When I first moved to the UK, my impressions were mostly positive, but mixed with a bit of the negative. Looking back at my first few weeks in the capital, I have three very distinct memories that stand out and relate to some big ‘themes’ I have since noticed about the UK and specifically London.
The ‘weather talk’ phenomenon
The first was, of course, weather-related. I would soon discover that, in the UK, ‘short talk’ was code for ‘weather talk’. And soon after that, I would realise that lapsing into ‘weather talk’ at the beginning of a conversation with a stranger or to fill in the gaps during those all too familiar awkward silences, would become the most natural thing in the world. But it’s not only in the country itself that talking about the UK automatically leads to talking about the weather, rather the UK’s weather is world famous. And so I moved to the UK in a chilly February prepared.
I stayed with my brother and his wife for the first two months in the South East where they lived close to Brockwell Park. Obviously unemployed at that stage, I had some free time between job hunting. I was determined to keep at my fitness, even if I had to adjust to low temperature figures and slippery ground having just previously been running on the other side of the world around Cape Town’s winelands in sweltering heat (although only now that I really appreciate the sun would I call it sweltering). So I slapped on mid-length running tights and a t-shirt, with a thin long-sleeve shirt wrapped around my waist in case my bravado faltered and I gave in to the cold, and I ran across the road and into the park. After about one lap around the park, I was wearing a silly grin across my face. My arms felt a bit numb and my ears and nose were like ice blocks but I loved the new experience in a new place, enveloped by a fresh chill, beautifully kept nature drenched in morning dew and a hazy mist in the distance. I was ready for winter alright, and good thing I was too because, by the end of it, I began to understand what locals meant when they said winter was “dragging on”.
While I too would be very happy if the length of the winter season magically shortened by a few months, giving us some more glorious summer days, I do feel as though there is something magical about wintery UK. The idea of curling up on the couch under a mountain of blankets, dressing up in enough layers to resemble the abominable snowman, sitting by a crackling fire, drinking mulled wine and hot cider and all those uniquely European and UK winter traditions, not to mention Christmas time and the festivity surrounding it, brings me much excitement and anticipation. Yes, there will be a point when I’m lost without my duvet, unmotivated to do any outside activity and frustrated for the minimal hours of daylight, but I am so thankful to have been able to experience a completely different season and atmosphere to what I’m used to and look forward to more weather-related memories and endless ‘weather talk’.
Little boxes, little boxes…
Granted the majority of my TV and movie watching history has been dominated by the United States, I did also grow up watching the likes of Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. But even this small TV interaction with the British lifestyle didn’t prepare me for the houses in the UK. I remember particularly one memory where I had been staying with a schoolfriend for the week. We decided to go to the local pub that night. It was a chilly night so we wrapped up warmly and headed out. As we walked along the street towards the pub, I gazed at the houses, wrapped in a soft fog, and marvelled at the way they looked. I was both fascinated and amused to see how they all lined-up one after the other, looking almost identical in size, shape and style with only different coloured doors to make one stand out from the other. Still to this day, I have to remember the number of some of my friends’ houses, even though I have visited many times before, because I’m worried I may knock on the wrong door!
But although I found the housing here a bit strange and confusing (and quaint!), I have really come to appreciate the deep history etched into the architecture of the country. I will often cycle past historical churches and buildings, tall and imposing, or underneath the awe-inspiring Big Ben and parliament buildings and their old beauty will take my breath away. And then I will continue along the embankment and the lights of the London Eye will shine brightly from across the river, with modern-day buildings lined up in the background. And, as I get ready to cross over to the south of the river, my eyes will be glued to Albert Bridge and how it dramatically connects the north to the south, its 4,000 lightbulbs lighting up the sky and reflecting in the Thames below. My reaction to the lighting of Albert Bridge, Christmas lights and in decoration of other buildings around the city is mixed. I often feel a bit saddened by it, thinking of it as wasteful when I imagine people around the world who long for just one light to shine some brightness into the place they call home. But I cannot deny that London knows how to dazzle in style. And it is a reminder of how diverse the city is – the old and the new, the dark and the glittering – and that is just one of the reasons I find this place so wonderful.
A culture of complaining
It was one of the first times I was using public transport in the UK. I had an interview that morning and, in typical style, had left it a bit late. Still getting to grips with the Oyster card and ticket system, I hoped I would have time to speak to the ticket seller and purchase my tickets for the journey. There was one person in front of me and he too had some questions for the ticket seller. I found myself getting a bit nervous and impatient, and I hoped he would move on soon. Fortunately he did and I had my chance to ask my own questions. At this point, I noticed someone else behind me in the queue who was making it pretty obvious that he too was in a rush and would like me to hurry up. Since I was running late anyway, I asked my questions as quickly as I could and moved on up to the platform, but the person behind me had made it very clear that he wasn’t happy to wait for me with obvious impatience and rudeness. I was taken aback, but then I had to remember that I had also been impatient with the person ahead of me. Soon after that, I began noticing commuters attitudes if the train or tube was just a minute late, and how rude some would be towards anyone wearing a high-vis indicating they were somehow connected to public transport. And bus drivers? Well I imagine their skin must be made of rubber.
This culture of complaining is visible not only in public transport but in all areas of day-to-day life, and it’s paired with a culture of blame. The attitude is that everyone has the right to what they think is owed them, and if they don’t get it, they complain. And by complaining, there is always someone to blame, but ourselves that is. What’s worse is that this attitude is infectious and unfortunately I too have quite easily adopted this lifestyle. What we need to do is see how good we have it. The public transport system here is incredible if you compare it to other parts of the world, where theirs is poor or non-existent, and the many other first-world luxuries are such a privilege. What we (I) need to do is see how fortunate we are, relax a bit more and take the blame when it’s needed rather than putting it on someone else who may be doing the best they can do in that situation.