Thursday, August 2, 2012

England 2012: A Parallel Universe

I've been tickled by the chiding Boris Johnson has given the good people of London recently. The Mayor felt it was time for the locals to stop whinging about all the problems the Olympics are causing around town. But it wasn't his fussing that I found humorous, it was that we experienced exactly the opposite when we visited England back in June.

My English husband, Martyn and I moved from London to East Texas in late 2007, and were happy to go. The weather was miserable that summer, tensions over terrorism were high, violence in the city was rising, the level of disengagement from people was overwhelming - it felt like the English had closed in on themselves. The peaceful Texas countryside beckoned so we hopped on a plane and headed for sunshine - and many challenges as it turns out, but that's another blog post.

A cold and wet Denmark Street

We made our first trip back to England in June 2012 with some trepidation, and were pleasantly surprised at what we found. The weather was still miserable, terrorism remains top of the agenda, but the people - now there's where we saw a real change.

Covent Garden

It was truly bizarre. Perky shop assistants. Kind waiters and waitresses. Smiling, downright friendly people walking the streets. Helpful sellers on the markets. Even the kids working the music shops on Denmark street were polite. When we stepped out of the way of a boy riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, he said, "Thank you." Shocking, given the attitudes of people when we left the city in 2007.

 (For the record, things didn't get too far out of hand - most people still observed the First Commandment when using public transport: 

Thou Shalt Not Make Eye Contact

But a thrill-loving few disobeyed. Remarkable.)

Given that we expected rudeness and long, dour faces, we were stunned. So stunned that we kept count of the negative interactions we had during our brief ten-day trip. We must've interacted with a hundred people or so, which is a tiny fraction of the English population. So how many were difficult? Only two. That's right, we encountered only two people who were remotely unpleasant.

Leicester Square

Martyn and I tried to figure out what had happened in the five years we'd been away to change attitudes and behavior so dramatically. Aerial spraying of anti-depressants? Some mysterious 'nice juice' in the water supply? Sugar instead of salt on the fish and chips? Not that we could detect.

In fact, all we could come up with was that everybody felt, well, pride at being English. Even at being British.

Fortnum & Mason'
Yeah, I know. Seems implausible. But consider that we hit England smack dab between the Jubilee Celebrations and the start of the Olympics, while the England football team was still a contender in the European Cup. The place was swathed in the Union Jack and reminders to keep the place tidy. And people did. The streets were as clean as I've seen them. And the people. Well, it's like we landed in a parallel universe. A lovely one, but parallel nonetheless.

Oxford Street
What does it all mean?

For those who venture out to the Olympics, you're in for a real sense of how great and good the British people are. Of how the country retains its ability to pull together to meet a challenge, and to make visitors to that jewel of an island feel welcome.

A good motto any time

For us? After five years of dreading the trip back, we're already planning the next visit, hoping to stay longer, and looking forward to that time with downright excitement.

The welcome was as warm as any we could give in Texas (minus the hugging, of course). And for that, British-folk, I salute you.

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