Day 186: summer holiday 2018

Part 1: London

Day 1

“No, I don’t think we need any mangos,” I heard Mum say on the phone.

And so, of course, Talal picked up mangos.

Because “should I pick up mangos?” is a rhetorical question in my family, which is to say, it’s not a question to which the answer “no” is a meaningful response.

Having an inaugural meal that culminates with mangos is an established ritual when I come home. Last year the mangos capped up off a meal that began with dahl pooris and biriyani, the latter of which I suspect were made by Nina and then transported by some family member on a transatlantic flight, which is also well-established family protocol. When the mangos are produced, there are a number of acceptable topics that may be broached by the assembled company.

  1. Are these Alphonso mangoes?
    • If the answer is yes, then the following rhetorical question will inevitably be put to me: “you can’t get these in America can you?” I will invariably reply that they are not as commonly available but that actually, yes, sometimes you can get them; however the latter part of this answer is never acknowledged as carrying any weight.
    • If the answer is no, it is uttered in a rueful tone but will usually be followed by the caveat that they are Pakistani mangoes. A variation on the above rhetorical question will then be put to me: “You can’t get Pakistani mangoes in America can you?”
  2. Discussion of Mangos Eaten on Previous Occasions.
    • Hari Kondabolu’s bit on this phenomenon made me cry with laughter, it was so accurate. My cousin Kai wins the prize for the most ridiculously picturesque mango anecdote ever, which I still remember from last year’s inaugural holiday dinner. “Ahh,” he sighed, “this reminds me of childhood, when the rickshaw would come by selling mangos and I would sit under a banyan tree and eat them.” !!!

Part 2: Iona

Day 3

There are certain games, like “animal, vegetable, or mineral,” and “I spy,” that we only seem to play in the U.K., possibly because we spend more time over there than we do over here en famille for long stretches when there aren’t other entertainment options available. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral” is a particularly challenging game for us because Ada doesn’t understand exactly what “mineral” means and is, frankly, a bit fuzzy on “vegetable” too. She also, mystifyingly, sometimes chooses the same object she has used during a previous game when it is her turn to think of something, a case in point being “a daikon radish.”

Days 5 through 11

What is it about Scottish rolls? Or is it just Iona rolls? Or is just rolls baked by the Grants? And are they actually better than other rolls or is it just that they taste the same as when I was a child? And that you can only eat them on Iona where the air is fresher and your appetite is keener? (Answer: no, they are better than other rolls.)

Day 6, 7, 8, etc.

My barometer for gauging the temperature in the U.K. is whether the weather has tipped over from being absolutely beautiful, in Mum’s estimation, into being rather enervating. This tipping point was reached almost daily on this visit.

Day 7

It’s not a proper family visit until we’ve had our regular, semi-annual argument about whether anyone other than Mum believes the final t in the word trait to be silent. Mum maintains that everyone else is mispronouncing the word, which is French, and so the t should be silent.

This year I had a devastating comeback:

“And how do you think the word herbal should be pronounced, Mum?”

Day 7 and following

Both Ada’s reading materials and my will to make up bedtime stories were quickly exhausted.

“How about if we have a bed time conversation, instead of a story?” I suggested.

To my surprise, she assented. The conversations followed a particular form: she put questions to me, and I would then struggle to answer them. Her questions ranged from matters of fact to hypotheticals. They included the following. Why did dinosaurs become extinct? Was Alexander Hamilton African-American? Did Abraham Lincoln have children? Would toe-less socks (i.e. the sock equivalent of fingerless gloves) enable one to wear socks with flip-flops? Why did Elvis wear those big white suits? If there was a zombie apocalypse, where would you hide?

Day 8

I sighed heavily.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mum.

“Oh, I have to write this statement in which I talk about a challenge I’ve overcome in my teaching, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh,” Mum said.

Five minutes later she came back into the room with a little smile on her face.

“I know a challenge you’ve had to overcome in your teaching!” she exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“Your accent!” she said, brightly.

Day 9

Walking home from Port Ban, I passed by a farm with some sheep milling around next to the path. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, but my peripheral vision told me that one of them was a little less sheep-shaped than the rest and, sure enough, when I turned my head, frolicking amongst them was a bare-bottomed toddler, dressed only in a jumper and a pair of wellies. Exercising considerable restraint, I refrained from taking a photo, because I have a shred of decency left. And also because, earlier in our visit, I had overheard an American tourist sheepishly asking permission (and only asking permission having been intercepted in the act) to photograph cousin Neil’s fishing wellies, which were just sitting there on his doorstep, all Instagram-ready, and, I, shuddering slightly, had resolved not be That Tourist.

Day 10

Mum called my decision to allow the kids to watch “The Matrix,” which was in the house’s DVD collection, “deeply misguided.” I had another glass of wine and every time there was an epic shoot-out tried to drown out the racket by announcing loudly, “It’s really a film about Descartes.”

Part 3: Bristol

Day 12

“What is that?” I asked Roy, pointing to a tiny hut in the back garden.

“Oh, it’s just a hut for solitary bees,” he said.

“A hut for solitary bees,” I repeated. “Are bees solitary?” I asked.

I thought that one of a bee’s defining character traits (silent t or not) was its, you know, hive-mind.

“Well,” my brother explained, “not all bees live in hives.”

“They don’t?” I asked, truly incredulous. “Where do they live then?”

“Well, they just, you know, flit around,” my brother said vaguely.

“They’re like nomad bees?” I asked. “Something like that,” he answered.

“I have to say, you’re really blowing my mind here,” I said. “I never realized that hives were, like, a contingent aspect of bee-being. I thought they were essential to beeness.”

I mean, yes, there’s the Jerry Seinfeld bee in Bee Movie but that’s the entire joke of the movie—a bee who wants to be an individual! (N.B. that movie is also basically the same story as The Shape of Water but with Renee Zellweger and a bee instead of Sally Hawkins and a fish).

“So is there a bee living in there now?” I asked.

“Uhh, I don’t think so,” Roy said.

“To be honest,” he admitted, “I’ve never seen a bee go in or out of there.”

I decided that there were two possible explanations.

1) The house for solitary bees is actually a magical chocolate factory.

2) solitary bees are real and they are not only solitary but also stealthy, eluding detection by emitting a silent buzz not unlike the silent t that some say can be found at the end of the word “trait.”

3) Solitary bees are mythical creatures, possibly invented by bees, possibly invented by my brother, possibly invented by David Attenborough.

bee house

a hut for solitary bees, should they exist and be in need of a hut

Day 14

Left to my own devices, I don’t watch sports. But I can readily enter into them as well as anyone—possibly better than most—if I suspend disbelief and decide that I care; it’s like reading a novel. The conditions in England last month were particularly propitious for encouraging this kind of casual fling with football . The problem is (isn’t it always?) that, even if the relationship is casual, the feelings can’t be held at bay.

And so I found myself gripping Max’s wrist with what was apparently a painful intensity, covering my eyes and moaning repeatedly, “Oh God I can’t bear it, I can’t watch them lose on penalty shoot-outs, it’s just too painful.”

This from someone who was also asking questions like “are we red?” and “are we going left or right” at various points.

Even as the finer points of football (well points both fine and fundamental) elude me, certain cultural traumas have clearly seeped into my consciousness such that I couldn’t tell you exactly the rules of a penalty shoot-out but I know in my bones that losing to penalty shoot-outs in a World Cup knockout round would be a devastating blow.

Day 15

I didn’t know before this visit to Bristol that iced hibiscus tea is delicious and beautiful. Thank you, Roy.

Day 16

The whole day with Claire in Bath was glorious. Especially satisfying—because when do you ever find three great dresses—dresses that that fit!—within 15 minutes—was a whirlwind visit to a little shop called Bibico in Bath, where I wriggled in and out of lovely frocks as fast as I could, because I kept getting texts from Mum (but actually from Max, who had commandeered Mum’s phone) asking if I was done yet, to the soundtrack of Praying for Time era George Michael.

Day 17

The most relaxing part of this whole trip? It was the morning of our final day in Bristol, when Roy took the cousins out for breakfast and then to the park, so I could stay home to pack up our stuff.

I had the whole house to myself and it was glorious. I packed while listening to Joan and Jericha and shaking with laughter and, since I had followed JK’s tip and packed an extra duffel bag, the packing was not fraught but oddly soothing, even with all of the extra items acquired along the way, not to mention the fact that the two copies of War and Peace Max and I had brought along, were, neither of them, any lighter or less bulky than when we started, nor much more read either.

The packing went so smoothly that I had even had time to read a little—not War and Peace, but rather Amy Schumer’s memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, which I had noticed on the bookshelf of the guest room, and which beckoned to me just as insistently as my fingers resisted the urge to crack open War and Peace after day four of our trip. I had started the Schumer memoir a few nights earlier.

“My favorite chapter so far,” I had told my brother, just the night before, “is about being an introvert. It’s how about how even when you’re with people you really like, even people you really love, you sometimes need to be by yourself for a bit. To recharge. I mean, honestly,” I added, “I don’t think that’s being an introvert, I think that’s just being human, wouldn’t you say?”

He made an expression of assent, I thought.

The point is that, that morning, I had time to read a little more, and then to shower in a leisurely fashion and put on one of my lovely new dresses, and then to walk to meet all the rest of them at Pi Shop, a really fantastic pizza place in Bristol, for lunch. And slipping into my new dress made me think, naturally, of George Michael, and so I listened to his greatest hits as I walked to Pi Shop, beginning with “Faith,” and indulging in a little fantasy that I was sauntering through Pond Square while George Michael was still alive, and that I just happened upon him, leaning against a wall strumming his guitar, and that we did a little two-step there in Pond Square, just the two of us. And then I played “Freedom 90” and just the opening beat was enough to make me suck in my stomach and lift my chin and muster up as much supermodelish poise and stature as a person of five foot three inches and a quarter wearing flip-flops can muster. I walked tall and the sun felt good, and when they all came into view—my children, and my niece, and my brother, and my sister-in-law, and my mother—all sitting together at a big outdoor table eating olives and drinking cold beer and drawing dragons—it was a sight for sore eyes.

Part 4: London

Day 17

I have to preface this by saying: we are all OK. There were no broken bones, just scrapes and bruises; the toll was mostly psychic. I still can’t quite make sense of what happened. I was looking up at the escalator at Paddington station, and there they were: Max, then Mum, then Ada, sailing up before me; I looked down for a split second to make sure I had all the bags and when I looked up again everything was topsy-turvy: Mum was now upside down, her head beneath her feet and she was moving not upwards but downwards, on her back, on top of Ada. Someone screamed—I’m not sure if it was me—and, thank God, in response to some passerby’s quick reflexes, the escalator stopped moving as I dropped the bags and ran up, trying to cradle Mum’s head and then at the same time, as Ada’s face began to crumple and she looked to me to help her, I tried to lift Mum off Ada’s body and started to feel myself flooding with chemicals of some kind as the thought entered my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be moving anyone’s body.

Suddenly there were strangers everywhere; and this was a good thing. Two men lifted Mum under her shoulders and I saw that she was able to walk. Another man, a passerby, knelt next to me as we moved Ada. He spoke gently, introducing himself to her in softly accented English, and explaining that he was just going to look at her legs and that he would be very gentle. He told me he worked for the Red Cross. I think his name might have been Paulo. Her legs were indented with marks from the escalator slats, but the injuries all seemed to be superficial. Somehow we got up to the top of the escalator (did he carry her? Did she walk?) and Ada sat down in a chair next to where Mum was now also sitting having scrapes and bruises tended to.

I knelt on the ground next to Ada. A uniformed station worker knelt down next to us and took our names and details and our description, so far as we could provide one, of what had happened. He was South Asian with a London accent; he looked and sounded like he could be a cousin of mine. Maybe it was that along with the way that he knelt next to us that felt comforting. Ada seemed unable to speak and didn’t respond when asked, very gently again, what hurt. The station worker wiped her scrapes with an antibiotic wipe.

“You’re a brave man,” he said to her, “because that must sting.”

“She is brave,” I affirmed.

“Oh, she!” he exclaimed, sheepishly.

“My little nephew has really long hair,” he added, by way of explanation, which might seem like a non sequitur, but I understood him perfectly. His tone was not “kids these days!” but “gender! It’s so fluid innit?”

When we got home and Mum was lying down (later she went to the emergency room to get checked over, at La Bonavita’s urging, where the doctors confirmed there were no major injuries) and the kids were conked out in front of the iPad, I shut myself in the bedroom and texted Roy. When he called back all I could say for some time was “we’re all all right,” in between sobs.

Day 18

I slept poorly that night, which was our last night.

I kept waking up drenched in sweat, my skin itchy. I wished I could plunge my body into cold water. And so when it was light, I decided that I would, and I walked to the Highgate women’s pond, enjoying noting which women walking the opposite way on Merton Lane had just swum; they were distinguishable by their damp locks, plastic carrier bags, and the barest hint of a self-satisfied smile playing around their mouths.

“The water is cold and deep,” declared the sign on the gate and my soul said “yes.”

deep and cold

It’s cold and deep and also silky, somehow. It was perfect. And so too was the sight of all these ladies—they were all here! The ones swimming in schools like porpoises. The ones with their daughters. The one executing a perfect swan dive off the deck. The gaggles lolling in the meadow.

We had a plane to catch so I couldn’t dawdle: I swam a circuit of the pond, which was just enough to feel my blood pleasantly cool, and then I climbed out, barely dried and pulled my clothes over my still wet suit (actually, Claire’s suit). And I walked back up Merton lane, with my wet hair and my plastic bag and my hint of a self-satisfied smile, and I went straight to the newsagent to buy a Guardian for Mum and croissants for all of us … and I could tell that, unlikely as they looked, sitting there on the counter next to the Oyster card machine, that they were going to be my favorite sort of croissants, the kind with a bit of heft to them, what I think of as a Germanic or a Mexican style croissant.

And they were.


“West End Girls” came on the radio right when we were passing through Ladbrooke Grove on the drive to Gatwick. Made me smile.


Best captain’s announcement ever on the flight back to L.A.: “You probably think the match between England and Sweden is all over. IT IS NOW. England 2, Sweden nil.”

Well-played, Captain.

You probably think this post is all over; it is now.


Day 99: but where are you from originally?

A couple of weeks ago He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved sent me the following cartoon: 

where are you from

It made me laugh and laugh because, as he well knows, this is a conversational situation that I (like some of you, I’m sure) have been in numerous times. The cartoon also reminded me that I had written this short essay a couple of years ago, which I wrote really just as a way of seeing if I could find a way to weave this odd series of experiences into a coherent narrative. Coherent or not, when I dug it out this afternoon I thought, oh, this is totally a blog post! I just didn’t know it at the time because I, uh, didn’t have a blog. I’ve edited it a bit and identified the main protagonists by their initials. Apologies to those of you (and that may be, ahem, all of you) who have already heard this story several times ….


After the English bloke and his children left the playground and I was sure they were out of earshot, I whipped around and addressed my mother in an accusatory tone.

“You can’t ask someone “where are you from originally!” I exclaimed.

“But I’m part of that community,” Mum protested.

“But he doesn’t see that!” I insisted. “He just sees a white Englishwoman insinuating that a brown-skinned man can’t be ‘originally’ from England.”

I was being unfair, and I knew it even as I was irritated. My white, Scottish Mum is, in some ways more than me, her biracial daughter, “part of that community.” [1] When she married my Bengali father in 1971 she immediately found herself raising his two (later three) teenage nephews, who came to London after their father, a Bengali civil servant in the wrong place at the wrong time—West Pakistan in 1971—was placed under house arrest.

But none of this was on my mind as I berated my 79-year-old mother at the beachside playground in Santa Monica two years ago.

“And,” I added, my voice rising, “I can’t believe you would ask him that when you know that that’s precisely the question I hated strangers asking me when I was little!”

Mum’s face softened. “I know,” she said.

Twenty minutes earlier my two children had shyly joined in with two boys and a girl, who were purposefully building an enormous sandcastle under one of the climbing frames. Their accents were English. They were visiting from London, the elder boy explained.

“We might move here!” the younger boy piped up.

“I’m from London too!” I offered. “But we live here now.”

Soon the English children’s Dad showed up. He was perhaps in his mid 30s, wearing running clothes, and slightly breathless from jogging on the beach. We chatted away about the differences between London and L.A., about school districts and property values.

And then Mum asked, “and where are you from originally?”

I cringed inwardly as I saw the stranger’s jaw harden ever so slightly as he affirmed, again, “Umm, London, originally. Yep. London born and bred.”

“London born and bred.” It was a phrase I had used a lot myself as a child when strangers on the bus, in the shops, or at the hairdresser’s would query me, not unkindly, but persistently, about where I was from originally. As a child I genuinely misunderstood the question and remember struggling to answer it to the questioner’s satisfaction. “Tufnell Park?” I’d answer doubtfully. “It’s near Holloway?”

Now I proclaimed loftily to my mother, “you can only ask where someone’s from originally if their accent suggests they weren’t raised where they live now.”

A few weeks later I met a new postdoctoral fellow at my institution’s center for eighteenth-century studies. This new postdoc, I’ll call her Z, was a young art historian who studied representations of India in eighteenth-century British art and architecture. Her coloring suggested a South Asian heritage but her accent was difficult to place.

Now I was the one inhibited by my own imperiously decreed diktat, thou shalt not ask ‘where are you from originally’? (Hoisted on one’s own petard &c.)

Eventually, I asked Z, in the most tentative tones, where her accent was from?

Bangladesh, she replied.

Should I mention, I wondered anxiously, that I had family in Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, where most of my Dad’s family ended up living? Best not to, I decided. I had been to Dhaka once, when I was 11. But I wasn’t remotely from there. It didn’t mean that Z and I had anything in common. And in fact mentioning my Bangladeshi family connection would only serve to hoist me on yet another of my own petards; because yet another pet peeve of mine (I know, I know, I’m so easily irritated) as an Englishwoman living in the U.S., is the whole, “oh where in the UK are you from? My second cousin X lives in, let’s see, where is it? Coventry?” And then the person looks at me expectantly.)

So I decided to go with saying nothing and simply nodding and smiling. Z and I grew to be friendly acquaintances. When I started writing a new essay that touched on representations of India, not my area of expertise, I asked her for help. She responded immediately with enthusiasm and suggestions. I was excited both about this new area of research, and my new friend.

A few weeks later I saw Z at a lecture at the Huntington library. Before I had a chance to approach her she bounded over to me, palpably excited.

She blurted out, “You are the cousin of—” and then she said the name of my first cousin and his wife, I’ll call them T and N, both of whom I’ve known all of my life.

She paused, and, deeply confused, I wondered how on earth she knew this. I had seen N only the week before when she’d been over from Delhi visiting L.A.

“N is my cousin!” Z announced, breathlessly.

It took us a while to put all the pieces together. T is my first cousin, the eldest brother of those no-longer-teenage boys who’d been a part of my life since I was born. N, T’s wife, is Z’s mother’s first cousin. N, unbeknownst to me, had also visited Z while in L.A., it never striking her that we might know each other.

Long before we figured out this strange chain of circumstances, Z and I were firm on one point; we were family. And being, in addition, both dix-huitièmistes, we relished, perhaps more than most, the Fieldingesque plot in which we found ourselves caught up.

If eighteenth-century fiction has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as too many coincidences. So when a new boy who was “from London,” my son informed me, “just like you, Mom!” joined his third grade class, it did not seem so surprising to me that he turned out to be the younger son of the man from the beach. We were, after all, part of the same community.


[1] That’s right: not only is the duck-rabbit half fowl, half leporidae, but also half Indian, half Scottish.


Day 89: For reading so well.

One evening, when the elder and I were flopped lazily upon the bed in my Mum’s spare bedroom, I glanced across at him and noticed he was reading The Little Prince.

“Oh, that’s my old copy!” I exclaimed. “Where did you find it?”

“Just over there,” he said, gesturing to a bookshelf.

“Can I see?”

He passed the book over to me. The cover was very smudged and slightly yellowed.

I opened it and gasped. There was an inscription from my father.

“To my Poppety Pop –

S—- [1]

For reading so well.

Dada —


I would have been five years old.

It was like finding a message in a bottle. I had talked wistfully earlier in the year to Dr. F about how I remembered my father calling me Poppety Pop, and how I loved that name. And then there it was! In blue biro! It was real! I sat for a long time staring at the inscription. The elder shot me a sidelong glance.

“Mom. Are you getting emotional?” he asked in a long-suffering voice.

“Yeah! I am a bit!” I said laughing and simultaneously blinking back tears. He sighed and reached over to take the book back.


The day before flying home, the younger and I stopped in at the newsagent’s on Highgate High street. The younger had received some money as a present and wanted to spend it on one those children’s magazines that has little plastic toys enticingly attached to the front cover. When, after painstakingly examining every option, she finally made her decision, we went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t have any cash and had to pay with a credit card that required a signature instead of entering a pin. Almost no-one in the UK uses signature cards these days, so the newsagent frowned slightly upon seeing it.

“I know! It’s American!” I said, by way of explanation, and I threw up my hands and made a those-crazy-yanks-with-their-signatures-face. [2]

At the word “American,” the newsagent looked at me with new interest.

“So where do you live then?” he asked.

“America — Los Angeles. But I grew up here,” I explained.

“America!” he exclaimed. He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment.

“So you’ll know, then, because you’ve lived in both places: which is better, America or London?”

At first, being a little slow that day and misunderstanding my role, I immediately started hemming and hawing. “Well … you can’t really compare America and London … I mean … those aren’t equivalent … you could compare Los Angeles and London …”

“All right then,” he continued, unfazed. “Los Angelees versus London: which is the best.”

As he was speaking, dear readers, I realized that this was not a question so much as a hail; we were not having a conversation as such; we were rather performing a particular kind of call and response. Now, I remembered my lines.

“London,” I said, without hesitation. “London, hands down. London is the best city in the world.”

He beamed at me. I had said exactly the right thing.

“Ain’t that right!” he said. “Best city in the world,” he repeated, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune.

“Best city in the world,” I repeated again, and he beamed even more.

“And the whole world is in London,” he added, his inversion suddenly, and oddly, reminding me of those eighteenth-century paeans to London’s infinite variety: “LONDON is a world by itself,” says the narrator of Tom Brown’s Amusements Serious and Comical (1700). He continues, “we daily discover in it more new countries and surprising singularities than in all the universe besides.”

The newsagent had hit his stride now. “I can go anywhere in the world,” he said, “and I’ll be in a five star hotel …. And all I want to do is come back to London! Nothing like it.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “No place like it.”

“Except Istanbul,” he added. “London and Istanbul: the two best cities in the world.”

I paused for a second and, as memories of Istanbul flooded my mind—tea, carpets, bazaars, tiles, call to prayer—I found myself possessed, somewhat to my surprise, by the conviction that this was indisputably true. London and Istanbul are the two best cities in the world. I entered into my part with new gusto.

“Yeah!” I exclaimed giddily. “Yeah, London and Istanbul are the best cities in the world! That’s right! I think that’s really right!”

By this point the credit card had long gone through and a man behind me was waiting to pay, so our conversation ended there, and we walked away with the younger happily clutching her Octonauts magazine with the little sea creatures attached to the cover. I felt oddly buoyant.


Just one more quick thing: I noticed today that I posted my first dispatch from this blog exactly a year ago today. Thank you, dear readers, for reading so well all this time! It means an awful lot to me, more than you can possibly know. Much love &c., D-R.


[1] Obviously he wrote my name, not S—-. But I don’t think I’ve ever used my name on this blog, and I’m not going to start doing so today.

[2] It may be worth mentioning here that in American English “Yankee” refers (correct me if I’m wrong, Yanks) to New Englanders or Northerners whereas in British English a Yankee or Yank is simply an American. Period. Or full stop. You know what I mean.


Day 80: the discomfort of strangers

This is a long post. So you should get a cup of coffee first and then curl up on the sofa. That’s what I would do.

In many ways I like the custom of greeting strangers you pass on the street, a custom that distinguishes LA from London (I would write “that distinguishes America from Britain” but I’m wary of generalizing). In my neighborhood, it’s usual to greet someone you pass on the street or at least to make eye contact and smile. To refrain from doing so or to observe a passerby refraining from meeting your eye is to feel that you are, to use an expression that brings back traumatic memories of secondary school, either “blanking,” or being “blanked” by, your fellow pedestrian.

By comparison, when I walked to school in London there were people I passed on the street every day for years, and we literally never made eye contact nor acknowledged the other’s presence.

It reminds me of the conceit of a book I’m rereading at the moment for the Fictional Worlds seminar, China Miéville’s The City and the City. The premise of the book is that there are two cities that occupy the same physical space but which are completely distinct culturally, socially, linguistically, governmentally, and in all other aspects. In each city it is taboo and in fact illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other city’s inhabitants, architecture, or any other feature. So if a Besź citizen passes an Ul Qoman citizen, each on their own distinct street but “grosstopically,” that is, in terms of their physical location, in the same space, then they are culturally and legally obliged to “unsee” each other.

Londoners, I think, are quite adept at unseeing each other in their daily lives; it’s not a form of rudeness but, on the contrary, a form of politeness.

I’ve adapted and, in Santa Monica, I happily greet my fellow pedestrians in my neighborhood. In fact, I enjoy this low-level sociability.

But there are other customs of intimacy-between-strangers that I find disconcerting.

Let me give you some examples.

Last week I walked into a local salon where I get my eyebrows done. The owner and the receptionist were chatting about a male customer who had been there earlier and who observed to them that they both looked exhausted.

I was appropriately aghast and we ended up having a general conversation about “things men who don’t know you think it’s OK to observe about the way you look.” My example was the man next to me in the line at the pharmacy at Rite-Aid earlier that same morning, who told me, and I quote, “you’re lucky you have the skin color to be able to wear orange” (I was wearing an orange T-shirt). This is, I suppose, a compliment (but is it? I don’t know; it was such an oddly-formulated observation), but I was stumped as to what to say in response (“Yes, I am lucky”? “Thank you”? I wish I could say I had a witty comeback, but I did not. I think I said something like, “Oh! Um … well … thanks?”)

Actually, there is probably nothing particularly Los Angeles- or even American-specific about these examples; they are simply cases of people attempting to make small talk and doing so awkwardly. There is doubtless a sympathetic motive behind the impulse to observe that another person looks tired. But I hope that all of this blog’s readers understand that it is never, in any circumstance, an acceptable observation to make about another person.

OK, here’s another one. A couple of weeks ago I walked to the Music Center café (the café nearest the English department) during my seminar’s mid-morning break. I ordered a cappuccino with a double shot. They had some small dark chocolate bars in a rack by the register and I grabbed one and handed it to the cashier, who, it is worth pointing out, was most likely an undergraduate.

“All right, so the cappuccino with the double shot and the chocolate bar?” she asked.

“Yup,” I answered.

She rang me up and then shot me a quizzical look.

“Bad day?” she asked.

I was a little taken aback. “Uh, no,” I replied frostily, and with as much dignity as I could muster. “No, it is not a bad day, I am half way through my seminar and I wanted some energy for the second half.”

I thought she might follow up with a short lecture on how the caffeine and sugar were sure to induce a midday crash and that then I would really be in for a bad day. But she spared me from further expressions of concern.

Now, maybe you think that “bad day?” was a perfectly innocuous, even kind-hearted query. But I beg to disagree. It’s so cheeky! It implies that buying a chocolate bar is an obvious sign of desperation. And would she have asked a male customer that same question? Isn’t it because the duck-rabbit is a woman that she felt safe concluding that I must be self-medicating with chocolate? [1]

The cashier’s query had the effect of completely inhibiting me from buying chocolate at that café. Ever since that interaction, I now buy, during my seminar break, not a chocolate bar, but the afore-mentioned disgusting vegan cookie, whether as some form of self-punishment or to telegraph to the café’s staff that, actually, I’m having a really terrific day, I really couldn’t say. But you know what’s ironic? I bet that the dark chocolate is in actual fact nutritionally superior to the vegan cookie. It probably has loads of antioxidants and stuff, whereas the vegan cookie just has fibre, and, in addition, is so unsatisfying that I usually have to buy another actual cookie later to alleviate my disappointment.

My experience with the cashier in the café was almost as bad as my experience with the bartender who refused to sell me a diet coke when I was heavily pregnant because he was concerned about the potential effects of aspartame on my unborn child.

No, I’m not joking.

Now, I’m not claiming that aspartame is good for one’s unborn child, but it’s not like I asked for a double whisky and a packet of cigarettes. When I ordered the diet coke he observed something about the negative effects of aspartame on the developing fetus, and I suspect that I probably laughed and said something like, “well I think one coke won’t kill it!” I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I do remember that I had the impression that we were engaged in humorous banter, which culminated with him smiling and saying, “I’m not going to serve you one, you know!” And I laughed because I assumed that he was joking.

But he wasn’t. He just walked away and I was so enraged that I needed an actual drink, and ended up chugging a bunch of tequila shots that were lined up on the bar.

Actually, I didn’t really do that, I just got someone else to buy me a diet coke. But the point is that I might have done that, and then think of how horribly his well-intended do-gooding would have backfired.

Also, I must just add: doesn’t it seem downright un-American, in fact, possibly Communist, to refuse to sell a paying customer a diet coke? I would go so far as to say that he was depriving me of my God-given right, as an American citizen (OK, I wasn’t actually one at the time, but he didn’t know that), to enjoy the bliss that can only be conferred by this product in which the capitalist dynamic of surplus-value so delightfully combines with the libidinal dynamics of surplus-enjoyment, as my old mate Slavov puts it (see “Coke as objet petit a,” pp. 21-22 in The Fragile Absolute).

The final examples, I wish to share with you, dear readers (and I know I’m rather rambling on; thank you for bearing with me!) are not of strangers offering concern or unsolicited advice, but rather simple friendliness. You might think that this would be the most innocuous form of stranger intimacy, but it is actually the one that I find most difficult to handle.

Before I provide examples, let me make an observation about using names. When Americans know a person’s first name, they generally use it. So, if an American who knows my name encounters me, he or she will probably say “hi, duck-rabbit,” as opposed to simply “hi” or “hello”; in fact, my sense is that, over here, if someone who is an acquaintance and who should know your name says “hi” or “hello” without using your name, it is considered curt, if not rude. In Britain, I think the opposite is the norm. The name goes without saying. Yes, this also means that there’s less pressure on one to actually remember anyone’s name.

So, where am I going with this? Well, in an extension of this custom, many businesses suppose that greeting regular customers by name is appealing. But I for one find it disconcerting when people I don’t know well use my name. It makes me feel awkward in a number of different ways.

For instance, at the exercise studio where I used to regularly take barre class, they make it a point of pride that they greet every client by name. There was one young woman who worked at the front desk who would greet me especially energetically, and she always remembered my name. “Hi duck-rabbit!!!” she would trill every time I stumbled in at some godforsaken early morning hour. I would groggily mutter in response, “ … oh, uh, hi,” feeling guilty that I didn’t know her name. Every time she sunnily greeted me I would think to myself, “I really must find out what her name is.” But I didn’t. And at a certain point this I decided that enough time had elapsed without me asking her name that it was now too late and that asking now would just draw attention to the fact that I hadn’t known it for the last several months. So I never did ask.

But the custom of greeting customers by name is only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, my friends, the problem of excessive familiarity goes far deeper. Consider the appalling situation at my dentist’s office. The first time I noticed it was a couple of years ago. I was there for a cleaning. A hygienist I’d never met before came into the waiting room and greeted me warmly.

“Hi duck-rabbit! How have you been? It’s great to see you!”

I was taken aback because I felt reasonably sure that I had never met this particular hygienist before. And yet … slowly but surely, I started to second-guess myself. Because she kept saying things like, “how many kids do you have again?” and “remind me how old they are again?” like we had discussed them on some earlier occasion.

I felt completely nonplussed and started to worry either that I had some kind of amnesia; or that I was just pathologically inattentive. This woman and I had obviously met and had an intimate conversation. But because I’m so self-absorbed, I have no memory of it! God, I am just the worst.

Such was the psychic doubt that engulfed my mind. Except that after a number of similar experiences on subsequent visits it slowly dawned on me that this dental practice simply has some insane and completely misguided policy that states that not only must all employees must greet all patients by name, they must also greet them like long-lost friends.


Until this week, I hadn’t been to barre class for months. But, as part of my effort to resume exercising (doctor’s orders!), I went earlier this week and found that the woman who used to work at the front desk was now teaching the class.

“Duck-rabbit!!!” she practically yelled, as I entered the studio where the class is taught.

“Oh, uh, hi,” I said. It was like we had never been apart!

After the class, when I sheepishly thanked her for the class and said goodbye, she said in a curious tone, at once effusive and yet somehow also flat and affectless: “It’s so good to see you again, duck-rabbit!!!” [2]

Something about the discrepancy between tone and content made me inwardly wince, and the thought that passed through my mind was something like, “when you say ‘it’s so good to see you again, duck-rabbit!!!’ the effusiveness of the statement undermines the very social bonds it seeks to foster, because the discrepancy between your words and what I imagine your true feelings to be throws sharply into relief the treachery of language and reminds me that no words can disguise the fact that we are, each of us, completely alone on this small, dying planet.”

I nearly burst into tears.

But, instead, I smiled as warmly as I could and replied, “you too, Anna!”


[1] Which I wasn’t, as it happens. I only medicate with pure alcohol. Or heroin.

[2] I think she’s an aspiring actress. She’s gonna need to work on that.