently no American could resist wanting to shake his hand when hearing of his origins. Everyone around the table was equally perplexed by this, not understanding that in America, Siberia was not so much an area on the map as an epic concept. Maybe it was to the Americans to fascinate on and glorify the frozen steppes of exile and punishment, inhabited only by prisoners and “the horde”. He was clearly an Ivan russkiye, not a descendant of Genghis Khan- perhaps he was of the GULAG, descended from criminals or dissidents, or those presumed to be. His education and caloric intake however suggested mineral exploiters. “Out on the tundra- riding like thundah” was a ditty a friend of mine composed about a horse-devoted barn girl we knew, a small example of the myth-making abilities of Stalin’s plains of relocation- Siberia.
I found ruminations such as these inevitably clunky but endlessly fascinating. I had never met so many people from so many parts of the world- I had to be somewhat comfortable with the notion of myself as a bumbling naïf, a bumpkin. It’s true enough, but potentially unsettling. I didn’t mind terribly and I couldn’t afford to. I at times flaunted my ignorance, blandly asking my friend from Crete if she had ever been to Lesbos-“Yes, and it was such an interesting experience” she teased. “Tell me more about Singapore” I asked my other friend- as I was aware that I more or less associated a Chinese Junk and a caricature of a “slant-eyed lady” in a long slit dress winking at a sailor with Singapore until fairly recently- my information gleaned from the drink on the placemat next to the Mai Tai and the Zombie. The lease was up on such provincialism- overdue from the start of course. The English, well, they talked different! They spoke of Americur, Obamer, and drunkenness in Barley. I imagined going to Barley with John Barleycorn and drinking up, but why were there always so many Australians in these stories? Could they mean Bali, Indonesia? Truly an intruding “r” is easy enough to get accustomed to on occasion. It was really the same language, just used differently. Only once did I encounter what I took to be frank ill will- a cranky woman bus-driver hurled “do you speak English!” when I said “What?” too many times to her. London, one of the capitals of the world, is an odd model of diversity. Is there a true Englishman? Of course, yes, but when you blink and look again, it isn’t so clear. This question was thrown into political relief during my stay when the head of the far-right British National Party was featured on the BBC’s topical debate program, Question Time. Holocaust denier and former National Front organizer Nick Griffin, the Chairman of the BNP was simultaneously given a platform of legitimacy and a public tongue flogging. To some, he was shown to be quite “slippery and indeed repugnant”. Others felt that the guy was piled upon and gained sympathy for him and his party. He indignantly described his vision of “indigenous” Britons swarmed by the immigrants now under policy debate. A British Pakistani Baroness no less soundly put him in his place to the satisfaction of many. She of the Conservative Party, the Whigs! My brother, however, was intrigued by this concept of the white indigene. “Don’t be seduced,” I said, “it’s clearly nonsense”. The whites of course chased shorter naked people off this Island, I asserted to him, with no clear grasp of the facts myself. “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin portrays a recurring motif in history of course- conquest at the hands of Vikings. Immigrants conquering Britain, to make it white! “Come on, you know- ‘We come from the land of the ice and the snow’- ‘Hammer of the Gods’- and all that”. Sources outside of mythical hard rock, such as scientists, say that in the distant ice age Europeans wandered by foot over what has also served as a moat. Now you can ride a train through the English Channel. At some point along came the Romans, the French, and then the stiff upper lip. One legacy of England’s, The British Empire, forged the avenues that now drew back folks. Their Empire partially collapsed, the British carried on, leaving Americans to be the new imperialists. I have no idea how many expected me to embody this.
Ironically, ‘exceptionalism’ is built into the American psyche, and following suit, I sought to be treated as an exception. I am somewhat of an eccentric in my own country was my thinking, so I hoped my friends from around the world would cut me some slack as I nevertheless became a de facto ambassador of Americanism. Americans, as the supposed new masters of the world, were really just running amok, masters of nothing, other than their cultural exports of music, films and television. So the world loves us, and they hate us. The best place to be of course is where it’s not all about us. That’s what I was looking for at least, but I didn’t exactly want to leave myself behind either. It’s an odd place to be actually. I don’t really want to pretend to be anyone other than who I am, but why should anyone have to figure out who that is? My speech reveals me to be an American, and I can brag about my intimate connections to the HBO series The Wire, for instance. On the one hand, The Wire is considered by many to be the best television series ever made, but on the other hand, what does it show? How a city built on slavery is a sociopolitical dystopia? That Baltimore, as its creator put it, ultimately compromises the individual through his or her ties to whatever institution keeps them afloat? If Baltimore is one of the coolest things we have to offer the world, what does that say about us? Plenty of Americans are in love with their malls and chain restaurants, another one of our gifts to the world, but it’s not for me. I’m more fond of the crazies, like Edgar Allan Poe, and old things in general. Our glory is not altogether in the past either, consider the iPhone for example- who doesn’t love or covet this gizmo? Of course The Wire and the iPhone were ultimately intensively collaborative efforts, whose true history would no doubt reveal the contributions of many nationalities. All the better I say that America rule merely by being the world rather than conspiracy and plot.
My brother, when confronted with anything that would provoke self consciousness of our national heritage, usually wants to offer a staunch blanket denouncement/outrage/apology at the Bush years – I saw this ripple through him when we were hanging with a couple of his friends from Germany, his roommate Sven and his co-worker Dennis, both architects. I diverted the seriousness of this effort by asking Sven if he remembered the Angela Merkel, George Bush incident. This tender anecdote illustrates perfectly well the folly of tension between Germans and Americans. To emphasize the fellowship of our countries I recalled the G8 Summit in July 2006 when George Bush graciously and without invitation relieved the strained shoulder muscles of fellow world leader and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Sven guffawed: “I actually miss that guy. I know it’s not correct but he would frequently make me laugh. He was just so…I don’t know, out there”. Dennis chimed in, “Didn’t he have that thing with the choking on the pretzel?” This happened in 2002. “It kind of humanized him,“ I admitted, “He said the pretzel didn’t seem to go down right, the next thing he knew he was on the floor.” About the only thing he ever said that I liked is when he told everyone “I hit the deck” about his choking/fainting episode. “Ah- but what about the elder Bush in Japan?” I reminded them. “Didn’t he simultaneously vomit and have diarrhea on the Japanese Prime Minister?” Of course, the Germans have their national shame. I am speaking of course of the one feature of the German experience that holds endless fascination for people from the world over. Well it’s not the first or the second Reich, to be sure. Our German friends let out a collective sigh of exasperation. “I tell you I never hear the end of it,” says Sven. “Take Merkel for instance,” he says, “I’m actually not a supporter of hers, but she is absolutely not a Nazi at all. Nevertheless, the British papers are ridiculous. She was out walking and she waved at her dog.” He sticks his hand up in a Queen Elizabeth wave to demonstrate. “The headline the next day was something about Sieg Heiling- very playful, because she waved at her dog. Everything is Nazi Nazi Nazi” “I know, everything is Nazi,” said Dennis. He went on “Like what is wrong with Thomas. Every time we talk about anything he brings it up. I thought we had completely exhausted the topic but then we went out to lunch with the Japanese team. Before I knew it we were talking about the Axis. He doesn’t understand that I am not serious about everything.” “The other thing the British don’t want you to know is that the Windsors are all German” Sven went on, “They just took the name of that castle because supposedly they liked it but the real reason was that it was becoming too unpopular in those days to be German. Some plane from Germany was bombing London and it was the same name as the Royal family. I can’t recall all the ins and outs but look it up- it’s all true. Incidentally practically all the Royals in that war were cousins”. At this point I became excited to talk about Gloria, Princess of Thurn und Taxis, who I referred to as “that crazy German princess,” though I couldn’t actually remember her name, try as I might. Sven and Dennis (who was actually an Austrian) denied that there was any royalty anymore in Germany. “Yes, of course” I said “ but there used to be and some are still alive, and some of them quite rich,” but I couldn’t remember her name so we had to drop it. I was just grateful I had gotten through an enthusiastic discussion of Inglorious Basterds with those two without stumbling horribly. My brother blandly stated that the supposed Nazi obsessor was actually just a history buff that would respond with equal fervor to any period under discussion. It was clear that Dennis and Sven were not buying this explanation for a second, but they let it go, and we drifted into silence, and then whatever greeted us further down the road.
One of my favorite moments in my trip came later in the day when, on our country jaunt out to see Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral and a few other spots, we had stopped at an old inn to take in some Sunday roast, ale, fish and chips and the like. A very short ruddy man walked up to our table and asked us how everything was and whether we needed anything. This was a very old inn that had made an appearance supposedly in a Dickens novel. Quite taken, I exclaimed to my friends, “why that must have been the owner of the inn!” With a bored expression in an unrushed manner, Dennis countered while buttering a roll, “maybe he was just a curious customer?”
The training in my CELTA program was well organized and disarmingly difficult. It was also humbling in that I was clearly not in the top third in my performance as a teacher. As fascinating as London and England might sound, my nose was mostly to the grindstone. This was actually very valuable to me, to experience London as a commuter and a very busy person who actually lived there, albeit for a fairly short time.
I had ideas about staying but lacked the funds to just cast about for work. In the absence of a spectacular job offer, my mission was pretty clearly defined- return to Philadelphia to practice acupuncture for a short period, volunteer as a teacher, and clear the deck so as to best be prepared for any adventure that might await me, such as the high seas of ESL.
My voice collapsed during my class’s celebratory banquet at a Thai restaurant. I was to return to Philly in this overtly changed manner, just a sign that I was once again no longer quite myself anymore.