Today, I had to wait for 45 minutes for something in a waiting room full of people in a place that was too hot with small windows. To most people that probably sounds quite tedious. However, I didn’t mind. I like waiting. That is strange. But I really do.
Why do I like waiting? That is today’s weird thought.
British people are good at waiting. We don’t mind, or we don’t show that we mind, to a point. If we do mind or get to the point when we start minding, we complain but only in a very jolly British way. We complain with humour. We complain apologetically. That is, if we complain at all. Mostly, we just put up and shut up.
I am British and I love waiting. I have my reasons. Firstly, if I am waiting then I am not engaged in real life. This is especially so if I have no phone signal (as was the case today). Nobody can get hold of me while I am waiting. They can wait. Bliss.
Secondly, waiting gives me thinking space. All I can do is think while I wait. Thinking is healthy. We all should stop and just think now and then. It’s amazing what your mind can come up with if left to just think.
Thirdly, I love reading really old copies of Women’s Weekly. Who doesn’t?
Fourthly, I love reading the random signs and notices that are always present in places of waiting: the adverts for coping with dementia, what to do if you think you have an STD, how much water you should drink a day, where the local support group for people with random unusual disease meet or the signs that tell you ‘please be patient if you have been waiting a long time’.
Finally, and most importantly, I love people watching and eavesdropping on those people. So for me, waiting is like being in the sweetie shop.
Today, while waiting, I heard all about one woman’s issues renovating her house (and what happened when the curtain rail fell down). I helped an elderly lady of 85 work out what day it is today. I amused a random man with my desperate need to know what a ‘Tilt Test’ is (he asked the receptionist for me, she wasn’t sure). I exchanged mutual carparking horror stories with a lady called Julie Davies. I watched as a doddery old man with a thatched head of pure white hair called John Thomas (the man, not the hair) was called into his appointment. I observed a lady called Florence Proctor amble past to her appointment shortly after John Thomas. I created a life for her in my head (lives in the country, higgldy piggldy house, too many books, cats, loves Radio 4, eats crumpets). I saw a youngish man called Paul with a hat get called into his appointment. I amused a random couple with my grammatical pedantry. I enjoyed waiting. It can be fun, if you make it fun.
The sign that I read about twenty times this morning
If only I had had my sketch pad today, the adventures my pen and I would have had. As it was, I decided that an hour in a random waiting room would make for a great Radio 4 play or Samuel Beckett story. It is an existentialist’s dreamv- waiting for something you don’t want to experience, and waiting patiently at that, and more importantly, being forced to consider your mortality and meaning on this planet while waiting for that thing you don’t want to happen. Arguably, there isn’t anything more exentialist as that.
When my time waiting came to an end, 45 minutes after it began, I hate to admit it but I was sad. And I will miss my new friends: John, Julie, Florence and Paul to name but a few. Perhaps our paths will cross again, in another waiting room somewhere else.
This weird thought came to me while watching Celebrity Big Brother. The current series of Celebrity Big Brother is all about contestants from the UK competing against ones from the US. In the episode I was watching, all of the contestants were singing the British National Anthem (not sure why). I realised watching this that I don’t know all of the words to the National Anthem and that I’d also find it quite tedious to have to stand and sing it (it is after all, quite a dreary song). Should I not admit that? Is that treacherous? So why does hearing that rather famous tune not stir something in me? Why don’t I feel pride for my country?
I think my lack of patriotism started once I lived abroad. I have twice been the ‘other’, I have been an immigrant. I know what it is like to be a guest in another country. So I don’t think this country is particularly special for two reasons: there are many other special countries out there and we are letting ourselves down at the moment in not promoting what I would argue is one of the most traditional Britishness values, namely, an ability to embrace diversity.
The first time I lived in another country, the Netherlands, I had a very positive experience. I felt very welcomed there. While living there, I was struck by how small Britain in fact is in the world (I think as we grow up we imagine our homes to be much larger than they are) and how unremarkable the British identity is if compared with others. Before then, all I’d known is what I had grown up with. During that year, I lived with and befriended, people from many other countries including Norway, Sweden, Spain, the United States and Russia. Everyone came with their own cultural identity and assumptions. During that year, I learnt first-hand how interesting and diverse the other cultures I came across were and how, ironically, boringly similar we all were even though we’d had very different upbringings. I was also struck by how relatively uninterested everyone else was in Britain. I don’t know why but I expected them to be more interested. Their relative disinterest was, in fact, very normal. They were equally as interested in Britain as they were in Spain, Norway or Russia for example. We were all equally interesting and different and equally boring and normal.
The world’s centre in my mind shifted from the UK to some unknown place, somewhere near Europe. It was as if a giant camera had moved away from Stafford, Staffordshire, the Midlands, England, the UK and towards somewhere in the sea. Somewhere not too far away. I realised that my culture wasn’t a barometer with which to measure others against. There were lots of barometers, all equally as valid.
A city of bikes and many nations
The Netherlands isn’t hugely different from the UK. I blended in well once I had my bike. I was even twice mistaken for being Dutch. I learnt a lot by this experience. It opened my mind to the possibility of difference and acceptance. I am still friends with many of those people from Norway and America (I’ve lost touch with some of the others). I gained life-long friends.
My next experience of living abroad took me further away from any childhood feelings of patriotism towards the UK. Spending two years in Japan after I graduated from university teaching English turned me from an insider to an outsider. The change was sudden and remarkable. The rug was pulled from below my feet. I was visually different. It gave me a very important insight into what it feels like to be in a minority in a country that is fiercely proud of its heritage. Japan was a wonderful country to live in for two years and I had a very positive experience there. I treasure that time and I made more life-long friends while I was there too (just look at my Facebook friends list). So even more than in the Netherlands, In Japan I came to realise how small and insignificant Britain is and how ordinary British culture is. Japan has a very strong cultural tradition. Towards the end of the two years I felt some of that love for Japanese history myself.
My camera of the centre of the world shifted further away from Europe and settled somewhere over Asia, or just off the coast.
Iwatsuki, Japan – my home for two years
Returning to the UK after two years away, I saw the UK with fresh eyes and noticed how diverse it is. I suffered from reverse culture shock. I could see that the people of Britain also feel a strong cultural heritage, as strong as Japan’s, but it is an internationally-inspired one rather than a narrow one. There isn’t much that originates from the piece of land we live on, it is mostly from beyond the sea (even as far back as from invaders from France, Norway, Denmark, Rome, and Ireland). Much also comes from our imperialist, expansionist past when we invaded others (something we should not be proud of). Just looking at the history of the English language will illustrate this. We don’t speak English in the UK, we speak a hybrid of lots of different languages.
If we have such a diverse cultural and racial heritage, what is a British identity? If I take my husband as an example. He’s lived most of his life in England, he was born and brought up in Wales, and he’s a quarter Italian. I’m not sure where he would place himself. He works with mostly Americans so some of his speech and tastes are from across the pond. He’s a real Heinz 57.
My youngest is one sixteenth Italian – the question is, which bit?
So I find it quite ironic now that so many people of this diverse land feel such strong a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ when issues regarding visitors to this country come up in the news. There is quite a sense of hostility to people coming to live here (interestingly, in 2011 students were the largest category of immigrants – people such as me moving to Amsterdam). It is the people who come here to live, work and study that have made and continue to make British culture what it is. Our culture is a patchwork quilt of different flavours, traditions, behaviours and norms. Having been a visitor to another land I feel saddened that we are not more welcoming. Traditionally, we have been a very welcoming country. Where has that tradition gone?
I would say that the British identity is best described by the word ‘eclectic’. This is also a good word for our culture. It is a mix. It is a bundle of all sorts. It is the drawer where we put all those things we don’t know where else to place (or in this house, the dish). People from Britain are known for their eccentricity and individuality. Why? Because bits of us come from all over the world. This is something we have in common with our American cousins. Ask any American: where are you from? They will respond with ‘I’m part Lithuanian, part Swede and a little bit French’. So this diversity of racial history should be reflected in our tolerance of those from other lands who choose to come to live here. I am not very patriotic because I feel quite ashamed of some of the explicit (and implicit) intolerance I hear about and read about in the press and on social media. It is sadly ironic given that we are a nation made of up so many diverse nationalities dating back thousands of years.
So this is why perhaps I don’t feel particularly proud to be British. I have been that visitor. I want to be part of something that is more caring and sharing. I want us to welcome visitors as the Dutch and the Japanese welcomed me. I would like to feel proud of this country because there is a lot to love about it, including roundabouts.
Roundabouts – quintessentially British?
I do, however, feel proud to be perhaps a little eccentric and 100% pure-bred Heinz 57.
A very British American invention
And as a final thought: where does the word ketchup come from?