The Alien World of Britannia

Ah, yes. Britain.

Until last summer, i had never visited the exotical remote island that had been lying there, across the Channel, all my life, just a small jump in a plane or a bowel-stirring ferry trip away. Stories had of course reached my ears before through various channels. Tales of culinary horror, mystery and enchanting landscapes; of a ruthless barbarian wasteland filled with sheep far North, where strange people mutter words in an incomprehensible language. Yet, for all those warnings, i was curious to see which part would actually reveal to be true. And with my girlfriend studying in England, i was soon to find out.

First of all, Britain is…well…    different.
You can’t look beyond it, really. Cars drive on the wrong side of the road, people drink their tea with milk, and
for some reason pies, as opposed to their counterparts on the continent, contain meat. Meat and potatoes. In a pie. Really…

Then there’s the annoying message shouting at you from every milk or water bottle, slice of meat, coockie bag and tea leaf: “This is a product of Britain”. Usually accompanied by a little (and equally annoying) union jack flag on the side. Now, although i’m Belgian, i’m used to chauvinism. France has it’s fair share of national pride, and advertises wildly through symbols such as wine, cheese and perfume “Made in France” all across the globe. But you won’t see “Guaranteed French Cow” on a milk bottle. (“French milk” is more likely). While I appreciate that the cow whose milk i drink was lovingly bred and milked on this lovely island, i care more about the quality of the milk itself. Or that of its meat. For all i know she could have grazed a bit too close to an old mining site.Or Windscale.

An equally annoying feature of Britain is Health and Safety. Don’t get me wrong, there has to be a kind of H&S regulation. But i KNOW that underground trains have closing doors, i KNOW they will depart at some point, and i KNOW i have to hold the handrail when standing on an escalator. Or mind the gap. No need to shout it at me. Let alone let people specially trained to do so shout it at me.

But there is some good news as well. Contrary to common belief, trains DO run on time quite often. (haven’t tried them yet when it snows, though).  Everything is more efficient and slightly less disorganized than mainland Europe. You can actually get food and buy stuff on a bank holiday. And then there’s the food department of Marks and Spencer, which makes up for all the small, tiny little problems you might have with the British cuisine (the cheeses alone are a fascinating universe, not to mention the beer and cider).

All of this, of course, depends on the region you’re in. Although i enjoy London a lot, there is something special about the North. Yes, the North, with its sheep-filled rocky hills and people with funny accents. To me, Britain’s North (and i mean North England AND Scotland) is like France’s South.

I don’t know if it’s something in the food or the cider, but somehow people here are more…well…relaxed. I spent 45 minutes this morning talking to a complete stranger about different types of Belgian Beer, and how they compare to British ales and lagers, and all that while taking my morning tea. This stranger (the owner of the small café; Cafe Lento, Headingley, Leeds. Go there.)   turned out to be a retired school teacher, and now a full time specialist in the art of making English Breakfast and baking quite excellent muffins, as well as being a jazz aficionado. Over tea we talked as old friends.And while this is far from the busy City of London, there’s no place quite like it.Although the local accent can be quite funny, and communication isn’t always that fluent as a result, it really feels like home.

And while this island has some strange traditions and very odd habits, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without them. From the “Mind the gap” calls to “We cannot show this mummy on photographs because of the laws regulating depiction of human remains” signs, it is part of something larger and ungraspable. Something beyond cider, mince meat and fish and chips.

Part of something we, in Belgium, have lately forgotten.

An identity.