Saturday, June 09, 2012

List of the Month - Why it's good to be back home...

It does feel very, very good to be back in England at last - after the longest absence I have ever endured, very nearly three years; and after almost ten years of living overseas. There will, in all likelihood, be a fair amount of overlap here with this list that I compiled at the beginning of last year. Let's see.

As I mentioned yesterday, the voluptuous greenness of this country has taken me somewhat by surprise. The vegetation of the English countryside is perhaps particularly lush at the moment, having bided its time, tensing and contracting during the unusually cool, wet spring before exploding in grateful profusion at the approach of summer's long days. I am overwhelmed by it. The dominant colours of Beijing are brown and grey: there's hardly any grass, and even the leaves of the trees get crusted in dust. I was enraptured by this riot of green within hours of arrival, taking a bus from London up to Oxford; two weeks in, the rapture has scarcely waned one jot.

Birds are not unknown in Beijing, but they are exceedingly rare - apart from the occasional whipporwill (easily mistaken for a rusty extractor fan, and vice versa). Even out in the surrounding countryside birds are comparatively thin on the trees, and the sound of their singing is muted, easily drowned out by the semi-feral dogs and insomniac roosters who fill the villages. There isn't the profusion and variety of bird life we find in England. Here - even in Oxford, even in the heart of London - the morning chorus can be quite deafening, and makes it almost impossible to sleep in beyond 5am or 6am. But you can't complain about this; it is rather beautiful.

In that post of mine in January last year, I lamented the general absence of 'casual courtesies' in China, the fact that people seldom acknowledge strangers on the street with a smile or a greeting and never hold a door open for anyone. I had forgotten just how very different the culture is here in England. In fact, I am inclined to think that things may have got better in this regard since I last lived here: we seem to have absorbed some of the openness and friendliness of the Americans, particularly in the attitude to customer service in shops and restaurants. Almost everywhere - in bars, cafés, corner shops, supermarket checkouts - I am finding a relaxed, unforced chattiness in the staff, and it's nurturing a general sense in me that the majority of people here really want to be nice to each other. Maybe I am exaggerating this, maybe I am imagining it; maybe a few isolated instances have struck me unduly deeply because this is such a huge contrast to China, where people most of the time, especially those in service jobs, seem to behave towards their fellow men with sullen introspection, distrust, irritation, or barely disguised contempt.

Of course, China, and even Beijing, still has a huge lead in some areas: heavily subsidised public transport; locally manufactured-under-licence Western comfort foods like crisps, chocolate, and soft drinks; fresh farm produce, though it doesn't have much taste and is filled with pesticides, etc.; scrappy, unhygienic neighbourhood restaurants; the piss-weak, nearly tasteless local beer. But for an awful lot of things - most of the things that define a 'comfortable' expat lifestyle - Beijing has now become significantly more expensive than our home countries. Coffee and other packaged Western foods (admittedly these have to be imported into China), fast food (or even 'gourmet' standard burgers), drinks in a bar - these things are all at least a little cheaper now in England than I've grown used to paying in China in the last couple of years; in a few cases, quite a lot cheaper.

Clean air
I'm a little spoiled, having stayed mostly in quiet Oxford suburbs or the scattered villages of Buckinghamshire. In rural England, air pollution is almost zero. But even London seems invigoratingly fresh and wholesome compared to Beijing. In the last few years, I had got used to having a hacking cough nearly all the time, to having the glands in my neck swollen like golf balls at least half of the time, to having a wretched sore throat for much of the time, and to being laid low with a really debilitating cold three or four times a year. I had got used to being quite significantly ill almost constantly. Almost all of these symptoms had disappeared completely within a couple of days of my leaving China.

Safe drivers
Now, England has its percentage of impatient, reckless, negligent, incompetent, or downright psychotic drivers, of course. All countries do. But I am forming the impression that these days this percentage is very, very low; whereas the general level of driving standards - and the general level of courtesy, consideration, and tolerance towards other drivers and pedestrians - is quite high. Again, perhaps I am disposed to exaggerate how good behaviour on the roads is here because of the contrast with China, and particularly with Beijing - where the "impatient, reckless, negligent, incompetent" component of the driving population must be pretty near 100%, and the downright psychotics probably account for a good 10-20%.

It has been raining, or at least drizzling here almost continuously for the last week. This has been rather limiting my activities, but it brings its own pleasures. This is clean rain (rather than loaded with sand and construction debris that will dapple car roofs with mud), natural rain (not precipitated by the massive deployment of cloud-seeding chemicals), moderate rain (not the spasmodic downpours that paralyse Beijing with flash-floods). It is refreshing. It is soothing. It is probably one of the things that I have missed most.

At the moment, I am dismayed that I ever abandoned England, struggle to remember why I did, and cannot readily imagine leaving again any time soon. This euphoria will probably wear off in a while - as I run low on money, and start remembering how bloody difficult it was for me to get a job here. But for now... I am loving it, it feels very good to be back indeed.


Froog said...

I had wanted to maintain a focus on the natural environment here, but I might very well have added.... being able to watch the football in the right time zone.

And having a workable Internet connection speed - oh, the joy of being able to watch short YouTube videos without waiting 15 or 20 minutes for them to buffer!

Froog said...

And girls on bicycles. Oh my!

Gilman Grundy said...

After spending years away I arrived back in the UK in 2007 and spent a year in London - had a great time, but the job market really blows at the moment. You do at least have the option of teaching if you want - there's always jobs going there.

Now I live in Poland, I'm back in the UK once every 2-3 months, and I find that's enough for me for the moment.

Froog said...

Enjoying the Euros over there? Or praying for them to end? I remember being stuck on a train journey to Wales once with a carriage full of Polish football fans who sang "Polska! Something, something..." over and over again for three hours without a break (to the tune of 'Go West!'). The one-and-only girl in their party was heart-breakingly beautiful, though; some compensation for the aural assault.

Does Poland feel a bit under-populated, I wonder, now that so many Poles have emigrated?

Gilman Grundy said...

It's "Polska - biało czerwoni!" - Poland, White and Red. Not a very imaginiative song, but somewhat catchy.

Actually many of those who left in 2004-5 returned when the world economy went south in 2007-8 (Cf. the famous story of all the cars bought by Poles on credit being ditched at Shannon airport with no forwarding address). Seems like half the people I know in Wrocław (the artist formerly known as Breslau) spent time in the UK. And yes, Polish girls are smoking.

Gilman Grundy said...

Oh, and the atmosphere here in Wroc has been awesome by the way, even at the Czech Republic v. Russia match where there was a bit of rough-stuff, and even if the weather has sucked.