Walking home from teaching my first week in London, a man in a white T-shirt and work pants standing at the open bonnet (hood) of a lorry (truck) stuck out a hand and said in a thick British accent, “Excuse me, mate. You know of a good auto repair shop ’round here?”
I stopped. What just happened? An Englishman asked me for the kind of advice someone only asks a local. Was it my dark clothing, or my red beard? Was it the fact that I walked down the pavement (sidewalk) minding my own business? I don’t know. All I knew was I was in a foreign country, and apparently I fit in.
“No, sorry,” I said in the proper British way of apologizing for something that was in no way my fault (albeit in my American accent). “I’m not from around here.”
The man nodded. “Thank you anyway.”
And I walked on.
From the moment I landed in London, one of the things I wanted to do is not look like a foreigner. I was there to teach a travel writing class, and the best way to see Londoners in their natural habitat is to become one of them. If I kept my mouth shut, mission accomplished.
Great. I now felt more at home in London than I felt in a lot of places in America, like Chicago, and most of Texas. If you’ve never felt alone in your own country, go to East Texas and talk to anybody, especially at Walmart (excuse me, The Walmarts).
In London, I shared the British love of intellectual humor that was silly at the same time, their love of food people in most countries wouldn’t touch, and beer. Lots of beer. Delicious beer consumed at room temperature, and at all times of the day. The British are good people.
But one of the things I felt really at home with was all of the cardigans. A cardigan is an open-front sweater that zips, buttons, or ties, and makes everyone around them point and laugh, at least back home.
In the United States, if you’re not Mr. Rogers (who’s dead. I hope he was buried in one of those cardigans made by his mother), David Beckham (who can wear anything he wants, thank you), or various hipsters I’d like to punch, nobody wears cardigans.
Seriously, nobody, except me.
I have an old grey (gray) cardigan I never wear out of the house. I should have brought it to England. Maybe more British people would stop me to ask things, crazy things, like where’s the nearest Tube station, pub, or 500-year-old building (just turn around). I could answer them all.
The cardigan is immensely underappreciated for an article of clothing named after a man immortalized in a poem for being a badass – James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh earl of Cardigan.
Born in 1797, an angry Brudenell entered the Army in 1824 as a lieutenant colonel and argued with everyone he could argue with, presumably because he wore a sweater with buttons down the front. In 1837, he required his entire regiment wear these sweaters. After a promotion to major general in 1854 (not because of the sweater), he led his men in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.
The Charge of the freaking Light Brigade, fixed in history by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
What did Brudenell do to celebrate the victory? He went to his ship, had dinner, and guzzled wine all while wearing a cardigan. The crown soon after named Brudenell inspector general of the cavalry, which proved unfortunate because he was killed by a horse.
A man who survived a cavalry charge during the Crimean War, and only died when a 1,500-pound animal challenged him to personal combat, also popularized the cardigan sweater.
I just put on my grey cardigan, and feel like punching a lion. I’ll never, ever take it off.