How do you get over a hangover? You shower, and you put on a suit. And while, no – this is not a universal prescription, it is my very own tried-and-tested formula; advice I proudly relay to haggard, red-eyed pals in London. ‘Want to feel good? Look good first.’ There’s science in that, of course - a bit of common sense. But until following my own advice, meandering through Brooklyn one January morning, I had not fully realised how my suit, when paired with the accent, was a proclamation of my ‘Englishness’. ‘You look like a Brit, too’ they might say, contentedly, while handing over coffee. ‘Do I?’, thought I. Well, that would make sense (that is, after all, who I am).
Being the ‘exotic foreigner’ gave me delight. I felt a sense of responsibility to satisfy their expectations of England; that if they never made it to London in their lifetime, they might rest easy knowing Downton Abbey and Notting Hill hadn’t been complete betrayals (not just in America but anywhere in the world). Whenever I’m well-behaved, it’s ‘English manners’; whenever I’m in a bad mood, it’s ‘English humour’. And I play my role with theatrical relish - going so far to dress more ‘English’ abroad than I would any day in the West-End…
It works the other way, too: my friend Tommy is from Tennessee. He lives in London now. The first time we met he wore a check flannel shirt, high-waisted Levi’s, and hi-top sneakers, which - with his slow drawl - fit the image I’d hoped from a Southerner. Likewise, a lad I knew from New England who lived in France; frequently in rugby shirts, deck-shoes, caps, pure Cape Cod – it was like speaking with a Ralph Lauren poster. I suspect many Americans in France feel Hemingway’s shadow looming over their shoulders, much the same way I partake in Graham Greene style make-believe for Hanoi. We’re all at least a little aware of the style stereotypes – of ourselves and others. In my notebook, I found this small observation: ‘girls in Los Angeles are wearing white cowboy boots and those in New York wear black leather ones’. You notice these things when you look for them, and perhaps I do.
If you think I’m odd, might I point you to ‘Paris Syndrome’? This is a genuine medical disorder, mostly suffered by Chinese and Japanese travellers who experience mental breakdowns when their expectations are betrayed. Apparently Parisian ‘fashion’ (their expectations of brooding, slim Marcels’ in overcoats and marinierès) is decimated in mere seconds by a couple of blokes in sweatpants near the Louvre, and thus requires hours of psychotherapy. Where is Delon, or Belmondo… or Dali? Paris, you promised me Audrey Hepburn in a big hat!
Of course, the world is not like that, and nor should it be. Even if the terraces of Saint Germain were crammed with suave Parisians of their wildest Proustian fantasies, others dress according to their own exigencies (or more recent fashions). Paris Syndrome has been documented in Rome, New York, too, proving us incapable of squaring the truth with our fantasies: that people-watching from said terrace delivers a satisfying Eureka! moment (‘they are indeed unlike us!’.)
It’s not all disappointment and therapy, though. Tommy himself admits to ‘hamming up the image’, because 1) it singles him out, and 2) reminds him of home, which I think is the crux of all this. It’s what Sting was getting at with ‘Englishman in New York’, what made him wax nostalgic about canes and half-cooked toast. There’s strength in the stereotype – a touch of security, pride, and self-awareness. Walking gramophones, we might seem; unmoving relics in the face of global fashion. But, eh, who cares? Far away from home, few things are more reassuring than embracing a couple expectations. Not just for strangers, but for ourselves too.