Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Impressions of England - part two

I have now returned home from my holiday in England. I found it more difficult to blog from my relatives' computers than I had expected, for various reasons, so now I have a lot of catching up to do. In the next few days, I hope to describe the places I visited and the experiences I had.

I spent much of the holiday observing people, and thinking about the balance between the two truths: "People are all the same" and "People are all different". Arguments can be made to support both claims. The similarity is at a basic level, and the differences can be quite subtle. What is interesting is not just how people are different, but also why they are. In some cases there are individual differences, while other differences seem to be representative of the society the individuals belong to.

The characteristics of English society (yes, I know this is a generalization, but it was reflected in my observations of people in general, however much some individuals may deviate from their societal norm) include: considerateness, respect for privacy, respect for personal space, and general politeness.

Here are some examples to demonstrate these characteristics. On returning to Israel, I was immediately aware of the difference in people's attitude towards each other's personal space. In England, when you move through a public space like a street or a station, people are constantly alert and aware of the space they occupy and the movements of others around them, and plot their movements so they won't block or delay other people. This just doesn't happen in Israel. As I walked through the airport on arrival, people just moved where they wanted, not caring if this intercepted the path of other people (some of them pushing luggage). In such cases, one person has to move aside, and this is usually the less assertive (or more considerate) of the two.

Famously, the English know how to queue (= stand in line), and almost never push in, while this is always a problem for Israelis.

The politeness of the English is well-known. I am not used to being called "madam" (while my husband was called "sir"), and service staff were constantly saying things like "thank you for waiting". In some cases, this can feel rather artificial, but it depends on how both parties perceive the exchange. If you accept that this is part of their job, but they can still mean it, then it becomes easy to smile (genuinely) and elicit an authentic interaction on a personal level. Some service people engage in friendly chat, in contrast with the stereotype of the English as cold and unfriendly. It would be interesting to visit the USA and compare the English and American forms of politeness.

Another thing I found, somewhat to my surprise, was that the English don't like using large denomination banknotes. We had changed up some currency in preparation for our trip, and received it in GBP 50 notes. Here's an exchange I had when buying items amounting to GBP 23:
Sales assistant: "Do you have our loyalty card?"
Me: "No, I don't live here".
[Gave him the GBP 50 note].
Sales assistant: "Oh, you really don't live here, do you?" [smile].
Travelling is a break from everyday life, and in this case it gave me the opportunity to be someone slightly different for a while. I was able to see what it could have been like if I'd stayed in England (I immigrated to Israel when I was 9 years old), or perhaps if I moved back now. Since I have a good English accent and was accompanied by relatives, I felt at home and accepted. All the stress and frustration of living in Israel fell away. On the other hand, I was aware that I was in England as a visitor and didn't have the experience of normal life there. I haven't worked in England, or owned a house, or dealt with the authorities. If I ever relocate to England, I will have a lot of adjusting to do. At the moment it doesn't seem likely.

It was good to have this long holiday, and also good to return to my home on Mount Carmel, with the view of the Mediterranean from the window, and to my cats.

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