Tag Archives: travel

These Colors Don’t Run

14 May

IMG_4043If traveling abroad causes one to reflect on one’s nationality and it’s influence on personal identity, then living abroad calls for a full psycho-analysis of the effect. At least if you are me, it does. My analytical nature will not allow anything to just be. I pick it apart and examine all the pieces until I can thoroughly make sense of them within a context that is familiar and logical.

So, what does it feel like to be American and live in Britain? Watching the portrayal of America and Americans on television in Britain and the locals’ reactions, comments, and questions to me, I have a pretty good sense of the image Americans and America portray. Sometimes I am sickened by the accuracy of the impression of our Great Nation. We are selfish and self-indulged, over-confident and all too comfortable with the super-power role and status, even though that appears to be dissipating. We don’t know nearly as much about others as they know about us. When I share stories about people I know who are struggling to pay for or don’t even have health insurance, there is disbelief that our country could allow such things to happen. The basic services in Britain that provide for healthcare, education, affordable housing, public works, and many other government programs are not dragging down the society in taxes, but rather lifting them up in a communal shared concerned for their fellowman. I know I am over-simplifying the issue, but this society does, to me, seem more evolved and farther along in the realization that everyone benefits if everyone is taken care of at the most basic level.

Then there is gun-control. I am a staunch supporter of gun-control. Statistics show that arming yourself for defense leads to more crime and violence in our society. The police here in Britain are armed with clubs and pepper spray. At home, the officers patrolling elementary schools carry high powered hand guns, because of the fact that children can and do bring guns into schools. It’s outrageous. I will never own a gun and hope one day Americans see the light about gun ownership and what accessibility does to the American psyche. Gun control in Britain has allowed a relatively low incidence of violent crime. Yes, knife violence is a problem, but killing multiple innocent people in an instant with a knife is just not possible.

A few weeks ago, however, I had an experience that reminded me that I am American through and through. My socialization and upbringing in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave came out like an animal instinct. I was walking along a busy street talking with a friend while my husband walked several paces ahead of us talking with the wife of our friend. I saw coming towards us, a woman who appeared to be a bit disheveled and watched her bump into the woman my husband was walking with. She regained her composure and looked ahead at me. She came straight for me. Without a moment of thought, I planted my feet as she barreled into my shoulder, obviously drunk and looking for trouble. She seemed surprised by her solid hit, and my commanding voice, “What are you doing?” I think she expected me to move out of the way and apologize, which I did not. In fact, I turned around and watched to see if she carried on walking or was daring enough to come back. In my mind, I was ready for a physical confrontation if necessary to stand my ground. And there it is. Don’t mess with me. I am polite and courteous and considerate with everyone I meet on the street and in life generally. I am affable. But don’t mess with me. I will fight you. How stupid!

My reaction surprised my friend — he kept asking, “Are you alright?” Yes, at the moment, I was alright, riding a bit of an adrenaline induced high. Then of course, I was not alright. What made me react so differently from my British friends? I felt brutish in my over-reaction. History has shown over and again the fortitude, strength and bravery of the British people. World War II happened on their soil; they endured the German air raids and rallied against their invasion. We Americans have enjoyed generations of peace on our soil — yes, I know about Pearl Harbor, but that was not on our mainland, and did not include bombing our civilian population. Yet, Americans cling to our “right to bear arms” when really the only enemies we fight with handguns are our own family members, ex-lovers, innocent boys on the street and others we perceive as threats. Couple this absurd bravery with a semi-automatic and there you have it — American cowboys on urban streets.

Lots to think about in terms of what will it take for our society to become more safe, more cultured, more concerned for each other. For this American, I will again start with “the man in the mirror.”

Christmas Eve in London

25 Dec

We dashed across Trafalgar Square at 5:40 on Christmas Eve and found the line heading into St. Martin in the Fields wrapped around the corner. Cheerful ladies waited at the door handing out 16 page programs with all the hymns, readings and poems printed out. They had printed exactly 870 programs, the maximum number allowed inside the church by the fire marshall. We were close to the last ones admitted and almost had to split into pairs to find a seat before another couple vacated an aisle bench that held all four of us. We sat down and immediately were startled that the bench might give way before we realized it was permanently leaning forward from years of wear. We had to plant our feet squarely on the floor in front of us to keep from slipping out.

The church was filled to capacity. The balcony surrounding the perimeter was teeming. The service was not scheduled to start until 6:30, but at 6, a woman I could not see began to address the crowd. In a thick British accent she said, “Well, the service is not scheduled to begin until 6:30, but since you all have come so early, and there so very many of you here who seem to want to stay, we thought we would conduct a rehearsal. And since this is a carol service, we will see if you are good singers. Those of you who are not will be asked to leave and we will bring in the others who are waiting outside to see if they can sing better.” The crowd erupted into laughter. Ah, Christmas cheer. She wasn’t kidding, though. She turned the service over to the choir director who had us practice “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” He abruptly stopped us halfway into the first verse and threatened to have us removed if we did not pipe up and really sing. He then led us through several verses of other carols, intermittently praising and scolding us into better singing.

The service did finally start at 6:30 and became a bit more serious, though there were moments of humor. We prayed for the members of the church who were ill and for Queen Elizabeth and all of Europe for teetering on the brink of financial disaster. I wondered if any church services at home were praying for our leaders, who I hear treated themselves to a vacation instead completing the work at hand.

The sermon was about giving gifts and getting it right when it comes to giving from the heart. It struck me because Christmas shopping this year flummoxed me. I usually take great joy and care in searching out and finding just the right thing for people I love. This year, each time I tried, my head would spin and I would literally have to leave the store and go cry in my car. I was overwhelmed with the thought of missing my family, missing my friends, missing my life as I know it and knew that any gift exchange would simply amplify these feelings. I bumbled through my good-byes in the days just before Christmas and got lost in a fog of jet lag after I arrived.

When I finally awoke on Christmas Eve, I was in St. Martin in the Fields surrounded by 866 strangers, my husband and sons, all singing Christmas carols. The choir was indescribably beautiful as their voices rose and fell in the beautiful vaulted and domed ceilings around the church.

My favorite new carol is called “Little Donkey.” It is a hymn of encouragement for the donkey who carried Mary to the stable. I had never heard of it before, but listening to my 18 year-old son belt it out on Christmas Eve in London is sure to become a lasting favorite Christmas memory for me.

Little Donkey, little donkey on the dusty road.
Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load.
Been a long time, little donkey through the winter’s night
Don’t give up now, little donkey, Bethlehem’s in sight.