Archive for the ‘Englishness’ Category


September 6, 2011

1 )  English, duh.


2)  New Yorker.


3) Austrian, has lived in London “for years,” but likes to remind you that her children live “on the continent.”


4)  Londoner.


5)  New Yorker, duh.


6)  American.


7)  Ditto.


8 )  Another American.


9)  The Los Angeles variety of American.


10)  Englishman (ironically, a rather garrulous one).



August 28, 2011

I don’t confine my eavesdropping hobby to New York; I’ve collected some fine specimens in London and Los Angeles too. So I thought we could play a fun game called “Guess the Nationality of the Person Who Said That.” *


1 )  “It’s 13 degrees here and vile. Vile! I’ve never known an August like this! Ever!”

– man on cell phone, walking down street


2)  “Yo. I have a new obsession. They’re called flannel shirts. They’re fucking warm.”

– man on cell phone, psychologist’s waiting room


3)  “The price is nothing. If I love it, I have to have it!”

– elderly lady at focus group for high-end department store


4)  “When you get old you need access to hospitals and doctors and… (pausing for a moment, struggling to think of another necessity)… Shops.”

– elderly lady on bus, on why she won’t move to the suburbs


5)  “How you an Aries and you don’t like cheese?”

– one grocery store clerk to another


6)  “Die means you go to heaven and you feel better. And then you come back, right?”

– little girl to her father, at an art museum


7)  “I don’t want to die.”

– the same little girl


8 )  “Who cares about dying, just don’t throw up!”

– one airplane passenger to her neighbor, on a turbulent landing


9)  “I spent all Sunday shopping. I have nothing to wear on the plane.”

– one teenaged girl to another


10)  “Men are men, women are women. I respect them, but just shut up. Know what I mean?”

– cabbie to me, explaining his views on the sexes



* Answers will be revealed in subsequent post.


August 22, 2011

Tea puts the truth in stereotype.

The English drink it for breakfast, at tea time, after dinner, and in moments of emotional distress. (If you ever cry in front of an English person, they don’t offer you a tissue, they offer you a cup of tea.)

Everyone drinks tea. I once passed a burly construction worker who said to his ox of a friend, “Care for a cuppa tea?” *

It was strange. They looked masculine. For pete’s sake, they’d probably just laid down their jackhammers – and yet they were drinking tea. Tea, the beverage of delicate china and useless saucers and pinky fingers.

Tea is big here. I even read that the British Empire was built to satisfy the English taste for tea (and sugar and tobacco). Think about it: the English cultivated opium in India, then took it to China, where they “traded” it for the goods they craved – tea, and porcelain to drink it in.**

How the English became professional dope runners and somehow made it seem civilized, even romantic – the Orient, the Empire, women in white dresses playing croquet and sipping, yes, cups of tea – well, I don’t know how they did it.

But they did.



* They even have a name for the kind of tea that such men drink: “Builder’s tea,” which is strong tea with milk and sugar. “Normal” or “regular” tea is simply tea with milk. The only other thing they touch is Earl Grey. Propose a “vanilla tea” or “chai” to an English person and she’ll look at you as though you just offered a “banana-flavored coffee.”

** The Emperor objected; these were the Opium Wars. Which the British won.

Hirsute (a topic so important, I’m giving it an extra 50 words)

July 3, 2011

Like most Americans, I’m shocked when English people display anything less than impeccable taste. After all, England is where good taste comes from. I expect Saville Row tailoring, nice accents, and old wooden things. I expect restraint.

So when I’m confronted by bad English taste (see what Beatrice wore to the wedding; see all the fancy gold fences around Buckingham Palace; do Italians live there?; in fact, see just about anything royal) I assume it’s an aberration. An example of English eccentricity.

So it was with English men and their shirts.

The first time I was introduced to a stomach mole I had no desire to meet (you can see a lot through a gaping shirt button) I thought, Oh, poor man. He ran out of time to do laundry.

But then I noticed that most British men seem to wear buttondowns with nothing underneath. I started asking around and was informed that, indeed, undershirts are considered old-fashioned and stuffy.

Well. Different cultural standards, blah blah blah, but when I get an unasked-for glimpse of body hair, it’s kind of like seeing a woman’s thong poking out. I know it’s an accident, but it still seems like her mother didn’t raise her right.

Plus, without the undershirt as a guide, English men are left to guess how many buttons to leave unbuttoned at the neck. Sometimes they go for a chest-baring three. Which, honestly, is a look not even Italians can pull off.


June 19, 2011

Last week I had lunch at a deli in Mayfair – the kind of place that sells aubergine salad and jars of jam with handwritten labels; across the street from the Marc Jacobs store and the Marc by Marc Jacobs store; you get the idea.

The women next to me ordered Pumpkin and Sage soup. It arrived. They tasted it. Whereupon one of them raised her hand to hail the waitress.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “The soup is lovely, the flavour’s absolutely wonderful, but unfortunately… it’s a bit salty.”

The waitress apparently didn’t have the authority to deal with too-salty soup, so she left. Minutes later, the cook appeared.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I understand you don’t like the soup?”

The diner demurred. “It’s really very nice! Lovely flavour! I’m sorry, if it weren’t quite so salty…”

The customer apologized again, the cook apologized back, both customers again complimented the lovely but inedible soup, the cook offered chickpea soup instead, and just like that – after fifteen minutes of quiet waiting, face-saving niceness, and inexhaustible politness – the Affair of the Salty Soup was resolved.

One thing’s for sure. I do not have the patience to be English.


June 12, 2011


In this photo, Jane appears to be giving me a hug. Actually, she’s keeping me from falling down. When the picture was taken, I was so drunk that 80% of my cytoplasm had been replaced by Pinot Grigio. All because I’d had two whole glasses of wine.

So: I’m a lightweight. I can’t keep up with the English. I don’t try. Still, I’m convinced that drinking is what makes life in England so much more relaxed and carefree than life at home.

Drinking is part of the culture here. Maybe even most of the culture.

Drinking is what keeps England’s lights on after 5 pm. It’s the manna that sustains English sex lives.** It’s the cornerstone on which friendships are built.

When you meet for a Sunday pub lunch, you start in the early afternoon with a bottle of red. You order a Sunday roast. Then you just sit there, drinking and talking, talking and drinking, until nightfall.

No one has to run errands. No one has to head home to retile the bathroom floor. No one is driving anywhere at all.

It is totally unlike Sunday afternoon in America. It is wonderful.



* One more entry about drinking. After this, I promise I’ll stop.

** Of course, alcohol is the food of love everywhere. But England is such a reserved nation that without it, one fears the entire population might have awkwardly and quietly died out long ago.


June 12, 2011

My job in England started the normal way: with a visit to HR. They had me sign forms for Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs (somehow more romantic than the Internal Revenue Service) and explained benefits: vacation days, sick days, duvet days.

Um. “What’s a duvet day?”

The HR lady smiled brightly. “Unplanned days off. You know, when you don’t feel like getting out from under the duvet? A lot of people use them when they have a fuzzy head.” *

This was my first inkling that the British attitude toward drinking is different.

In England, you are never expected to outgrow getting drunk. Work mates going “down the pub” will linger for hours, without stopping first to eat. Women my size are capable of polishing off an entire bottle of wine. Plus whiskey. No wonder, then, that a hangover is a legitimate (and unembarrassing) excuse for last-minute cancellations.

I once heard a nutritionist – a nutritionist! – explain that you should avoid refined sugars because they stress the liver and “You want your liver in good shape so it can deal properly with Friday night.”

Toto, we’re not in California anymore.



* “Fuzzy head” is British understatement for “the kind of hangover that means you have to clean your toilet later.”

Case No. 2

May 30, 2011

Remember the un-brush-off guy?

Well, it’s not just dating where the English struggle with graceful refusals. They plain hate saying no.*

Their version: “I’d love to come to brunch, but I have a hen-do the evening before, and I’m staying overnight at the bride’s in Notting Hill, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to get home, change, and make it back to yours in time.”

My response: “Oh, it’s very casual, don’t worry about being late.”

Then: dawning realization that in England, I have the social skills of Rainman. The would-be guest wasn’t worried about tardiness. She was doing the English equivalent of “Oh, I’d love to, but I already have plans!”

I was lamenting about all this to my friend Aimee. She said, “You mean, in America, that’s all you have to say?” Yes. “How lovely. I spend so much time trying to think of excuses that sound good enough.”

Surprisingly, there is one circumstance where the English are actually okay with saying no: “Afraid I can’t make Saturday. There’s a work-do Friday, and I’ll have quite the fuzzy head.”

Yup. In England, an anticipated hangover is a legitmate excuse for a 30-year-old.



* Even on Facebook, an English party invitation will incur 12 Yesses, 47 Maybes, and not one No.

To an American, that’s just crazytown. How do you know how much beer to chill and sour cream’n’onion dip to make if your friends won’t give you an honest rsvp?


March 26, 2011

I was raised by an Anglo-American mother who says “Are you going to finish your cake?” when she means “Can I have a bite?” So I am not unfamiliar with the Indirect Method of Communication.

But the British take it to another level.

Case No.1

After a date with a posh young Englishman, I asked if he’d like to go out again. He replied by email, “I’m terribly sorry, but I have a friend coming for a two-week visit. He’s getting married soon and I’m afraid we’ll be painting the town red, on top of which work is simply mad, and we’re celebrating my step-mother’s sixtieth next month.”

Then he added, “I don’t mean to be giving you the brush off.”


Because up to that point, we were clear. (Step-mother’s birthday party? Really? Talk about a brush off.)

So why end by saying the exact opposite of what he means?

I asked my English friend David to decode. Apparently, by acknowledging the brush off while simultaneously denying that any such brush off occurred, the gentleman was saving us both from embarrassment. And even, according to David, being quite direct.

To which I can only make one reply.




* “Erm” is how English people spell “Um.” Isn’t that adorable?


December 22, 2010

Most Americans are in the habit of referring to “the English accent.” We might even “do” an English accent, just for fun. But we know that in fact, there’s no such thing as one single British accent.

Indeed, if we had to guess, we’d say that the English have developed at least four distinct accents: English, Scottish, Cockney, and Australian.

I love listening to the way people talk here. There seem to be as many British accents as there are British people. Everyone has a regional residue (north v south, etc. etc.) — plus a blush of class (working v middle v posh) — finished off with a dash of personal eccentricity (some people like to sound clipped, others prefer drawling; some adopt a bored monotone, others festoon their sentences with Dickensian flourishes of “lovely” and “horrid” and “utterly hideous.”)

Anyway, here are some real English people, telling you a bit about why they talk the way they do.


more david






And last but not least, all the way from Wales: