Swan and pigeons on ice – photo courtesy of Chris Hill
Coming in and out of a country gives a unique insight into its character. Airports are 20th-century ‘crossing places’. They lack the magic of natural, timeless crossing places which have been described so eloquently in The Hermitage blog recently:
‘CROSSING PLACES and boundaries are the habitation of fascination for me. The not-quite-one-nor-the-other is a chancy and magical place, where in-between sorts of people wander, outcasts and wisdom keepers, and left over thoughts blow past. Here on these thresholds between times and spaces: the water’s edge, the way into the forest, the twilight hour or the dawning, doorways, openings, turning points in years and lives, you’ll find the something that you sometimes remember you were looking for, and then forget again.’
There is no magic in airports, but certainly ‘in-between sorts of people wander’ there, including ‘outcasts and wisdom keepers’ (the latter perhaps also Customs Officers, whose own customs are well worth studying). And yes, airports are thresholds between times and spaces, especially when one has travelled halfway across the world.
On my recent visit to LA, on a mission of friendly and curious surveillance, a green parrot circling the skies – I was immediately struck by the diversity and easy exchange, the superficial warmth of the people. Even the Customs people who decided to search me at length on arrival, because I had too little baggage (yes, too little!!) were extremely friendly. I always try and travel with carry-on bags for a short trip to save time, but of course I lost all that I had saved in the lengthy discussion I had with the woman who was carrying out the extremely bureaucratic search, and who was keen to know how I felt about my trip to LA. I felt myself being ultra-British-frosty to her, but only because it was so annoying to be stopped at the last hurdle, and I was dying to get out into the fresh (well, maybe not so fresh) air and sunshine.
While in LA, my initial enamourment (if that is a word) with my compatriots soon faded. I enjoyed the cheery hellos on residential streets, and I was intrigued by the detailed discussion about the generation beyond i-phones and other technology that a college student had with a young entrepreneur in an outside eating area, with a middle-aged man idly joining in. I thought – this wouldn’t be happening in England.
But then I did start to find very off-putting and annoying the way people went on and on about their body problems in the yoga classes I attended, down to the minutest and most uninteresting details. There seemed to be a kind of excessive fascination with oneself and one’s condition, that obscured a sense of perspective.
And then there was the lunch I had where I started to get indigestion because of the loud discussion (aka ‘argument’ in England) a man and woman were having about her work dilemma. I thought of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Deborah Tannen’s various works on gender communication differences in books such as You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, as I desperately tried not to listen in – completely impossible because they were speaking so loudly. The woman was bemoaning the fact she wasn’t a vice-president in her company whereas the man had been promoted in said company. He accurately and logically kept drawing attention to her preoccupation with money and status, while she defensively denied this was the issue and insisted it was his lack of appreciation and understanding of her concerns and disappointment, and his lack of interest in her career aspirations. In a patronising way, he advised her to just get on with it and play the game if she wanted the status, and she said none of her family believed in this and it wasn’t the right way. While I empathised with her position as I’ve written it, in fact she expressed it in a slightly moany way and she was clearly a victim with chip on shoulder. When I turned around at last to ascertain their ages, I saw how she was hunched in her chair with one shoulder higher than the other, and that said it all. Part of me wanted to join their conversation and sort it out (job role comes to mind!), but better sense prevailed and I ate as fast as I could and left.
So I was starting to look forward to my return to the UK. The plane was once again luxuriously empty and as I had a row of five seats all to myself, I eagerly anticipated lying down and maybe even sleeping – a real treat on an economy flight! An English man adjacent to my row had started to use one of the seat trays for his trash. And then I stupidly went to the toilet, only to find he’d moved over when I got back. It didn’t disrupt my plan in the end, but what occurred to me was the passive (aggressive?) approach he’d taken to achieving his aim, which I see as a trait in the English character – which is not to say that all English people exhibit this trait. However, I observe a preference for achieving one’s aim by indirect means, and certainly the avoidance of potential conflict. He didn’t ask me, or speak to me, he kind of pretended it hadn’t happened – which irritated me. Whereas if he’d asked nicely, I would have swallowed my selfishness and I wouldn’t have had an issue. Of course if he’d been American he would have asked (told) me he was moving over, and I wouldn’t have been able to object, and I might have been simultaneously won over and annoyed.
And then when we came through Customs, I was struck by two things: first the layout of the area. A poor design meant that big pillars blocked the passenger queue’s view of the Customs Officers, so we couldn’t see when they were free. They refused to call us for unknown reasons and had no other system to communicate, so we had to keep peering around pillars to see when they were free. They didn’t even make eye contact, seriously lacking in social skills. Then when I got to the desk, their communication skills took a further nosedive – still no eye contact and an indifferent style of engagement. I was wondering if there had been a big announcement about Customs job cuts while I’d been away to account for this glaring lack of welcome, but no, just another day at Heathrow.
I am an American Expat, a UK Yankee. These are the best terms I can come up with. I like Anglo-American which feels more integrated but since it means an American of English descent, it’s not technically correct. I’ve lived in the UK longer than in my home country. Recently I heard an expression which I strongly identified with – I live ‘on the hyphen’, no longer a green parrot, soaring high, but instead a swan amongst pigeons on the ice, struggling to get my grounding.
There are aspects of both countries and both characters which I prize – and other aspects which I cringe at and detest. I feel I know both well, and am neither. Nor do I want to be either. I like being ‘on the hyphen’ – that feels so much more inclusive than ‘on the edge’ or ‘on the margin’. I love the surge of energy that comes when I see the best aspects of the American character; and I prize and feel relief at the sense of honesty and realism that I sometimes feel in the presence of the English character. These are the ‘somethings’ that I sometimes remember I am looking for – and then forget again. Maybe someday I will stop hankering after what each could give the other, and accept and just be the difference. Well, in fact I do that a lot of the time, and I notice the imperceptibly jarring effect, like a tiny earthquake aftershock, that can have in whichever culture I am in.
I would love to know your views of these national characters, or any others. And whether you agree that airport crossing-places tell a deeper story about their home countries. Or maybe you feel that you are at a connection point, a crossing place in your life. Who else reading this feels that you are living on the hyphen too? It may be a very crowded hyphen, rather like the number of angels clustered on a drawing pin.
As a final note, I feel that we are at a ‘crossing place’ in our societies – British and North American – at this point in time, poised on the hyphen. I am thinking of the socio-economic situation in which we find ourselves. I cross my fingers that we are crossing to more solid ground.
Rainbow in a desert land – LAnzarote not LA
Photo courtesy of Chris Hill
Someone who was at a workshop I ran last week where there was a mild insurrection amongst the group leading me to throw out the agenda (which they’d created) and just be in the moment, reminded us of this quotation from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
‘It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom,
It was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief,
It was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of Light,
It was the season of Darkness,
It was the spring of hope,
It was the winter of despair.’
Or, as I’m told the Irish put it (and don’t ask me to explain – two cultures is enough for one post!):
It is the madness of the moment
It is the day that’s in it