The first thing you're warned about is the weather--vast amounts of rain, an average 60 degrees in summer, and, of course, fog--London Fog.
Studying abroad in London for a month was a way for me get out of Virginia, but the class I was taking--the Culture of London--also ensured that I would get a first class non-stop tour through the highways and byways of one of the most culturally distinguished cities in Europe.
Of course, the first lesson I learned is that it's foggy only when your plane is about to land. I found my "byways" in Wales on my first day, waiting to "queue" (line) up for the Heathrow Airport.
Luckily I had some fellow students with me, so when we finally did land in London, we could get to where we were staying--Regent's College, near Sherlock--sleuthing Baker Street.
We were pretty much afraid to speak "Americanese" in front of the cultured Brits, especially after the bus driver yanked one girl's luggage off the bus when she took too long. Jeez, stupid Americans: I actually found myself thinking that a lot in the first week or so, as I became annoyed at my fellow Americans with what had previously seemed like normal behavior in the States. Soon, everyday Americanisms--like talking loudly in the Tube (subway)--made an impact with how I enjoyed travelling in packs to theaters and restaurants. For the rest of my trip, an ugly cultural war raged in my mind.
But somewhere along the way I found myself starting to defend Americans, and America. Maybe it was the small portions of food, or the lukewarm water, or even maneuvering around the lamb dishes at Regent's dining hall.
But I think my views changed after touring Paris. On our first day, our Metro train ran over some poor guy (well, maybe he killed himself). Everyone just kind of got off the train and walked away (except for those guys who tried to mug my traveling partner, then changed their minds and decided to ask for drugs instead).
Yes, I reminded myself--it's okay to dislike the French! Everybody does it--even the cultured Brits. So what was it that made the British appear more elite, and more allowed to hate? It had to be the bloody accent. Really, I figured you could just as easily take a group of loud British school children, and if you changed their accent, a Brit standing nearby would say "Hey, those fat and lazy Americans are so loud."
My theory was put to the test on a group trip to Greenwich. We took a ferry to the land of mean time, and a pack of school kids joined us. They were talking so loud, you couldn't really tell what nationality they were (okay they were British.) Anyway, the tour guide was really annoyed at these kids. He kept warning the teachers that they should quiet their students so the other people on the ferry (us) could enjoy the trip. When they summarily ignored him, he reminded them again and again over the loudspeaker as the teachers looked helplessly on. In the end, the kids stayed noisy, and they didn't have to go downstairs, where the guide threatened to banish them.
So I felt a kinship with the kids--they gave me solace, that being an American in London can't be that bad, because even the British can act--gasp--American at times. After that, I was blatantly American for the last two weeks. I wanted ice in my water, I asked for the check instead of waiting politely, and I shoved my way onto the Tube while bemoaning the lack of air conditioning.
So I pretty much failed at being a culture vulture--my American defense system kicked in, kind of like the 1980s "Star Wars" program. I just can't disguise my American Studies major--that may have come in to play as well. But they gave me such good ammo--I mean, their idea of a July 4th cookout was lamb burgers and no chips--er-- crisps!
Sure, there are some things that America can't beat the United Kingdom at: theater, the English and Scottish countryside, a contest for making the worst food. And did you know that the Scottish hairdressers are the best in the world?
But I think one encounter with the English said it best. A Londoner commented to a group of Americans in our program at a local pub: "You must be American, you look so healthy."