Home and Away

My (tourist) LondonBritain has always possessed a particular solidity, a certain knowledge that aspects of life can be relied upon to remain the same. The weather is likely to be drizzly even when it’s meant to be sunny, people will find endless ways to discuss it even when there’s not a lot to say, and everyone will complain about the Royal Family but then go weak-kneed at the prospect an infant member of the monarchy, or a Royal Wedding.

Last week I visited the UK for work and for a much-rushed diversion to see some friends and family. The trip was fun but also unsettling. After leaving the country seven years ago, it’s beginning to feel like unfamiliar territory, as if the solid damp ground has begun to shift beneath my feet.

Firstly the newspapers were full of speculation about the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, speculating that the nationalists north of the border may just win the vote. I have always felt about British patriotism much as I have about tea; fine – so long as it’s not too strong or too weak, and best accompanied by something sweet and soothing such as the shipping forecast on Radio 4 or a chocolate digestive! So it was very strange to hear that the Union (or at least part of it) which has been around for hundreds of years could – by democratic consent – pass into history. I found myself reacting to the prospect with sadness and confusion, which felt strange and unwarranted since I don’t live in Britain and that it’s unlikely to make much difference to life in London – that part of the UK with which – if at all – I most identify.

And then there is the change to London itself. It could once be depended upon to offer up crumbling public services, a familiar mix of communities – mainly gathered in from parts of the British Commonwealth, and a general urban malaise. But the city has changed – not quite beyond all recognition – but rather like a participant on a makeover show, who has become a snazzier, sexier version of what they once were.

Tube trains not only run with reliable regularity, but they are clean and modern. Stations are unrecognizable; Blackfriars, which was once distinguished by its dirty orange wall tiles and urine scented pedestrian tunnels, is now a gleaming modernist steel and glass structure, resembling a hi-tech haven rather than the commuter hell it once was.

The population also appears to have undergone a major overhaul. The city is more Tower of Babel than Tower of London, with the mix of French, Polish, Arabic, Somali and many other languages co-existing with longer established Jamaican, Indian, Irish and Cockney accents. New areas of the city, once no-go areas have become must see territory – such as Kings Cross, Hackney, and almost anywhere within a few miles of Shoreditch. While in London, I did a double take in reading a newspaper review of the latest in fine dining from – once gastranomically barren  – Peckham, along with the growing selection of choice food shops in the area.

None of these changes are ostensibly negative (although the benefits that possible Scottish independence will bring to the Scots is debatable), and many are clearly very good; a tribute to British tolerance, pragmatism and economic far-thinking. But in a deeply personal way, these changes send an ambivalent message, that what was once familiar is now becoming foreign, and that by continuing to live overseas it will become ever more so. It also raises a question about what is home. Is it the place where you come from? Or is it the place or places you have chosen to make your life? And at what point does the place you reside become more home than where you grew up?

Clearly food for thought and future material for ‘Foreigndaze’.

Springing Forth

Blooming DC

Spring as we all know is the time for new buds of life to break forth, for color to fill what was barren and for the sun to emerge from behind the clouds.

It is in that spirit that the ‘Foreigndaze’ blog is launched. After a very long hibernation, I have decided to add some personal colour to the internet with observations on aspects of life – mainly in the United States –  but also from elsewhere, running the gauntlet from food, the American flag, tales from my travels and more.

But this first submission begins on a seasonal note to mark the bursting forth of blossom from every corner of DC. After months of winter which featured periodic deluges of snow, ice and rain, the city is letting out a collective happy sigh with the sudden flowerings and warmth. And in the USA nature undertakes this seasonal shift with an explosion of activity full of specatacle which leaves the UK, figuratively and literally – in the shade. Blossom blown from the trees fills up gutters with multi-coloured leaves. Beatrix Potter like scenes with bouncing rabbits and scrambling squirrels are played out in suburban gardens bursting with new plants and flowers.

Having grown up in a country which would comfortably fit into a medium size American state, most things in the US appear (and are) bigger: the cars, the shops, the people, the food, and also…the weather. Where in England there is a breeze which ruffles leaves, here gales gust and blow, felling thick old trees with apparent ease.

British seasons arrive in national character, somewhat meekly and apologetic in manner as if having stepped in quietly through a side entrance. In Washington they barge in through the front door with a brazen call to attention. Spring – as already mentioned – is a riot of activity and color, as if the forces of nature had just knocked back one espresso too many. Once the hyperacitivity of this season has passed, the DC summer arrives with a sodden knock-out blow of humidity accompanied by lush vegetation and a blazing sun. Autumn (aka fall) is a leafy carnival of crunchy leaves: fiery reds, pale yellows, translucent oranges, sandy browns, filling up the gardens and streets to knee level. It suddently gives way  to a barren winter-scape of naked grey trees,overcast skies, and teeth chattering temperatures.

A country’s climate is in many ways a weather vane (pun intended) of its national character, or the other way around.  Before coming to Washington we lived in Israel where heat (with very little cold) came in differing gradations depending upon the time of year , ranging from gently warming to ‘singe your eyelashes’ hot. This bears a striking resemblance to the temperament of Israelis who lack any sort of moderating temperature control for their emotions. Similarly the UK exists under near permanent cloud-cover where reports of good weather and more often that not dashed by capricious rainstorms.  Similarly British people often seem quietly downcast, waiting with resignation for what life or the elements will bring.

By contrast, the American climate demands attention, and not just to the weather forecasts which warn of yet another impending snow storm or heat wave. The seasonal variations require considerable hard work, cleaning up the detritus of the past season and preparing the ground for what’s coming next. Our neighbourhood is a hive of activity with people trimming, sweeping, cutting, and planting. I am currently nursing blisters and scratches having joined in the communal clean-up, hav ing filled seven large brown paper sacks with leaves, twigs, weeds and much else. This fervent activity also seems descriptive of the American character, which places high values industriousness in every aspect of life. Despite the periodic harshness of the climate, people here seem to pitch themselves against the forces of nature with an energetic optimism. Americans seem to relish clearing masses of vegetation when most Europeans would be happily sitting back with a long, cold beer.

There is much to admire in the power of nature in the US. It packs a punch even when it is ‘regular weather’. On extreme end of the scale it is humbling and scary. During ‘tornado season’ in the Mid-West, the news regularly reports of communities reduced to matchwood, with tearful residents pledging to rebuild their lives as soon as possible.

Americans have both shaped their environment and been shaped by it. This is very place different from William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant’ England. It is a tougher, harder country which has historically has brought a lot of privation en-route to the land of plenty it has become today.

The weather brings home the fact that this is a very different landscape from Europe and certainly from the Middle East. And what is true for the climate is representative of so many other aspects of life: politics, social attitudes and much more.

All of which I hope will provide a steady stream of material for future (regular) instalments of this blog.