I was thinking about the last time that I flew across the pond, I was in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport in London waiting for the announcement that our plane to Los Angeles was ready to be boarded. I had been discussing with my American girlfriend how much I dreaded, not only flying, but being surrounded by this many vacationing British people—what with their noisy, chattering offspring. I half-joked to her that the highlight of their two-week holiday to America was likely going to be the act of “queueing up” in the insufferably long lines at Disneyland, and then being completely delighted to meet other Brits in the same terminally neverending line. “Oh, you’re from England? So are we! Well fancy that.” One mother might exclaim to another, while standing in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
Yes, a genuine coincidence. Except that over eighty percent of the people waiting in the Pirates line consisted of traveling Brits. This would be in large part thanks to a British Airways saver special, which meant that flights from London to the U.S. were half-price for the month of April. This allowed British people that had never dared dream of visiting America a chance to fly across the Atlantic on the cheap.
When not standing in line at the “Happiest Place on Earth” they would spend their restaurant budgets in British-style pubs and eat American versions of English food. All the while complaining about how “the fish and chips isn’t as good as back home.” They’d meet other English people in America and make plans to get together with them that night (and every night) for dinner.
“Just like sheep. Why even bother leaving England,” I said. “Look, it’s not that I don’t like English people, it’s just that the ones who travel are so predictable and unadventurous, and they complain about every bloody little thing when they are abroad,” I said, poorly attempting to avoid what sounded like an “I hate all English people” stance.
My girlfriend Madeline was unimpressed. “You think American vacationers are ambassadors for their country? They are not,” she said. “Besides, at least English people are courteous. They might seem demanding but they are world famous for being polite.”
“That’s just not true,” I said, “Americans are just easily confused and fooled by a polite-sounding accent. Honestly.”
The flight’s departure had been put back an hour by dreadful weather, even by my home country’s standards. But then the sun finally peeped through the clouds offering relief from the freezing drizzle and fog. At which point, the delayed passengers broke into a spontaneous chorus of cheering and applause. This quickly turned into what could be best described as animated, British groaning en masse when they announced that our flight’s departure time had been put back yet another two hours. Apparently the airline officials had waited until the sun’s materialization to break the latest bad news, just in case we were getting our hopes up.
I turned to Madeline. “If the plane’s not taking off at the time that it’s supposed to, there’s probably a very good reason.” I’m a champion at stating the obvious. I continued preaching to the choir. “However, I think that if the airline was honest about why a two- hour delay was necessary, their customers would be a lot more appreciative of the dilemma.”
The uniformed airline employee behind the ticket counter was flustered and surrounded by angry travelers. Why don’t you just get on the intercom and tell them the truth, I thought.
“We’re sorry that Flight 931 to Los Angeles has been delayed. The pilot is concerned that the black ice on the runway might cause the jet to lose balance on takeoff—causing the plane to cartwheel and combust into a fireball, killing everyone on board.”
The irate passengers would all collectively gasp in shock, but be placated.
“Fair enough,” and, “Do what needs to be done,” some of them would appropriately respond. It’s not like someone’s going to stand up and say, “I think we should risk it.”
To compensate for the two-hour inconvenience, the airline gave all the passengers a gift voucher for a free breakfast at one of the airport’s cafés. English food is mocked across the globe, but English food at an airport? Good god. That didn’t really seem like a fair or appropriate compensation for being inconvenienced.
We stood patiently in line. Ahead of us, there was an English couple and their son, who appeared to be about twelve or thirteen. The Indian cafeteria worker—who at six- thirty in the morning could be excused for being half asleep—made the unforgivable mistake of giving the young boy an orange drink that was slightly shy of its thirst quenching potential. “Oi!—I want one that’s full!” yelled the boy. “Don’t rip me off, you bloody Paki.” We stood there in disbelief for a second. I was not completely sure of what I had just witnessed.
I turned to Madeline, eyes widened, with a look that said, “See. I told you. ”
I lowered my voice. “I’m going to say something.” She quickly shook her head as if to say, that this was not our fight. I think she felt sure that the boy’s parents would handle the situation appropriately using a two-pronged approach:
1) An apology to the startled and by now wide-awake airport employee. 2) A vigorous public reprimand aimed at their child for his racist outburst.
Neither prong came. Instead the parents shuffled their wooden trays along the breakfast assembly line silently, making sure that they weren’t the ones that were going to receive the shorted juice drink. “My God, they’re worse than their kid,” I whispered.
When it was my turn, I smiled at the Indian man and said, “It’s okay, you can give that one to me.” I then enunciated a loud, “THANK YOU,” which I hoped could be heard three people ahead of me. They didn’t turn and acknowledge that I was having a passive- aggressive swipe at their parenting skills. I said it again, as I felt sure that the parents needed to be aware of my overly-polite production of appreciation. “I WILL GLADLY HAVE THE LESS THAN FULL ORANGE JUICE, AND ONCE AGAIN, THANK YOU.”
The cafeteria worker looked at me nervously, probably aware of my grandstanding and was no doubt hoping to avoid being caught in the middle of an early morning maelstrom between me and the father of the boy. My girfriend looked a bit irritated that I was drawing attention to myself in such a manner, but I didn’t care.
We chose a table far enough away from the rude British family. Madeline said that she need to use the bathroom and left me to my own devices. I silently recounted the incident. As I buttered my toast I felt kind of, well, superior, I suppose, and assured
myself that there was no way that I could have possibly handled that situation any better. I was a champion of the oppressed.
When my girlfriend returned to the table she rejoined a man eating his scrambled eggs wearing a smug smile. She laughed. “You think you’re so clever don’t you?”
“Well, something needed to be said, the poor guy couldn’t really defend himself. He might have been fired if he’d given the kid what for.” I continued to eat as she weighed something that was on her mind. Apparently she couldn’t keep it to herself.
“So, while I was in the restroom I overheard a couple of American women who were eating breakfast while we were in line. They saw the whole thing go down.”
“Oh. Singing my praises were they?”
“Not quite. I think that they were New Yorkers. They hoped that the rude Englishman who kept loudly thanking the worker for his orange juice wouldn’t be on their flight, and if he was, that they wouldn’t have to sit anywhere near him.” I shifted nervously in my seat.
“Did you defend me at least?”
“No, I was in the stall; they couldn’t see me. One of them went on to suggest that maybe you had some genuine mental problems and that perhaps they were being unkind. That’s when I wanted to chime in and agree with them.”
I mock-laughed. This was impossible to conceive. “You’re making this up.”
“No. I’m really not,” she laughed. “I guess you were wrong after all; not all Americans are confused by a polite sounding accent.”
I’m flying back to London in two weeks; it’s my first trip home since the incident at Heathrow ten years earlier. I’m nervous to be around my people again. They’ll probably think I’ve become the quintessential “fat American.” In fact I’m sure of it—even though I haven’t. “You sound like a bloody yank,” they’ll say—even though I don’t.
The English are funny, sarcastic, and can be bitterly cruel. Has California softened me up too much? Will I be able to keep up with the scathing jibes and the fast-paced wit? Does it matter? No, not really, because whatever the awful things that my countrymen will say to me upon my return, I’m sure it will all be said in a most polite-sounding accent.