A backpacking/ self-exploring trip to the land of milk and honey doesn’t make you Alaskan (or Alexander Supertramp). A trip on the Trans-Siberian railway with a flask full of vodka and a flair for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky does not make you Russian (sigh). I spent a few years in England hoping desperately that I could pass off for a true Brit in more ways than one (my post-colonial hangover is partly to blame for this) but alas, I was only mistaken for being Greek or Iranian).
What’s it like, though, to go live someplace you’ve always dreamed of being? What really stands out most about Britain – the land, the culture, the language, the people? How stiff upper-lipped are the British? Why are they so obsessed with weather? Why do most of their movies revolve around the monarchs or the working class? Why are WAGS so popular? How do they make the crumpets and scones so soft and crunchy, and is it a norm to throw an afternoon garden tea party to fit in as a true English lady?
Well, I’m not omniscient, so I don’t know the answers to all these questions! But here’s what I know and like (nay, love) about England in its all-consuming glory. Rose-tinted glasses were not worn by me, I promise, but the land of Shakespeare and The Beatles does paint a pretty picture!
Phenomenon no. 1: Flowers
Flower beds, flower gardens, flower vases in windowsills, blooming flowers at town roundabouts, flowers around lamp-posts, flowers around the lamps on the lamp-posts, flowers at Heathrow, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Southampton – you name it.
Two things that come to mind – 1) The English rose – they really are a lovely breed, way more lush than their foreign counterparts. 2) Why the English use the word “blooming” so often. It’s blooming this and blooming that. Rosy!
..and the Brits love their gardens. To anyone who has read Agatha Christie, would know that they take such a major pride in their gardens. So much so, that Hercule Poirot with his Belgian/ French name and appearance and European mannerisms, had it incorporated within him in his post-retirement England days. Their gardens are like their own little safe-havens-in-a-tormented-world-pumpkin-patch. Flowers yes, and also fruits, vegetables, the whole ten yards. Blooming and rosy
No wonder Jamie Oliver can be such a goddamn good chef that people say he is. Anyone who has watched his show ‘Jamie at home’ would know how priceless this English combination of rosy garden and cooking skills is. Everything he might have wanted to try out as a kid, as part of his gastronomic journey to adulthood, he could pluck out from his own back garden and fry, grill, season, or just plain eat. Everything else was a walk away in the wild gardens of his neighbourhood. Wild mushrooms with wilder names. And now his garden is a setting for his own cooking show – convenience, thy name is spelt English.
Phenomenon no. 2: Lace curtains
The second thing I noticed about English homes. While the gardens are a well-documented phenomenon, it’s amazing how the lace curtains had missed my fancy prior to going to England.
I had always attributed lace to Belgium (fuelled further by a dialogue on FRIENDS where Rachel explains to everyone how blind the Belgian nuns were who sewed the lace veil for her ‘non-existent, never-occurred, totally made-up marriage’ to Ross. The nuns apparently turned blind because of the intricate detailing in the lacework). It’s a bizarre story, but mildly fascinating, and since then, I kind of handed the ‘best lace and lacework according to me’ mantle to Belgium.
But then, there it is, staring demurely and old-fashionedly out of every little and big house in every narrow and wide street in every native or modern neighbourhood of every single city and county in England. On my first day there, on my coach ride from Manchester Airport to Sheffield, I saw maybe a hundred and seventy houses with lace curtains propped up inside their living room and bedroom windows. Multiply the number of windows and it’s something like five hundred plus windows! There might’ve been more, but the garden beds outside every house and the flowers cozying up to the street-side lamps in the crisp, fresh autumn air had caught my imagination along side.
I was struggling to fathom the beauty of it. I knew English ways and manners through books. I’d devoured everything English that we can get hold of in our country and romanticised everything eighty-folds in my mind. I wanted to be English, if not Russian. I loved English literature – the classics, English music, English names – of people, streets, castles, towns etc., English humour, English comic book artists, English footballers. All this, since I was a kid and I yearned to study at Cambridge some day.
But still the flower gardens and the lace curtains astounded me. I spent the whole two-hour coach ride staring out of my window, gasping at the sight of each bed of coloured flowers and the houses with the lace curtains. It alluded to a bygone age of sophistication and refinement, of kings and horses, and lovely maidens with heaving bosoms, attired in rich fabrics fanning themselves, and carrying beautifully crafted parasols made of lace, walking through the castle gardens. Or the peachy-complexioned village belle scurrying through the woods collecting wild berries and bouquets of flowers to fashion the tiara that would adorn her luscious hair.
It was all of Hans Christian Anderson’s stories and some more. It was captivating, the experience. My love of England and all things English grew like a rampage in my heart. I was joyous!! I regaled myself with the sights of the flowers and the lace over and over in my head. I love all things pretty and girly, and this was a tea-party with a dress code that read ‘Frocks with bows, satin slippers, and Alice-bands a must.’ Rosy!!
Phenomenon no. 3: The Weather
You see tennis at Wimbledon, and you know for a fact that no two days during the fifteen day championships are alike weather-wise. The weather IS the damp squib (literally) during matches – that’s a fact. It’s a good thing the English consider football their most favourite sport – it’s basically the only outdoor sport that parents can send their kids for practice without bothering if their money is being wasted on two hours each day of huddling under an awning near the cricket pitch or the tennis court, waiting for the rains to subside.
And it’s this annoying pattering rain.
There’s something almost spiritual in the way the English discuss their weather. The weather is like some sort of beatific mascot either damning the folks to lethargy and boredom or being the benevolent force and allowing them to step out and do their chores, have their garden parties and barbecues.
Through the books I read, the plays I cherished and the movies I saw, I still underestimated the wrath of the weather gods before I went to England. As unpredictable as the weather was supposed to be, I found it a bit ‘unworthy of spending precious time on’ giving it too much importance. It seemed like something country folk would engage in discussions about; something Miss Marple uses as a tact to get started with her conversations in the parishes she happens to visit, finding herself suitably embroiled in the unravelling of a gruesome murder mystery; or something Professor Higgins would definitely teach Eliza Dolittle in the process of making her a lady and brushing up her manners considerably – discussing weather and asking after a person’s health being the only two things that he would trust her to enunciate properly –“the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. But in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen”. True it is. I stayed in Hampshire for over a year, and hurricanes hardly ever happened.
For quite a few months after being in England, I still considered it insulting to one’s intelligence harping over the weather. I had sort of established the facts straight –
(a) There are four overarching English seasons – rainy springs, rainy summers, rainy autumns, and rainy winters.
(b)As small as the island nation is, it still does not have the consistency in weather throughout the country and the neighbouring isles. For e.g. if you live in Yorkshire like I did initially, you skip the rainy summers and instead you have a season which is as murky in its name as it is to experience – very ominously titled “gloomy rains”. Gloomy rains last for around a month and quickly, oh very quickly, move onto rainy autumns.
On the other hand, in the south, e.g. in Hampshire, ‘gloomy’ as a term is generally non-existent. You have a lot of sunny weather, even with the rains. It’s sunny winters and sunny snowy too, interspersed with the ever-present rains.
(c) Of course, there are exceptions. Yorkshire might become sunny for two days in the whole year, and these are the days you rejoice the good fortunes and drink – to the rain gods for having shown some mercy on the poor souls. It’s weird yes, how even in the bright and sparkly daylight, delirious with all the shine and wine, one does not forget who the true master is – the rain god. (Disclaimer: this phenomenon, though labelled ‘the Weather’ proceeds deliberately in this direction to establish, in the end how, weather for the English does not mean the sun or the wind or the biting, chilly cold, or even the gloomy grey winters. It essentially means ‘The Rain’ – everything else is an offshoot of this).
Having noted these facts, it was much easier ignoring the rains as they came and went and came back again. And then, it happened. June 2007. The nonexistent summer. It had been a subtle yet darkly disturbing gloomy rains season.
And it was this annoying, pattering kind of rain..
THAT gloomy rains season in June, my housemates and I had hot lunches together in the living room of our huge two-storied semi-detached house. Roast chicken and mushrooms, with kidney beans and/or lamb curry along with French wine or apple cider – ah the meals were good! We discussed the rainy season as it is in our own lands – Mumbai, India; Bordeaux, France; the French island of Réunion etc. Our dining table conversations revolved around wishful thoughts regarding how we wanted to spend our hours in those gloomy dull grey afternoons. Hot chocolate with ginger biscuits, books, a loved one, and a warm cozy duvet were our often quoted and faithful companions during these conversations. One might wonder why we didn’t just go ahead and spend our days doing exactly that. But, the fact is that almost all of us had exams to prepare for, assignments to complete, and jobs to hunt or to go to.
In the midst of all the annoying, pattering rain that June, it rained some more. And some more. And some more. And lots and lots more. It rained continuously for three whole days, and otherwise it rained sparingly too.
Yorkshire experienced the worst flooding ever!! Sheffield, where I lived, is an extremely hilly little city. The roads are so steep at some places, that one time, my trip to a nearby Maplin store to buy myself an adaptor, turned out to be a trek down and up a hill, worthy of at least a cool soothing drink and a hearty meal afterwards. The houses lined on either side of the streets were either actually built in a slanted manner or maybe they looked crooked to me from all that exhaustion by the trekking. Our two-storied rented house was atop a hill (or at least a mound), from where the rest of the neighbourhood looked to be dangling at precarious angles. My neighbourhood was called Crookes or Crookesmoor. ‘Springhill Road, Crookesmoor’. You can imagine why it has been named so.
This is the geography of Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Imagine this city experiencing three days of uninterrupted rainfall. Imagine the quintessentially annoying, pattering English rainfall converted into torrential bucket-loads of rain. The inconsistency in weather that I wrote of earlier was erased too, as most of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were flooded. Let’s consider these facts –
(1) Average rainfall across England that June was 140 mm, which is 5.5 inches, which in turn is apparently more than double the June average. Some areas received a month’s rainfall in just 24 hours. BBC Online stated this.
(2) The Times quoted the 4.7 inches rainfall in southern England, as “unsettled weather and above average rainfall”.
(3) The total cost of damage was approximately £2 billion.
(4) My close friend, who had Centre Court tickets at Wimbledon, had to postpone his return journey to Southampton (which is in the south of England) by 2 whole days. He was on the verge of having to give up his darling pricey tickets, but after 3 days, the rains subsided. What resulted was a long train journey from Sheffield to Wimbledon, and spending almost £200 in all to go see a match on the hallowed turf. But he got to keep the souvenir. A salmon coloured raincoat courtesy of Wimbledon 2007. That’s a fact.
To an Indian, especially a Mumbaikar, these figures are beyond paltry. Not to revisit climatic horrors, but on 26th July 2005, Mumbai experienced 994 mm rainfall, which is 39.1 inches. Every other statistic is non-proportional and almost comical in a weird way.
But, this incident is not a mere comparison of the weather in two countries. It is to reiterate the fact that, in England, the weather is not a breezy light-hearted factor that stays the same all throughout the year with assigned seasons of four months each. English weather is Unpredictable. After two centuries of the annoying, pattering kind of rain, to suddenly lean forward full-force and jumpstart a raging flood, means, it is capable of being truly unpredictable. And the truth is that it went back to being perfectly calm weather in a few days.
And that is when the respect for the English weather blossomed full-force within me. I started checking the weather forecast regularly. Despite such atrocious unpredictability with the weather, their Meteorological department, thankfully, is very much up to the task at hand. Correct observations, precise terse comments, and a charming disdain for the weather of other countries – it’s truly English. Instead of judging them further for their long-winded discussions about the weather, I started participating in them. When friends were stranded on the motorway from Hampshire to Wales and had to sleep in their cars because of the heavy rainfall, I sympathised. While moving homes in Sheffield, I had a conversation with the moving-van driver, who was a neighbour, about the recent floods in England. I told him about the Mumbai floods and he gaped and shook his head disbelievingly. But I explained to him the geographical differences in the two cities – all done in an understanding, totally non-condescending way. On a trip to a remote hamlet in the Isle of Wight, I spent fifteen minutes talking about the weather to an old shop lady – how wonderfully sunny the day was, whether she thought it might rain in the evening, the way she liked her summers just like that – sunny, bright blue skies etc. She was so nice and sweet and she complimented my favourite earrings. I bought two lovely vintage tile paintings from her store and left a very favourable remark in her guestbook.
Phenomenon no. 4: Potatoes
I love potatoes. Easy to cook, peel, slice, roast, mash et al. There are kids who eat only potato preparations, and insist on their lunch boxes having only that, every single day to school. I had a friend who had a standard ‘peeled, sliced, fried potato slices and chapattis’ for her lunch every weekday for 3 whole years. On Saturdays she brought chocolate cake in her lunch box. Not a bad diet for a kid. My sister had a friend at her hostel who had only potatoes and a Pepsi for lunch and dinner.
I’m not saying I endorse this non-balanced diet. It’s just that potatoes have a charm to them; they pleasure the taste-buds I suppose. These are just a few exceptions of children eating them every day; but the rest of the population too has a great affinity to potatoes – enough to make them want to eat them in different forms maybe once or twice or thrice a week. That’s India for you.
Now consider this – an entire nation that eats potatoes every single day. For almost every meal. And then, maybe as a snack too. Most countries gorge on potatoes. While there is a considerable difference in the preparation of potato, most countries Eastern and Western have them in the standard cooked, baked, fried variety. For e.g. in the US, they have French fries, hash browns and mashed potatoes, but it’s all done in a standard not-going-overboard way. In India too, we eat potatoes in its junk form and cooked or roasted form, but like in the US, we do it moderately. And to think these two countries are in fact among the top five potato producing nations in the world.
England, on the other hand, is not even among the top-ten potato producers in the world. In a country of such modest size, it’s amusing how many potatoes there are! Of course there is the usual stuff like fries (which are called “chips” as in ‘fish and chips’), chips (which are called “crisps”), mashed potatoes, hash browns etc. Then there are the specialities – shepherd’s pie, scones, roasted potatoes constituting the traditional Sunday roast, sautéed potatoes as side-dishes to other vegetables – all of these cooked with meat, mint, butter, cheese – accompanied by some more potatoes. There’s this dish called ‘jacket potatoes’ which are essentially baked potatoes filled with cheese or chicken etc. It starts to get a little alarming when they stuff these baked potatoes with mashed potatoes! A University dining hall once served fish made with a creamy potato and cheese sauce, jacket potatoes and mashed potatoes. They had potato chips too, i.e. French fries. Thank god they had the option of a non-potato salad for people who might, just might, have had too many potatoes to eat.
And the funny thing is, the salad was the only left-over!
You consider the fact about the potato production in the world, and England not being among the top producers, and what it means is –
(a) The English like their potatoes so much that they eat all the potatoes they produce.
(b) They probably import them in vast quantities too!!
There is something so child-like in the thought that, as a country, it maybe likes to keep all its potatoes for itself. Like guarding a treasure bounty. I like eating potatoes, but I liked eating potatoes even more so in England
Phenomenon no. 5: The Yorkshire dialect
Every email I got from my seniors at the University of Sheffield, before I went to England, was signed off with a “Cheers”. I was mildly amused by this method, because you tend to get a little confused about whether you’re going to the sturdy ‘steel city’ for the purpose of academic pursuits or whether you’re heading off with bag and baggage to an Irish country pub and trying to make board by serving pints. But then, I figured every country has its slang greeting. I’ve never been fond of ‘mate’ and ‘dude’ and ‘yaar’ and I don’t address anybody in this generalised fashion. But all things considered, ‘cheers’ was not so bad.
Going to England, I was fairly confident I would understand everything the English would say. Books and movies tend to do that to you. And I did understand them. In London and Hampshire I did. Until I went up north. Now, it’s not like you can’t tell what a native from Yorkshire is saying; you can hear the words, you just can’t make sense of them. And thus, I was engaged in the great Yorkshire saga, with little idea of what the storyline was.
It began with my travels within Sheffield. Bus drivers are super sweet on most Sheffield bus services. They always have a bright ruddy rotund face greeting you good-morning even while you’re still sleepy and cold and wanting to just curl under a duvet and sleep. And then it started happening – they started calling me ‘love’. I was confused. See, this was when I first went to Sheffield and I was living with a bunch of other people, a couple of Indians, some English and others French. One evening, we were all hanging out in the living room watching television and talking, when the topic of our names being so different came up. My Indian housemate had a Bengali name; a French girl was actually of Chinese-Cambodian descent and so on and so forth. A housemate asked me the meaning of my name and I promptly replied – it means ‘Love’. The non-Indians were so fascinated that they asked me if they could simply address me as ‘love’ from thence forth to which I politely declined. It would be weird, I felt, and thoroughly embarrassing too.
Which is why, when the bus driver suddenly called me ‘love’, I was suitably confounded. It’s not like I expected him to be in cahoots with my housemates and thus opportunely calling me ‘love’ – that would be too self-important and far-fetched. Although I must say, the picture of my housemates just happened to flash before my eyes for the smallest of micro-seconds. I got off the bus with a dazed smile on my face; soon after, it occurred to me that ‘love’ was a common form of greeting. And they pronounce it ‘loove’. It’s corny but it’s sweet too. The funny thing is, it’s not only men who say it to you, but women do it too. They are these typically Yorkshire women – red/pink nailed, mouthing cigarette smell, robust – I’m not going to be ‘classist’ and say they’re all working class, but well, most of them are. And strangely, they sound alright saying it to you.
In spite of this, I was taken by considerable surprise the first time I was called ‘doll’. Now, imagine how it was for me. Everyone I knew had been telling me that I looked underage. I had been warned that I may have to show my ID as age proof if I ever went shopping for alcohol. People may have thought I was some sort of prodigy when they found out I was studying for my Masters degree. In my most grown-up outfits (consisting of no short checked skirts and hoodies), wearing simply trousers and sweaters with scarves and well-tailored coats, people still thought I was 17 or 18 years old. So imagine my consternation when a bus driver called me ‘doll’. I didn’t know whether to sulk at him or ignore him and forget ever appearing a respectable 22 years. But then he smiled. This really nice pleasant smile, which was neither leery nor insulting. And I couldn’t help but smile bashfully back at him. It was nice being thought of as a kid, in a way.
These personal experiences of the strange yet colourful dialect of local Yorkshire people is fun to think of now. But what really does stand apart is their colloquial style of speaking; not to be confused with slang. It is said that the Yorkshire dialect, called ‘Broad Yorkshire’ originates from Old English and Old Norse. It clearly is an amazingly rhythmic dialect – it’s just that it sounds do darn goofy.
I was once watching a television game show ‘Family Fortunes’ along with a housemate of mine in Sheffield. She (Billy) was from nearby Doncaster, a half hour drive from Sheffield. This show has two families competing against each other to answer certain questions. These questions have already been answered by a random population sample and arranged in order of their popularity. The family member whose answer is closest to the popular opinion wins maximum points and so on. That particular episode was between two families from Sheffield. Both households consisted of well-educated, smart members.
Billy and I were trying to answer the questions ourselves and having a good time doing so. The most interesting question came up somewhere in between – ‘what is a common synonym for a child?’ Now, the speciality of this game show is that the questions are almost always easy; there are usually so many alternatives to choose from, but only the top 5-6 are shown on the screen and worth any points.
A synonym for a child – there are so many, I thought contentedly. Kid, tot, tyke, youngster, and toddler – I thought up quite a few popularly used synonyms. Yeah right!! Popular maybe in India. What I hadn’t noticed while considering these terms, was that Billy was muttering some words herself. They didn’t make sense; so I wasn’t paying attention. But as soon as the game show host proceeded to look at the answers on the screen, Billy started yelling them out loud as guesses. She didn’t get them all right; but that’s not the funny part. What were hilarious were her options, some of which were given out by the participants themselves and applauded by the host. Some examples – sprog, nipper, tiddler, shaver, bairn, buster! I couldn’t understand it. Why would any parents want to name their child with a dog’s name? Clearly, Buster is a dog’s name. And it’s not just a name people share with dogs; names that dogs are given AFTER the persons, like Jimmy or Prince. Buster as a name, clearly belonged to a dog first, and it was conveniently being used for a child? How inappropriate! ‘Sprog’ conjured up the image of a springing frog, caught in the minds of the Yorkshire people in mid flight!
There are phrases you don’t understand the meaning of. A colleague once kept telling me, “Me father won’t come round while ten
”. Even though it’s grammatically incorrect, I still tried to draw meaning out of it. The twisted slang brought out a host of twisted interpretations – he wouldn’t come WHILE it’s ten o’clock because – he isn’t fond of the hour? Ten of what? What it was supposed to mean was that he wouldn’t come UNTIL it was ten o’clock. The meaning is often simple, but it’s sort of lost in the comical arrangement. Usually, it would be easy to decipher the meaning of certain words considering the gist of the conversations; but every now and then, a person from Yorkshire would throw in a startling sentence like “Jus lookie you a fair lick and give us thee bits and bobs, loove”. All over again, you don’t understand a word they’re saying, but it’s just so darn charming!