Towards the end of the school year (which just ended last week!) I came across a photocopy in the teacher’s lounge. One of the French teachers had copied it for her classes as they study English and it was a simply worded paper detailing some of the differences in British culture. The title was aptly, “The British Are Different!” It then proceeded to offer some of these differences including my personal favorite, “The British are funny! They tell great jokes and do tricks.” The British are different. What a simplistic way to summarize the hundreds of years of dissent, war, misunderstandings, feuds, stereotypes, and affectionate mocking that exist between the two nations.
Last weekend I went to London with my friend Jessie and I did indeed find that the British are different. I had been to Oxford twice, but had never spent any time in London and as I soon return stateside, I decided it was now or never. To begin with, the entire feel of London is different than Paris, which I didn’t expect. In my American mind they are both Old European Centers of Culture and History, and I have a set look that I imagine with that title. But I forget that London has burnt to the ground, endured air raids, been re-built and modernized in a way that Paris hasn’t. Sometimes I joke that Paris is still primitive in many ways, but London has eagerly lurched into the modern business world with the Tower of London and Big Ben poking up obstinately to remind us of what was. It wasn’t until we wandered into the Kensington area that I found the London that years of movies had drilled into my head.
But beyond being the surface differences, the British themselves are different. My Tube train stopped for a while coming headed to King’s Cross Station. Now, as this happens almost once a day in Paris, I knew that once they could move, they would. Until then, we just squish together in an annoyed, but not surprised bunch. Often in Paris, no one ever comes on to even tell you that those driving have noted the delay. Helpful information rarely arrives in excess in Paris. Yet in the 10 minutes we waited at the Victoria Station platform, the conductor came on about 8 times telling us why we were stopped, when we would be starting, and not to worry. Each time, his words were met with Londoners sighs of content. The formal, sometimes ridiculous rules of protocol that seem to govern even simple elements of social interaction in France don’t seem to exist here, or at least, not in the way I know them. While this might sound like freedom, it actually meant that I was at a loss. Do I greet the shopkeeper or ignore her because she is ignoring me? Do I go for a handshake, cheek kiss, or hug, as I have gotten all three from someone or another? What do you do when no one acknowledges you in a pub despite the fact that you have tried both the stand awkwardly at the bar and sit at the table route?
Yet there is one thing that is not so different about the British, or more specifically, about London. And that is the beauty that washes over me in cities that have a history older and richer than anything I have grown up with. I watched the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham palace and was thrilled by the precision and order that remains, not by necessity, but because it is tradition and that makes it worthy. I walked round the tower where Anne Boleyn was killed thinking of the repercussions that monarch’s personal lives have on our own, even today. And I sat in Evensong in Westminster Abbey, listening to sweet voices rise towards the vaulted ceiling in songs to an ageless God. Beneath the ornate canopy that has seen the coronations, weddings, and funerals of many of England’s rulers, perfect voices rang out,
Rise Royal Sion! Rise and sing
Thy soul’s Shepherd, thy heart’s King.
Stretch all thy powers; call if you can
Harps of heaven to hands of man.