Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ten reasons why I love England.

Since I was a teenager I had dreamt of going to England. I knew a little about the country, a mere stereotype. Polite people, 5 o’clock tea, Big Ben, double-decker buses and the royal family of course. What I knew was enough to keep me attracted to it and wanting to study English language all my life. However I never made any conscious effort to make my dreams come true, as 10-15 years ago in Poland, travelling to a foreign country wasn’t that cheap and easy.
Somehow a trip to Britain was planned in my destiny. At the very end of my university course there was a kind of student exchange programme, in which I participated without any hesitation. That’s how my British adventure started.

As soon as I got to England I was enchanted by it. The reality was much better than I expected and even though there aren’t many sunny days in that country and life happens at high speed there I took an instant liking to it.

1. Cultural diversity.

Although smaller cities in England are more or less homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, in bigger ones you can make friends from all over the world. I used to hang out with Thai, Japanese and Turkish friends, lived with Arabic, Spanish, Italian and Brazilian ones. Meeting them was a great lesson in culture and tolerance.

2. Typical architecture.

I’m in love with Victorian houses. I visited many of them and the idea of having stairs and various floors in a house really appealed to me. Well, not in terms of cleaning maybe. Each floor is a surprise. Bay windows, beautifully shaped banisters, porch windows letting plenty of light in. I just love them.

3. Unique shops.

I’m not a great fan of shopping but there are some things I like to shop for, like tea and coffee. There is an wonderful chain of stores called Whittard. I could spend hours there admiring the beautiful cups and mugs, smelling coffee, choosing new blends of tea or chocolate. They made a fortune off me as I was one of their most regular customers.

Another place, a real must, is Holland & Barrett - a chain of health food shops. A paradise for health diet fanatics like me, where you’ll find lots of nuts, dried fruits, seeds, herbal supplements and many other delicacies.

I frequently used to visit the Body Shop, which sells natural beauty products. All the pots and tubes are displayed according to their ingredients, which usually are of fruit and plant origin. Not a single visit ended up without me buying a delicious body lotion or a lip gloss.

 4. Camden Town.

There are many street markets in London, but the one that really attracts attention is in Camden Town . This part of town is a meeting-place for alternative people from everywhere. The market products and the variety of people from different “tribes” amaze even a person who has been there, done that and seen it all. Tattooed and pierced all over their body, individuals with different hair colour (including green or purple) and interesting clothes are the norm there. If you are looking for something you can’t describe or explain, you’ll find it there.

5. Car boot sale.

Once I was invited by my English friend Jason to visit him in Newcastle. He showed me round his city and at the very end of my stay there, he took me to a car boot sale. That was fun. Lots of people were selling stuff they didn’t need any more, displaying it - depending on the quantity -in the boots of their cars or on simple, improvised stalls. It’s a great place to find a bargain like a modern CD player for 40 quid or an LP of your favourite band you’ve been looking for for ages.

6. Notting Hill carnival.

The last weekend of August in London is a special time. Everybody who likes to have fun gathers in Notting Hill for a carnival. This carnival is not like the Venetian or Brazilian ones. It’s roots are Jamaican and it comes from racial inequality. With time it has gone through various changes and ended up being a cheerful, colourful gathering of people who want to forget about their daily routine and monotonous lives. There is a great parade of people dancing and following big cars playing loud music, there are huge loudspeakers on almost every corner playing various kinds of music and people dancing and having fun all around. Stalls with different kinds of food from all over the world attract hungry participants to restore their energy.

7. British people.

The stereotype of Brits is a very cruel one, I think: cold, reserved people with a peculiar sense of humour, strictly following rules. I’m not an expert in this matter, but after living in England for 3 years I must say I completely disagree with it. The English are reserved, it’s true, but this comes from their extreme politeness. They are also very helpful. Actually England is the place where I felt most respected compared to other countries. I miss it so much nowadays living in Brazil (no offence). Life following the rules is so much easier and organized and people following them are easier to deal with. Especially when we’re talking about social rules.

We can’t generalize about people anyway. I remember once, when I visited Ely, a small town close to London, I was really surprised when complete strangers greeted me on the street. “Hello! It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?” That felt so good. I wasn’t completely anonymous on the street; I felt I was a part of something. A nice way of noticing you and at the same time not intruding on your personal life without permission.

8. Pubs.

Even though I’m not a beer lover, on the very first day I made a point of going to a pub. Most of them are magical places. I always felt as if I was entering a different world that had got stuck somewhere in the past. Interesting decoration and dark lighting create a wonderful atmosphere. No wonder that once they get there, people stay for hours ordering pint after pint of ale, bitter or lager. I especially love pubs in villages or small towns. The houses there are built with raw stone and the entrance is so low that as you go in you need to bow your head. I said I don’t like beer that much, but there is a special kind that comes from Ireland, called Guinness . A mixture of that with blackcurrant syrup is perfect, although Irish people and real connoisseurs of Guinness would accuse me of profanation. What’s interesting about Guinness is the way of pouring it into a pint glass. It needs to be inclined at an angle of 45 degrees while it’s being filled and then has to be left to rest for a couple of minutes for the foam to go down. Then you top it up. If you are a skilful barmaid (and I used to be), as you pour the last few millilitres of beer you draw a shamrock, the national symbol of Ireland, on the head of the Guinness.

 9. A-Z maps and the London tube.

The London public transport system is amazing. Apart from the buses that in most cases are punctual (with small exceptions when they get stuck in a traffic jam) there is an underground system which is very, very, efficient. Trains come frequently and take you to any place you need. You just “dive” into one of the tube stations and emerge from another one right at your destination. There is something interesting about this means of transport. As it is under the ground the pressure there is different, which causes drowsiness. There were quite a few times when after travelling for around 30 minutes I almost fell asleep reading my book or the famous Metro, a free newspaper that is available at the entrance to each tube station. The phrase “Mind the gap between the train and the platform” heralds the approach of every train to the station, accompanies you on every trip and has become a symbol of the London tube.

If you decide to explore London on foot, there is a wonderful book called the London A-Z map. It made my life so much easier. Thanks to it, there was no place in the city I wasn’t able to find. I think I was born to use it, after all they call me Agata Zgarda for some reason. I regret so much having left it behind when I came to Brazil. It would be an nice souvenir to have around.

10. British music.

It would be a crime not to mention British rock and pop music here. I was practically brought up listening to it. Usually people are influenced by their peers or family when shaping their musical taste, but in my case, I came across various bands by myself. I discovered them and then, after some time, I realized they were British. There is something about the style that attracted me to the British sound more than to the American one. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, Queen and David Bowie. Then The Police and Sting singing solo. Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Marillion were introduced to me by some friends. Nowadays I’m still faithful to them, but there are a few others I have learned to like: Coldplay, Keane, Travis, Suede, Madness and Pulp. I had better stop writing here because the list is rather long and I wouldn’t like to turn this post into a music encyclopedia entry.

I was just about to start writing about British series and films, but 10 is 10. Sorry. This may actually be a topic for the next post. Who knows...