Friday, November 11, 2005

Weathering the Differences

In follow-up to my recent posting, A Contradiction in Terms, I've been doing a bit of research to try and get to the bottom of some of the confusing, contradictory and downright non-sensical things about England.

Similiar to how Jane Goodall might go about researching the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild, I've tried to be as scientific as possible, incorporating fieldwork (i.e. personal observation and inquiry) with established doctrine (i.e. literature written by or for British people.) In almost every instance, the latter manages to firmly substantiate my laypersons' point-of-view.

For instance, from the hilariously tongue-in-cheek How to Be British comes this passage about the schizophrenic British sense of temperature control:

"It's 11:15 pm on a cold Friday night in the dead of winter. Two young women in midriff-baring crop-tops and mini-skirts with no tights underneath are strolling along arm in arm. This is an example of our famous British toughness. On the other hand, in summer, you may observe Brits sitting on the beach wearing jackets and pullovers with long woollen socks under their sandals. The important thing to remember is that the British dress to please themselves and to show their independence of fashion, weather, social convention and color theory."

Only the Brits could find a way to spin their bizarre, weather-inappropriate dress so that it's a reflection of an unfettered sense of independence.

From Watching the English, I also learned (albeit too late to salvage many a social encounter), "The worst possible offense committed by foreigners, particularly Americans, is to belittle the English weather. When the summer temperature reaches the high 20's (low 70's Farenheit), and we moan, 'Phew, isn't it hot?', we do not take kindly to visiting Americans scoffing and saying 'Call this hot? This is nothing. You should come to [insert American city] if you want to see hot!'

Apparently, our comparisons represent "a grossly quantitative approach to weather" (if weather isn't quantitative, then what is?) but nonetheless, the English find this approach "coarse and distasteful". It seems they are very patriotic about their weather here, which I guess if you've got to grasp at straws to find something to band together on, will do in a pinch.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It’s a Jungle Out There...

As promised, for the sake of representing multiple
viewpoints from other eagle-eyed foreign observers
who either live in or have recently visited this fine city,
the following is the first ‘guest post’ on the R.A.,
coming from “Private Dave”.


As a foreigner living and working in London, I liken my stay in this country to a military exercise and so it is that I’ve begun my second tour of duty back in the trenches after having served an interminable 3-year term on my first.

And it really is a jungle out there, not only in terms of navigating traffic on the city’s narrow, congested roads or the G.I. Joe-like maneuvers required to wedge yourself onto impossibly crowded tube trains during rush hour, but also when it comes to making your way along sidewalks and stairwells without sustaining grievous bodily harm. Who knew that walking could be a combat sport?

Perhaps it’s due to the large number of foreigners present, but it seems no matter what side you choose, you invariably choose the WRONG side. Thus in London, as in the military, you have to keep your head up and your shoulders squared, a lesson I’ve learned the hard way after being maliciously sideswiped--and then cursed at--on more than one occasion. Though it’s not unlike the behavior of New York cabbies that seem to spot a pedestrian and then hit the gas, only to slam on the brakes and scream obscenities at the offending victim they nearly ran down, here it’s a more of a stealth attack rather than a direct assault.

Observing this behavior, I’ve become increasingly convinced that some Brits (mainly of the male persuasion) engage in these tactics as a covert form of exercising their pent-up aggression. Suited up in their battle fatigues (usually a colorful checked shirt and dark suit), they appear to outright target unsuspecting victims in their sights like hapless rabbits caught in the crosshairs. It’s just lucky for us they’re only armed with briefcases instead of bayonets nowadays.

Though the weaponry of choice among the infantry divisions may have progressed, unfortunately, the battlefield on the London streets has just as inversely regressed. A recent study determined that traffic in 1899 moved faster here than it does in modern times. Perhaps this was the justification the honorable mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, used to implement the congestion charge for the questionable ‘pleasure’ of driving on his city streets. In any case, it now costs the equivalent of $15 U.S. to drive to work each day, which the U.S. embassy, for one, is refusing to pay.

Thanks to these measures, I will admit that I’ve noticed a difference in my daily commute: I can now move along at a clipping pace of 5.1 mph instead of my old average of 4.2. Nonetheless, I’m sure the money is being well-spent on…hmmm…wait a minute, just where is the money going? Oh yes, they claim public transport. Interesting claim, because last time I checked, the Tube was still a crowded, dirty, malfunctioning relic from the Victorian era. Maybe if they actually did upgrade the Tube, they’d finally stop people from taking to the roads and abandoning public transport in droves.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in the fact that this is a nation so caught up in reveling in past glories that they’ve failed to notice we’re actually residing in the present. No matter what the subject, talk invariably turns to previous successes, even if it’s necessary to travel back in time to Tudor England to find an applicable reference point.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the arena of sports, particularly soccer (or footie, as it’s called here in Blighty). When England plays Germany, the constant chant is "one world cup and two world wars, doo-da, doo-da!" Mind you, the last time they won the World Cup here was in 1966. Despite this, they were still bringing out these aging septuagenarians for quotes on the subject of heroism when England beat Australia in the Ashes cricket tournament for the first time in eighteen years this fall. But winning or losing aside, can you ever imagine the U.S. playing baseball against a team from Japan and the crowd chanting, "85 titles and two big bombs...doo-da doo-da"? Somehow, I don’t think so.