I have lived in the UK for many years. Since I was seven years old to be precise. I did take two years off to try living in my native Saudi Arabia but that didn’t work out and I came straight back to London. This multicultural melting pot is my home. I know its streets, its underground stations, its parks, its theatres and museums. I feel comfortable here because I know this city and I feel like I belong. Just the other day, however, I was reminded that no matter how integrated I think I am, there are some parts of the English way of life that I still don’t get.
The A word
By which I mean alcohol. Having been raised in a Muslim household I never encountered alcohol until I was at university. At which point curiosity made me try it. I found it tasted rather vile and the effect it had on people around me was off putting. I remember going on a date and my chivalrous beau insisting on buying me a beer. We were at a university union gig and I gamely tried to sip the noxious drink. It was hard work. When an opportunity presented itself I disposed of the contents into a bin. In my efforts to blend in I tried switching to cider, which had less of a bitter taste, and managed for a while to sip slowly at half pints. But even that experiment went sour as I found my system could not tolerate the stuff. I have a memory of nauseously making my excuses and hailing a taxi, rushing up to my university flat and being horribly sick. It seemed alcohol and I would never be friends.
Over the years, I have had a few more drinks here and there. A sip of champagne at a wedding or trying an expensive wine in a fancy restaurant. I can see that alcohol matters to a lot of people, a lot of nice sensible people, and that for many the taste of a fine wine is second to none. I get that, sort of. I can understand it on an intellectual level but at the gut level of experience I can’t. If I want to quench my thirst I crave water. If I want to refresh my palate, juice or a herbal tea will do very nicely. If I want to relax and feel happy, a slice of cake will ease my tension. A glass of cold milk after eating a bar of chocolate is magical. At no time, except perhaps in social gatherings where I want blend in, would I dream of drinking anything alcoholic. There’s just no pleasure in it for me.
Fine I hear you say. We live in a free society and if you don’t want to drink you don’t have to. That’s true and my bubble of domesticity means I rarely find myself in a pub or other situations where alcohol is to be found. And yet… Socialising as I do with neighbours and friends, I often find that the drinking way of life is interspersed into everyday jargon. Whether it’s some Facebook post saying “hurrah time for drinks” on a Friday afternoon or some frazzled mum saying “I could do with a glass of wine”, it all goes to highlight a culture that I am not part of.
Just the other day I finished reading a chick lit novel that I had picked up at a train station waiting room. It was the usual bog standard relationships yarn with a romantic story line. Reading it, I was struck by just how often the hero and heroine had alcoholic drinks. On their first “get together” they down a bottle of southern comfort while nattering away late into the night. The heroine has lunch with her agent and is so nervous that she gulps down one glass of wine after another and ends up making a fool of herself. Every other scene involves them drinking a beer, particularly at times of stress and tension where they seem to down pint after pint. Putting down the book I pondered this alcoholic culture in Britain. The recent death of Charles Kennedy, probably due to alcoholism, has also put this in mind. Hey Britain. Why do you love alcohol so much?
Those pesky animals
There is one other defining British characteristic which I find hard to relate to. I speak of their love of animals. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike animals. I can enjoy nature programmes and stroke a cat (though must wash hands straight after). I wouldn’t wish any harm on animals (except mosquitoes and slugs) but I don’t feel any need to have a pet in my house. Dodging the dog poo on our walk to school is a daily inconvenience. However, I don’t find it bizarre that other people do have pets. What I find strange and incomprehensible is the way animals are imbued with human characteristics and people seem to love them as well if not better than human beings. Somehow, animals are seen as more noble than us humans. The other day, our local Facebook blog had a post about foxes and I was surprised by how many people said they felt sorry for them and gave them food. No wonder we are overrun with them!
At the end of the day these are minor quibbles. I love this country and I don’t think I would ever live anywhere else. There is no doubt though that I still do feel an outsider at times. Perhaps that is a good thing. It allows me to be true to myself rather than be part of the crowd. It makes for a more interesting life.