Look…I’m not saying that London is some kind of ‘rosy haven’ of a place…well, except that when I do focus on the rosy haven-ness of it, it becomes easier to see more rosy haven, so to speak. And I do so like it when others see it too. What I’m amazed about is how we Londoners cannot see ourselves very well…I guess nobody can. Bro-in-law, J, a staunch Yorkshireman, has been known to grudgingly admit that he likes London because you can always get good second-hand cars here. Everyone comes to London to trade….and, (I never gave this much thought before I spoke to people who did it)…in a big city you can stretch your wings and reinvent yourself; find out who you are…because nobody minds. You are free to live by your own rules.
After my Spanish class, I realised that I was really hungry, so popped into the pub across the road where evening students meet up, and ordered some chips. No-one from my Spanish class was there, but French teacher Agnes, a Londoner of 20 years from Paris was, with one of her students, Weng from Macau (my beloved husband patiently drew me a map of China to show me where ex-Portuguese colony, Macau was….and we found an amazing 40km? road/bridge/tunnel wandering across the sea from Macau all the way to Hong Kong on google earth..there’s just no limit to the incredible ‘we can do this’ Chinese way of doing things! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong%E2%80%93Zhuhai%E2%80%93Macau_Bridge).
Agnes, Weng and I sat down in a corner with our chips, chatting above the din of animated students after their first day in class. Although it had never happened to her before, Agnes was pretty stoic about having been burgled the previous night…but we soon got talking about how they came to London…and I found out that 20-30 years ago in Paris, a young girl could not wander the streets without molestation and unsought advances, and therefore London was exceedingly refreshing to Agnes – because the men were polite, opened doors for her, and she felt perfectly safe – which she says was wonderful (and it’s no secret that Brits are enchanted by anyone with a French accent). She was pleased to say that modern Parisian men had finally evolved into a better-behaved version of their ancestors….
Agnes was also pretty shocked when other motorists flashed their lights at her, signalling that they were giving way/letting her pass…and that she was thanked if she did the same. I have no idea whether this is a peculiar British custom…but it’s quite unusual driving etiquette, I think, especially since I don’t believe we are generally renown for being polite in other circumstances….or maybe we are??
And Weng…well Weng, a young girl in her 20s…she loves it here too. They both were not impressed with the quality of the fresh food (compared to France or Macau) but they could not fault the diversity. The polish bread and the turkish pomegranates and the international corner shops. And often much cheaper than the supermarkets. They love it. And all of it on your doorstep. Weng wasn’t sure she could ever go back home, when the time came. Her family say she is too ‘westernised’. What does that mean? I asked. Well, it means I won’t conform to expectations…I have been here in the UK for 10 years and I cannot give up the freedom to be….me, she said. I thought that was great, but also a bit sad, in a way. Does that mean her original culture will be lost? I asked. She could see there were parts of her home culture worth holding on to…but she could not fit in to what was expected of women at home. We decided she would marry a young man from Macau, who had also lived in Europe…she seemed happy with that idea. (I got a similar story from near-niece-in-law, E, from Lithuania, who felt she was definitely more able to be who she is in the non judgemental expanse of the big city).
Weng also said that people in China are very direct…if they don’t like something, you know straightaway…and she felt that Brits probably found that rude…so she has had to modify her directness in favour of what she sees as our more indirect politeness, and saw some merit in not hurting someone’s feelings. Gosh, maybe we really are more polite than I think…
At the end of our discussion, we left the pub to make our way home. How do you say goodbye in Spanish?, said Agnes. Ciao! I said. But that’s Italian she said. I know, I said. C’est la vie.