London Internship Program 2016

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Mastering the Rules of the Road

As I was reading the “Rules of the Road” chapter of Kate Fox’s Watching the English, I felt like I was reading a summary of everything I’ve learned on public transportation since arriving in London. As soon as London Week, I realized that whenever we all travelled on the tube as a group, we were typically the only ones talking. That’s right, not just the only ones talking loudly – the only ones talking at all. For fear of being the stereotypically obnoxious American tourist disrupting the locals on their daily commute, I almost immediately learned to avoid eye contact, remain silent and keep all of my limbs and personal belongings confined to my own little box. I learned these rules by simply looking at the Englishmen and women all around me who were taking their tube ride in a similar fashion, being extremely respectful of each others’ comfort and respecting the “box” of space dedicated to each person (similar to the boxes mentioned in the “Home Rules” chapter, except instead of house and garden boxes, the boxes on tubes and busses can be seen as confined to a single seat or standing area just large enough for one person and perhaps a small bag). While it was rather easy to pick up these unspoken rules and even easier to follow them, I think doing so has actually been one of the wisest things I’ve done on this trip. Understanding and following through with these Rules of the Road have allowed me to camouflage my “outsider” status and further immerse myself in British culture.

First Impressions: Sticking Out like a Sore Thumb

Prior to landing in London, I had never visited a city bigger than my hometown in Dallas, Texas. I was expecting the British culture to be not much different than the southern America culture I know so well, considering our shared language and similarly heterogeneous religions. Right off the bat, however, I realized that English wouldn’t be a seamless bridge between my cultural background and my new environment. The driver who picked me up from the airport had an accent so thick with English and African influences that I couldn’t understand a word he said, making my hour-long ride into the city an unusually quiet one. Even when I arrived and began speaking to native British people, I found myself having to sift through their accents in order to understand what they were actually telling me. Over the course of the next week, I gradually overcame this slight language barrier, but the shock I experienced when I couldn’t understand people in an English-speaking country is still fresh in my mind.

Another shocking revelation I had within the first week was the fact that I stuck out like a sore thumb. It only took a few days for me to learn how to find my way around my neighborhood without looking at a map and navigate the public transportation system with ease. Yet surprisingly, I still looked totally out of place no matter where I went. I could generally identify who was a native British person and who was a tourist by looking at their clothes and the way they carried themselves, and unfortunately, I definitely looked like just another tourist. My bright and former Lilly Pulitzer clothes stood out among a sea of more relaxed black and grey attire. My little black wallets and tiny clutches guaranteed that I was not carrying any real work materials with me, even during weekday rush hours. My accent made me “just another American” who was susceptible to being yelled at by crotchety old men at McDonalds, as some of my classmates were for being American tourists. And so, on the first day I was available to go shopping, I headed straight for the trendy British store H&M to shop for more relaxed grey and black clothes, and stopped on the way home to buy a bigger tote bag. As for my accent — well, there’s nothing I can change about that. But hopefully, the longer I stay here, the more I will pick up on the subtle mannerisms that make the English truly English.

Sunday June 5th – Landing and Unpacking

Today I landed at Heathrow around 11AM. I was lucky to have slept soundly on my long flight from Dallas, as it made adjusting to the time difference much easier than I remembered it being when I first flew to France in 2011. As I waited possibly 45 minutes for both of my checked bags to be delivered via a tiny conveyor belt, I realized that London was going to be much hotter than I previously expected. The baggage claim area was stuffy and hot, with no A/C – a luxury I have taken for granted as a Texas native. After picking up my luggage, I walked out of the airport to find my driver waiting for me with my name on a sign. Though he seemed nice, the 50 minute drive to my apartment was a long and silent one because I could not understand a word he said. It never occurred to me that I would have a difficult time understanding people in a country where English is the official language. Nevertheless, I felt my anticipation growing the closer we got to London. By the time we finally arrived at 19 Bedford Place, I thought I was going to burst with excitement! My 1PM arrival left me an hour to kill before I could check into my flat, so I set off to find the closest EE store with the help of some questionable directions given by the Bedford Place concierge. I was delighted to see just how central the location of my flat is as I passed Russell Square (which sits directly at the end of Bedford Place), the British Museum (just half a block away!), and many cute cafés and shops. After getting more accurate directions from a few locals, I made it to the EE store within 20 minutes and was greeted by a cheerful employee who sold me a generous cell phone plan with plenty of data for me to burn through. Because the trip was so quick and easy, I still had time left to grab lunch, so I decided to eat at the most British-sounding place that I saw on my route: Ale & Pie! After a quick lunch of steak pie and mash, I headed back to Bedford Place to move in. The apartment is very spacious, with plenty of kitchen utensils for me to cook with. After unpacking, the crew over for a quick chat over biscuits and digestives and then split up for dinner. Hermione and I went to Punjab, one of the three oldest Indian restaurants in London that was absolutely amazing – thanks, Yelp! By the time we got home, we were absolutely exhausted and hit the hay.


Brexit as a new wave of open British patriotism?

In the chapter of Watching the English titled “Humour Rules,” author Kate Fox goes into detail about what she calls “The Importance of Not Being Earnest,” especially in relation to matters of national pride. Considering the results of the recent referendum vote in the UK, I found this subject particularly interesting, as I feel as if the winning party displayed blatant violations of this rule throughout their campaign. At as an American looking into the whole ordeal, it seemed as if the pro-Brexit voting population was largely motivated by an emotionally charged sense of patriotism promoted by politicians like Boris Johnson. I even heard many people describe Brexit as the UK’s chance to break away from a large, controlling, oppressive force and assert its independence, as the United States did to Britain in 1776. Yet according to Kate Fox, the British have a rather closeted sense of patriotism that really only shines through in brief periods of “cultural remission” like royal events. In the words of Fox, “the sentimental patriotism of leaders and the portentous earnestness of writers…and other public figures of all nations are treated with equal derision and disdain by the English, who can spot the slightest hint of self-importance at twenty paces, even on a grainy television picture and in a language we don’t understand.” If this is true, then how did the pro-Brexit group win the vote? How were politicians like Johnson able to convince the masses to make such a drastic decision with overtly patriotic sentiments? Is Britain in the process of cultivating its own sense of patriotism, or did pro-Brexit voters truly believe that leaving the EU would bring them genuine economic benefits (despite the fact that there still is no actual plan to bring about these benefits)?

My pub etiquette learning curve

When it comes to this week’s readings, I think I definitely identified the most with the section on Pub-talk and general pub etiquette. At the very beginning of this trip, I made sure that visiting a pub was the first thing I did after touching down in Heathrow and dropped off my bags in the Acorn office. Unfortunately, the events that unfolded due to my lack of familiarity with British pub customs was, looking back on it, the tragically typical tourist pub experience. As described in Watching the English, “Foreign visitors often find it hard to come to terms with the fact that there is no waiter service in English pubs. Indeed, one of the most poignant sights of the English summer (or the funniest, depending on your sense of humour) is the group of thirsty tourists sitting patiently at a pub table, waiting for someone to come and take their order.” Yes, I immediately fell victim to the complex British pub customs, in which a customer is supposed to make the bartender keenly aware their presence and desire for a drink, without being boorish and rudely overbearing about it. The more I frequented pubs, however, the more I picked up on the importance of what the author calls “The Pantomime Rule,” which involves simply making eye contact with the bartender, perhaps while holding an empty glass only slightly above the countertop, and waiting for them to come to you at their convenience. Another rule mentioned in Watching the English I have noticed from firsthand experience is “The Pantomime Rule.” Thankfully, this rule already came quite naturally to me, and always has – even in preschool, I was always the kid to respect the power of the queue, even if it wasn’t necessarily formed in a straight line. On my last visit to a pub, someone actually cut me in the invisible queue. In return, I simply made eye contact with the person in a very plain manner (read: not sassy side-eye, just a simple acknowledgement), and the person immediately began apologizing profusely. Overall, I’m just glad I learned how to order a drink here!