On being British: 6 things I learnt about the Britishers
Even though I am a seasoned traveler and have stayed for long periods in Italy, Germany and the United States, I never really got to London till this summer! I have heard from friends on London being one of the most vibrant cities in the world and I could not agree less. Wasn't it the famous English writer, Samuel Johnson who said in the year 1777, that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford!
I was a guest at my cousin's house in London for almost two months and while she was busy with her work, I had plenty of time and opportunity to discover London on my own and get to know the British. Leaving the house early, I would sometimes treat myself to a freshly cooked organic breakfast at Pret A Manger with my favorite soya cappuccino to go, and then spend the day exploring London.
I was completely drawn to the British accent even though it took me a while to get used to it and the fascinating British culture with their old-world courtesy and afternoon tea at 4. Here I record for my memory of my time spent in London and the U.K., some of my observances about the British from my daily interactions with them.
I have never come across another culture in the world as polite as the British. I remember one time when I was traveling by train from Scotland to London, the gentleman seated opposite me was what I would call a true Brit in every sense of the word. He was from Newcastle and the politeness with which he addressed me and others was simply astonishing. I was reintroduced to expressions like 'allow me' and 'after you' and became aware that words like 'please', 'sorry' and 'thank you' were perhaps not only the most frequently used words in British language but also the most important!
Another time when I was taking pictures at a London underground, a man who looked like a security guard, came to me and told me that I needed special permission to take pictures there. What really struck me was his polite manner with which he spoke with me and his courteous behavior. This was my first incident anywhere in the world when a security guard or a police officer has shown me such respect and courtesy.
In England, I also learnt that along with politeness comes a high degree of formality that embraces the British language and culture. In America, it is very easy to pick up conversations with strangers and then say goodbye without even exchanging names! It's totally cool when the shop assistant at Trader Joes, while he is billing my groceries, asks me my plans for the evening!
However, I did not find the same thing in London. I remember on my first day there, I was at a public washroom and seeing an old British lady comb her hair, commented that it was a good idea to always carry a comb! She looked up at me rather startled and somewhat offended that I had intruded upon her privacy.
As I was further introduced to the British culture and made some new British friends, I discovered that the same formality existed with them. You could get to know them really well but there was always an underlying formality that came with the friendship.
Once I was waiting for the tube at London Barbican during rush hour. Even though the platform was overwhelmingly crowded, there was pin drop silence as people dressed in suit and tie waited for the train to arrive. There was an incredible air of formality that permeated the atmosphere and left me open-mouthed! Later, my cousin told me that it was considered rude even to make eye-contact with people traveling in the train and was perhaps best to look up if the train was too packed!
3. Use of endearing terms
After having acquainted myself to the British formality, I was taken by surprise when strangers addressed me with words such as 'dear', 'love' and 'darling'! I did not know what to make out of it, till my cousin explained me that these were signs on what kind of relationship they wanted to develop with you!
After a few faux-pas, I realized that the best way to meet a Britisher was by keeping distance and not getting too familiar. In Italy, it is a custom to greet others by kissing twice, however something like this in Britain is not taken well and can be easily misunderstood for some ulterior motives.
5. Perfect hosts
In my visit to British homes, I have also found out that they are the perfect hosts. Whether they are cooking a meal for you or inviting you for an afternoon tea, the attention to detail with which they look after you, is very impressive. Some of my best memories of London are the evening meals which I had with friends when I was a guest at their homes.
6. Afternoon tea
There is nothing like afternoon tea in Britain. Accompanied with sandwiches, tea and cakes, it is perhaps, for most Britishers, the most important event of the day. I am an avid coffee drinker but when I was in London, I found myself turning for solace to a cup of fine Earl Grey tea served in porcelain cups in the late afternoons.