Monday, 8 February 2010
Here's my article that went in the Times on Saturday (Feb 6th 2010) about working out with the cheerleaders of the Miami Dolphins. I think I'll leave it to the pros.
Cheerleading with the Miami Dolphins
A holiday to Florida where you shake your stuff and meet fit new people? Come and join the Super Bowl’s finest
She’s lying. I know she is. Helped by worryingly bright incisors, ludicrously long legs and a taut, tanned tummy, the blonde in the micro miniskirt is spinning me a line.
I’ve just tried out with the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders, ruining their sizzling, high-energy dance routine with a shambolic, stumbling, uncoordinated performance. “Good job, Will!” says Miss Congeniality, in the same way you might lavish praise on a toddler finishing a yoghurt.
So I’m not giving up the day job. Yet. But if you’re going to bust some all-American high kicks and booty shakes, now really is the time. Super Bowl XLIV — America’s heavyweight answer to the FA Cup Final with extra chicken wings and razzmatazz — touches down in Miami tomorrow night when the New Orleans Saints take on the Indianapolis Colts, and a Florida holiday could give you the perfect chance to meet the players, wiggle like a cheerleader and, if you’re there from September to February, take in a Sunday afternoon pro game.
It’s why I find myself — along with my natural English sense of rhythm — at the Dolphins’ training ground near Fort Lauderdale. Anyone can gain access to the sportsmen at pre-season summer training camps, while, from February to April, wannabe cheerleaders can join in hour-long dance classes at the exact spot where the Dolphins’ gals train — and it costs only $20 (£12). And ladies, if you’re good enough, according to the myth, you’ll be considered for the squad.
When I stepped inside the cheerleaders’ training room, three rows of miniskirted young women were tossing their hair and thrusting their pom-poms in time to Pitbull, never losing their smile. “Uno, dos, tres, quatro,” he crooned. “I know you want me, I know I want you . . .”
Emily Newton, the cheerleaders’ coordinator and director, invited me to join in. Either everyone needed cheering up or it was national “make fun of a limey” day. Michael Jackson was on the sound system, enouraging us not to stop till we got enough. The women high-kicked, while I just looked like an arthritic old labrador on a one-way trip to the vet. I moved right as they moved left, and I shimmied when I should have sashayed. Being American, they were all too polite to laugh — at least in public.
All are volunteers with other jobs. Missy is in medical sales, Kelly is training to be a concierge, Melissa is an elementary school teacher, Fabiola a marketing rep, and Ariana and Monica are students at a local college. “We practise three times a week for three hours, and we eat right,” Melissa told me, explaining their rigorous fitness regimen. She wasn’t kidding — I’ve seen more fat on a throat lozenge. “But we like to party too,” Missy said. “We all go out in South Beach, hang out at clubs like Liv at Fontainbleau,” she said, referring to the revamped hotel on Collins Avenue, a favourite Rat Pack hangout in the 1960s.
I met Vernon Carey and Yeremiah Bell, two of the Dolphins’ star players, hoping to ask for tips on what to watch out for during the big game. But they had been training hard and in the humid Florida heat seemed in little mood to chat. Since Carey is almost 26 stone (163kg), I wasn’t going to push my luck, let alone launch my back-up questions: “Why does American football keep stopping the whole time?” and “Why do you wear so much padding when our rugby players don’t?”
Bell did tell me that he enjoyed eating out at Prime 112 on Ocean Drive (where Kobe beef hot dogs go for $25 and the 20oz New York strip will give you a few bucks change from $60) and Joe’s Stone Crab on Washington Avenue, where a pound and a half of “Killer King Crab Claws”, served chilled, steamed or grilled, costs $50.
I saw the lads in action on Sunday, when they and their team-mates took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A football game makes a great afternoon out for anyone on holiday in southern Florida. The first thing that struck me was the number of families and children, mostly dolled up in green and orange, the Dolphins’ colours. The car park was full with people enjoying pre-kick-off “tailgate” picnics, while inside the stadium bands played and a huge American flag was unfurled across the field to salute the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Flames shot into the air beside the stands, fireworks exploded and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA filled the air.
The kick-off whistle blew and the teams tore into each other. “Think of it as a war,” said a friendly man on my right using words such as off-ence and dee-fence. “They’re trying to capture territory and the ball is their weapon,” he said. “After this you can teach me cricket.”
The play seemed to stop an awful lot over the next few hours and watching the passionate crowd was as much fun as seeing what was going on on the pitch, sorry, field. But then the players would be off again, hurtling into each other, throwing the ball high through the air before grinding to another halt. The crowd would groan and roar and holler some more, so I shouted with them and ate hot dogs, lapped up the sun and resisted the urge to buy a $35 baseball cap.
In the end the Dolphins won 25-23, with a late surge that sent the Buccaneers home to swash their bucklers another day. Like so much about America, it seemed familiar yet somewhat alien, a warming slice of mom’s apple pie for the soul.
Need to know
Getting there Virgin Holidays (0844 5732460, www.vhiphotels.co.uk) offers seven nights’ B&B at the Gansevoort South hotel with flights from Heathrow and private transfers from £1,099pp (two sharing).
Where to stay
This year new hotels set to open in Miami include the Dream South Beach, Tempo Miami, Soho Beach House, Beaux Arts Miami and the JW Marriot Marquis. See miamiandbeaches.com for more information.
For more information The American Football season runs from September to January, with training camps accessible to the public in July. For more information on tickets and the cheerleaders see miamidolphins.com and nfluk.com.
Thursday, 4 February 2010
I've just had a hotel-room coffee and the lid of the little pot of milk proclaims this is no ordinary creamer.....it's a luxury creamer!
And the other day in Marks and Sparks in Kensington I saw this poster - it's not just a cotton shirt that the Prince William-alike is wearing....it's a luxury pure cotton shirt - obviously!
The point being that "luxury" as an adjective seems to have totally lost its meaning and this is true in travel too.
What does luxury mean to you when you go on holiday? Gold taps? Sunken bath? Egyptian frette cotton sheets?
For me, luxury is no mobile phone signal, no one else (except my holiday partner) on the beach, white sand in either direction and a warm, gentle sea lapping in front. Maybe the coast of Mozambique or NE Brazil. Certainly no plasma TV or DVD player. And definitely no overpriced mini bar with "luxury" creamer on the shelf.
Wednesday, 3 February 2010
There's a lot in Matt Rudd's article in last weekend's Sunday Times about upmarket hotels that I agree with. But, like him, as a travel writer, when I do stay in one 99% of the time I'm not paying for it, so perhaps we shouldn't be throwing stones in glass houses.
By the way, the photo of the Evian water is mine - from the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore. (SGD$16 = is about £7.50).
Monday, 1 February 2010
It's interesting that the Aussie/Kiwi-led independent coffee shops in London have got the big boys so rattled that the chains are fighting back with flat whites.
Has anyone actually been to Costa and had one of these? Apparently Starbucks are doing them too in some central London shops.
I can't believe they can seriously reproduce a superior flat what in great numbers, and you're certainly not going to close you eyes and think you could be back in Melbourne, like in Lantana.
Anyway, my favourites places for fantastic coffee in London, in no particular order:
Fernandez & Wells
Vide e Caffe
Taylor St Baristas
Tina We Salute You
Taste of Bitter Love
Gwilym Davies' coffee cart
All these seem to be central or east - any other great ones I should know about in the north, west and south? (Don't say Tinderbox on Upper St - their coffee is only just above average and rather inconsistent, and their customer service is patchy to say the least).
Friday, 29 January 2010
I thought the press release from Air New Zealand was a joke, but no, seems they really are going to have "lie flat" seats in economy class - sort of.
Two people have to buy three seats (the 3rd is at a reduce price), and even then I don't think someone over 5ft 11 is going to be very comfy, but still, it's way cheaper than business class, and as anyone who flies long haul knows, being able to stretch out makes such a difference to arriving fresher and getting over jet lag quicker.
Nice one Air NZ.
Thursday, 28 January 2010
If you have ever been freelance and had to deal with an, erm, interesting editor ("no, honestly, I definitely sent that to you twice already....no I definitely.....ah, you've found it now......no, that's quite alright, I was only in the middle of eating" etc etc) you will laugh and cry at this:
ADVENTURES IN JOURNALISM: A WRITER CHRONICLES THE BIRTH AND PAINFUL DEMISE OF AN ILL-FATED TRAVEL WRITING PIECE
Written by William Georgiades at www.mediabistro.com Nov 10 2004
"Isn't sexuality just weird?"
I open my mouth automatically because my impeccable manners have taught me that when someone speaks and then stops speaking, I am supposed to respond. I do this too often. Someone makes a statement, I open my mouth, and then the words won't come. I sit there with my mouth open, lips twitching as if they are about to mouth a response, as if I am weighing my words carefully, as if I am flipping through a Rolodex of bon mots. But there is nothing there. Nothing.
"Yes," I say finally after about twenty seconds. "Yes, yes, yes. Sexuality is so weird." I give the last sentence an upward lilt, just like she did, as if I am a Valley girl who has spent a lot of time in Center Moriches.
I am wearing a Kilgour French Stanbury tailored suit, light grey. The suit is worth $3,000 and is one of the last remnants of items I received for free after writing a puff piece about the Savile Row tailor. It feels wonderful, this suit, though it was made for a plumper, more prosperous version of myself. Occasionally, I will receive a call from an editor and they will offer me lunch. I will put on my suit and walk forty blocks uptown and we will both behave as if I am not sitting there with a begging bowl.
So, yes. I'm dressed for success and nodding incoherently at this woman who has the power to give me work. She is a Conde Nast editor for a travel magazine and the lunch is going badly in the sense that a good lunch with one of these people means you leave with the assurance of a contract, a bad lunch becomes conversational like this, and a meandering conversation with a Conde Nast editor is never too good for anyone.
There is a lull in the conversation, while she ferries pieces of raw fish into her mouth with chopsticks. I look at her carefully. She is 36 years old, I know, from the last man who slept with her. Her hair is in pigtails and she is wearing shiny black trousers, a short skirt over those trousers and a tight top that emphasizes her stomach, which is flat and fit.
"Bhutan," I say. It's a non sequitur.
Sexuality is weird. Silence. Bhutan.
The meal is winding down and we've yet to discuss work—the reason I am here.
I've suggested this piece about Bhutan before, as well as a story about the mountains of western Greece and both have been rejected—courteously, reassuringly, understandingly even, because they are, in a word, too hilly. "We've been doing a lot of mountainous, hilly work lately. We're looking more for flatter stories. Do you have any flat ideas?"
I do, in the end, (after much nodding about mutual friends) leave with a promise to publish a piece about a small village in Greece which, while technically a hill town, is also a traditional Greek village and I can concentrate on a hotel that was built there recently. 1,200 words, front of the book, she says.
We part in the light spring rain which will be a downpour by the time I walk forty blocks downtown which will put the suit out of action until I can afford the dry cleaner. She kisses the space that dangles a quarter inch away from my right cheek, and I put my lips on her left cheek—my too full lips—and I leave an imprint of gum disease and tooth decay and raw fish residue on her left cheek, inches away from one of her pigtails. She hands me a manila envelope containing the latest issue of her magazine. "It hasn't even come out yet," she says excitedly, and mentions a feature she wrote about a celebrity I have never heard of.
"Can't wait," I say.
Without asking her, I know that a 1,200 word piece about a hotel in a traditional Greek village means no travel budget, write from memory, and do research. It's better than nothing, but it isn't the reason I spent an hour and a half looking at her and mouthing words.
I start writing the story the minute I get home and after two hours it's finished—a lovely, lilting piece about the Mediterranean and the olive groves, about two Austrians who fell in love with the area and built their dream hotel, about the festivals and the character of the place, about how it's where Greeks go for their vacations while tourists all flock to the islands. It isn't writing per se, but it is publishable. There is always a difference. I read it over twice before remembering that I am wearing a wet suit.
The story can't be sent just yet, because if a story is sent the same day it is assigned, the editor will think the story was already assigned, written, delivered and rejected and is now being recycled. I am not organized enough to be that devious—not anymore—but there's too much riding on this to be careless. I know that whenever I do send it in, it will sit on her desk for eight weeks until the day before it needs to be readied for publication. Then I will be called by a fact checker, a copy editor and by her, all in a desperate flurry—the urgency of the trivial. So I leave the story alone, let it sit for a week, allow for the contracts to arrive.
Three days later, the contract arrives. $800 for 1,200 words, their lowest pay rate. I sign it, send it back immediately and send the story off. Two weeks later, she calls me.
"Great story," she says.
"Thank you," I say. "That means a lot to me."
"Right, right, the only thing is, well, it reads like a hotel PR release rather than a Conde Nast Traveler story."
"I know," she says. "So, I don't know what we can do with this, unless you change it around to a general piece about the village itself. We can use the details of the hotel as a sidebar to let people know where to stay. If you like."
"I could do that." I say, much too enthusiastically.
"Great," she says. "End of the week would be perfect. Oh, and do you have a lead on any art? No one in the office has ever heard of -- what's it called?"
"No one in the office has ever heard of Mount Pelion." She lingers here for a moment, and I imagine her mind clicking over, wondering if she has been duped, if perhaps there is no Mount Pelion, given that the well-traveled editors of Conde Nast Traveler have never heard of Mount Pelion. Then she says, "So we need some art for this story, do you happen to have any art?"
"Pictures, snapshots, photographs?" She stretches the last word out as if she were speaking to a retarded person.
"No," I say. "I don't have any art." Unfortunately, there aren't enough syllables in the word "art" to stretch it out and make it sound like you are speaking to a retarded person, but I try. "But I do know a good photographer from the area and I can try to track him down for you if you like."
"I like." Click.
And that's the conversation. I can imagine her with her rows of callbacks, the different colored inks she uses to denote importance of callbacks, the time allotted for our conversation—thirty seconds. A minute has passed.
I write the second version of the story with renewed hope, cutting all references to the hotel, which is pretty much the whole story. I see now that the heart-warming story of the two Austrians building their dream hotel and hosting cultural events year round in the mountains was too limiting, so I close my eyes and remember what I can of the region then open them and start writing. I write about swimming far out into the Mediterranean, about turning on my back and staring at the beach and the olive groves during siesta hour, about the mythology surrounding the place, about the pool where Achilles was dipped, the cave where Aphrodite would lie down with Poseidon, about the cafes and the miles of empty beaches. It's a beautiful piece of writing, if I do say so myself, and I'm done in two hours. I hold onto it till the end of the week and send it off.
Two weeks later she calls again.
"Hi, yes, hi," she says. "Great photographs—we really like them. But there's a problem."
I know I'm supposed to respond to this but I can't imagine what problem there could be. Ten seconds of silence pass.
"Listen," she says. "The story you wrote is very general, you know."
"So sorry, I thought you wanted a general piece about the Greek village."
"We did, we did," she says. But some of my colleagues wonder if there is something we can peg the story to."
This is a death knell. I've used this ruse myself many times, when I was in her position over the phone. An editor's job is always to say no in the best or most excruciating way possible. Ideally, one can say, oh, we ran that exact story just 19 months ago, so sorry, but great idea; which is invariably the case, as magazines tend to tell the same story on a rotating basis of nineteen months. Or you can say you are not interested and you might be alienating a future Important Person. The last line of defense, however, is to say your colleagues have problems with the story and that a colleague says there is no peg and magazines are nothing without stories that have pegs. Can you imagine a world without pegs?
"But there is a peg," I say. "A perfect peg, in fact." Before she can interject, I say, "Have you ever seen a Greek Easter?"
"No..." she says.
"Oh, God, a Greek Easter, especially in this town, is amazing. It's unchanged for over 600 years. The village priest lights a candle in the church and comes out and lights all the villagers' candles—thousands of them—and then there are processions and feasts and everyone fires guns and eats meat and drinks and..."
"Sounds fascinating," she says in a convincingly bored voice. "Really, really wonderful, but unfortunately our April issue is all booked up already, with a special piece on Caribbean hideaways."
"Your April issue ten and a half months from now is all booked up?" I can't help myself.
"It's a theme issue," she says. "So, so sorry—"
"Actually," and I draw this word out, cutting her off, "let me ask you, your May issue, a year from now—is that booked up already?"
"Perfect, because Greek Easter falls two weeks after our Easter and next year that falls in May, so the peg would fit perfectly in your May issue."
"Oh, oh," she says in the distracted manner of one who is already well over her thirty seconds of allotted phone time. We both realize that unless she is simply rude now (in her position, I would have been), the quickest way for her to get off the phone is to say, "fine."
"Good," she says. "Excellent, in fact. I'm so glad we finally have something to work on together. End of this week."
"It's not running for a year." But the phone has already gone dead.
I sit down again for two hours and write 1,200 words about the magnificence of a Greek Easter, about the processions and the earnestness of the priests, about how a village of meat-eating heavy drinkers are vegetarian teetotalers for a whole week, about how they go wild at midnight on Good Friday, about how this tradition has gone unchanged for centuries, about how a Greek Easter could teach a New York New Year's how to celebrate. I add a bit about the hotel at which people should stay, and about how this is the part of Greece Greeks come to for their vacations. I wait until the end of the following week and send it off.
Then I receive a tip. A new editor at the same travel magazine enjoyed some book reviews I did in London. Would I happen to have any ideas for her new section on celebrities and travel? I send a polite note to the new editor immediately, with three story ideas, two of them fluff for the main idea about Francis Coppola's career as a hotelier in Belize, and specifically his new property by the sea. I receive a call almost immediately, which is more or less unheard of.
Love, love, love your ideas! Where have you been hiding? are the first words I hear. More to the point, there is a promise of a contract and a definitive need for a feature on the Coppola story immediately. Could I possibly go to Belize within the next, oh, three weeks or so, and have a story in a month? I'll have to check, I say, but probably sooner than that.
"Perfect," she says. "Just perfect."
Within an hour another call comes through. The caller ID tells me it's from the same number at Conde Nast. "Hi there," I say, as if the editor and I are on a honeymoon.
"Hello," says the pigtailed editor on the other line. "You know, this is really, really embarrassing. I've been pushing your work for over a year now. I'm your editor at this magazine, and when you start sneaking around behind my back—"
"No, it's a different section and a mutual friend just thought that..."
"You listen to me," she says. "I've already spoken to her about you and about our arrangement."
"The 1,200 words in a year's time arrangement?"
"And she's agreed not to ruffle any feathers here," she says. "She's not very experienced. I mean, really, the Coppola hotel story has been done to death already."
"It's a brand new hotel," I protest. "It hasn't even opened yet. It's his new hotel, in Placencia, not the one in the rain forest that was in Architectural Digest eight years ago." Why do I know these things?
"It's a nothing story and you aren't going to Belize," she says. "You have no idea how lucky you are to have an assignment from me. Just write about that Greek village."
"I turned it in weeks ago."
"If you ever do something like this again..."
If I've learned one thing about women's hysteria it's to just apologize, no matter what the circumstance, until they calm down. I imagine the two detectives at my door. "Sir, did you actually contact a Conde Nast editor when you had a contract with another Conde Nast editor?" I imagine trying to respond, being told it's time to go downtown, being led into a small cage with a slim-hipped frightened Asian man who speaks no English and has no cigarettes. I imagine the large detective looking at me through the bars and shaking his head.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I was just excited about Belize."
"Okay." She softened. Just like that. Hell hath no recovery swifter than a woman apologized to. "Send those ideas over to me. You're my writer, don't you forget it. I'll be in touch."
* * * * *
Nine months pass and she is not in touch. She nods to me at two parties, as if to say, what are you doing here (a question I am asking myself at both occasions). Seated near her at an outdoor summertime dinner party, she regales our neighbors, telling them about this brilliant piece I'm working on for her. I don't point out that she's had it for months, that it's all of 1,200 words, and that she hasn't responded to the 17 ideas I've sent over the past several months. I don't mention that the enthusiastic editor won't speak to me anymore, and that our mutual friend tells me I almost cost her her job. Sitting there at that summertime dinner party feeling the crush of success all around me, I look at the pigtailed now-37-year-old editor and think of the glory that will hit newsstands. I smile at her suggestively and she blushes like the young woman she is not.
* * * * *
A few months later, the Conde Nast Traveler editor calls. She calls three times, in fact, in the space of two days—once to say she had never received the rewrite, and if she had, she had mislaid it, and would I send it over again immediately; and once to say she never received a signed contract from me, and if she had, she had mislaid it, and would I fax over the original contract immediately.
The third time:
"Great, great piece," she trills. "Just lovely. It's already laid out and I hope you don't mind, but because it's in our personal essay section we took a photo of you from Talk and drew a caricature of your face as an illustration."
"I don't mind at all," I say. "But did you get the photos I had the photographer send you?"
"Yes, yes, sorry," she says. "Those won't really work for us at all."
"Because this is for the personal essay section of the magazine, in the Hot Tickets Department, and we never use art for that section—only caricatures of the author. But let me fax you the story and we can go over it later."
I get the fax from the local copy shop and go over it. The mention of the hotel has been excised completely. Paragraphs have been switched around, as they tend to be, the agonized-over lede and the tender, evocative kicker have both been cut to make room for graphics—but there it is, a full page about that little town and their great celebrations in a big travel magazine.
I call her back. "Looks great," I say into her machine. "Thank you. It's been a pleasure working with you. Could you process payment now? Thanks."
* * * * *
A month later, I go to the local newsstand and I'm about to buy six copies of the magazine but then I open it up and check. The May issue, published in April, the front of the book. I look for the page that had been faxed to me, the odd caricature of my face, the two funny lines that they let me keep in the story, the concession that they allowed me to keep a bare mention of the hotel. It isn't there. Nothing.
I go home and try not to call. When I'm about done she calls me. "Hi," she says, quite sweetly.
"Hi," I say.
"Have you seen the new issue yet?" she asks.
"Oh, it's out already?" I say. "I had no idea. How does it look?"
"Well, there's a slight problem. Unfortunately at the last minute our editor cut back our pages and it was either you or A. M. Homes's piece about the view from her apartment window so, it broke my heart, but we had to cut your story at the last minute. I am so sorry. But," She says this "but" very, very quickly, before I can say anything, "but I think it'll hold for a year—you do say the celebrations have been going on for six hundred years so... and of course I'll make sure you get paid right away. But payment will have to be a kill fee, just in case the story never runs, so that's 25 percent, and 25 percent of $600..."
"$800," I pip-squeak.
"Are you sure?" she says. "Odd. Anyway, If you say so, 25 percent of $800 is $200, so you should have that in about two months. So sorry about this."
"No worries," I say. "I quite understand."
William Georgiades is at WGeorgiades.com
As someone who has a lot of American friends in London, I just think every word here is spot on. I agree that the attitude of fellow Englishmen just makes me want to crawl under a rock with embarrassment sometimes.
"The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. Then, when I came across people who’d had direct contact with this ferocious-sounding tribe, I learned that they were actually rather friendly. At university, friends who had traveled in the United States came back with more detailed stories, not just of the friendliness of Americans but also of their hospitality (which, in our quaint English way, was translated into something close to gullibility). When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite. No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad.
This is very strange, or at least it says something strange about the way that perception routinely conforms to the preconceptions it would appear to contradict. The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication.
Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else. No such belief animates British life. On the contrary. A couple of years ago a survey indicated that British Muslims were the most fed-up of any in Europe: a sign, paradoxically, of profound assimilation.
If the typical American interaction involves an ostensibly contradictory mixture of the formal (politeness), the casual and the cordial, what happens when one moves beyond the transactional? Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked. It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm. The French put a rather charmless emphasis on charm, are consciously or unconsciously persuaded that it is either part of a display of sophistication or — and it may amount to the same thing — a tool in the service of seduction.
You can see all of this in operation on flights back across the Atlantic from America to Euroland. At first we are under the spell of America. Instead of plunking ourselves down next to someone without a word, we say “Hi.” Maybe even indulge in a little conversation, though this American readiness to chat is counterbalanced by the fear that once we’ve got into a conversation we might not be able to extricate ourselves from it. By the time we’re mid-ocean, a kind of preparatory freeze has set in. As the flight stacks up in the inevitable holding pattern over Heathrow, we begin to revert to our muttering and moaning national selves. But, for a week or so after landing, a form of what might be called Ameristalgia makes us conscious of a rudeness in British life — a coarsening in the texture of daily life — that had hitherto seemed quite normal.
For example. I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. Eighty percent of the time, the next people to play indicate that your time is up by unzipping their racket covers and strolling on court, without saying a word, without a smile, without acknowledging your existence except as an impediment. In America that would be not just unacceptable but inconceivable.
What is the relevance of this anecdotal trivia to a serious debate about the status of America in the world?
Most of my American friends were depressed and gloomy about the Bush years. Several said that if Bush were re-elected in 2004, they would leave the country. He was and they didn’t. The bottom line is that given the choice, Americans love it rather than leave it. Day to day, American life remained as pleasant as could be expected, even in the midst of considerable economic hardship. There was even a bonding, anti-Bush feeling similar to the kind of consensual opposition that we experienced under Margaret Thatcher. A visiting American artist like Patti Smith found that while the usual torrent of name-dropping — Rimbaud, Mapplethorpe, Kerouac et al. — got a smattering of appreciative applause, a single gibe about Bush brought the house down.
At the same time, either sterling went up or the dollar went down (I don’t really understand this stuff), and as a consequence, Americans felt poor when they visited our rainy little island. So, for a brief period, we felt richer — planeloads of us went to Mannahatta and bought up everything in sight — and ideologically and ethically superior. Man, that felt good. We had a less blinkered attitude to Israel, didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.). Sure, Blair went along with invading Iraq, but wasn’t that partly because he hoped to restrain the crusading fundamentalism of Bush? Now the dollar is back up — or down, or whichever it is — Europe is no longer expensive, and with the election of Barack Obama, the brief cushion of political superiority has been permanently deflated.
The Obama election was a real kick in the teeth, because although we Britons still seethe with class hatred, we pride ourselves on our highly evolved attitude to the question of race that has consistently undermined the American dream. The slight problem is that racial intermingling in Britain is most conspicuous in the ethnically diverse makeup of the groups of yobs — Asian, black and white — who exercise their antisocial behavioral skills without any kind of discrimination as to whom they happen to be terrorizing. In this regard, as in so many others, we seem to be leading from the bottom up.
Across the board, the grounds for all our feelings of superiority have been steadily whittled away. It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness. They actually add up to a kind of ostrich stoicism that, though it can be traced back to our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.
A tiny example. There’s a fashionable gastro pub near where I live. You scrum at the bar, desperate to get the attention of the barman. After a while, he will raise his eyebrows and glare at you. Unschooled in our rough ways, a visitor from America might assume he is being threatened, but actually the glare means that your order can now be taken — as long as you’re quick about it. When a friend from California had managed to order, he was handed the credit card terminal, which showed the amount and the option to add something for service. Americans are predisposed to tip, but my friend was slightly taken aback because, far from being in receipt of anything that might be described as service, it felt as if he had been fighting for a place aboard the last lifeboat on the Titanic. “Welcome to England,” I said."
So, this might be a slightly odd one to use as my first ever travel blog, but bear with me.
Picture the scene - Christmas day afternoon, a remote farm in Yorkshire, already dark, absolutely freezing outside, way below zero, snow thick on the ground. The Hide family slumped, post-Queen's speech, on the sofa, full of turkey and sprouts and Christmas pudding.
Then there's a knock at the door.
No one ever knocks at our door. As I said, the farm is very remote.
We open the door and there is a somewhat dishevelled gent, in his 50s, all in black, obviously very cold and with limited English, clutching a bicycle that is in considerably better shape than he is.
To cut a long story short, I find out with my schoolboy French that this is Bruno, from Normandy, who has been riding his bike around the north of England and Scotland in perhaps one of the worst winters for the last 30 years, asking folks along the way if he can stay in their garage/green house/barn/stable/lean to. He was heading back to Portsmouth (and then onto a ferry) via Lincolnshire and Kings Lynn - not the most direct of routes.
Why? Not really sure. Never did quite figure it out, but he seemed to be a gypsy, and camped in one of our stables where we brought him a hot-water bottle, some turkey sandwiches, mince pies and coffee.
He said he didn't really like the English because they are mechant (mean) and "afraid of bandits", but he did like the food, which isn't something you hear from the French very often.
It might have been the extreme cold but I think Bruno wasn't quite the full shilling.
But I mention all this, because I admired his sense of freedom and optimism and the fact that in our overly-organised world where you can get a guide book for pretty much everywhere on the planet, a sat nav signal up the Amazon, and an i-phone app for restaurants from Spitsbergen to Santiago and every hamlet in between, it was rather refreshing he was just cycling from day to day, unplanned and seeing what the next stop would bring. I can't remember the last time I went on holiday without having it organised down to the Nth degree. Maybe we should all just go with the flow a bit more on our travels. So what if we miss that connection. Hey, stay another night, so what.
I hope he made it back to Normandy safely. Bon voyage Bruno!