The Lonely American in England

18 Feb
Customers enjoying afternoon tea

My idea of England: customers having a nice spot of tea, probably whilst rereading Winnie the Pooh or Beowulf. (from 1942, Lyons Tea House, London, Wikimedia Commons)

I was the most alone during my year abroad in England. My romantic ideas of England involved tea cozies and bookish people—my kind of people. I thought that because I had read so many books about the Sceptred Isle, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf (old cliché) but especially Victorian novels, that I would find an echo of that England when I got there. It’s true,  I did find tea. And eventually I found some friends—one of them still an extremely dear friend today—but I also found a shocking amount of prejudice against Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand perfectly well that Americans can act like fools abroad. I cringed whenever I heard a loud American voice demanding better service or complaining about the admittedly dismal food. And I certainly found England a fascinating country with all kinds of people. When I took the quaint trains with their separate compartments,  I would be amazed by the beauty of the countryside. But although it was a beautiful (sometimes) and even magical (occasionally) country, in another place, it was not at all magical. British people were not “smarter” than Americans as far as I could tell. My classes were not any more challenging. If anything, the British students seemed far more passive than the American ones—perhaps because, especially at that time, British students paid far less for their education than Americans did for theirs. University was only for three years, and students had to leap right into their majors without having a chance to noodle around for a couple of years before settling down to theirs. I have to say I thought the American system was better in this way.

One of the difficult things about living in England, especially at that time, was that the particular form that liberalism took (and I myself am a liberal, which made it all the more painful) was just perfect for treating Americans with the kind of contempt and prejudice that people of a liberal temperament are supposed to abjure, but no one actually does. People would say, “Are you from the part of America that’s near Canada? Because I can’t stand Americans,” or (from a teacher): Next week we start reading Gawain and the Green Knight. Americans can read it in translation.” While not wishing to be an apologist for my native land and its many deep sins (many of which happened under English rule, let’s face it), I began to get disgusted with many Britons’ highly elastic sense of time. In arguments in pubs, people who would hear my accent would practically leap over tables to start asking me about slavery, which to their eyes ended about three years ago, while taking no responsibility for the massive clusterf***** of their adventures in imperialism which ended, in what, 1960 (Nigeria?). I had no desire to get into debates with a crowd of nationalists who thought that they were nothing of the sort—on their turf. But I wouldn’t back away, either, because that’s not how I roll. I was not going to say America was better and I wasn’t going to say it was worse. The longer I lived in England, the more I felt as if places are places and people are people. You can meet idiots in a castle and geniuses in a council flat, slum, suburban development, what have you.  And if you meet me, you’ll find a sharp-tongued, well-informed, stubborn hands on hips arguer, and I will probably know the answer better than the person I’m arguing with. Not that it matters sometimes. d

However, on some level, the constant assault of being condescended to on the one hand for coming from a country of “stupid” people and on the other for coming from a country of “ingenious imperialists,” wore me down. I never knew where the next attack was coming from—the teacher who wanted the American point of view on something incredibly awkward or the stranger on the train—made me feel awkward and tongue-tied.

I developed a terrible insomnia. Every night, I would be up until three, four, or five o’clock at night, wasting the expensive electricity (to my flatmates’ bitter complaints), reading novels, writing in my journal, praying for sleep, feeling as if I were in the wrong place. I was geographically dislocated by 3,000 miles from the right place. Oddly, I had lived in California the summer before and felt the same way. I can’t blame this on the English in any way. It was just geography.

Ironically, the only book that reflected this intense sense of loneliness that I ever read was an English one—Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant Villette.

Writing Prompt: When did you feel the most lonely?

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One Response to “The Lonely American in England”

  1. Tom Schiller February 18, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    Sandy, when were you in Britain? And where? I lived in Britain for five years in the 1980s (1984-89). I had few illusions, so there wasn’t much to shatter. I also spent most of my time there in Scotland (Aberdeen), which was more relaxed vis-à-vis attitudes toward the US. (They also drank more…)

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