The Anglicization of me
Good gracious, I thought as I sloshed along the muddy towpath, scanning the Thames for yet another cormorant, I'm becoming quite British. Here am I, walking along in wellies and a yellow anorak, hooded with a ducklike peak pulled unbecomingly over my head, oblivious to the rain above or the muck below, taking our Westie for a long stretch on what I'm sure most Americans would call a miserable day. And curiously I'm enjoying myself.
Why should I consider this particularly British? Because, in my experience, the British tend to do this sort of thing and the Americans don't. Perhaps it has something to do with the amount of rain allotted to these islands. Not that it rains incessantly. It's just that it hangs about the place, like a friendly ghost. If it's not coming down in delicate droplets, then it's in buckets; and if neither, it tends to lurk suspiciously in the atmosphere.
Fortunately, I love the rain. So much so that I feel a bit guilty when the skies go smudgy gray and the locals affectionately grumble, as though the weather was a cheeky child that ought to be spanked. I mean, I'm telling white lies all the time. ''Yes,'' I say, ''isn't it dreadful out!'' when secretly I'm admiring the artistic effects of the day.
But I've also come to suspect that there are quite a number of fellow fakes in Britain, who share my feelings and grumble only as a common form of chat. People who, when it comes down to choice, prefer the mucking-in demands of the climate here to the languorous effects of the sun elsewhere. Perhaps it's also part of adaptability. As there's so much mizzly weather, you either get on with life, almost making rain a virtue, or life becomes rather irksome.
My own attitude toward rain and its necessarily messy accompaniments has changed since I moved to England seven years ago. In America I admired it from afar, mostly from indoors. But since coming to England, my kid glove vanity has vanished, carrying with it a dainty, ''I'll only walk when necessary'' attitude.
Of course in America, I took my dogs out in all weather. Dogs being dogs, I had to. But the walks were mighty short and to the point. And when I went out, whatever the skies chose to do, I took great care over my appearance. I would have rather hidden my entire head in a paper bag than worn an unbecoming hood.
I'm not implying that the British aren't aware of pleasing exteriors. But there's a time and place for them, and hardy walks in the rain are not those times. Self-consciousness is frowned upon; sensible practicality and a blending with nature receive approval. Obviously the yellow of my anorak is a last vestige of my Yankee glamour.
But there are other aspects of my walk that indicate change. Indeed, they're so apparent to me that I'm surprised when someone asks what part of America I'm from. I tend to forget that although I now have a different set of words, attitudes, activities and ideas, the outward changes have never been consciously sought. For unlike some Americans who have trimmed and tailored their accents, habits and appearance to seem English, I have remained, on the surface, fairly American. I'm not critical of those who have so adapted to the English way that they're barely distinguishable from the natives. I just can't manage it myself.
I learned my lesson early on when I attempted to sound British to a taxi driver. On approaching our mews house, I told him nonchalantly in my best tones, ''Could you please stop in front of the trash cons.'' Looking at me queerly, as if I were from Swaziland, he queried with puzzlement and not a little impatience , ''Sorry, Miss? Where?'' Knowing I'd failed, I mumbled a sheepish, ''Stop here, please,'' and jumped out as quickly as was feasible. It was only later, when confessing my attempt to an English friend, that I learned my mistakes. Firstly, a can is not pronounced con. Secondly, there are no trash cans or cons anywhere in England; there are only dustbins. Lastly, no English lady in her right mind would have chosen a dustbin as a distinguishing feature for her house. Being a fast learner, I no longer try to sound English.
In any case, I'm not sure I would or should if I could. Besides, my husband (who is English) wouldn't let me. Even when I've weakened, thinking an English accent might be handy for shopkeepers or useful when bargaining for antiques, my husband has resolutely refused to help shape my vowels in the English manner. ''I like your American accent and your being an American,'' he insists firmly. And I too am proud of my American-ness, but in ways I never appreciated when I actually lived in America. To have grown up with the kind of mental and physical space that most Americans take for granted is a blessed and permanent gift. It enhances and frees the way one looks at and approaches just about everything. . . . But it doesn't prepare one for certain demands required for Britain.
I'm referring in particular to responses and awareness. From what I've observed, many of the British take keen notice of the world about them, in all its variety and minutiae. I don't mean merely admiring a bird, a poem, a bowl or a building. It's knowing the nature of things, recognizing their detailed uniqueness, how and why they change and where they fit into the scheme of things.
Certainly the Americans also excel in this. The amount of expertise in America is sometimes daunting. But for some strange reason, it has never influenced me in quite the same way as it has in Britain. For example, birds were birds to me, with vague differentiations. I would never have heard of the cormorant for which I looked on my walk recently, let alone searched for it willingly in the rain.
But with the plethora of precise information coming in at me from all points (the people I meet, the radio, newspapers, books, countless museums and television) on an endless number of subjects, the effect has been that my interests now go popping off in all sorts of untried directions. At the same time, in the areas I'm already studying, my knowledge has now been nudged into more clarity, and above all, specificity.
What has happened is of course a part of growing, and some of it took place in the States, but I also know that something has happened here that never quite occurred there. I suspect it's as much a product of my being among the British as was my familiarity with and therefore preparedness for their chilly, underheated houses. But that's another story altogether.