Apparently it’s May outside but this month is doing a pretty good job of impersonating early March.

If you want to get away but can’t afford even a one way on Ryanair to Prestwick, it’s time to holiday at your desk through YouTube.

Thinking about having a holiday in the USA, for example? Could Roseanne Cash tempt you? The American songstress has just been drafted in by the newly-created “Brand USA” team to croon along to some rather stirring visual images.

Strange, though, how there’s no mention of two-hour queues to go through immigration at JFK, Chicago or Los Angeles, although with the current border control fiasco at Heathrow, I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones in glass terminals.

Personally, my favourite travel advert of all time is actually for TVs. This spot below, with melody by the unswedish sounding Swede Jose Gonsales, is actually for Sony televisions – it definitely wouldn’t make me buy one, but the stunning visuals would encourage me to hop on a plane to San Francisco asap.

And then there’s the 2003 (has it really been 9 years?!?!?!) “So where the bloody hell are you?” Tourism Australia campaign which raised plenty of smiles.  With only 1.5 Aussie dollars to the pound at the moment (down from 2.3 a few years ago) where the bloody hell we are is quite frankly anywhere but Australia unfortunately.

As for tourism tag lines, the clear recent winner has to be Colombia. Realising that the negative international perception of their country is in total contrast to the fact that the vast majority of visitors return home praising the South American country to the skies, they came up with “The only danger is wanting to stay”. (If you ignore the rather cheesy voice-over). Genius. Now if only they could Roseanne Cash to sing about it.

A recent stealth entry that’s slipped under the radar is this rather catchy number from the Philippines, where apparently life’s more fun.

Lastly, I always thought this was a great ad by Virgin Atlantic. For all you of out there who dreamed of telling the boss where to stick it where the sun don’t shine and fleeing to the West Indies.

I have a fantastic job – the bottom line is that I get paid to go on holiday. What’s not to love about that?

But, being freelance, you have to generate your own work (not to mention chase payment when it mysteriously gets forgotten – I’d say 3 months is the average for getting paid after submitting an invoice and 6 months certainly not uncommon) and maintain relationships with various people, the most important of whom is your editor. And that can sometimes be ‘fun’.

This article below, by American writer William Georgiades about his experience penning a piece for Conde Nast Traveler in the States has always made me laugh. It is taken from the website

“Isn’t sexuality just weird?”

I open my mouth automatically because my impeccable manners have taught me that when someone speaks and then stops speaking, I am supposed to respond. I do this too often. Someone makes a statement, I open my mouth, and then the words won’t come. I sit there with my mouth open, lips twitching as if they are about to mouth a response, as if I am weighing my words carefully, as if I am flipping through a Rolodex of bon mots. But there is nothing there. Nothing.

“Yes,” I say finally after about twenty seconds. “Yes, yes, yes. Sexuality is so weird.” I give the last sentence an upward lilt, just like she did, as if I am a Valley girl who has spent a lot of time in Center Moriches.

I am wearing a Kilgour French Stanbury tailored suit, light grey. The suit is worth $3,000 and is one of the last remnants of items I received for free after writing a puff piece about the Savile Row tailor. It feels wonderful, this suit, though it was made for a plumper, more prosperous version of myself. Occasionally, I will receive a call from an editor and they will offer me lunch. I will put on my suit and walk forty blocks uptown and we will both behave as if I am not sitting there with a begging bowl.

So, yes. I’m dressed for success and nodding incoherently at this woman who has the power to give me work. She is a Conde Nast editor for a travel magazine and the lunch is going badly in the sense that a good lunch with one of these people means you leave with the assurance of a contract, a bad lunch becomes conversational like this, and a meandering conversation with a Conde Nast editor is never too good for anyone.

There is a lull in the conversation, while she ferries pieces of raw fish into her mouth with chopsticks. I look at her carefully. She is 36 years old, I know, from the last man who slept with her. Her hair is in pigtails and she is wearing shiny black trousers, a short skirt over those trousers and a tight top that emphasizes her stomach, which is flat and fit.

“Bhutan,” I say. It’s a non sequitur.

Sexuality is weird. Silence. Bhutan.

The meal is winding down and we’ve yet to discuss work—the reason I am here.

I’ve suggested this piece about Bhutan before, as well as a story about the mountains of western Greece and both have been rejected—courteously, reassuringly, understandingly even, because they are, in a word, too hilly. “We’ve been doing a lot of mountainous, hilly work lately. We’re looking more for flatter stories. Do you have any flat ideas?”

I do, in the end, (after much nodding about mutual friends) leave with a promise to publish a piece about a small village in Greece which, while technically a hill town, is also a traditional Greek village and I can concentrate on a hotel that was built there recently. 1,200 words, front of the book, she says.

We part in the light spring rain which will be a downpour by the time I walk forty blocks downtown which will put the suit out of action until I can afford the dry cleaner. She kisses the space that dangles a quarter inch away from my right cheek, and I put my lips on her left cheek—my too full lips—and I leave an imprint of gum disease and tooth decay and raw fish residue on her left cheek, inches away from one of her pigtails. She hands me a manila envelope containing the latest issue of her magazine. “It hasn’t even come out yet,” she says excitedly, and mentions a feature she wrote about a celebrity I have never heard of.

“Can’t wait,” I say.

Without asking her, I know that a 1,200 word piece about a hotel in a traditional Greek village means no travel budget, write from memory, and do research. It’s better than nothing, but it isn’t the reason I spent an hour and a half looking at her and mouthing words.

I start writing the story the minute I get home and after two hours it’s finished—a lovely, lilting piece about the Mediterranean and the olive groves, about two Austrians who fell in love with the area and built their dream hotel, about the festivals and the character of the place, about how it’s where Greeks go for their vacations while tourists all flock to the islands. It isn’t writing per se, but it is publishable. There is always a difference. I read it over twice before remembering that I am wearing a wet suit.

The story can’t be sent just yet, because if a story is sent the same day it is assigned, the editor will think the story was already assigned, written, delivered and rejected and is now being recycled. I am not organized enough to be that devious—not anymore—but there’s too much riding on this to be careless. I know that whenever I do send it in, it will sit on her desk for eight weeks until the day before it needs to be readied for publication. Then I will be called by a fact checker, a copy editor and by her, all in a desperate flurry—the urgency of the trivial. So I leave the story alone, let it sit for a week, allow for the contracts to arrive.

Three days later, the contract arrives. $800 for 1,200 words, their lowest pay rate. I sign it, send it back immediately and send the story off. Two weeks later, she calls me.

“Great story,” she says.

“Thank you,” I say. “That means a lot to me.”

“Right, right, the only thing is, well, it reads like a hotel PR release rather than a Conde Nast Traveler story.”

“You think?”

“I know,” she says. “So, I don’t know what we can do with this, unless you change it around to a general piece about the village itself. We can use the details of the hotel as a sidebar to let people know where to stay. If you like.”

“I could do that.” I say, much too enthusiastically.

“Great,” she says. “End of the week would be perfect. Oh, and do you have a lead on any art? No one in the office has ever heard of — what’s it called?”

“Mount Pelion.”

“No one in the office has ever heard of Mount Pelion.” She lingers here for a moment, and I imagine her mind clicking over, wondering if she has been duped, if perhaps there is no Mount Pelion, given that the well-traveled editors of Conde Nast Traveler have never heard of Mount Pelion. Then she says, “So we need some art for this story, do you happen to have any art?”


“Pictures, snapshots, photographs?” She stretches the last word out as if she were speaking to a retarded person.

“No,” I say. “I don’t have any art.” Unfortunately, there aren’t enough syllables in the word “art” to stretch it out and make it sound like you are speaking to a retarded person, but I try. “But I do know a good photographer from the area and I can try to track him down for you if you like.”

“I like.” Click.

And that’s the conversation. I can imagine her with her rows of callbacks, the different colored inks she uses to denote importance of callbacks, the time allotted for our conversation—thirty seconds. A minute has passed.

I write the second version of the story with renewed hope, cutting all references to the hotel, which is pretty much the whole story. I see now that the heart-warming story of the two Austrians building their dream hotel and hosting cultural events year round in the mountains was too limiting, so I close my eyes and remember what I can of the region then open them and start writing. I write about swimming far out into the Mediterranean, about turning on my back and staring at the beach and the olive groves during siesta hour, about the mythology surrounding the place, about the pool where Achilles was dipped, the cave where Aphrodite would lie down with Poseidon, about the cafes and the miles of empty beaches. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, if I do say so myself, and I’m done in two hours. I hold onto it till the end of the week and send it off.

Two weeks later she calls again.

“Hi, yes, hi,” she says. “Great photographs—we really like them. But there’s a problem.”

I know I’m supposed to respond to this but I can’t imagine what problem there could be. Ten seconds of silence pass.

“Listen,” she says. “The story you wrote is very general, you know.”

“So sorry, I thought you wanted a general piece about the Greek village.”

“We did, we did,” she says. But some of my colleagues wonder if there is something we can peg the story to.”

This is a death knell. I’ve used this ruse myself many times, when I was in her position over the phone. An editor’s job is always to say no in the best or most excruciating way possible. Ideally, one can say, oh, we ran that exact story just 19 months ago, so sorry, but great idea; which is invariably the case, as magazines tend to tell the same story on a rotating basis of nineteen months. Or you can say you are not interested and you might be alienating a future Important Person. The last line of defense, however, is to say your colleagues have problems with the story and that a colleague says there is no peg and magazines are nothing without stories that have pegs. Can you imagine a world without pegs?

“But there is a peg,” I say. “A perfect peg, in fact.” Before she can interject, I say, “Have you ever seen a Greek Easter?”

“No…” she says.

“Oh, God, a Greek Easter, especially in this town, is amazing. It’s unchanged for over 600 years. The village priest lights a candle in the church and comes out and lights all the villagers’ candles—thousands of them—and then there are processions and feasts and everyone fires guns and eats meat and drinks and…”

“Sounds fascinating,” she says in a convincingly bored voice. “Really, really wonderful, but unfortunately our April issue is all booked up already, with a special piece on Caribbean hideaways.”

“Your April issue ten and a half months from now is all booked up?” I can’t help myself.

“It’s a theme issue,” she says. “So, so sorry—”

“Actually,” and I draw this word out, cutting her off, “let me ask you, your May issue, a year from now—is that booked up already?”

“Er, no.”

“Perfect, because Greek Easter falls two weeks after our Easter and next year that falls in May, so the peg would fit perfectly in your May issue.”

“Oh, oh,” she says in the distracted manner of one who is already well over her thirty seconds of allotted phone time. We both realize that unless she is simply rude now (in her position, I would have been), the quickest way for her to get off the phone is to say, “fine.”

“Good,” she says. “Excellent, in fact. I’m so glad we finally have something to work on together. End of this week.”

“It’s not running for a year.” But the phone has already gone dead.

I sit down again for two hours and write 1,200 words about the magnificence of a Greek Easter, about the processions and the earnestness of the priests, about how a village of meat-eating heavy drinkers are vegetarian teetotalers for a whole week, about how they go wild at midnight on Good Friday, about how this tradition has gone unchanged for centuries, about how a Greek Easter could teach a New York New Year’s how to celebrate. I add a bit about the hotel at which people should stay, and about how this is the part of Greece Greeks come to for their vacations. I wait until the end of the following week and send it off.

Then I receive a tip. A new editor at the same travel magazine enjoyed some book reviews I did in London. Would I happen to have any ideas for her new section on celebrities and travel? I send a polite note to the new editor immediately, with three story ideas, two of them fluff for the main idea about Francis Coppola’s career as a hotelier in Belize, and specifically his new property by the sea. I receive a call almost immediately, which is more or less unheard of.

Love, love, love your ideas! Where have you been hiding? are the first words I hear. More to the point, there is a promise of a contract and a definitive need for a feature on the Coppola story immediately. Could I possibly go to Belize within the next, oh, three weeks or so, and have a story in a month? I’ll have to check, I say, but probably sooner than that.

“Perfect,” she says. “Just perfect.”

Within an hour another call comes through. The caller ID tells me it’s from the same number at Conde Nast. “Hi there,” I say, as if the editor and I are on a honeymoon.

“Hello,” says the pigtailed editor on the other line. “You know, this is really, really embarrassing. I’ve been pushing your work for over a year now. I’m your editor at this magazine, and when you start sneaking around behind my back—”

“No, it’s a different section and a mutual friend just thought that…”

“You listen to me,” she says. “I’ve already spoken to her about you and about our arrangement.”

“The 1,200 words in a year’s time arrangement?”

“And she’s agreed not to ruffle any feathers here,” she says. “She’s not very experienced. I mean, really, the Coppola hotel story has been done to death already.”

“It’s a brand new hotel,” I protest. “It hasn’t even opened yet. It’s his new hotel, in Placencia, not the one in the rain forest that was in Architectural Digest eight years ago.” Why do I know these things?

“It’s a nothing story and you aren’t going to Belize,” she says. “You have no idea how lucky you are to have an assignment from me. Just write about that Greek village.”

“I turned it in weeks ago.”

“If you ever do something like this again…”

If I’ve learned one thing about women’s hysteria it’s to just apologize, no matter what the circumstance, until they calm down. I imagine the two detectives at my door. “Sir, did you actually contact a Conde Nast editor when you had a contract with another Conde Nast editor?” I imagine trying to respond, being told it’s time to go downtown, being led into a small cage with a slim-hipped frightened Asian man who speaks no English and has no cigarettes. I imagine the large detective looking at me through the bars and shaking his head.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I was just excited about Belize.”

“Okay.” She softened. Just like that. Hell hath no recovery swifter than a woman apologized to. “Send those ideas over to me. You’re my writer, don’t you forget it. I’ll be in touch.”

* * * * *
Nine months pass and she is not in touch. She nods to me at two parties, as if to say, what are you doing here (a question I am asking myself at both occasions). Seated near her at an outdoor summertime dinner party, she regales our neighbors, telling them about this brilliant piece I’m working on for her. I don’t point out that she’s had it for months, that it’s all of 1,200 words, and that she hasn’t responded to the 17 ideas I’ve sent over the past several months. I don’t mention that the enthusiastic editor won’t speak to me anymore, and that our mutual friend tells me I almost cost her her job. Sitting there at that summertime dinner party feeling the crush of success all around me, I look at the pigtailed now-37-year-old editor and think of the glory that will hit newsstands. I smile at her suggestively and she blushes like the young woman she is not.

* * * * *
A few months later, the Conde Nast Traveler editor calls. She calls three times, in fact, in the space of two days—once to say she had never received the rewrite, and if she had, she had mislaid it, and would I send it over again immediately; and once to say she never received a signed contract from me, and if she had, she had mislaid it, and would I fax over the original contract immediately.

The third time:

“Great, great piece,” she trills. “Just lovely. It’s already laid out and I hope you don’t mind, but because it’s in our personal essay section we took a photo of you from Talk and drew a caricature of your face as an illustration.”

“I don’t mind at all,” I say. “But did you get the photos I had the photographer send you?”

“Yes, yes, sorry,” she says. “Those won’t really work for us at all.”


“Because this is for the personal essay section of the magazine, in the Hot Tickets Department, and we never use art for that section—only caricatures of the author. But let me fax you the story and we can go over it later.”


I get the fax from the local copy shop and go over it. The mention of the hotel has been excised completely. Paragraphs have been switched around, as they tend to be, the agonized-over lede and the tender, evocative kicker have both been cut to make room for graphics—but there it is, a full page about that little town and their great celebrations in a big travel magazine.

I call her back. “Looks great,” I say into her machine. “Thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you. Could you process payment now? Thanks.”

* * * * *
A month later, I go to the local newsstand and I’m about to buy six copies of the magazine but then I open it up and check. The May issue, published in April, the front of the book. I look for the page that had been faxed to me, the odd caricature of my face, the two funny lines that they let me keep in the story, the concession that they allowed me to keep a bare mention of the hotel. It isn’t there. Nothing.

I go home and try not to call. When I’m about done she calls me. “Hi,” she says, quite sweetly.

“Hi,” I say.

“Have you seen the new issue yet?” she asks.

“Oh, it’s out already?” I say. “I had no idea. How does it look?”

“Well, there’s a slight problem. Unfortunately at the last minute our editor cut back our pages and it was either you or A. M. Homes’s piece about the view from her apartment window so, it broke my heart, but we had to cut your story at the last minute. I am so sorry. But,” She says this “but” very, very quickly, before I can say anything, “but I think it’ll hold for a year—you do say the celebrations have been going on for six hundred years so… and of course I’ll make sure you get paid right away. But payment will have to be a kill fee, just in case the story never runs, so that’s 25 percent, and 25 percent of $600…”

“$800,” I pip-squeak.

“Are you sure?” she says. “Odd. Anyway, If you say so, 25 percent of $800 is $200, so you should have that in about two months. So sorry about this.”

“No worries,” I say. “I quite understand.”



William Georgiades

Dear Will

You fly so often, what are your thoughts on lessening the stresses of travel?

Well, funny you should ask…….

Is it worth flying business class?

If your company’s paying, yes. If you are, no. No matter how unpleasant it is to fly down the back, the difference in price between the pointy end and row 99Z will pay for your hotel, car hire and meals. And anyway, people in First and Business are usually fat, boring businessmen – cute people fly economy.

The exception is generally to Australia and New Zealand when the journey is awfully long (as well as longly awful) and on a pence per mile basis, you can often get some decent Business Class deals especially if you go with the “I wouldn’t have thought of them” airlines such as Asiana via Seoul or Etihad via Abu Dhabi.

You could see how much it costs to upgrade to Premium Economy at the airport. I did this recently and it was only £120 from Heathrow to Washington on BA, and I was recently offered an upgrade to LA on Virgin for £300.

What’s the difference between Business Class and First Class?

The level of sucking up from the crew and better seat padding. Businessmen are even podgier and more boring.

What’s the best way to overcome jet lag?

There really is no miracle cure for jet lag, despite travel editors loving to commission frequent articles on the subject.  I like to go for a short jog when I arrive and drink lots of water, but I still end up waking at three in the morning. Don’t force it – if you feel like having a nap at 4pm, do it. And then there’s always Ambien: it’s a prescription-only sleeping pill that is the only thing I’ve ever fond that will knock you out all night but leave no grogginess in the morning.

Should I drink on the flight?

Yes, life’s too short not to. You’ve earned it.  Crack open the Chilean red. Have a glass. Oh go on, have another.

Aisle or window?

There are those who rhapsodise about the time they witnessed sunrise over Mt Kilimanjaro blah blah blah, but for me it’s always aisle. You don’t want to be clambering over some stranger to get out every time especially when they’re fast asleep.

Should I join the airline’s frequent flyer scheme?

Yes, absolutely. If you’re a fairly frequent flyer the benefits start to add up and points make prizes. You will also be higher up the pecking order if they are looking for upgrades. Consider getting an airline-loyalty credit card too for extra points.

Anything extra should I take on board?

(1) A small but sturdy pillow for the small of your back, which economy class seats don’t support very well. Muji do a good one (2) A decent pair of quality, non-plasticy eye shades – if the airline even gives out a pair these days they’ll be pretty cr*ppy quality and make you sweat like a pig (3) Earplugs. Can you hear that small child screaming in row 34? No, us neither. (4) Healthy snacks – almonds and/or raisins are always a winner. (5) Moisturiser. Yes fellas, you too.

Should I pay attention to the inflight safety video?

Yes – the crew are about to give you several hours of their attention, so it’s only polite you give them several minutes of yours. Oh and it could save your life.

Any tips on packing light?

No – I’m totally rubbish and usually look like I’m going away for three weeks even if I’m on a day trip to Milton Keynes. My only advice is travel with someone who has a bigger suitcase, secretly load half your stuff in theirs when they’re not looking, then when unpacking at the other end, feign surprise with “how did all my books / toiletries / shoes get in your case?” Generally works just once.

Should I flirt with the crew?

Yes, absolutely. You could reap untold benefits from free bottles of champagne to upgrades and more.  So flash the pearly-whites and plunge in with “gosh, I just don’t know how you deal with the public day in day out” and away you go.

What’s the best way to fly with children?

Leave them at home with granny and grandpa. You can always toast the little cherubs with a glass of Malbec at the airport.


It’s 20 years ago this week that the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina started, which is estimated to have cost the lives of nearly 12,000 residents of its capital Sarajevo.

I went there in August 2008 to attend the annual film festival: W (Will) Hide had been confused with the Times’ film critic W (Wendy) Ide. Oops.

Sarajevo is a fascinating (and totally safe) place to visit for a long weekend break. There are no longer direct flights from London but you can go via Vienna for around £200, it’s easy to book a hotel on the internet and if you want to explore the countryside I’d recommend the excellent Green Visions.

Here is my report from the Times that appeared in May 2009. It was an interesting place to visit, with heaps of history and really great food. The saddest thing though was the locals’ pessimism that attitudes hadn’t really changed and that even a small nationalist spark on any side could fan the flames of hatred again at any moment. Even today, three years after the article appeared, no one side seems to have moved on.

THE call to prayer from the muezzin in the mosque next door woke me at 8pm, just as the setting sun lit up the slate roofs of Sarajevo’s old town, spread out beyond my bedroom window.

I left the courtyard of my guesthouse, walked down the hill, past the supermarket and the little kiosks selling packets of cigarettes at 40p a go.

In front I crossed the small, hump-backed pedestrian bridge over the River Miljacka, directly across from the street corner where, on June 28, 1914, the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife by Gavrilo Princip precipitated the First World War.

On Zelenih Beretki, west of the old cobbled Ottoman district of Bascarsija, crowds were carrying out a local version of a passeggiata — meandering with no particular purpose — in front of the buildings with their Austro-Hungarian façades.

Lovers walked arm in arm, grannies strolled with grandchildren, and teenage girls — some in miniskirts, others in hijab — flirted outside the lively City Pub. A more subdued hubbub came from the terrace of the Cafe Central, which linked the Catholic Cathedral at one end of the street with the Orthodox one on the other.

I was late and couldn’t stop to enjoy the scene as I would have liked, so I carried on for a few hundred metres, handed over my ticket, ducked into what looked like a car park, and plonked myself down in front of a cinema screen with about a thousand others as an advertisement for NATO blared out and bats flew in front of the projector. It was another balmy night at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

The festival began in 1995 when the city was still besieged. The actions of the “aggressor forces” (as one of my tour guides called the Serbian troops), after Bosnia and Herzegovina broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, caused 11,000 civilian deaths in the city. At least 5,000 artillery shells landed on Sarajevo each day.

The Zetra stadium, where Torvill and Dean skated a perfect ten to Ravel’s Bolero in the 1984 Winter Olympics, was smashed. Victims of the shelling buried after dark in case mourners were targeted by snipers.

The scars are still there if you look — from the burnt-out interior of the magnificent National Library (gutted by Serbian shelling at the end of the conflict) to bullet holes in buildings. However, there is a welcoming air about the place.

Sarajevo is an attractive place for a long weekend, there is no better time to visit than August when the entire town is in party mood for the film festival. The pavement cafes, bars and restaurants are at their liveliest, and in the Ottoman quarter the smell of fresh food fills the air.

The peoples of former Yugoslavia may agree on very little these days, but even the most begrudging would accept that Sarajevo does the best cevapi, small sausages served inside pitta-like bread with chopped onions and sometimes cream cheese on the side, washed down with Sarajevsko Pivo beer, and all for the equivalent of about £4.

The restaurant Kod Bibana, a ten-minute drive into the hills, offers views over the city and a plate of fresh ustipci — deep-fried savoury doughnuts served with cream cheese. In the evening, sit by the river opposite the National Library at Inat Kuca restaurant with a glass of wine and some local soup or stew and watch the sun set.

One of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s biggest attractions is the easy access it offers to star producers, directors and actors. Unlike Cannes or Venice, here you’re likely to bump into Kevin Spacey chilling in a caf? off the main pedestrian area or get close to Mike Leigh to ask him about his latest production.

Each evening there are at least two outdoor screenings, which I found as enjoyable for the people-watching as for the movies. The Sarajevans I met were a revelation. I’m not sure what, or who, I was expecting, but it wasn’t this polite, good-looking crowd.

During the day I would hop on one of the trams to visit the large fruit and veg market. I toured the national museum, which showed photos of the siege and contained a mock-up of a typical home 15 years ago, complete with plastic windows, a small gas burner for cooking and UN humanitarian rations.

I also went to the tunnel museum near the airport. During the siege the 800m passage under the runway was the only link to the outside world. Everything from soldiers to goats, cigarettes and food, passed through the tunnel and emerged in a suburban garage out of sight of the Serbian snipers.

“The last thing people here want is your guilt,” I was told by one resident. Still it’s hard not to feel uneasy when so many horrible things happened only a little over a decade ago. However, the film festival is one way that Sarajevo shows the world that it can look to the future without forgetting the past. END


I’m fresh off a flight from Miami this morning – although “fresh” really isn’t the right word (at all).

Having spent a week in Washington DC then south Florida (and thoroughly enjoyed both), I wanted to share this article that appeared in the New York Times (published December 2009) by British writer Geoff Dyer.

(As someone who’s new to blogging, I’m not quite sure what the legalities & niceties are of reproducing this, but I’m acknowledging where I got it from – hope that’s OK.)

Anyway, I have lots of American friends in London, and am often quite embarrassed at the snide, chippy way we Brits treat them, compared to the usually-lavish treatment we get when we’re in the USA. I just think this is a great piece of writing. See if you agree with Geoff:

“THE first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. Then, when I came across people who’d had direct contact with this ferocious-sounding tribe, I learned that they were actually rather friendly. At university, friends who had traveled in the United States came back with more detailed stories, not just of the friendliness of Americans but also of their hospitality (which, in our quaint English way, was translated into something close to gullibility). When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite. No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad.

This is very strange, or at least it says something strange about the way that perception routinely conforms to the preconceptions it would appear to contradict. The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication.

Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else. No such belief animates British life. On the contrary. A couple of years ago a survey indicated that British Muslims were the most fed-up of any in Europe: a sign, paradoxically, of profound assimilation.

If the typical American interaction involves an ostensibly contradictory mixture of the formal (politeness), the casual and the cordial, what happens when one moves beyond the transactional? Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked. It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm. The French put a rather charmless emphasis on charm, are consciously or unconsciously persuaded that it is either part of a display of sophistication or — and it may amount to the same thing — a tool in the service of seduction.

You can see all of this in operation on flights back across the Atlantic from America to Euroland. At first we are under the spell of America. Instead of plunking ourselves down next to someone without a word, we say “Hi.” Maybe even indulge in a little conversation, though this American readiness to chat is counterbalanced by the fear that once we’ve got into a conversation we might not be able to extricate ourselves from it. By the time we’re mid-ocean, a kind of preparatory freeze has set in. As the flight stacks up in the inevitable holding pattern over Heathrow, we begin to revert to our muttering and moaning national selves. But, for a week or so after landing, a form of what might be called Ameristalgia makes us conscious of a rudeness in British life — a coarsening in the texture of daily life — that had hitherto seemed quite normal.

For example. I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. Eighty percent of the time, the next people to play indicate that your time is up by unzipping their racket covers and strolling on court, without saying a word, without a smile, without acknowledging your existence except as an impediment. In America that would be not just unacceptable but inconceivable.

What is the relevance of this anecdotal trivia to a serious debate about the status of America in the world?

Most of my American friends were depressed and gloomy about the Bush years. Several said that if Bush were re-elected in 2004, they would leave the country. He was and they didn’t. The bottom line is that given the choice, Americans love it rather than leave it. Day to day, American life remained as pleasant as could be expected, even in the midst of considerable economic hardship. There was even a bonding, anti-Bush feeling similar to the kind of consensual opposition that we experienced under Margaret Thatcher. A visiting American artist like Patti Smith found that while the usual torrent of name-­dropping — Rimbaud, Mapplethorpe, Kerouac et al. — got a smattering of appreciative applause, a single gibe about Bush brought the house down.

At the same time, either sterling went up or the dollar went down (I don’t really understand this stuff), and as a consequence, Americans felt poor when they visited our rainy little island. So, for a brief period, we felt richer — planeloads of us went to Mannahatta and bought up everything in sight — and ideologically and ethically superior. Man, that felt good. We had a less blinkered attitude to Israel, didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.). Sure, Blair went along with invading Iraq, but wasn’t that partly because he hoped to restrain the crusading fundamentalism of Bush? Now the dollar is back up — or down, or whichever it is — Europe is no longer expensive, and with the election of Barack Obama, the brief cushion of political superiority has been permanently deflated.

The Obama election was a real kick in the teeth, because although we Britons still seethe with class hatred, we pride ourselves on our highly evolved attitude to the question of race that has consistently undermined the American dream. The slight problem is that racial intermingling in Britain is most conspicuous in the ethnically diverse makeup of the groups of yobs — Asian, black and white — who exercise their antisocial behavioral skills without any kind of discrimination as to whom they happen to be terrorizing. In this regard, as in so many others, we seem to be leading from the bottom up.

Across the board, the grounds for all our feelings of superiority have been steadily whittled away. It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness. They actually add up to a kind of ostrich stoicism that, though it can be traced back to our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.

A tiny example. There’s a fashionable gastro pub near where I live. You scrum at the bar, desperate to get the attention of the barman. After a while, he will raise his eyebrows and glare at you. Unschooled in our rough ways, a visitor from America might assume he is being threatened, but actually the glare means that your order can now be taken — as long as you’re quick about it. When a friend from California had managed to order, he was handed the credit card terminal, which showed the amount and the option to add something for service. Americans are predisposed to tip, but my friend was slightly taken aback because, far from being in receipt of anything that might be described as service, it felt as if he had been fighting for a place aboard the last lifeboat on the Titanic. “Welcome to England,” I said.” END