Monday, December 10, 2007

What is Britain? The Return of the Native

Another great article in today's Guardian about an ex-pat Londoner returning to his homeland after 20 years abroad. The writer, Jon Henley, frustrated by the third re-election of Maggie Thatcher and the dirty and depressing state of London, he left the country. Returning "home", he finds the country (or more accurately, the city of London) to be a whole new world. Some highlights from the article:

When I left London for Amsterdam, your best chance of getting a decent cup of coffee was, frankly, to move to Amsterdam. Or Paris, or Milan, or even (I imagine) Irkutsk. Tea we were good at...Now whether Starbucks, Caffè Nero, Costa Coffee etc actually count as cafes in the historically accepted sense of the term is, of course, debatable, but it is at least true that it is now possible to consume, on a great many high streets in Britain, and every few yards in parts of central London, something that might reasonably be called coffee. Except, obviously, it won't be called coffee. It'll be called espresso or ristretto or latte or mocha or cappuccino or americano or macchiato or some unholy combination of the above, such as double mocha macchiato with whipped cream and crushed Bolivian brazil nuts from the farm of our friend Raul Ramirez. Each of these is available in a range of coffee varieties such as Colombia Narino Supremo and Guatemala Antigua. So while we seem at long last to have embraced (a travesty of) cafe society, we now need a menu to order our coffee. Is this progress? Reader, I do not know. (My thoughts - so true!)

...My friend Caroline, who left Britain in 1993, came back last summer after spells in Berlin, Moscow and Paris and furnished several fine ideas for this article, would like to point out that there is one bad thing about the buses (and in fact it also applies to the tube) and it's the fact that these days, people eat burgers in them. Also kebabs, and yes, even classic pan-baked pizzas with BBQ sauce, bacon, chicken, cherry tomatoes, red onions and an extra drizzle of rich authentic-tasting sauce from the farm of our, etc. Just when did it become socially acceptable, I often wonder, to eat your main meal of the day on the top of the number 43? (My thoughts - This is true and also, some folks find it perfectly acceptable to blast Euro trash house/dance music from their mobiles so that everyone else on the bus must suffer and revel in their subhuman behaviour).

...When did it become an overriding social imperative for the under-25s to throw up and pass out on the pavement on Friday nights? (My thoughts - again, and sadly I must admit, this seems to be true. Which isn't to deny that yes, I once drank red wine to the extent where I fell down in the middle of St. Vincent Street and proclaimed my love for every passing Scottish person).

...On the whole, though, I love being back. Really I do. One last question: what's with all the Porsches?

Well, that's the big change, really. The one really stand-out, in your face, can't-fail-to-notice-it difference; the one you tell your foreign friends about first. London now - you can smell it - is about money. About making it and talking about it and spending it (on Sundays, too! On £2,000 handbags!) and showing everyone how much of it you've got. And if we don't have enough of it, we borrow, remortgage or put it on plastic. We're way deeper in debt than any other nation in Europe. We work longer hours than anyone else on the continent. Take fewer holidays. Are never off the BlackBerry. And shop, to the death. We are sacrificing our lives, and the quality of our lives, on the altars of work and commerce. It's not like that where I've spent the last 20 years. It wasn't like that here in 1987. And that's a shame.

Right. So Jon may have a point but you know, it's still a WHOLE LOT better than Canada or America. In Scotland, I am entitled to 5+ weeks holiday whereas in Canada, I was allowed a measly 2 weeks and what's even sadder? You come to accept that 2 weeks is sufficient. Call me lazy, but I'm beginning to think that 5 weeks off for holidays is a lot more productive than slaving away all year long - all the while looking forward to those mere two weeks. I guess that's just the European in me.


lilalia said...

What I like about the article is the fact that Jon seemed to leave England and not turn back and, hopefully, enjoyed a time of living in other European countries. I think it is inevitable when returning that so much subtly and not so subtly as changed. It must be interesting, as well as confusing. I've left Canada twenty-five years ago. When anyone asks me what it is like to live in Canada, I always says, "I don't know". Did you get the impression that Jon was saying life is better on the mainland than it is in England? Do you have a sense of losing contact with the changes in Canada?

Squirmy Popple said...

Two week's holiday is badm but I can beat it. I worked for a magazine in New York before I moved to Scotland, where you only got one week's holiday - AFTER one year's service. For the first year, you got nothing.

Jennifer said...

Damn, Katie. That is brutal. I thought 2 weeks was borderline inhumane!

SharClark said...

I makes me sad that the writer seems to be describing America when he talks about the money-loving issue, and it makes me even sadder that it makes me sad, since I live in America! What he describes is exactly what I see, and I live in Iowa, the Heartland of America, not a big city. Eating your meals on the go (I don't use public transportation), talking loudly on cell phones ANYWHERE and not lowering your voice when it's personal, and MONEY everywhere! Always just above the actual amount of money people are making. It breaks my heart that anyplace would be more like America in any way other than the freedoms we enjoy. I think I've had too much coffee and too much bad weather (ice storm yesterday, stuck in the house with my 3 kids and daycare kids for @ freakin' days!) so the rant is over...