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January 18, 2010

The Patient English

By Spear's

From cabbies who wait to see you home safely to partygoers who revel through the night, London has the edge on New York in so many ways, says Daisy Prince

ON A RAINY Friday morning, a primarily middle-aged crowd with the occasional twenty­something thrown in was gathered outside Chelsea Town Hall, jostling for space and seething with anticipation. When I asked one burly man what the commotion was all about, he brushed me aside with his cane before answering that it was the start of the Antiquarian Book Fair and everyone in the queue was waiting to get in early for all the best deals.

It reminded me of what I love about England: that people get as excited about the opening of an antique book fair as they are do about getting into Boujis on a Saturday night. This revelation comes to me on the brink of my move to New York, and reminds me that there are so many things I will miss about England (and some that I won’t).

I’m going to miss the chivalry of cab drivers. If you are a woman alone at night, they always wait for you to get in through your front door before driving away. Recently, when I nearly missed a plane because I had got the airport wrong, the taxi driver said gallantly, ‘Don’t worry, love,’ climbed into his black cab as though it were a trusty black steed and peeled off as fast as he could down the motorway.

Admittedly, black cabs don’t move all that quickly so it was like a race on a mule, but he was as good as his word and he managed to get me to my plane with minutes to spare. I love a New York cabbie, too, but if they can even find their way home, I’d be very surprised.

I’m going to miss the modesty. I recently heard a story about a young, rich aristocrat and his wife who were having some friends around for dinner and dismissed their staff that night, so as not to embarrass the guests with their lavish lifestyle. They were only slightly exposed when, at about 8.30, the guests all trooped downstairs to find the host and his wife frantically arguing about where to find the large pasta pot.

Contrast that with a story I heard about the wife of an heir to a major American fortune who had their baby nurse live with them for sixteen months (in the UK the norm is six weeks — anything more than that is considered unbearably spoilt).

I’m going to miss the good parties. When the English decide to let their hair down they do it with abandon. The men certainly love nothing more than to put on a dinner jacket and then spend the next eight hours figuring out how to make as much of a mess of themselves as humanly possible without actually ruining the lining.

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Most of the smart parties in New York are the ones you have to pay for, i.e. the benefit circuit. Because of the commercial element they are very stiff events without a whiff of humour. Everyone is terribly polite, no one has more than a few drinks, and people generally leave before 11pm. Compare this with a party I am invited to in London, which has a start time of 6.30pm, an end time of 8am the following morning and a theme that is ‘Leather, lace, fur and feather, bring your slave on a tether, dress for clement weather, outfits must be outrageous and clever’.
I’M GOING TO miss the way that voluptuous here is really fat in the US. Nigella Lawson and the Hon. Kirstie Allsopp are sex symbols in England, whereas the US ideal of beauty most closely resembles a praying mantis. Carbs are practically illegal in New York. I know this because at a recent dinner in New York with an English girlfriend, while I was munching away on the sourdough, she grabbed my arm with more than just a little joy and cried out, ‘I’m so happy to see someone who still eats bread!’

I’m going to miss the way people take things on the chin. In Newport, Rhode Island, a friend’s English mother gave a lunch for her friends and when the waiter brought the water glasses over, she noticed a bug floating amid the ice cubes. The waiter noticed the offensive insect at the same time, apologised profusely and asked to take her glass away. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she said, ‘it’s only protein.’ The waiter was so taken aback by her response that even though he still took the water away, he sent over a glass of wine as a thank-you.

I’m going to miss Walkers Salt & Vinegar crisps, paying everything by electronic bank transfer, riding my Brompton bicycle, cocktail sausages, the way my legs feel like rubber after hunting for five hours, the friends that have grown around me like ivy, the plethora of parks, half a pint of really good cider, the shipping forecast, hot Bovril, seven Sunday papers that I can bury myself in like a hamster, and those two weeks in the spring when all the buds burst open and London drowns in the smell of blossoms.

What I’m not going to miss: VAT, lines at cash points, separate taps (I always end up burning my hands or splashing freezing water on my face — my husband says you are supposed to wait for the basin to fill up, but who has time for that?), the fact that there is construction everywhere, the lack of electrical outlets, treating food as fuel, and BBC Radio 4, which must always be played on the way out to the country (I call it ‘The Voices’).

My husband, who is looking forward to eating hot dogs at Yankee Stadium and sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park with a Styrofoam cup of coffee, has been getting very happy about the move to New York, especially now that he has discovered how to get Radio 4 in his bathroom.

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