Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Deep joy. What a wonderful Wednesday it's been so far. So good in fact, that I might just be able to locate within myself a slight smidgen of an iota of sympathy for those of you who have been less fortunate.

Waking up to discover that all last night's results went in the Blades' favour took at least 50mg off the morning caffeine requirements and also meant that I could face the bus into work with a less intense trepidation than is usual.

One hour's work later and it becomes apparent that none of my scheduled students for the day are going to be able to make it and it is therefore, with a profound sense of sadness and disappointment that I wend my way to the bus stop all the while pondering the clause in my contract which guarantees a minimum daily payment equivalent to 8 hours' work.

Arrive home. Fend off attentions of excited, exuberant and yet decidedly damp Alsatian. Change clothes. Make coffee. Open e-mail. Am reliably informed by accountant that my company's tax bill for 2002/2003 will be less than half of what I was expecting. And I was so looking forward to helping subsidise Tony's next foreign policy adventure.

So, having been thuswise rescued from the grip of penury, I call my mechanic and invite him to tootle over at his leisure, remove carcass of car and please to return it ASAP in tip-top, roadworthy condition. Only too pleased...etc...etc... Yip, yaroo.

And just when I was getting the hang of this bus business, too. Amazing what you can learn in such a short time.

1. Old people have absolutely no priority whatsoever and should be elbowed out of the way as and when the opportunity arises.

2. Four on the door...yeah, right.

3. "Youse is infringing upon me territorial imperative, chum" is best expressed by the application of metal briefcase to area immediately behind transgressor's kneecap.

4. In standing room only situations, the lurching of the bus is solely to provide an excuse for brushing against attractive members of the opposite sex.

5. Seating is only provided for those of the population who are either swift enough or aggressive enough to avail themselves of it. All Twirlies* must either dangle off the straps, wedge themselves firmly in the aisle or end up in a heap on the floor. There is no exception to this rule.

6. Speaking is only permitted if it occurs at sufficient volume to enable all present to be included in the conversation. There is no limit to the subject matter but the function of any oral output should be limited to complaints only.

Easy really, once you get the hang of it.

Point 6 doesn't really bother me. It's one of the advantages of the ex-pat lifestyle that it is easy to reduce conversations in a foreign language to mere background noise. You have to concentrate more to actively follow such a conversation you see, so the solution is simple. Don't. It's the first thing I notice whenever I return to England and it really does my head in. I understand what everybody is saying and I cannot, for at least a week, tune it out. One's senses are fried by such conversational gems as...

"...then she turns round and says.........."

"Ooooh, she didn't!"

"She did, you know. So I turns round and says....."

And I'm left with a strange vision of people spinning around on their axes before every pathetic little utterance and sticking my fingers in my ears rather than face the consequences of a probable charge of assault and battery. With intent. And malice aforethought.

I'm sure there must be other advantages to living abroad. I've never really sat down and considered it before. Let me see.

I guess a lot of it depends on where you expatriate to. I can only speak from my experience here in Hungary where what ex-pat community there is exists only in Budapest and is still, even there, to a large extent, avoidable. Which should tell you into which of the two groups of ex-pat I could reasonably be placed. Certainly, I hope, not the one that consists of people who congregate together, speak only English (only much louder) and spend most of their time complaining how unlike home it all is, all the while disparaging their hosts and making knowing, snide remarks about their quaint little customs and traditions. Bitter and unhappy individuals, the lot of 'em. I mean, there they all are, thrown together solely by reason of their Englishness and having to socialise with people they would cross the street to avoid back in Blighty. Not ideal.

The other group, and the one I feel the closest affinity to, contains those who learn the language and throw themselves whole heartedly into the experience.

One advantage to such a life is that you are always treated as something special, which does wonders for the ego but needs recognising for what it is. Realising that you have done little to deserve such treatment must always be at the forefront of your mind.

Relocating to a cheaper country and having a contract paid in sterling may also lead to earning more in a month than a lot of people do in a year. This also needs careful handling. 'If you've got it, flaunt it' is not the best course of action. Which does not, of course, mean to say that you shouldn't enjoy the lifestyle, just don't rub it in is all. I bought my first car here, I designed and built my own house, I never have to look at the price of anything in the supermarkets and I don't owe any money to anyone, no how. I could never, repeat, never have done this had I remained in England. The start to every day for me, is looking in the mirror and reciting "You lucky bastard" over and over again until such time as it wins out over the "Yeah, but I've worked bloody hard for it an' all" counter argument. And it's true. I invested a lot of time, money and effort in getting here but I'd be in deep do-do if I failed to recognise that, compared to the majority of the population here, my good fortune borders on the obscene.

What I find the greatest advantage of all is being able to look back on one's own country with an objectivity that would otherwise be impossible. Now I know that I'm on dangerous ground here (are you listening, Big Mart?!) but the realisation that there may be positive aspects of other countries, peoples and traditions and that these have just as much validity and worth as those of your own is one well worth making. Anything which leads to you overcoming your prejudices and stereotypes and to your reaching the conclusion that your own country is not per se the best in the world can only be a good thing. The people I find myself warming to, seeking the company of and wanting to spend time with, are increasingly those who have travelled, those who have spent some time in another culture and have therefore a better perspective on their own. To take a crass example, the average American rarely leaves his or her home State and most of the tourists I have met from there have been only too delighted to conform to my stereotypical conception of the American abroad. American travellers however, are entirely different. They are educated in a way that is not taught within the education system. I got to know the family of an American boss at a company in town and it was a delight to watch the change in them as they spent more time here. He was very easy going and his children were of such an age as to be infinitely adaptable but his wife, a generous, friendly and gregarious lady, had problems adjusting. Everything was compared to back home and found wanting. She couldn't seem to understand why Hungary wasn't just like Texas but with a foreign accent and why Hungarians didn't behave like your typical Texan.

A small example, but telling nonetheless. When Hungarian women would introduce themselves to her as Mrs Whatsername, she would announce that she hated that and why couldn't they use their first names? The fact that they either wanted to be polite or to maintain an appropriate distance never even occured to her. It took a good few years for her to come to terms with it all but at the end of five years, when she returned home, she was genuinely sorry to have to leave and went back to Texas, in my view, a much better person for the experience.

Now this doesn't apply to only Americans although the differences are highlighted by the facts that America is a long, long way away from any other culture and that it is such a mind-bogglingly big and relatively homogenous country. I have known Englishmen whose arrogance abroad is second to none. "Do you speak English? No? Then fetch me someone who does" might sum up their worst characteristics.

So, what do we see then, looking back with this splendid objectivity? All the faults unfortunately.

A public transport system hopelessly out-dated, inefficient to the point of hilarity and ruinously expensive. If a country like Hungary can get it right, then why the hell can't we?

An education system that fails to educate. That spends more time worrying over the latest politically correct fads and crackpot ideas than it does on teaching our kids to think and preparing them for a life that despite non-competitive, no-loser games at school is a tad more cut-throat than that. A system in which creativity is prized above the ability to become proficient in one's own language. Where teachers are unaccountable and students are failed. I hear they are considering lengthening degree courses by a year because universities are having to make good the deficiencies of their students during the first year. A system that leads the Minister of State for Education to enrol her children in a private school rather than have them involved in a system of which she is in charge. And the fact that she thinks she can get away with it is another sad commentary on our country.

I have yet to see among young people of any country I have visited or lived in the same pride in ignorance demonstrated by your typical yoof in England. Only back home could I imagine the most intelligent members of a class being mercilessly ribbed for their abilities. Made to feel ashamed somehow that they actually want to learn something and maybe have a chance in life. I mean, what?

And in no other country have I seen the newspapers doing their best to continue this fine tradition of ignorance. It's not enough to say that people can make up ther own minds about what they read in the papers. They first need to be taught at school how to read with a critical eye, to examine motives and research background but as long as there are uneducated people, it seems that the papers will continue their exploitation of them.

I see middle/little England's complete inability to get over the second world war. It's over, done with, move on, get a life. Have a zap through all your satellite channels one day and see how many programmes you can find which are wholly or in some way related to the second world war. How we can hope to take our place in Europe or indeed the World when all this programming passes on to a new generation the wartime stereotypes of aggressive square-headed Krauts, surrender monkey Frogs, Johnny-come-lately Yanks and reverse gear Eyeties is, quite frankly, beyond my ability to imagine. And why do our newspapers constantly pander to this mentality, reinforcing the stereotypes at every opportunity?

I see a country divided. Divided by any which way imaginable. Economically, politically, racially, socially, geographically, any way you could possibly think of dividing and subdividing a population has been developed to a fine art in our British Isles.

Economically the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening at a rate faster than ever before creating an underclass of welfare dependant, uneducated people with absolutely no aspirations whatsoever to a better life.

Politically our culture is also divisive. The confrontational nature of the House of Commons itself and the politics it engenders leave no room for governing by discussion, debate or consent. Our first past the post, majority system of government means that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair et al can govern unhindered and ignore the 55% of the population who didn't vote for them. What happened to discussion, compromise and good old fashioned agreement?

Racially, well, we like to think that we are well ahead of the Americans on this one. Oh, yeah? But as I can't think of any country that's got this pikey little problem sorted out, I think I'll leave it out of this little diatribe. But let's be honest about it, eh? Bloody foreigners, coming over 'ere, takin' our jobs etc...etc...etc

Socially, nobody does it better. If there is one thing at which England leads the world it is social discrimination. "Oh, he's a lovely chap but not quite one of us, is he?" runs all the way through society from the barking royals right down to the lowest rung. Each of us can, or the admen can do it for us, place ourselves with pinpoint accuracy on a social scale which allows for such descriptors as upper-lower-middle working class (with aspirations). And you just can't win. I was unfortunate enough to be born in Sheffield and not develop a Sheffield accent. Oh, I can put one on wi t'best on 'em but whenever I opened my mouth, people would assume I thought I was in some way better than them, that I was snobbish and superior. George Bernard Shaw got it right when he said that it was impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without another Englishman despising him.

Geographically, the north-south divide is becoming more pronounced year by year. The influence of the south, both economically and politically is also widening at an ever increasing rate and is yet another possible source of trouble and ferment in the future.

I don't see this division here. Maybe the fact that the family is still extended and that there may be people within it ranging from doctors to factory workers makes a difference. Maybe it just comes from a shared history, one less diverse than our own. But when I listen to the Hungarian National Anthem being played on all TV and radio stations at midnight on New Year's Eve, I know that all Hungarians are at that moment standing up, stock still and united in their common Hungarian-ness. I've been here for 12 years now and it still makes me cry. Why? Well, it's a beautiful tune for one, the most mournful and heartrending non-triumphant anthem you will ever hope to hear...about humility and love of country and not about hoping to be reigned over for even longer by some genetically challenged half-wit whose subject I must, under law, remain. But mostly I think, because we have lost any common ground in England. Any sense of shared community has gone and, I very much fear, will never return.

Now, I hope you won't misunderstand me. Please remove yourselves as far as possible from the position of not understanding me. I do not cavil and complain because I hate my country. Au contraire, it is precisely because I love it so much that it pains me to see just how we are viewed by the rest of the world. Love should never be blind and turning a blind eye to the faults of one you love is to do them a disservice. To pretend that everything is hunky-dory is to live in neverland and the only inhabitant I know of that place is hardly the best example for the rest of us. Patriotism is to love your country, nationalism is to hate everybody else's.

So, what do I love about England?

The landscape most of all. I have never seen another country which contains within itself all possible landscapes with the exception of desert, frozen tundra and tropical rainforest. And the green...they don't do green like we do anywhere. Not at all. Nowhere.

The cheery optimism..."mustn't grumble"...the likelihood of being engaged in pleasant banter at the most unlikely locations. At the checkout in a supermarket for example, at a bus stop, anywhere.

The humour. Long have I travelled and far have I roamed but nowhere have I laughed as much as I do whenever I am home. Nowhere does humour play such a large part in everyday life as it does in the north of England. No opportunity is ever missed for a wisecrack and usually, no offence is ever taken. If you ever need your deficiencies pointed out to you in colourful language then head north, young man.

The irony. Absolutely wasted on these foreign types. Too damned literal, the lot of 'em!

And, as far as I'm concerned, it's still the best country in the world in which to go for a walk, watch a football match, pop out for a drink, eat out, go to a gig, go shopping, get through a whole day without meeting someone you would just like to dissolve and in which to spend a lazy sunday afternoon in front of the telly.

Well, bugadifino where all that lot came from. Too much time on my hands, obviously. Normal service will be resumed but until then...if you have been, the doctor will see you now.

Yoicks! And away!

*Twirly (n) English female owner of old age pensioner's bus pass. Said pass only valid after 9.00 am. Result...hordes of senior citizens alighting buses at 8.59 or thereabouts and inquiring of the driver, "Am I too early?" or in dialect, "Am a twirly?" Has become generalised in use to mean any female senior citizen.

No comments: