Anglophile

It’s mid-summer cleaning time.  As I pack myself up for a very permanent-feeling move to California, I’m purging myself of old books and clothes and knickknacks and CDs, hopelessly attempting to maintain the myth that I still maintain the student ideal of a life that fits into two duffel bags.  Cleaning has taken a digital form, too, as I attempt to squeeze an extra year out of a laptop that has seen one-too-many tours of duty in the developing world.

Last night I was deleting old photos, working forwards from the appearance of digital cameras among my peer group—circa 2004.  I reached the folder containing my early photos of Oxford, taken during that first term in 2009 when I felt the need to document every remotely gothic-looking building I saw, which, in Oxford, meant pretty much everything.  Maybe it’s because I am back in the town where I grew up—to me, the most comfortable and familiar place in the world—but those photos already feel incredibly distant, just one week after I have left England.  I almost had to pinch myself: yes, really, I lived in England for two years.  No, seriously, I went to Oxford.  Me.

I sit down to write this hoping that a bit of detachment will help me articulate something I have wanted to write for some time, but never quite felt able to capture.  As I returned from my jaunt around Europe, and confronted that sad finality of leaving, I was overwhelmed by a simple sentiment: I absolutely love England (okay, Wales, you can be part of this too).  While the whole business about the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. may be a bit of a wash, I know that, for me, I will always feel a strong connection to the place, even as I acknowledge that I will probably never again call it home.  I am, you might say, a consummate Anglophile.

At the same time, however, my time on the continent reminded me of why finding quick explanations for my chronic and incurable Anglophilia is difficult.  England doesn’t fare particularly well on the generic metrics by which American tourists judge countries.  Things aren’t as efficient in the U.K. as in Germany, and—I’m afraid to say, after some rigorous experimentation in the last two weeks—they have better beer too.  I haven’t been to Italy, but I’m told it tops England in one of its own country’s biggest selling points: history and old buildings.  The night life is better in Spain, and the food superior in France—unless you’re vegetarian, in which case, curry saves the day.  But that’s Indian, anyway.

Many of the Americans I met during my time at Oxford never could seem to get past these comparisons.  Even people for whom I had a great deal of respect often could not say much more about the country in which they were temporary residents other than that it was crowded, rainy, and bureaucratic.  Of course, I’d like to think that I have more than such a superficial take on this place, but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain what I like about it.

For every positive stereotype I can conjure, there’s a quick counter-example.  Yes, I suppose I’ve encountered the classic plucky English demeanor that insists that, with appropriate quantities of tea, any obstacle can be overcome—but thinking of the irrepressible rudeness of the Gloucester Green bus-ticket salesmen reminds me that it’s not universal.  Claiming that I love England for the quaintness and antiquity of Oxford seems dishonest when I think of every visit to multi-cultural London, or even my most recent walk down Cowley Road.  And while I’d still probably prefer a Tory government to a Republican one, the recent phone-hacking scandal has thoroughly dispelled any illusions I might have held about the British political system.  Socialist utopia, England—like the rest of Europe—is not.  Just ask the people rioting in London.

When I look back on it, though, the reasons I can offer for my all-consuming Anglophilia—quickly becoming Anglo-nostalgia—are a bit like my photos: disjointed and disconnected.  It’s a series of mental snapshots that are neither truly representative of England nor, in my mind, capable of being disconnected from it.  It’s discussions of everything ranging from ecological Marxism to the latest antics of the boat club, held in pubs which—for reasons ineffable—have always felt a far cheerier environment than American bars could ever be.  It’s the way that sunny days are talked about for weeks thereafter, and how any weather even slightly above-the-rainy-norm must be seized upon and enjoyed with a picnic in Port Meadows.  It’s that night in Cambridge where I realized that going to Grad School doesn’t have to mean growing up.  It’s the brilliance of my English undergraduate friends, whose hours spent making fancy-dress costumes and drafting absurd JCR motions would have, at Princeton, been used panicking about this or that resume-building extracurricular activity.

No, that’s not it, or at least, not all of it.

This time last week, I was closing out my British bank account.  As I drew out my last £9.12—it seems my scholarship calculated the stipend just right—the teller remarked:

“Heading back home to the states?”

“Yes,” I replied, “But I’m sad to be leaving.”

His response seemed almost tailored to be put into a blog post: “I can never figure out why people would say that about leaving England.”

I wish I could have explained it to him, but some things are beyond words.

The Nostalgia Series, Part I: Bookbinders

I have never been to a truly “authentic” British pub.  As far as I am concerned, this is true by definition: any pub that a twenty-four year old American studying abroad can find, enter, and safely drink a pint in simply can’t be properly English.  Nonetheless, if I were to ever swear allegiance to the Queen, move to Stoke-on-Trent, and find myself a proper pub, I imagine it would be a lot like the Old Bookbinders.

As with all the hot spots in Oxford, I first heard about the Old Bookbinders in my research methods class.  A few students wanted to do a quick ethnography of a genuine public house and, upon asking the only English person in our program, he suggested Bookbinders.  Of course, now that the Americans in Oxford have discovered that Bookbinders is the ultimate “townie” pub, it must not be anymore.

Still, walking into Bookbinders does feel like stepping into another world, inhabited primarily by dock workers from Charles Dickens’ era and extras from the pub scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie.  The atmosphere is difficult to describe, especially in terms that would help explain why I love it so much.  No two pieces of furniture are the same; one could wind up sitting on anything between an overstuffed armchair or a roughly hewn stool.  The walls are covered in thousands of different beer labels and the entire place is cluttered with old books (hence the name).

As a business, the Bookbinders is an utter farce.  The last time I visited, the bar man informed me—unapologetically—that they were completely out of ale, and when I asked for a substitute beverage, he obliged only grudgingly.  The employees evidently do not care enough about making money to actually encourage anyone to buy anything: I’ve stayed in the corner and played board games hours after I had drained my single pint.  In fact, the first time I went to Bookbinders was with the Sachs Scholar from ’97, who as convinced that one of the men sitting at the bar was still there from his last visit, thirteen years prior.

In a sense, Bookbinders is a metaphor for what I love about living abroad.  Poor service and grubby tables are the kind of things that might drive me away in the U.S., but here I can celebrate them as a “cultural experience.”  I would like to think that, in thirteen years, I too could return and find the Bookbinders unaltered, a relic of simpler and slower times.

A few weeks ago, Bookbinders put up a sign announcing that the place was available for rent.  When I went last week, a note on the door said that the pub was closed indefinitely, a casualty of the corporatization of English pubs and the atomization and supermarketization of English drinking.  A perfect metaphor for how, facing up to my last three weeks of Oxford, I am feeling: why does everything have to change?

Three Cheers: A World-Cup-Patriotism Post-Mortem

Sometime around age sixteen, I pretty much gave up on patriotism.  The accumulated weight of bearing witness to a senseless “pre-emptive” war, the travesty that was the Bush Administration, and listening to one-too-many Anti-Flag records combined to squash much appreciation for the country where I was born out of me.  I wouldn’t say I was “anti-American”, but I certainly had lost faith in the myths of American exceptionalism drilled into me by public schooling and Boy Scouts.  Not even my hopes of a future political career could keep me saying the Pledge of Allegiance or make me lip-synch to the National Anthem.

There were few things about the student body at Princeton that annoyed me more than some of my peers’ complacent, uncritical patriotism.  A yearly confrontation with jingoism came every spring at Tower houseparties when, at some point during dinner, a group self-labelled “the assholes” would stand up and start chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  Emboldened by my Mohawk and a half-bottle of wine, I would join my friends Devon and Jordan in some sort of inane counter-cheer (“Anarchy!  Anarchy!” was a highly intellectual favorite).

I left for England safe and secure that I was a “different” sort of Yankee, the kind that avoided the brash nationalism for which Americans were, in my mind, known.  I had all sorts of aspirations to show people that we weren’t all small minded, gun-toting, flag-waving yokels.  What I discovered very quickly, though, is that—like it or not—I am very American.  When I first arrived and people asked me where I was from, I would respond “The U.S.”, which would usually prompt, “Yes, I know.  But what part?”  Either through accent, or volume, or sheer gregariousness, people just seem to know that I am American.

Over time, I’ve learned to simply accept and appreciate it, and be unabashedly loud and friendly.   Of course, my journey of changing national self-identification has been a bit more complex than just realizing that my lack of volume-control.  In such an international climate as Oxford, many of our conversations revolve around simply describing where we come from.  It’s in these moments that I realize my enthusiasm for the U.S.: I light up when I have a chance to describe the vast expanses of the Southwest, or have an opportunity to explain American marching bands, or even unwind the complexities of our system of government.  While I always shy away from claiming that the U.S. is better than country X, I’m increasingly unafraid to offer up differences and say “Where I come from, we do it this way.”

I got a bit of a shock a few weeks ago at Boat Club Dinner, though.  Towards the end of the night, it was announced that I was Worcester’s new Health and Safety Rep (a largely ceremonial position—I’m just hoping to get in on some undergraduate drama).  On my way up, my English friends started chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  For once, I didn’t feel any compunction to reply, but just took it as being appreciated for who I am and where I come from.

The World Cup is, of course, a time for all the nationalities of the world to join together in irrationally exuberant patriotism.  My housemate Christoph told me the other day that the World Cup is the only occasion when Germans will display flags without fear of any connection to Nazism.  Juxtaposed against Pride Week, I’ve been reminded that—pretensions to a universal humanity aside—we are creatures that appreciate being part of groups and communities.  And, within the understanding that these groups reflect differences not hierarchies, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nonetheless, when I sat down to watch the England-U.S. match, I wasn’t expecting it to be a great patriotic moment.  The English grad students in the Worcester common room were clad head-to-toe in red and white, while I was wearing the only thing I own with an American flag on it—a Propagandhi t-shirt with a tattered flag below which was written, “Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes.”  English people know that Americans don’t care about football, but don’t quite believe it: they peppered me with questions about the American team which I, not knowing the name of a single player, was ill-equipped to answer.  The game was, for me, a chance to watch people getting excited—but not an opportunity to get excited myself.

Ninety minutes later, though, my heart was pounding.  The U.S. was close to pulling England into a humiliating draw which, despite being likely to put my personal safety in jeopardy, would give me weeks of bragging rights.  When the whistle was finally blown, the other Americans in the room and I lept to our feet in celebration.  I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth:

“USA!  USA!  USA!”

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Jukebox: Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed

Adventures Under the Midnight(ish) Sun

For all intents and purposes, I finished my term on Thursday—the day before my final exam—when I gave up on studying, unable to convince myself anymore that learning to do ANOVA statistical tests by hand or to ramble about epistemological approaches to ethnography had anything to do with, well, anything. Paul Willis, a Professor at Keele University, had invited me to lunch in Stoke-on-Trent, so I braved the English rail system for the first time.  It was a pleasant afternoon: Professor Willis is moving to the Princeton sociology department, and wanted to grill me on such mystical things as the Woodrow Wilson School, JPs, and departmental gossip.  These moments in which I feel like a part of the academic club—more colleague than student—are part of what keep me optimistic about the future.

A high point came when I tried to explain the eating club system.  I expected Willis’ first reaction to the street to be that of any good sociologist: indignation at its role in perpetuating racial / class / gender stratification.  His reaction, though, was quintisentially British: “So, do professors drink at these places too?”  Before I got on the train to go home, I asked him whether I should drink with the boat club or study for my exam that evening.  Under the advice of someone whose book has been cited 8,000 times, I passed the rest of the hours until sunset on the Thames, bidding fond farewell to my undergraduate friends before they disappeared into the summer.

Friday was examination time, which meant sub-fusc and red carnation.  I can’t say much about the actual examination, because as tends to be the case, I basically blacked out for three hours and came to having written 24 pages of keyword-laden theoretical non-sense (the graders will probably love it).  Before my first year of graduate school could be officially laid to rest, however, there was one last Oxford tradition: trashing.  While finalists have been known to be doused in baked-beans and hit by rotten fish upon emerging for exams, I got away with a bit of glitter thrown by my wonderful housemate, Nicola.  She, I, and another friend, Evan, retired to a pub, as a good chunk of stress rapidly fell off my shoulders.

Early Saturday morning, I was off to go narrow boating with a fellow PUBandie, Josephine, and her family.  Narrow-boating strikes me as perhaps the quintessentially quaint English activity, in that nothing really happens.  We puttered along at two miles-per-hour and stopped every couple hundred meters to go through a lock.  Apparently, this was sufficiently exciting, though, to bring lots of locals out to watch us, and despite the fact that my house in Arizona was further from the airport than Oxford is from Manchester, the regional variation in accents is ridiculous. I basically couldn’t understand anything the passer-byes said, until Josephine pointed out that they were probably always talking about football and I started focusing on catching a few critical words (in this sense, it was good practice for being in Ecuador).  The relaxed pace gave me lots of opportunities to take in a new city, eat some amazing vegan food, and catch up—it was, all-in-all, a pretty fantastic weekend.

Back in Oxford, I’ve been trying to adapt to the idea of being here and not being stressed out of my mind.  Sticking with the boating theme of my week, I watched the drawn-out solstice nea-midnight sunset from a ferry in the Thames.  Today, I completed the circle, watching the sun rise at three-thirty a.m., having spent all night around a bonfire in Port Meadows, roasting pita bread and drinking cheap wine among good company.

I try not to treat experiences like these as belt notches.  The fact that I have done X and seen Y reflects little on the richness of my life or my appreciation for it.  Even as I sit at my desk—reading about political ecology, writing questionnaires, and stuying Spanish, como siempre—though, I can feel a different sort of optimism and appreciation for life that’s been missing for too long.  Despite the redundancy, I don’t think I can ever remind myself too much of what a ridiculously privileged life I lead.

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Jukebox: Against Me! – Wagon Wheel

Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

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This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer

A Brief Sociology of Social Lubrication

It seems almost ridiculous that I’ve lived in England for eight months now and haven’t yet blogged about the one thing more British than bangers and mash: alcohol.  Having just barely survived “my” birthday garden party and finally recovered from last week’s Boat Club Dinner, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share a few thoughts on the U.K.’s “drinking culture” (or, as I’m going to argue, lack thereof—in multiple senses).

It's cultural.

There is a certain mystique about European drinking among Americans (or, at least, among left-leaning Americans who think Europe is populated by more than just namby-pamby effeminate socialists and would like to be able to drink before twenty-one).  The logic goes something like this: in Europe, the drinking age is lower, and kids are introduced to alcohol at a young age.  As a consequence, they learn how to approach alcohol responsibly, under the watchful eyes of their parents.  Ergo, Europeans don’t have the same problems with binge drinking and alcoholism as Americans, who live in a sheltered state of denial until they arrive at college and go absolutely ape-shit.

The standard narrative about the U.K., though, is almost the exact opposite (which maybe proves England is its own continent, after all).  My first concrete sign of the different way the British approached alcohol came while I was still in the U.S., when I filled out a National Health Service medical form.  In addition to standard questions about height and weight, the form askedme how often I drank alcohol.  While a similar form in the U.S. might have categories like “Never” and “One per month,” the British equivalent offered “one to five per week” as its minimum category.  My first week here, a Scottish friend asked me how I was finding the national sport.  I wasn’t sure what he meant, until he explained, “You know, alcoholism.”

We convince our econ professors to have some champagne... at 11 a.m.

Without a doubt, the “lower drinking age = more responsibility” equation doesn’t seem to hold, at least in the academic bubble in which I live.  Particularly at this time of year—with exams finishing—Oxford is a pretty messy shit-show.  It’s not just students, though: running along the Thames today, I was amazed at the number of people knocking back beers before noon. The English really do manage to incorporate alcohol into everything: encounters with academic advisers, open seminars, and club meetings all somehow seem to involve drinking.  I went to church with my housemate Nicola today, and on the way out, the vicar was dispensing champagne.

The other kind of "boat race."

I think, though, that all these differences are of quantity, not type.  While the statistics suggest that the English are, as a nation, a bit drunker than most (barring Australia and Eastern Europe), I’m not sure how much this can really be declared adistinctive drinking “culture.”  As far as I can tell (and my perception is definitely skewed by being in a university environment) the basic rules and functions of drinking here are pretty familiar.  People drink to celebrate holidays and to mark achievements; the one’s who are getting really drunk are the late teens and twenty-somethings; older people drinking heavily is frowned upon.  Sometimes, in fact, the parallels between drinking at Oxford and at Princeton become almost too weird: at Boat Club Dinner last week, it hit me that “fines” (“I’ll fine anyone who fell into the river this term”) was pretty much the exact same as the “chugs” we do at Band Bandquet (“Everyone from the West Coast: drink!”).

Many of my American friends here seem constantly aghast at how English students drink—blind to how similar their behavior was to our own when we were undergraduates.  Perhaps the differences are more generational than cultural: when I really reflect on it, in my travels, drinking has often been more a universal than a source of difference.*  Amidst the non-stop culture shock that was my trip to Uganda, drinking a beer at the end of the day with my research team members felt natural and familiar.  As for mainland Europe, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that our assumptions about their generally responsible attitude to alcohol is bunk.  After all, at my party, it was a bunch of Eastern Europeans who raged until the porters shut us down, and last month, it was Christoph’s German friends who managed to break our dining room table—while playing a game taught to them by an American.

Just a few Europeans behaving responsibly.

I suppose this is all an instance of how, if we look for difference, we can find it—to the extent that we might even miss some blatant similarities.  While my time here has made me a bit more skeptical about a lower drinking age as a panacea for America’s frat-party woes, I do like the idea that alcohol can bring the world together, bound by our shared irresponsibility and immaturity.

* Of course, I’ve never been to a Muslim country.

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Jukebox: Dropkick Murphys – Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced

Spring Has Sprung!

In celebration of finishing exams, a few development studies students set out to find the least productive way to spend an afternoon.

We found this paragon of procrastination.

It is called cricket.

Don't tire yourself out.

I freely admit that I do not know enough about cricket to appreciate its nuances, which I’m sure are fascinating.  I also know that plenty of people here think that American baseball and football are mind-numbingly boring. That said, I’m skeptical of any sport that can be played while wearing a white khaki suit and panama hat.  I mean, the sport was invented by colonialists who had nothing to do: it is, in short, intended to be a spectacular waste of time.

What really got me, though, was the guy who was smoking and reading the newspaper while ostensibly also playing in the outfield.  At various points, players would stop paying attention to the game and do a few push-ups; I think if you didn’t, and you played cricket all the time, you’d get out of shape.  (I think I’m also bitter because my classmates who were playing in the match didn’t seem very appreciative of me shouting “Hit a homer!” at the top of my lungs when they were batting.  I guess it really is a “Gentleman’s Game.”)

Magdalen Tower

In all seriousness, though, spring in Oxford is fantastic.  Our workload hasn’t really changed, but our approach to it definitely has.  The terms here are so short, and good weather is so rare, that the opportunity cost of a moment spent inside at this point feels almost too high to bear.  I’ve been gardening, rowing, running, wandering – pretty much anything but working on my thesis.  This morning, to celebrate May Day, we woke up at 5:15 a.m. and trundled down to Magdalen Bridge, where the college choir sung madrigal hymns from the tower.

I was about to write that things couldn’t get much better, but it occurs to me that they most definitely can – and will – when Jackie’s flight arrives this evening!

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Jukebox: The Lawrence Arms – Quincentuple Your Money

Grey Britain

In the depths of winter—when it was dark by 3:45 p.m., and had drizzled for three months straight—a few friends assured me that the weather in English spring would be fantastic.  I was skeptical, since typically here “fantastic” weather usually means “you can sort of see the sun through the clouds and it’s not raining too hard.”  Oxford right now is exceptionally beautiful, though.  It’s been so sunny I’ve actually acquired a tan (which, I suppose, doesn’t reflect too well on my exam studying), and the Worcester gardens are poised to explode into bloom at any moment.

Britain, though, is still awfully grey.

In September, I decided I would prepare myself for my move across the Atlantic by buying some British music.  Naturally, I wasn’t much interested in popular British music, but I did buy an album by the cheerily named “Gallows” called Grey Britain. Reading the liner notes, I discovered that the whole production was a concept album about Britain, and how it’s falling apart.  At the time, I could make much sense of it, since my conception of Britain was driven mostly by watching Chevy Chase’s European Vacation and reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. The U.K. was a land of overly cheerful people with funny spellings and free healthcare: what could they possibly be so down about?

Now, though, I have a bit of a better idea what the pessimists are talking about.  The economic downturn hit the U.K. particularly hard, and the recovery has been comparatively slow.  As far as I can tell, every store in town has been engaged in a desperate clearance sale for the last six months.  Even in the super-affluent core of Oxford, the number of boarded up shops is a bit striking; only my Icelandic friend says things are worse in his own country.   On particularly grim winter days, it was hard not to take the sight of people with umbrellas and overcoats walking hunched over from a perpetual drizzle in front of vacant storefronts and turn it into a mental image of national decline.

I consider myself fortunate to be in the U.K. for a general election, if for no other reason than to draw comparisons.  While my own sample set of U.S. elections is pretty limited (I only became vaguely politically aware in 2000), the current campaign here is, to me, most reminiscent of 2004.  Prime Minister Gordon Brown is madly unpopular, but no one is much excited by the alternative: David Cameron, a posh and somewhat slimy Tory.  Still, though, the election discourse here could never happen in the U.S.: the main parties seem to be competing over which will be able to effect the most miserable cuts to social services and impose the most gut-wrenching tax increases.  Even amidst the irrational anger of the American tea parties, there is a sense of optimism and efficacy that feels absent here.  In all my conversations, not a single person I’ve talked to thinks that a new party is actually going to improve anything.

One of the big issues in the campaign is crime and “anti-social behaviour,” a term I can’t quite define but seems, basically, to refer to people being jerks to one another.  I suppose there are signs of “anti-social behaviour” everywhere here: signs in pubs pleading with patrons not to be too disrespectful to the neighbors, a drunken group of middle-aged men hitting on stewardesses on my plane back from Barcelona, or drivers at an intersection shouting “Move, you c***!” at one another.  Just last night, my housemate called the police on a twenty-person, multi-ethnic fight among teenagers right down on our street, which came on the heels of a month where three houses on our street have been burgled and we’ve been egged for no apparent reason.

While these might seem like just a few scattered anecdotes that hardly prove anything about national culture, I’ve run these by a few English friends here and all agreed that they were symptoms of broader problems.  I do wonder, though, to what extent this national malaise is all a matter of perception and history.  Once you start looking for signs of decline, they’re omnipresent, wherever you are: I’m sure I could find rude drunks and feuding teens anywhere in the U.S.  More speculatively, though, I am curious to what extent this current pessimism is embedded in the long, historical arc of Britain from world’s pre-eminent power to marginal player.  And in that case, I can’t help but think that the current British mentality provides a window into America’s future, as we come to grips with our own inexorably decline from being the world’s sole superpower.

In the meantime, though, the sunshine is fantastic and the beer is awfully good.  Cheers, Britain!

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Jukebox: Social Distortion – Sick Boys

Drinking Problem

Me: So, are you all packed for your trip?

Nicola (housemate): No, but I’m not stressing it.  I’ve already packed up my passport, credit cards, and tea, so I’ll be fine.

Me: Tea?

Nicola: Well, I’m a little worried they might not have tea in Sweden.

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Everyone always talks about how the English have a national problem with alcohol consumption.  But why isn’t anyone concerned about tea addiction?

Addendum: Nicola would like you to know that “I’m not tea-addicted, I’m just tea-dependent.”

Places that time forgot

I think I owe England an apology.

Real places in a real country.

I’ve realized that I’ve spent a lot of time essentializing “England” in my mind, as if it’s a place that you can actually get to know in a short time.  At some point in the last six months, I managed to convince myself that, having done the drive between London and Oxford a few times, I had gotten a pretty good handle on what “England” is.  Almost comical comparisons between the size of the U.K. and the U.S.—the whole island is smaller than Oregon, after all—made me think that somehow it is a homogenous and predictable place.

Such a staid and jaded perspective can only be solved by one thing: a road trip.  Last week, my housemate Christoph, Jeff (a friend from Princeton who rather amazingly decided to grace me with a visit!), and I rented a car and headed out for a two-day jaunt to the northern regions of the misty kingdom.  And while I’m not particularly good at writing travel narratives, our trip did a good enough job at curing my exam-studying blues that I figure a write-up is in order.

It's almost embarassing how many sheep pictures I have.

Our first destination was Chipping Campden (nestled somewhere between Stow-on-the-Wold and Little Slaughter – yes, really), but we didn’t make it all the way before I insisted we pull over to photograph the wildlife.  Sheep, that is.  With friends scattered around the world taking safaris and elephant rides, it’s a little bit sad that my adventures in foreign lands have me photographing sheep, but my, are lambs cute.   I have far more pictures of sheep from this trip than will ever likely surface.  I guess New Zealand ought to be high on my list of future destinations.

We were genuinely excited about the thatched roof.

Chipping Campden itself was exactly as quaint as expected.  The village is tiny and, despite being renowned as the most adorable town in the Cotswalds, still feels sufficiently un-touristy that I was convinced I was experiencing “real” rural England.  While there’s not much to say about a town that appears to have no economic activity other than antique shops, I do like the idea that in the year 2010 there can till be a tourist destination for which my guidebook lists “thatched roofs” as the main attraction.

We continued North, but sidetracked to cross a few standard sights off our lists.  Warwick Castle would look cheesy even compared to an American renaissance fair, and at eighteen pounds admission, we decided to just stand on a bench and take a few pictures over the fence.  Statford-upon-Avon has, somewhat disappointingly, moved on from its Shakespearean glory days and is now, well, a town. Next up was Ironbridge Gorge, birthplace of the industrial revolution.  We were sorely tempted by the Museum of Pipes and the Tile Museum, but pushed on past Manchester to the Lake District.

The world's first iron bridge.

As it turns out, England is a bit larger than expected (at least, long-ways) and so we didn’t make it to our destination before dark.  We went straight to our hostel.  Christoph – who is an M.B.A. and spent the last few years working as a consultant – was a bit horrified at the prospect of staying in a twenty-two bed dorm room, but I was immediately reminded of why I love hostels.  The guy at check-in managed to combine both charm and incoherence, acting like he had never done this before (“Uh, I guess, uh, you can go to your room now.  Pay whenever.”) and failing to correctly count out the six beers we ordered.  We walked outside and enjoyed the clear night – a rarity, I’m told – and stars better than any I’ve seen since I left Flagstaff.

Lake District

When we woke up the next morning, I was convinced I had been transported to Yellowstone, or Middle Earth, or really anywhere but England.  We were surrounded by snow-topped crags (I think they’re called “fells”) and our hostel was right on the bank of a mountain lake. The whole thing felt surreal: alien-looking moss, rugged feral sheep, archaic stone bridges, and locals speaking a language identifiable as English but otherwise unintelligible.

Tall things --> climb.

My man-hormones were telling me we needed to immediately find something tall and climb it, so we drove up a valley until we encountered an imposing looking cliff and waterfall.  Free-climbing the mountain side was an incredibly liberating feeling, though credit (or is it Darwin award?) should go to Jeff, who in an display of astonishingly good judgment decided he would take off his shoes half-way through our ascent and brave the sharp rocks and near-freezing wet ground barefoot.  Hey, if the sheep can do it…

We spent the rest of our afternoon wandering between mountain valleys and relaxing in tiny hamlets.  If I were in the U.S., I would probably find human settlements all over a national park to be blasphemous, but here, they seem to just meld into the landscape – it’s almost impossible to imagine this place without stone walls snaking through it.  We closed our adventures with a quick trip to a stone circle and drove home: it’s a bit ridiculous that just 24 hours later I was at a club in London.

Appeasing the druids.

It’s easy to sink into the trap of thinking places are timeless when they are, in fact, constantly evolving, but if ever there was a place that seemed to me like a window into the past, it’s here.  At the same time, though, it was nice to have my expectations shocked a bit.  I’m already one-third of the way done with my degree, but I’ve got a lot of exploring left to do.

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Jukebox: Zwan – Endless Summer