I’ve lived in London for 23 years. Twenty-five, if you count my art student days back in the late 70s.

I often imagine a parallel foreigner (say, a Swede, Korean or Kenyan) living in New York City for twenty-five years. That newcomer would be shlepping down to Zabars for bagels, kvelling over bargains, sending iced tea back for being too warm — all within days. Said foreigner would be transformed into an instant New Yorker by dint of being in New York, armed with nothing more than an enthusiasm for the city and an intent to stay.

Not so, London.






Here are a few of the things that keep me forever foreign:

  1. Apologising when someone else steps on your foot. (I do it too, of course I do. But why?)
  2. Muttering. Musn’t grumble. Must merely mutter. Mutter mutter mutter. Like resentful schoolchildren or inmates of an asylum.
  3. Expecting the worst. See, Brits say mournfully at around 7pm each night. I told you the sun wouldn’t last.
  4. Cricket (gimme a shout when you get to rule 42)
  5. ‘Sorry, we haven’t got that thing you want.’ ‘Yes you do, I can see it right there.’ ‘Except for that one.’
  6. All the TV murders that happen in one sleepy village.
  7. Cross-dressing.
  8. Royal Weddings, funerals, jubilees; commemorative mugs, plates, paper hats; Union Jack bras, socks, bus pass holders, loo paper.

There are more, of course. Another twenty five years and we’ll tackle pantomimes.


29 thoughts on “How long does it take to become truly British?

  1. bookwitch 7 years ago

    You spoke?

    Bought two mugs froma charity shop to give away to a foreigner. That’s quite enough. Will be on a plane tomorrow.

    Don’t ever mention pantomimes.

  2. Jene Johnson 7 years ago

    Well, if you are as anti Royal as you seem, then you will never be British, and don’t deserve to be.

  3. Amber 7 years ago

    How long do you think it becomes to become a Londoner…? I’ve been here a year, and while tourists, council tax, pigeons and tube delays make me cranky, I’m not quite one yet.

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      No problem, Amber. Another 40 years and you should be almost accepted.

    2. Shelley Souza 7 years ago

      Just as one can only be a Cockney if born within the sound of the Bow Bells; so one can only be a Londoner if born within the old city walls or in one of great teaching hospitals.

  4. Phil Rylance 7 years ago

    I’m not buying Number 8. If you have every been to Disney you know all of those things are available featuring a Mouse, his girlfriend, a Duck, his girlfriend, every Prince and Princess from every fairytale ever written. But the very fact you tried and failed makes you British-ish.

  5. Phil Rylance 7 years ago

    I’m not buying Number 8. If you have ever been to Disney you know all of those things are available featuring a Mouse, his girlfriend, a Duck, his girlfriend, every Prince and Princess from every fairytale ever written. But the very fact you tried and failed makes you British-ish.

  6. Francesca Simon 7 years ago

    Gosh, who knew being a Royalist was a requirement for being British!

  7. Rhubarb 7 years ago

    Ha – true about NYC. If you manage to actually survive a few months without running back to wherever you came from, you are One Of Us.

  8. jackie 7 years ago

    I’m anti- royal, though confused as the cavaliers had 1) the right attitude to live as in a cavalier attitude, and 2) the best clothes. So does that make me an anti-royal dandi? And does not being a royalist mean I have to be deported for having bad thoughts about royals? I am a fan of bunting though.
    No 6 has always made me laugh, although I have often disgraced myself infront of writers of such dramas by stating that they were perhaps a little unrealistic.
    Have always been into cross dressing.
    I envy the queen her ravens, but little else. Wouldn’t have her job for all the tea in India.

  9. Judy Astley 7 years ago

    If you think being accepted as a Londoner is hard, try Cornwall where it’s a requirement to be able to trace your lineage back to before the days of Trelawney’s army if you don’t want to be classed as an incomer emmet!

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      And a whole other language to learn!

  10. Lynne Harris 7 years ago

    been in the DC area for 12 years. Used to say trousers, now say pants. Used to say biscuit now say cookie. Used to say crisps now say chips.
    Will NEVER say “in back of”
    My friend has sent me loads of jubilee memorabilia, from tissues that look like 20 pound notes to a union jack umbrella. I love it 🙂
    I still miss cricket … it was a part of my childhood. I dont remember a holiday as a child when we weren’t all crammed into a car on the cliffs looking down at the grey sea as the rain lashed onto the windscreen, listening to Test match Special on the car radio. Ah … memories!

  11. Duncan Ball 7 years ago

    Couldn’t agree more. I still have a fondness for England but I’m glad I fled to Australia instead during the madness of early 1970s America—Nixon, Vietnam etc. After all these years my accent still gives me away immediately and can give rise to a bit of friendly kidding, or asking me to explain why the USA would want to invade Iraq, I’ve always felt welcome here and I never get the feeling that I do when I’m in England that I’m in a country in a state of clinical depression. The diamond jubilee reminds me that it’s good that the royals rarely come here. Did you choose the wrong country? Love your writing, by the way.

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      Thanks Duncan, but no, I chose the right country. I’ve always been attracted to the clinical depression of the UK (as you so aptly describe it), and the incessant rain. A lot of great humour here and I like the moody seasons.

  12. Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn 7 years ago

    I’ve lived in England all my life. I was born in London, within the sound of Bow bells – by definition a cockney – and lived there until I went away to college at 18. But with a mother from southern Ireland and a Scottish father, do I feel British? Not really. I am British, but have a sense of alienation that can never be quite overcome.

  13. nicola baird 7 years ago

    I’ve been thinking about this because of Molly O’Neil’s amazing “New York Cook Book” (1992?). I wondered if a similar book could be done for London, but it’s clear that Londoners are unable to develop that same passion to be labelled as Londoners as those in NYC seem to feel. And I’m pretty certain Londoners aren’t as adventurous with their shopping baskets/kerb food stall choices either. The compensations – humour, reliably dodgy weather, red buses etc – are probably enough though.

  14. Kirsten Baron 7 years ago

    But aren’t most Londoners just like you, Meg? From an outside perspective, it always looks as if London is mostly filled with people who are only there temporarily (albeit since 1984) – on their way somewhere else – commuting – recently arrived – bewildered. I always feel like I belong, even if I just go up for the occasional day at the Tate.

    And the other thing: at least when you’re technically a foreigner in your country, you have a really good excuse for being slightly strange, something that never works so well if you stay where you were born…

  15. Ali McKinlay 7 years ago

    Few people who live in London are actually Londoners, that’s what gives the city it’s tolerance, and offers newcomers the security to be who they want to be. Some people come for a couple of years and stay forever, though having been brought up in the middle of a field I never thought I’d be one of them. And there are some things about being British that aren’t particularly marvellous (you could say that about any nationality), but give me a cross-dressing, murderous Royal eating a cream tea on a cricket pitch, and I’m happy.

  16. Lucy Coats 7 years ago

    God, Meg, you made me miss NYC immediately. Zabars is the World’s Best Deli (and most of my useful kitchen gadgets come from there). However, I’m expecting (imminently) a large delivery of bunting, flags and assorted Jubilee stuff to arrive, ready for our Village lunch. The main street (there is only one street here) is to be closed, and tables set out with Coronation Chicken and the like. We are all making jellies (to be judged) – mine is red, white and blue. Oh, and of course, there’s a village cricket match afterwards (much cheating will take place). I’m in utter Brit (though really a Scot) Heaven. *happy sigh*

  17. Library Mice 7 years ago

    I have been living in Britain for 17 years and love everything about it but I too am fleeing on Sunday afternoon! I love your list, though I would possibly add eating jelly and pink & yellow cakes (including French fancies which are absolutely 100% NOT French!)!

  18. Shelley Souza 7 years ago

    I love New York but I do miss scones and crumpets, neither of which the Americans can make properly though they do try. And clotted cream, although this one can buy occasionally from shops like Zabar’s, which is up the road from me, or Dean & Delucca or Balducci’s. But without the right scone, of what use is it? In London I miss that we used to have crumpets only in winter and scones with clotted cream in the summer. M&S ruined the seasons’ changing of the guard

  19. Rosemary 7 years ago

    The trouble with England is it is over run by all those families who came over with William the Conquorer and corrupted our language (using words like mutton in their posh dining halls when we are quite happy with sheep). Some of us have never really accepted the Romans, still cover our skin with blue dye and don’t study Latin at school, and others are only just getting used to living alongside all those Vikings and voting for their Eurovision songs. I think we just need a little more time to integrate and come to terms with the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings (1066).

  20. Kate 7 years ago

    “Few people who live in London are actually Londoners, that’s what gives the city its tolerance, and offers newcomers the security to be who they want to be.”
    Yup, I’d agree with that – I grew up in North London. But there’s also a suburb-central divide – you can be anything in the suburbs and accepted quickly – everyone moves in and out too fast to bother about who’s accepted by whom and who’s been there longest. But in Central London, especially in commuting hours … oh, then you have to be a local and know where you are, or get mown down with no sympathy! Still, give me a sunny day and a chance to be somewhere, almost anywhere, in London and I’m a happy bunny.
    Oh, and doesn’t no 8 also require that all celebrations take place in cool cloudy drizzle, while we all stare at the sky and say, desperately, ‘Brightening up over there …’?

  21. Alice 7 years ago

    Got us in a nutshell Meg 😀

  22. Ayse 7 years ago

    …..”erm cucumber sandwiches anyone??” (Said the half turk/half swede)

  23. Henrietta Richer 7 years ago

    Love this post. I’m British and I’ve been living in the Paris area for 25 yrs, but my friends still think I’m the oracle of all things British. When I say ‘I don’t know. I haven’t lived there for 25 yrs’, they are bemused. I’m no longer really British and not yet, if ever, French.

  24. Diana Osborn 7 years ago

    Well Meg, seeing as you come from a country that displays its flag on every public building and most private houses seem to have it on a prominent flagstaff outside, I don’t think you should object to our occasionally waving the Union Jack (though I draw the line at bikinis, obviously.) We British are all so deeply ashamed of our imperialist past that any flag waving seems to smack of jingoism. Just occasionally though it is nice to be given permission to wave the flag and indulge in a nice bit of patriotism.

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