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Friday, May 31, 2013

Of aces and spades

I had a really disappointing conversation the other day. There were five of us: me, a young Australian woman, and three women between ten and fifteen years older than I am. I don't know the three women well, but I'd worked with all of them. They are British, specifically English--and oh yes, all five of us are white. Does this matter? Well, apparently it matters to them.

They started off having a perfectly understandable "moan" about things we can all relate to, living in the London area. It's crowded. They keep knocking down old buildings to house everybody. There isn't enough room.

Soon, the topic became "foreigners" and people coming from other countries. At this point, I exchanged a smile with young Aussie, because obviously, the other three women didn't mean us. They were talking about the open borders of the rest of the European Union, and the E.U. in general, which does leave a lot to be desired. Things had changed so fast, the three said. It felt out of control; this was a small island.

Even though I'm an immigrant myself, I understand where they are coming from. I didn't come here to diversify Britain's population or because I thought there was unlimited room. I'm just here because my partner is.

The three discussed which prime minister was to blame for taking Britain into the E.U. in the first place. It couldn't have been Margaret Thatcher, one said; was it Tony Major? (She meant John Major, although another one actually thought it could have been Tony Blair!) I repeated several times that Britain joined the European Community forty years ago, though I couldn't remember which prime minister off the top of my head. (For the record, ladies: no, it was not a Labour PM, it was Edward Heath, a Conservative.)

But it was like I wasn't speaking at all. Because facts were not the point. Someone said one in twelve people in London was foreign. I felt the need to say something, so I pointed out that I came here from Toronto, where one in two people was born outside Canada--including me. Aussie said she was the only white kid on her school bus. She didn't say this like there was anything wrong with it; she said it like that's the way the world is now, people move all over, from Australia or Canada. Maybe we younger people are just better equipped to deal with it.

What the three women were talking about wasn't Europe anymore. It was people who aren't white. They said it; I'm not putting words in their mouths. It wasn't just about immigrants, either, but second generation--people born in Britain just like they were. Only the three didn't see it that way. The word breed was used, several times: "These people" don't have children; they breed. It also became clear that hearing languages other than English offended these women's ears. "Shop staff speak to each other in their own language; they shouldn't be allowed to. How do I know they're not saying, 'Oh, here comes that bitch'?"

Well, I was thinking by now, I don't blame them, if they know you regard them as non-British vermin who "breed"!

Don't misunderstand me. However misreported in the tabloid press, there are issues with the E.U., and issues with the benefits system (abused, in Britain as in other countries, more by native citizens than by first or second generation immigrants). A small, crowded island really shouldn't have the same immigrant culture as the New World. And I would not expect the welcome and encouragement to citizenship in Britain that I had in Canada.

Nor do I agree with many laws and policies in Britain myself. I disagree with any restrictions on free speech--including the criminalization of racist speech. (I'm not sure how often people are in fact prosecuted for offensive speech, or if such law is designed more for self-censorship, to inhibit people in what they say in the first place. It certainly didn't inhibit these three.)

What disappointed me about this conversation is that, earlier in the day, we had been joined by a sixth woman, who (or whose family) was originally from the Indian subcontinent. None of these views were expressed in her presence. By expressing them when I was there, though, the three were including me, in a way I didn't wish to be included. They were saying, "You're white, so you must feel the same way."

Of course the actual words were: "And if you say this, people think you're racist!" Thing is, I don't want to think of these women as racist. They are not lunatics, giving fascist salutes or attacking mosques. They are likeable professionals who seemed to treat their colleagues and clients with perfect courtesy.

Nor do I mean to extrapolate from these three women to all British people of their background. To generalize by nationality, or any other category, is of lifelong repugnance to me, and no better than what they'd been saying.

In the next room were other colleagues and hundreds of our clients, of many colors and nationalities, including white British. Someday, if the three become old and sick, these are the doctors who will care for them. Maybe these women are not racist.

But when someone says, "The people around me aren't white, and that bothers me"--well...what would you call it?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. 2013

T. and I are celebrating a special occasion. We always seem to be; our good fortune calls for celebrating as frequently as possible. So on a rainy night in the Scottish capital, we head for The Cellar Door, a vaguely nautical-looking basement restaurant that promises especially good food.

Our table discussion turns to taxes and the morality of avoiding them. I say that nobody likes paying taxes and some taxes seem truly unfair, but as long as they are the law, then the only thing I can do is pay them, while working to change them (and any law that is unfair). I think this is part of the Discreet Traveler mentality. As I am a citizen of two countries, and resident in a third, being a "good citizen" means different things to me than perhaps to a homegrown patriot. I am a guest in this country. Paying taxes, and obeying laws, are how I participate in a nation, not owing allegiance. I don't expect to agree with policies for which I didn't vote. I honor the requirements of the country for as long as I choose to live here.

This is getting a bit heavy so we order some drinks. T. has Tiger beer from Singapore, while I have a white wine, a Gewürztraminer from Chile. Chilean is my favorite white, and the waitress says this particular wine is her favorite on their list. It is very good, as is the first course of The Cellar Door's "surprise menu," a smoked salmon spring roll. How nouvelle écossaise. This is followed by another Tiger and a ribeye steak for T., and a glass of merlot and the surprise main course for me. She finds the steak a little thin, but cooked the way she ordered it, and my lamb is out of this world. The greens are very good too, as are my mashed potatoes. T. thinks the excellent chips (fries) must be double fried, to get them so crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

I am tempted to go for all three surprise courses, but opt instead for cheese with port for dessert. I have what my sister describes as a "cheese tooth." Even T., who has the sticky toffee pudding, can't resist the cheddar, which is called Isle of Mull--crumbly texture like a Cheshire cheese. All the cheeses are Scottish, and served with Arran oatcakes. Another principle of the Discreet Traveler: Whenever you have the opportunity, sample local.

The waitress brings the bill, not outrageous. and I note that she hasn't charged me for the glass of red wine. "Thank you!" she says. "Not everybody would have mentioned that." Well, we were just talking about this, the Honest Abe mentality (Abraham Lincoln was said to have walked miles back to repay a shopkeeper who'd given him too many pennies).

"I can't help it," I say, and she agrees, she's the same way. If she'd overcharged me, I certainly would have complained. You can take the girl out of America, but...

Tomorrow I'm off to my day job, and T. is off to buy Isle of Mull cheddar cheese.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Discreet Traveler

I wish I had been wrong in predicting that the U.S. Senate would cave on immigration reform that would benefit families like mine. But, the Senate has caved on a lot lately. Meanwhile, a terrorist act last night in London has, predictably, been blamed on "immigration" by the head of the British National Party. And, the Obama administration is officially admitting what was already known: that it uses targeted drones to kill American citizens. I need to limit my "rants"--er, critiques--to one paragraph at a time! 

So, I'm relaunching my 'blog as THE DISCREET TRAVELER. Part travel log, part travel guide--anecdotal, based on my own experience--and part critique. If you've read Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, I'm going for a twenty-first-century version of that, but a shade less satirical. Twain makes fun of the places he visits, of his fellow travelers, and of himself, but ultimately concludes:

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

This "blog" (Web log) is a record of travels, like the log book of the ships I read about in stories as a child, and longed to sail away on. And a soundtrack seems as good a launching point as any. On a train from London to Edinburgh, I pop on my headphones and out comes "American Idiot," by Green Day. "American Idiot" is what the songwriter assures us he does not want to be.

I am not a travel writer, but a writer who travels, as much as I possibly can. I would go so far as to say that I am only a storyteller, and began writing stories down, as a way of creating adventures that I had not (yet) personally had. If life is a journey, then my life has been a lot of smaller journeys. The next song, for instance, is Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again," which also plays in my first novel, Arusha. I remember this song on the country radio station many mornings, as I rode the school bus. I grew up in Carter County, Tennessee, trying not to become an American idiot. I wanted to travel the world, further than anyone in my county school had been or even heard of.

So much for the TRAVELER. As for the DISCREET...it is my goal to tread, and to help my readers tread, as lightly and thoughtfully on our travels as we can. The joy of this earth is that we, all living creatures, share it together. Getting to see as much of the world and its people as possible, with as little negative impact as possible, requires an open mind and a willingness to learn. Observing, maybe criticizing, but with a discretion that never veers off into paranoia. The better part of travel is discretion, as Falstaff might have said.

So welcome to my journey of today. Our last song is Dido's "Life For Rent." The train conductor asks us to have our "travel documents" handy, and my first thought is, What travel documents? Scotland has not yet declared independence; it's part of the United Kingdom. So we definitely don't require passports.

It turns out he only means tickets. Still, it starts me thinking. When do you need a passport? "When crossing national borders" seems a good answer, yet as England to Scotland proves, what border means, and what nation means, is far from straightforward. And I intend to go far.