Discovering My English Bits
As anyone who has bought me a beer has undoubtedly heard, I am one-ninth Irish.
Half of the rest of me (i.e. 4/9ths) is Dutch, and the other half consists of vestigial bits of English colonial baggage filtered through five generations of Southern Ontario WASPness. (This probably explains how I can manage to be charming, stubborn and anal retentive all at the same time...but hey, what can I do? It's my heritage).
Years ago, I explored my Celtic soul on a hitch-hiking trip around the coast of Eire with my friend, Mike. But this Schagen Zone holiday in the United Kingdom has been my first real chance to get in touch with my inner-Englishman.
Here are a few pictures of our last few weeks in London. Click on any image to enlarge it.
The UK is a place that you think that you know. Indeed, you can't turn a corner in London without a sense of déjà-vu; it all looks so familiar from all the movies and TV shows that are set here. And after travelling in four countries where English is not the first language, it was a relief to suddenly be able to understand everyone and read all the signs, maps and headlines.*
But I quickly realized that despite my patrimony and linguistic proficiency, I really am a foreigner here too. It's subtle, but there is a lot more going on here in the social interactions and mannerisms than I had understood.
I mean, it's like going to another country. :-)
Watching the English
Sensing my culture shock, our hosts, Heather and Isabel, very kindly lent me a copy of Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (2005). As a social anthropologist, the author tried to take an objective look at her own culture to decode the unwritten codes of conversation, class and well, just about everything.
Through this lens she observed that, in general, the English:
- value their privacy very highly -- to the point that no one talks to strangers on the tube, or even in a museum when your kids are playing together;
- take queueing very seriously -- for the Tube, for a pint at the pub, for pretty much everything -- and jumping the queue is a very serious offence;
- are often socially awkward, and thus have very strict practices about small talk (the weather), banter and introductions -- it's like a nation of Hugh Grant characters;
- have a propensity for saying "sorry" all the time, but not always in ways that imply an apology (that sounds somewhat Canadian);
- interject a layer of ironic humour into any conversation, no matter how serious the topic and/or engage in "moaning" about almost any topic;
- tend to be self-deprecating, as it is considered crass to brag about one's accomplishments (e.g. "I work at a hospital" may actually mean "I'm the leading brain surgeon in the UK"-- which of course, is not exactly "rocket science")
- are obsessed with social class, but never talk about it openly --- that wouldn't be proper. But apparently everyone is immediately aware of each other's social class based on their accent, vocabulary, clothing, food and drink, the kind of car they drive, etc. Moreover, unlike in Canada, your class is not necessarily connected to your actual wealth or income, and it is virtually impossible to move up the class ladder no matter how much money you make.
Suddenly, so much of what I was observing here made perfect sense :the silent Tube cars, the polite line-ups for everything, the strange pub etiquette.....And for the first time I kind of understood that the formality and verbosity of my childhoood Anglican church maybe wasn't so much a theological matter as just vestigial Englishness.
And also with you.
Watching England Change
Of course, England (and the wider UK) is changing. Since joining the European Union, millions of East Europeans have moved here to work, to the extent that Polish is now the second most common language here in London (albeit at 2% of the population and 98% of the plumbers).
The urban areas of the country are now a veritable curry of cultures and languages, and you're just as likely to find a Turkish, Nigerian or Polish restaurant in many parts of town as a pub advertising "proper British Food" -- lovely with mushy peas.
Not everyone is happy about this, however. Some of the support for the English nationalist party in the recent national elections reflects a backlash against this recent wave of immigration, as well as the "English" asserting their own nationalism in the face of Irish, Welsh and now resurgent Scottish nationalism. But I would say that this cultural diversity gives London a great cosmopolitan vibe, and it is one of the world's truly "global"cities. It will also be interesting to observe how much of the "English" culture is adapted by newcomers, and how much they change it.
Hmm...perhaps I should have been an anthropologist. Maybe next career.
But for now, I will just say a quick "Cheerio" to the UK as we head off to my other mother-land tomorrow.
Cheers! / Tot ziens!...
p.s. A MASSIVE THANKS again to our friends, Colin, Kyle & Jane, Michael & Suzanne, and Heather & Isabelle for hosting us here.
* Isaac, in particular, was keen to let out 8 months of pent up small talk. He positively gushed as he talked to Heather about all things Star Wars, Marvel vs. D.C. and Premier League.