I used to like talking to strangers. Sometimes I even initiated it, but in London it’s taboo, and there’s good reason. If a stranger talks to you here, most likely they are a nutter or a snob, a maladjust or charity mugger. If you attempt to talk to anyone, regardless of your acceptable motives, you will be met with suspicion and hostility, or right out blanked.
But, you see, even if you’ve been broken of this social habit, strangers might still talk to you. And therein lies the chaffing discomfort of say, sitting in a tiny coffee house in Covent Garden where they seat you with strangers.
I knew she was trouble when this woman went to browse the counter and insisted I tell anyone attempting to queue that she was behind my friend and I. I smiled and nodded, an inept defense I use in the face of most irrational requests.
I had been really looking forward to the coffee, and a nice chat with my friend, when who should they seat with us but this woman. She greeted us as if we should have expected her presence and began by chatting with my friend. I didn’t want to talk to someone new, I wasn’t in the mood. And, as the rule stands, most people who will talk to you out of nowhere in London will eventually make you wish they didn’t.
She was in a sleeveless black turtleneck. But no one should really be blamed for sartorial choices, even if they also involve a garish, beaded collar of the kind we would buy as teenagers from the belly-dancer selection at Cost Plus Imports. She asked me where I was from– this never ends well. Once someone hears you are from California, you must suffer their myriad misconceptions. Everyone loves American teevee and movies, they just hate Americans. Her disappointment was palpable, “So you are American. If you left California, there must be something wrong with you.”
“I left during the Bush years.” This is usually enough for most prying people. She rattles off her long history– born in Russia, grew up in Poland and now she travels around Europe. She says she has never been to America but it is obvious by reading the papers that most Americans are stupid.
Everyone thinks Americans don’t travel abroad because they are too self-absorbed, but could it be that they know they aren’t really welcome? I said, “Hating Americans didn’t become fashionable under Bush. It’s an older prejudice.”
“We don’t hate you!” “We” is presumably everyone else who watches American movies but has never been to the US. “It must be better for you now that Obama is in office.”
And then she asked me, “What do you do?” which is a question I hate, I realized she was either staring at my breasts or my pentagram necklace; its a toss up. She had already given my friend and I her business card which described her as a director. If living in Los Angeles as taught me anything, its that directors don’t go around giving strangers their business cards. I have to forgive her that. London makes people desperate– for more space, more money, more decency and kindness.
What do you do? It’s a question I’ve always disliked. In LA I told people I was a homemaker to avoid the inevitable professional grilling that came with announcing yourself as a writer. Why not ask people what their favourite paintings are at the Tate or the last meal they really loved? Or, why ask a stranger anything at all?
I made the old mistake of announcing myself as a writer, and she asked me what I wrote– poetry, a novel searching for a publisher. Now I’ve exposed myself, stupidly. I should have instead asked her what she directed. That would have been polite. But I found the ugly American in me just didn’t care. She insisted on retelling a garbled version of something she’d read in the papers– an unknown writer from a council estate has started a bidding war of six figures for his childhood memoirs of privation.
She asks me if I miss America and when I say that distance has made me appreciate Americans and how good most of them are, and how what one sees in movies is not what America is, and even a nation’s government does not define its people, though it might damn them. She of all people should know this, I think to myself. She replies, “Who is the governor of your state?” as if she has just moved a chess piece and declared a check-mate.
“Schwarzenegger.” But it’s not my state anymore, and neither is Londinium.
“A movie actor. Exactly.” She smiles, satisfied.