When I moved to London, my husband Henry gave me a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. He was hoping the gift would avoid an awkward conversation about our cultural differences. As an American, I cannot think of anything more English than that.
Fox’s chapter about introductions bothered me. The brash American approach: ‘Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,’ particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile, makes the English wince and cringe. I had never known friendliness to be cringeworthy. I felt sorry for Bill from Iowa. I pictured him arriving in my neighbourhood and being scorned for enthusiastically introducing himself to strangers.
Henry tried to explain. ‘We don’t talk to neighbours. Maybe people in the country do, but not Londoners. In fact, I’d say people move to London just so they don’t have to talk to neighbours.’
I could not get to the bottom of this misanthropy. So eventually I stopped seeking answers and accepted Henry’s words as fact. At the same time, I decided to keep the American spirit of neighbourliness in my heart. I resolved to knock on strangers’ doors and introduce myself while offering them slices of buttermilk chocolate cake. Because seriously, how else do you meet people?
The house opposite ours boasted the prettiest front garden in the neighbourhood. Passers-by would stop and Instagram or, when they thought no one was looking, pick flowers. The creator of this horticultural masterpiece was Sam. When we moved in, Sam was busy in his garden. His handiwork was visible from most rooms in our flat. I introduced myself to him and brought him a slice of cake. Henry gave him a bottle of wine. Our toddler stroked his cat. Sam seemed pleased, though painfully shy. He barely made eye contact. For the next few months, we would wave hello to Sam whenever we passed him on the street.