by Ruth Crossman
“I don’t know how things work in America, but I’m sorry, you’re not going to find a single bank in London open on a Saturday.”
I was standing in front of the Willesden Green Tube Station with all of my earthly possessions in a pile in front of me, on the phone with the manager of London Accomodation. Five minutes earlier, her Australian secretary had assured me that there was an HSBC in Tottenham Court which was open on Saturday, and so if I was willing to make the schlep I could go there and deposit my meager severance packet. But Lady Posh had a point to prove and I was in no mood to argue. I had just been sacked from my job at an EFL summer camp after an unfortunate incident involving a bomb scare at a national monument, and I was desperate for a room. I just sighed and said that in that case, I would be paying half the deposit in cash and putting the other half on my nearly-maxed American Visa card. I had gotten used to acquiescing to the Brits, especially when I heard the phrase “I don’t know how things work in America, but here in England…”
I had been the token American at the summer camp, and had begun to wonder if “take the piss out of the Yankee” was some kind of national sport. The string of questions and comments was endless-“why do you smile so much?” “why do you say like all the time?” “why did Bush get re-elected if so many of you voted for Kerry?” At first, I had tried to play the role of the cultural translator. But after a while I just started staring my tormentors down and fixing them with a grim smirk. That usually shut them up. At least in Westonbirt, I had been gainfully employed and given free room and board. London, as I was soon to find out, would be a whole different story.
Camus once compared the concentric canals of Amsterdam to the circles of hell, and I began to feel much the same way about the Tube zones in the Big Smoke. A city full of immigrants rubbing against horrified locals, each group of foreigners occupied their own level. The Desis ran the off-licenses and sold the cell phones. The Poles unclogged the toilets. The French waited tables and ran the kitchens. But the most ironic level was reserved for the native speakers-the Aussies, the Kiwis, and the Yankees. The others were there either out of dire economic need or a desire to learn the language. Our reason for coming could usually be summed up in two words-“pound sterling.” We were the paper pushers, the petty bureaucrats, or, in my case, the substitute teachers. English culture has a strong streak of xenophobia to it, but the English seemed to reserve a special brand of contempt for the Americans. I remember explaining to a Polish friend of mine that while the Londoners seemed to resent the foreign influx, my case was rather special. They might feel guilty for the misery their empire had brought to India and Pakistan. They might pity the Poles because of the history of their country. They might look down on the Aussies and Kiwis, but they saw them as brothers in the commonwealth, bastard children of the Queen Mum. For the Americans, they had not a shred of sympathy. I saw a definite glitter in the eyes of my landlords and employers when they realized I needed something from them. So, Yankee, the tables have turned. If you want my money, if you want my flat, be prepared to get on your knees and beg for it. And I did.
I spent a miserable four weeks fighting for survival in London before I gave up. I had a free apartment and a cushy teaching job waiting for me in Slovakia in mid-September, so in the last week of August I scraped together all the money I had left, bought a one way ticket to Bratislava, and made a call to my new boss. I fell in love with Slovakia the minute the plane touched down. The people were warm hearted, they were loud and flashy, and they were emotionally demonstrative, like the Americans. Despite the language barrier, I felt a hundred times more comfortable with the Slovaks than I had with the English.
But Britannia gave me one last parting shot. I was in a hostel, preparing to move into my new apartment, when two English girls with the kind of posh London accent that sets my teeth on edge walked into the room.
“So how long have you been here?”
I could have pretended I didn’t speak English, but I decided to be civil.
“About a week.”
“It’s a bit of a dive, don’t you think?”
“You mean the hostel?”
“No, the city. It’s really a mess, isn’t it? So dirty and ugly. Not like Vienna.”
My gut reaction was to slap them across the face and tell them to home if they hated it so much, but I bit my tongue and chose my words carefully.
“You know, the thing about Bratislava is that the people are nice. The same cannot be said for London.”
And with that, I grabbed my backpack and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind me like an uncouth Yankee.
Ruth Crossman is a free lance writer and English teacher currently based out of Bratislava, Slovakia. Her interests include language acquisition, travel, and international politics.