Having spent the last 18 years working as the London Correspondent for the New York Times, journalist Sarah Lyall recently returned home to the U.S. In yesterday’s Sunday Review, she wrote a piece entitled “Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome”, which serves as an eye-opening take on how the British capital looks to an expat who has immersed themselves in it for so long.
Even after 18 years, I never really knew where I stood with the English. Why did they keep apologizing? (Were they truly sorry?) Why were they so unenthusiastic about enthusiasm? Why was their Parliament full of classically educated grown-ups masquerading as unruly schoolchildren? Why did rain surprise them? Why were they still obsessed by the Nazis? Why were they so rude about Scotland and Wales, when they all belonged to the same, very small country? And — this was the hardest question of all — what lay beneath their default social style, an indecipherable mille-feuille of politeness, awkwardness, embarrassment, irony, self-deprecation, arrogance, defensiveness and deflective humor?
It’s a fascinating and often funny piece, in which Lyall talks not only of American conceptions about Britain, but of the reverse, too:
Britons admire and consume American culture, but feel threatened by and angry at its excesses and global dominance. They are both envious and suspicious of Americans’ ease and confidence in themselves. They want American approval but feel bad about seeking it.
As befits someone who has published a book titled The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, Lyall is also interested in Britain’s seemingly never-ending quest to pin down a modern cultural identity:
Many of the stories I covered had to do with the question Britons have asked themselves incessantly since their empire fell: Who are we, and what is our place in the world? It wasn’t until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last summer, with its music medleys and dancing nurses and quotes from Shakespeare and references to Mary Poppins and sly inclusion of the queen and depictions of the Industrial Revolution and compendiums of key moments in British television history, that the country seemed to have found some sort of answer.
It was a bold, ecstatic celebration of all sorts of things — individuality, creativity, quirkiness, sense of humor, playfulness, rebelliousness and competence in the face of potential chaos — and more than anything I have ever seen, it seemed to sum up what was great about Britain.
Even upon returning to New York, however – and considering the various things that had changed in her absence – a sliver of that indefinable yet unmistakable “Britishness” had clearly rubbed off on Lyall.
“Sorry, I said to a Metro-North conductor the other day, when I disrupted the swift completion of his progression through the train by asking what time we would get to my stop. “No problem,” he said, looking surprised at my apology, and so I apologized again, for apologizing.
It is enough to make your head spin.
The full article can be found at NYTimes.com, and is well worth a read. Its complimentary and yet at times slightly admonishing tone does much to encapsulate most Brits’ own feelings about the place…