Last week I went to London to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans. I didn’t have any particular desire to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans, but I did – almost desperately – want to hear Geoff Dyer speak, and I did want to know what The School of Life’s secular sermons are like, so I travelled from the Cowley Road to Conway Hall early on a Sunday morning.
It was one of those lukewarm September days. I sat at the front of the hall, perhaps wanting to be noticed, to be (perceived as) bold. A woman in a red and blue military-style jacket (like a drum major’s uniform, perhaps, if I knew what a drum major’s uniform looked like, or even really what a drum major was) stood before us. She wanted us to sing; this really was a sermon, and there were hymns. She said she had changed a little bit of the first hymn – Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, lyrics printed in our pamphlets – and invited Ed, her small blond pianist, to play a few bars so that we could practice the modified verse.
We sang. It still sounded like a hymn, like an English hymn sung in an English church on a rainy English sunday. It had that hymn-rhythm; which is to say, no rhythm at all. I don’t know much about singing, but I’m pretty sure that the way the English sing their hymns makes virtually no sense unless you’ve grown up singing them that way.
After we sang, I felt good; singing in public always makes me feel this way, as if I have achieved some kind of victory (in preschool I was once admonished to the point of tears for mouthing the words to a song rather than singing them out loud). But there was something unnerving about the whole thing, too. There was something strange about this woman, in her drum major’s jacket, with her Shirley Temple curls and her peppy voice, imploring us to loosen up a little, shake our limbs a little. I did not want to shake my arms or my legs like a chicken; I certainly did not want to do so repeatedly, and I most certainly did not want have to pay the bald man sitting next to me a compliment, not because I didn’t think he was worthy of a compliment, but because the compliment would inevitably be forced, even if meant – I like your shirt, I like your blazer, you have a nice smile – and therefore quite meaningless. Moreover, the first thing that had popped into my head was, “I like your hair,” which was definitely not something you could say to a bald man you had never met before. So I just looked the other way; it was easy, I pretended I was on the tube, trying to avoid looking at the person across the aisle whose knees were touching mine.
And the bald man turned to the curly-haired man behind us and said: “I like your hair.” And the curly-haired man said to the bald man, “That’s a great shirt!” And it was a great shirt; I hadn’t noticed before, but it was a great shirt now that the curly-haired man had mentioned it.
Then Geoff Dyer – who, even though he makes frequent reference to being tall and thin, is much taller and thinner than you imagine he is – was on the stage, at the pulpit, preaching, or, rather, speaking. He sounded a little like he might be suffering from the onset or aftermath of a mild early Autumn cold; occasionally he paused to sip from a tall glass of water. He told some anecdotes, about Americans, about the British, about the time he went to Big Sur and stood in silence on a bluff overlooking a bank of fog so thick it obscured the sea, everything, and thought how peaceful it was until an American man appeared on the scene and boomed into the quiet: “Sure is peaceful, isn’t it!” I knew I’d remember that anecdote, not because it meant anything much but because I, too, have been to Big Sur and been impressed by the way the fog rolls in and covers the coast but allows you this God-like view over it, this view that makes you think that virtually anything could be going on below you but you are above it, on the sun-bleached hillsides, in the sun. Well, yes, I thought: that is my country.
But then, I don’t really know my own country. I’ve probably seen more of England – percentage-wise, at least – than I have of the USA.
Last summer, on our way to Toronto, we had a layover in Minneapolis, and so, for the first time in a long time, I was in my country – though of course I had never been there before, to Minneapolis, to anywhere near Minneapolis.
I passed through immigration. The officer, who looked about my age, did not seemed inclined to interrogate me, but neither did he seemed inclined to let me through without at least making an attempt to understand the apparently complicated circumstances under which I found myself now here, in our country but his city.
“So you live in the UK?” he said, flipping through passport pages, looking at faded stamps and expired visas.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you’re going to Canada.”
“Yes. For a wedding. But not mine,” I added. I laughed, he didn’t. Maybe he was thinking it was perfectly plausible that I was flying to Toronto via Minneapolis for my own wedding to an Englishman. For some reason I started to think, what would happen if I just made a run for it? Would they catch me? Would they detain me? Would I go to jail? How would I explain it?
“So you live in the UK and you’re going to Canada and you’re not staying in Minneapolis?” he summarized.
“Yes,” I said. And he stamped my US passport, and I was home, geographically if not emotionally.
Thirsty in the departures lounge, I bought a bottle of Aquafina water with two stray dollar bills in my wallet. It reminded me of being in high school, buying bottles of water from the vending machine outside the gym during the long, hot volleyball season, which always began in an Indian summer. We would sweat our way through two hours of scrimmages and sprints and inspirational speeches. I was 14 on 9/11 and I remember that afternoon, though we’d spent all day in front of television screens, which they’d produced as if by magic and hauled into all the classrooms, it was business as usual. Drills and sit-ups and bottles of Aquafina from the vending machine. Sometimes it was so hot that we would go across to the pool after practice and leap in. Then I’d spend the long drive home wet, my t-shirt stuck to my sports bra, my hair smelling of chlorine and perspiration.
So Minneapolis is not where I’m from, but in a way, it’s part of where I’m from. The truth is that when I say “my country”, what I really mean is “my parents’ house,” “the farm my best friend grew up on,” “the bit of Boston I used to live in,” “the other bit of Boston I used to live in.” All of these tiny, disconnected places, forming a patchwork map, my map. I love my map. I love those places. I feel patriotic about street corners, particular coves and hilltops, parks and benches and cafés and long winding roads. But I don’t know what Americans are like; I don’t know what America is like. I don’t know what to think of my country as a whole. I don’t even know how to see my country as a whole.
I guess the trouble with being an American abroad is that you never know where you stand. Everything depends on politics, and politics cannot be counted on.
In his sermon, Dyer alluded to a period – four or five years ago, when the pound was worth twice what the dollar was worth, when animosity towards George Bush was at a high – during which Americans were treated with a much chillier, more patronizing attitude. I remember that period. That was when I first came here. I was defensive, yes, but I always imagined that people looked at you a bit differently if you were American. It was polite in those days (it may still be polite, in fact) to ask if someone was Canadian if you discerned a North American accent. I remember an aggressive and insecure compére at a comedy show, mistaking my sarcasm for genuine insult, telling me I was just another one of these Americans, spending a few weeks here, pretending to know everything, and why didn’t I just go back to where I’d come from? And then, later, realizing his mistake, he was so apologetic (“the cult of the apology,” Dyer called it, this unmistakably British instinct – “the human equivalent of birdsong”) that I couldn’t help but feel some kind of perverse sympathy for him.
But here we are now, and things have changed, and authors are giving talks in praise of Americans. And in a few years, or a few weeks, something else will change, attitudes will shift, and I, who has not moved, will stand somewhere else.
Then there is the issue of friendliness. The American smile. Updike’s quip: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”. I started to think about this. As I thought, I realized that I was probably, even in that moment, quite happy to be in London on a sunny Sunday morning listening to one of my favorite authors dole out praise for my countrymen, scowling. I am nearly always scowling. When I work, when I sit, relaxed and reading or listening, my face contorts in a way that is comfortable for me but uncomfortable for everyone else; I’m often asked if I’m okay. Yes, of course I’m okay, I say, can’t you tell?
Needless to say, I don’t have an American smile. I was not invited to join the cult as a child, I missed the meetings where the mechanics of the smile were discussed and practiced until they became an instinct.
I used to work at a school in Oxford. About half of our adult students were Americans doing a semester abroad; the other half came from all over the world to study English. One of my many menial tasks was to print student photos onto ID cards. Even before you checked the files, you could always tell the Americans from the rest, especially the girls: they were the ones with shiny grins as big as the moon, wide eyes, flat hair, heads cocked at a flattering angle. They were not prettier than anyone else – very often the opposite – but they always gave the impression of being prettier than everyone else.
As I listened to Dyer speak about the charm of Americans, I wondered if maybe it wasn’t real charm, not always; maybe sometimes it was the illusion of charm, like those girls smiling up at me from their ID cards, pretending to be prettier than everyone else and therefore convincing me, convincing all of us, that they were.
Even I am charmed when I go back to the US; I am always amazed that shopkeepers want to have such long and involved conversations with me, that cashiers want to make eye contact with me, that the girl at the bank is so genuinely curious about my weekend plans. But I feel like I don’t know how to trick myself into being charming. I feel, frankly, like I’m not a very good American, with my scowl and my shyness and my sorries (I may not be part of the cult of the smile, but I am definitely part of the cult of the apology).
Lately, though I’ve been practicing being more American. I’ve been trying to accentuate my accent, for instance, or to raise my voice above a whisper in the pub. I suppose that the longer I’m here the more strongly I feel the compulsion to assert the fact that I’m from there, to solidify my standing as an outsider even while I feel increasingly like I am part of something.
After the sermon was over, after we sang a final hymn, I stood in line to waiting to ask Geoff Dyer to sign a book. I hate asking authors I love to sign books. I’m always hoping that, somehow, perhaps by looking deep into my eyes, they’ll discern that I’m special, that my appreciation for their work is special, that we could be friends, even. At the same time, I know it’s a pointless thing to do: I’m not trying to increase the value of my library, and I’m under no illusion that because an author has scribbled “to Miranda” on the title page, we have any kind of relationship.
But as I stood there before him, presenting my book and my nervous smile, I made a conscious effort to try to be more American than I might ordinarily be. I began to smile and to speak. I gushed about how much I liked his work. I said my name so quickly (perhaps, I hoped, so American-ly) that he had to ask me to repeat it. He signed my book. I said, “have a nice day!” And then I sped off with my heart thumping for no obvious reason, sure I’d made a fool of myself.
Later, waiting for the bus home, sipping a too-large chai latté like I used to do in college, the sun shining limply over Notting Hill, I forgot to care about whether or not I had made a fool of myself. I thought of this, by Jawaharlal Nehru: “But in my own country, also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.” I figured that really, the only country I could claim any ownership of was the one that’s made of memory.