so last night i went to this garden party in notting hill.
(full disclosure: just prior to leaving, i was stricken with anxiety about going and then decided not to go and then discovered that, in the kerfuffle of leaving, i'd forgotten my key and, as the keymaster wasn't able to come until well after 9 to let me back in the flat, i had no choice but to go. and so THEN i went. things are seldom so simple as they can be made to sound...)
this was my inaugural appearance at the writers group here. as you may recall, the apex of my experience of the writers group in the US was running arm-in-arm with kitty kelley through the halls of the national press club trying to find the bar (did i ever write about that??). so my standards are maybe a tad high.
things that are becoming increasingly clear as i live in the UK:
(1) i am, surprisingly often, the only american in the room. at which point i become The American.
in the english department at school, this means every mention of 'oh i've not read [insert random book title] by [insert random american author's name]' or 'i've only had one american lit course at uni' is followed by a rush of apologies, as though i, as the representative of The American People, might take offense.
at the writers group, this meant that i had to answer the question 'how did ever you manage to get in our club?!' except, this question didn't arise until a solid 10-15 minutes of conversation, because...
(2) i am currently passing as so many things!!! someone younger, someone from some vaguely european other country, someone from every region of america that is not the south.
the age thing, i'll admit, is deeply flattering and has made me eternally grateful for having begun using pond's moisturizer at the age of 20. that, when talking about things like the OJ simpson trial, people assume that is something i will have been too young to even remember when, in reality, i was, at the time, 14.
the vaguely european other country business is just plain weird. where do they think i am from?? i need to have the wherewithal to actually ask this next time. as it is, i'm just so thrown by the fact that it has taken my interlocutors 15+ minutes to ascertain that my incredibly obvious american accent is indicative of my being from america that i've got nothing beyond an 'um... yeah.'
9 times out of 10 this leads into the statement 'well, you're not from some place with a big accent, like the south.' whereupon i say, 'why, yes, i am.'
this begs two questions: (1) what do i sound like? and (2) what do the british expect americans to be like? as for the first, i've no idea, but the second, unfortunately, i think i do.
i got to the garden party fashionably late, at which point, i hoped, everyone would have been drinking and i could blow in with minimal awkward. having honed my skills at numerous maph social hours, networking events, and parties, and at various school functions where i didn't know anyone over the last few months, i fancied i could do the usual bit of standing near a group of people and slowly ease my way in.
sadly, i do not know that schmoozing works that way in britain. because when i went up to a group of people, they immediately fell silent and looked at me expectantly. and so i had to introduce myself and shake the hand of everyone, at which point they continued to look at me expectantly, as though i were meant to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation i had just so clearly interrupted.
a flicker of skepticism flamed in the eye of the woman next me- so famous that, when shaking my hand, she had not given her name because i presumably already knew it otherwise why would i have elbowed my way into this conversation were it not to be nearer to her. (i didn't know and still don't.)
i worry this is who we are seen to be. intruders, people who elbow their way in.
a woman i met is writing a children's book about school picture day. a writer advised her that she needed to appeal to the mothers of the kids and basically that she needed to write an entirely different book. that there needed to be a success angle, that americans only care about success.
the only american around, i spoke up with an authority i don't really possess- for i am not really The Voice of My People- and said that, actually, i think readers want experiences that resonate, whether or not they have anything to do with success. that maybe, at present, americans are more about nostalgia and dreams.
while i looked at her, trying to signal with my eyes that her idea was a good one and she shouldn't abandon it because some dude said she should, i could feel the writer sizing me up. this american who wormed her way in among all these english writers. this american drinking white wine amongst all these brits drinking red (srsly, who drinks red in SUMMER?!). this american who thinks america is all about nostalgia and dreams.
it's odd how many layers there are to our identities. and how each step further out adds another. in chicago, i was keenly aware of being from the south. in london, i'm conscious of my american-ness in a way i never have been before and the southernness seems both less relevant and more haunting. when i tell people i'm from america, from the south, they mishear. they think i mean south america. and i want to say, 'no, no! THE south.' because it seems the answer to everything and nothing. and yet it is the key.
i need you to know: all the while during this event, this posh party in notting hill, there was an elderly woman, with a crown of white hair and wearing a host of denims, just wandering around the garden by herself, cherishing a glass of wine, and seemingly in a dream state only occasionally punctuated by gentle dancing, light feats of ballet.
it is my great regret that i did not become that woman's BFF.