Posts Tagged 'London'

Still a Stranger Here

I like being Canadian.

Aside from the embarrassment of Rob Ford and the ongoing empire of Stephen Harper, we have a lovely reputation: polite, friendly, the cleaner/nicer/more left-wing version of Americans.

I also love living in London; the theatre and museums, while not absolutely peerless, are exceptional (and have quite spoiled me for living anywhere that isn’t as culturally rich).

And while being an expatriate comes with pros (two passports!) and cons (like people correcting my diction and pronunciation. I know what I said. You know what I said. I know both what you people call it and how you pronounce it and have decided to stick with my own vernacular in this case. So stop being pedantic), there is something particular to the UK (and Europe) that I don’t think I will ever master.

“Hello.”

In Canada and the US, you have: the wave,

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the chin acknowledgement (think ‘s’up’),

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the handshake,

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the fist bump,

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and the hug,

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for varying degrees of physical and emotional proximity.

In the UK and Europe, though – y’all do the cheek kiss (for an indeterminate length and number of times), with either a handclasp or some kind of hand-on-arm job.

Even Hilary Clinton thinks this shit is weird.

I do not know what to do with that.

This STILL feels unnecessarily intimate and weird to me.

If you do that in North America? You’re either a theatre-person greeting other theatre-people, or you’re basically hitting on someone REALLY HARD.

I can’t you the number of times I’ve automatically gone for a hug since some person is suddenly in my personal space and they’ve gotten a mouthful of hair or head butted.

And I still can’t tell if you guys are actually doing a kiss or just going ‘mwa’ in the space next to my head.

I tend to do the latter, after I’ve done a weird pseudo-hug that’s the equivalent of a limp-fish handshake (which I loathe) because ARGH I can’t KISS you, that is for intimates.

I get it, I think – it looks classy, it’s less business-y than a handshake, it’s affectionate and I’d bet most Londoners are affection-deprived on average.

But…

It’s not intuitive for me. It doesn’t come naturally, and I still haven’t figured out exactly where the cheek-kiss thing falls in terms of social proximity. Do you do this with literally everyone you meet? Work colleagues? Bosses? Friends of friends?Grandparents?

Where is the line? Have I unwittingly offended people by pre-empting them with a firm all-American handshake or put them on the back foot by an unanticipated warm and fuzzy Canadian hug?

It’s odd. I speak the language. My parents are Brits, but picturing them doing the cheek-kiss thing is impossible – is this a new thing? They left the nearly 40 years ago – is this a European import? WHAT IS THE DEAL?

Seriously. Please. Someone teach me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it, though. I do it, because social niceties and whatnot, but it always feels like a put-on.

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Such stuff as dreams are made on

cc Nick Webb via Flickr

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

– Caliban, The Tempest

Like most people in the UK, I stayed up Friday night to watch the Olympic opening ceremony. And as bizarre as I found the sheep and the texting and the frenetic pace, not to mention the 90% asinine BBC commentary, there was that swell that comes from a focused crowd of thousands; the drumming, dancing, music, singing – felt tangible, and felt shared. And it was a relief to feel that, however manipulative.

To feel connected by awe and admiration, to feel that in that brief moment, whether true or not, that there was a sudden absence of fear and aggression, that every person in that crowd, and huge swathes of people watching elsewhere, had this one moment of united benevolent thought.
I don’t know that I’ll feel anything like that again – how often does anything hold the complete attention of a sizeable chunk of the planet? And how often is that thing actually and actively positive? How often is it awe? Or surprised amusement?

It is both thrilling and isolating to live in a big city – there is so much happening, such great diversity, and yet because of the density there is also a deliberate blindness towards other people, it would be too much to really see and hear everyone. It would feel dangerous. People are scary.

So to have a moment when everyone around you ceases to be a potential threat, and is instead sharing something akin to delight – it is precious, and almost unbelievable: that we could all simultaneously set aside irony and cynicism and our other assorted defences, without even noticing that we were. It is in many ways the intention, if not always the successful practice, of events like the Olympics – forgetting the competitiveness; we are there to come together – all of us – and play.

Be not afeared.

Ten years is a long time.

I was in my dorm room at university, in Washington DC. Doing a kickboxing video, if you can believe it. My cell phone rang. My dad, phoning on a Tuesday morning, was out of the ordinary to say the least.

“Are you ok”

“Yeah, why?”

“Turn on the TV”

Image: Scott Bauer for USDA

So off went the workout video, and on came the news. I remember seeing the footage everyone saw that day – the plane hitting the tower behind the poleaxed newscaster. I don’t remember how I ended the conversation with my dad, only that he said he’d tell my mom I was ok.

I don’t know the order in which things happened next. I remember packing a bag, intending to get out of town, knowing friends who were getting out of the city, but the traffic was too much, and I didn’t really have anywhere to go.

I remember going to the top of my building and seeing the smoke coming from the Pentagon, and the rest of the city seeming quiet, despite the traffic. Was the city locked down in some way? I remember a friend calling her friends who worked at the Pentagon. I remember being invited into someone’s room for a glass of wine, because what could we do? I remember all of us trying to do the grown up thing, and not really knowing what that was.

I remember thinking, knowing, that it would lead to some kind of war, and that I really wished it wouldn’t.

In the following days and weeks I remember being alarmed at the military on the streets – tanks, people in fatigues with really big guns. I remember the university sending counselors around to talk to us.

Four years later, I found myself in a pub in Dublin the day of the London bombings in July. I had left London the day before.

I forget these memories, until I go looking for them. How I felt that something had dropped out from under me, and how I just continued life as normal anyway.

10 years is a long time.

Like any anniversary, we can look back and see what’s changed. In the years since 9/11 I graduated university and started a career. I moved to Canada, then to England. I made a film. I began and ended an important relationship. I lost my grandparents. I have seen my friends and cousins marry and have children. I have seen my siblings get older and wiser. I have seen the economy collapse and natural disasters take out cities in developed countries. I have seen Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

There is a lot of life to be seen in ten years.

That is a lot of life that people had taken from them, people who did not see themselves as soldiers in a war, people who were not fighting. People who had no choice.

So what do we do? We think about the things we deliberately forget to think about the rest of the time. And we ask why. And we are angry and sad and hopeless and our heart breaks a little. And we decide to keep going, because we’re still alive, and it’s not fair, and that’s how it is.


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