But spin on your heel, and chances you are you will see a very different English face. Chances are you will see someone looking at you with a little smile that is unmistakeably smug and self congratulatory.
There are several ways to read this look.
It might express smug surprise that someone should not know the layout of London. This is the provincial’s satisfaction. And it contains a nice little contradiction. The Londoner imputes provincialism in a gesture of provincialism. (You may read this as my Order of the Garter revenge: Honi soit qui mal y pense. Roughly, dishonor to him who dishonors thinks. In our case, provincialism to those who impute provincialism.)
Or, it might be a moment an expression of anti-Americanism, and God knows, there is plenty of that in this fair city. Behold, says the smile, a mighty American undone by the complexity of my home town. (The Economist this week has an article on poor Scotland, with periodic references to how frequently the Scots look at England with a resentment born of envy. The same is sometimes, and only sometimes, true of the English attitude to America. I make this observation as a non combatant Canadian. Observe, please, my blue helmet.)
Most probably, I think, we are looking at a Londoner paying himself off for the sheer difficulty of city life. (And we have all done this in one venue or another.) For all the delicacy of English life and the magnificently managed scale of this urban landscape, there are moments when the city bears down upon you. As when you are obliged to step into a subway car that is already full to bursting. There must be moments when you wonder, can this be worth it? The answer is sometimes "no," but not when you see some poor wretch of an anthropologist wondering the streets asking ill formed questions. ("He doesn’t even know where Brixton is!") At that moment, we are the master of the city, not the other way round.
Anyhow, today it’s back to the less tender embrace of New York City and the chilly incivilities of Connecticut. I will remember even the self satisfaction with pleasure.
Pictured, the Underground map as designed by Harry Beck. For more on Harry Beck and this map, go here.
For more on the Order of the Garter and the origins of the phrase "Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense," go here.