Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas In the UK, 2010

Christmas Carol Singalong at the Royal Albert Hall
Happy Christmas from the UK, where it is a tradition to give out ‘crackers’-- cardboard tubes wrapped in festive paper that, when pulled, pop out a tissue crown, a useless toy, and a silly joke! Where the Christmas meal includes brussels sprouts, sausages, and this weird, flaming clump called Christmas pudding! Where everyone gathers around the telly on Christmas afternoon to listen to an address from the Queen! Where Boxing Day is celebrated with as much enthusiasm as the day that commemorates the saviour’s birth!

It is snowy here in England, one of an endless stream of wintry grey days that fold early into dark, black night. We string lights around windows and wear colourful scarves and cling to any spot of sun that brings a bit of brightness to our dreary winter season. We plan long weekends on warm beaches or desert resorts and wait in quiet acceptance for the promise of spring.

On days like this, I wonder if I did not lose my mind, almost two years ago, when I left family, friends and the comfort of a predictable job to move halfway around the world at the age of 52. On days like this, I am mindful of what I miss about life in the US, but also of the things I love about living on this quirky island in the North Sea.

What I Miss Most

Space: London houses roughly 12,500 people per square mile, a sliver of land bulging at the seams with humanity, leaving little room to move and breathe. In the mornings, we cram onto buses and trains, scurry down steps to the subway ‘tube’, bump into each other on skinny sidewalks, trudge home at night to tiny sitting areas too small to be termed ‘living rooms.’ No large, sweeping lanais, grand back yards, or walk-in closets here, at least not where I and most of the working class live.

I miss wide streets, miles of saw grass dotted with ponds and canals, patches of trees that line highways leading to long stretches of sugary, sandy beach.

Infrastructure: Duo-mat washers that crumple clothes into a wrinkled heap, ageing radiators that sizzle and boil but leave the room with pockets of frozen air, refrigerators the size of the dormitory fridges we had in college, plumbing pipes connected with duct tape to toilets that were not brought indoors until the 70s. The 1970s. Crumbling streets that cannot handle the bumper to bumper traffic, repairs that take weeks to schedule, and the laughable ineptitude of the Royal Mail.

Six weeks of holiday and working days that start at 9 a.m. and end promptly at 5 are great for employees, but an infuriating lack of service is one of the unfortunate consequences of a society that is not so work-driven. Queuing up, (or standing in line), is a daily activity, here, for 30 minutes to an hour, in the shops or on the telephone. Even the subways close down at midnight, leaving people who have attended late concerts ‘scrambling to make the tube.’ And an inch of snow brings the entire country to a grinding halt. Apparently those who manage the inner workings of this country have never heard of a shovel or a snow plow.

I miss the ease with which things flow in the United States—late night stores and restaurants, providers willing to accommodate working people, clothes you can pull from the dryer and wear without ironing, more than two cashiers in a busy grocery or clothing shop.

My friend said that England is called the “land of inconvenience.” It is a title that fits.

Family, Friends, and Familiarity: It is the country that birthed ours. It is a country with a shared language, shared history, and shared culture. But it is only now becoming a familiar place. They drive on the wrong side of the road, love baked potatoes with weird fillings stuffed in them, have an odd fondness for Heinz beans, and smoke like chimneys on the streets. They are a distant and formal people, who hide their detachment with polite speech and terms of endearment like ‘darlin’ and ‘love.’

I miss the known world of the country from which I came. I miss being able to pick up the phone and call best friends, and drive to see them when I am feeling alone. I miss the daily connection with my son, who is studying hard at University, whose life has blossomed in spite of his mother’s absence. I miss being able to visit cousins and aunts and uncles and siblings and nieces and nephews with a few hours’ drive or a short flight.

There is something to be said for living a life at ease, surrounded by people who know you best.

What I Love
No Guns: Crime exists, here, of course. People are robbed, burgled (I myself was robbed in February), sometimes stabbed. But the streets here do not carry the same feeling of paranoia and tension as American city streets. Mass shootings occur rarely and, when they do occur, are met with outrage and shock. Even the police do not have guns, a feature of their role that requires them to rule through collaboration rather than coercion.

Progressive, liberal, bleeding heart: There is a safety net for the poor here that, while insufficient, at least exists. People receive housing. Jobless receive a small allowance. Everyone is entitled to a basic level of care, including health care. Though the Tories are now in charge, and are making massive cuts, there are certain things they do not dare to question: the right of people to have a bed in which to sleep, a roof over their heads, and food to eat--the right of people to seek medical care without it crippling their future. Trade unions are celebrated and not a dirty word. People still protest in the streets. And the only tea baggers here are ones who pull them from their English tea!

Diverse: The other day I was walking down the street when an old Jamaican lady became tickled by the greeting honk of a bus driver speeding by. She spoke to me in a blend of Patois and English that I could not understand. But I delighted in her joy. Every day I share my work space with people from Zimbabwe, the Congo, India, South Africa, the Caribbean, Iran. I work with young men fleeing war and persecution in Eritrea and Afghanistan. I ride the bus home with women in saris and men in kufis and others in dreadlocks that reach the middle of their backs. I have learned about the Hindu festival of Diwali and the Muslim observance of Ramadan and their celebration of Eid. I have shared foods and juices prepared by foster carers who come from all over the world. Each day I learn something new about the people and cultures that surround me here, where we all manage to live together in community.

Culture and History: I have seen live theatre productions with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum and James Earl Jones. I have seen plays that I read and cherished as a child enacted on the greatest stages in the world. I have been to concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and seen the original works of Vincent Van Gogh. I am surrounded by the spirits of the greatest writers that ever lived—Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf. I have seen the great works of art at the Louvre. I stood at the site of a 6th century monastery in Ireland. I have experienced a world far beyond an Indiana girl’s wildest dreams.

Travel: My father once boasted that he had been to two foreign countries and all the states. His two foreign countries were Canada, and Hawaii before it was a state. My sister’s last wish was to visit a foreign country, a wish that she did not live to fulfill. I like to think that part of this travel is for them. I have been to the highlands of Scotland in search of the monster at Loch Ness. I walked the freezing streets of Paris with my son, and sat in "Le Deux Magots” that once fed Hemmingway and Oscar Wilde. I stood at Chopin’s and Jim Morrison’s Paris graves. I have been to Dublin and Wales and Denmark and walked the clean, symmetrical streets of Sweden. In January I go to Morocco and will catch a ride to Casablanca on the Marrakesh Express. In February I travel to Istanbul. I have other destinations planned, places I had thought beyond possibility not so long ago. Amsterdam in August. Italy in July. Prague in September. Vienna for Christmas next year.

I do not know how long I will be here. Immigration laws are becoming more severe. Events and circumstances may eventually call me home. If I have learned anything from the last few years, it is that it is foolish to believe in the sanctity of plans. Our lives can change in a moment, our futures turned upside down. Perhaps I was slightly mad when I decided to make this move. But I am so happy that I did.

Happy Christmas to all from across the pond~

~ Until we meet again.