Thursday, September 23, 2010

Britain Glorious Britain

(....were it not for the whining Brits)

Cardinal Walter Kaspar may have remarked that Heathrow made him think of England as a Third World Country, ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain. "England today is a secularised and pluralist country. When you land at Heathrow airport, you sometimes think you've landed in a Third World country," he was quoted as saying to a German magazine before the Pope’s grand arrival. Then mysteriously following the controversy in Britain that followed his insult, the senior papal advisor pulled out of the Pope’s trip, citing illness. (!)

Well, I could not disagree with what he said more.

A typical English high street
England is certainly First World.  When I landed at Heathrow, after three years in India, I marvelled at the modernity, cleanliness and organisation of the airport. Everything looked new and everything worked. I felt immensely relieved to be holding a British passport and able to walk through immigration without a queue, heightened by the fact I had had a priority pass, having (accidentally) flown business class. Hundreds of foreigners meanwhile queued at the long line of immigration officer desks. I had always been one of that lot whenever I had landed in India or the USA. But not so anymore! Yippee.

 I was glad I had not lost my British citizenship from living in India (imagine if that had happened?!) Now I was so excited to be home, even if the sky was grey. My parents were waiting at the arrivals section for me, having driven up from Somerset to greet me. As always when they met me off flights from India, my mum was carrying a thick coat, and this time, a pair of shoes. “Mum, we have shoes in India. We are not all ascetics. Did you think I was going to land barefoot?” I asked sarcastically. We put my stuff in the car and I entertained them all the way home about my nightmares leaving, how I had to give away most of my stuff, and discard it at the airport, the cats, the 11th hour upgrade to business class, and so on.

As usual my parents didn’t really have many or any questions about India, but that was to be expected: they rarely had questions about anywhere I travelled (as a general rule British people are spectacularly uninterested in wherever you travel and it’s a social taboo to bore them with the details, and certainly not to even start on photos). 

So, I gazed at the uncrowded roads, that only had cars speeding down on (not rickshaws, mopeds, motorbikes and cabs crashing into one another), the clean perfectly drawn white lines on the edges of each grey tarmac lane, the lack of people wandering or sitting on the streets - and it didn’t bore me. For once, I liked England; for once I liked the peacefulness and organised state of things.

Another typical scene
A typical empty street (outside London)

 The chaos of India had entranced me at first. I think most tourists are bewitched upon seeing flower and fish sellers sat on the pavement, child beggars tearing at their trousers and homeless people living in tents on the pavement. Forget the fact it is an indication of poverty, tourists find it fascinating and even take pictures of it on digital cameras. These are the scenes, often described as “colourful” by novice writers. I too was seduced it all at first, but it eventually, that lost its appeal after three years. Until then England had lost its appeal and I had found India fascinating. Now I found England fascinating. Maybe I was looking at England through an Indian person's eyes. I found the English pavement and tarmac interesting; the way people crossed the road in England interesting; the plethora of dyed hair on women intrigued me; so did puffin crossings. You see, maybe that is what being an expat does - it makes you appreciate your own country more. After some time in India, despite initially seeking adventure, excitement  and chaos, I started to want quietness and normality. India had, at the end, started to feel like a dream. Back sat in my bedroom in Somerset felt like reality again. Or maybe comparing my 250 square foot flat in Mumbai to Somerset was not a correct comparison. A studio flat in Brixton may have been a better one. Maybe then my Indian eyes would have preferred Bandra.
For now, having lived in India for 3 years, I was really appreciating  the peace and organisation of England (for the first time!) I no longer needed to go to bhangra nights and study Hindi, to get a virtual link to the country I had fallen in love with as a 19-year-old backpacker. I was finally able to feel English and be English. I could now imagine going to Henley Regatta once more, or playing tennis, picking blackberries, or eating strawberries and cream.
India had cured me. Of something.
(Herein lies a reason why India is considered spiritual. It teaches us foreigners lessons, lessons we didn’t even know we needed to learn.)
The good old English pub and familiar Tudor buildings

I no longer hated typical English pubs. How long would this fascination with my birth place last, I wondered.

I could sense my Dad was nervous as to how long I might stay in his house, where he had a computer that was ‘his’, an armchair in the sitting room that was ‘his’ and a life, set up with hobbies and classes at specific times, in a set routine, that was ‘his.’
The next few days were very busy as my parents were celebrating their Ruby wedding anniversary soon after I arrived – one of the reasons I had flown back at that time. I had always thought that it was only in India that people could afford caterers. To me, the general rule had always been that whatever there was a servant or labourer for in India, in England it was done DIY. No one has a cook, driver or a maid in England, for example (save the Queen). And generally at dinner parties and house parties, we cater ourselves.
But my Mum  proved me wrong on the occasion of her 40th wedding anniversary and hired a catering company, at massive cost (which I later discovered, was at my expense too.). So, in the week leading up to the big 100-guest event, we had a large marquee van arrive to put up the marquee, caterers, florists, you name it. It was like a scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
I was especially pleased when I noticed that the men putting up the marquee were all young and good-looking. I remembered that rule, which is in The Rules, which states you should always look your best, even at Tesco. So, I took off my pyjamas and put on some make-up and made them cups of tea every hour.

The marquee
The marquee

 Then next came the wine delivery van. I have never ever unloaded and carried so many boxes of wine in my life. The van man sad he had never had such a large order before either.  Boxes and boxes of 12 bottle crates of red and white wine filled up our kitchen. Lifting them compensated for me not doing arm weights in the gym for two weeks.
My Dad suddenly panicked we did not have enough fridges to cool the white wine in. (We have three American sized fridges and one wine fridge.)

My Dad then investigated hiring a fridge. Cost: 500 pounds per day.

“In India they just put them in wheelie bins of ice,” I said helpfully.

I informed him he had over-ordered on the wine, as our house looked like a wine warehouse. He nodded, but it was too late. I remembered that golden rule for a successful party: get the guests drunk. So, I guessed, we always had that option to fall back on.

A few days before the Big Day, I decided that since so many good-looking marquee men were around, since I was in my 30s and unmarried, and since my Mum had been harassing me to do it for ages, it was time to get my hair highlighted. This was something I had resisted my whole life, proud of having “natural blond hair like the woman in the Timotei Ad.”

But now all my friends who had highlighted or dyed blond hair (equals most of my friends) were married. I was not.  There was a missing link, a disconnect. Perhaps, I figured, older and wiser, perhaps it was time I did dye it. After all my eyebrows and arm hair were blond, so it would look pretty natural anyway wouldn’t it? My mum agreed to pay the 100 pounds cost as she had been asking me to do it for 10 years, and I had till now, refused.

The catering company came on the party day and overtook our kitchen. I was busy helping with the seating plan (doing emergency changes as the disorganised people dropped out last minute) and it was all ‘go’.

My Dad then kindly informed me this was my “surrogate wedding.” By that he meant that since I had not got married, my mum and he had decided to splash the money they had been saving for my wedding, on their ruby wedding party – and that they did. We had champagne and canap├ęs in the garden, followed by a sit down meal and speeches in the marquee. Hence, it was done at my expenseJ

The fact I had flown back two non pedigree Indian cats to Britain was one of the main topics of conversation at the event…The news even split the guests. While some found it cute, and gazed at the cat pix on my mobile phones, others said: “Do not tell me how much it cost you as I will find it a disgusting waste of money!”

The Indian non pedigree cat

In the evening we had a barn dance.

The barn dance

In case you don’t know what a barn dance is, it is a ritual, popular in the countryside of Britain, alongside green wellies and Barbours, whereby a caller shrieks into a microphone, while a band plays country music in the background, and people, of all ages, dance with different partners (not their own) a kind of folk dance.  Although it originates in America, it is to me, quintessentially British.
The following day we had a barbecue and salads on the lawn.

Life in England was fun. Real fun.  And in the countryside it was truly fabulous. This was not a Third World Country, no way – Mr Kaspar, I thought, as I drank sparkling wine and ate grilled Salmon kebabs, with chicken and hamburgers in a white marquee.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Or at least, my Dad and other men engaged in talk of the ‘recession’.
“I just can’t see this country ever getting out of debt. It’s too far in,” one said. “Yes, it’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s a disaster,” another said.
 “What is wrong with you?” I would say. “This country is amazing and has everything, everything you can dream of. There is nowhere like it in the world,” But they couldn’t see that. They had not lived overseas like me. They could not see that Britain was in far better shape than in 2007 when I left. It was like someone becoming fat in three years, and noone noticing apart from the person that had been away. I could see that a fight was on my hands to prove to the British that they were not in recession. 

A typical street in the UK

Oh, why are the English so gloomy and negative? The Indians, on the contrary, are far more positive and happy.
Anyway the party was a success. The best part being that no one (including my sister) noticed that I had highlighted my hair….They all presumed that was how it had become in the heat of sunny India. Ha Ha.
It had been worth it, not just for that, but in a few days time, the marquee men were to be returning to pull down the marquee.


Craig said...

Oh to live the country life... What you need are some photos of Cosham High Street, or maybe Magdelan Street in good old Norwich. The real dregs of British society. Do you know that the UK was rated worst place to live in the EU? Got to love it...

projenator said...

For someone who does not understand finance or economics, the organization or cleanliness of the first world is all that matters. In spite of having a wealth of resources (America has 5% of world population and controls 25% of world resources), it's very unfortunate that such superficial unidimensional outlook is drowning the country in debt.

A very rare and pertinent article in today's all consumption driven lifestyle that mainstream culture advocates.

projenator said...

A little peek into American consumption, voracious by all standards.


Americans constitute 5% of the world's population but consume 24% of the world's energy.

On average, one American consumes as much energy as

2 Japanese

6 Mexicans

13 Chinese

31 Indians

128 Bangladeshis

307 Tanzanians

370 Ethiopians

The population is projected to increase by nearly 130 million people - the equivalent of adding another four states the size of California - by the year 2050.

Forty percent of births are unintended.

Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day - that's roughly 200 billion more than needed - enough to feed 80 million people.

Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily.

The average American generates 52 tons of garbage by age 75.

The average individual daily consumption of water is 159 gallons, while more than half the world's population lives on 25 gallons.

Fifty percent of the wetlands, 90% of the northwestern old-growth forests, and 99% of the tall-grass prairie have been destroyed in the last 200 years.

Eighty percent of the corn grown and 95% of the oats are fed to livestock.

Fifty-six percent of available farmland is used for beef production.

Every day an estimated nine square miles of rural land are lost to development.

There are more shopping malls than high schools.

Percent of World Total

United States
Developed Countries
Undeveloped Countries
Other Facts:


250 million people have died of hunger-related causes in the past quarter-century — roughly 10 million each year.

700 to 800 million people, perhaps even as many as a billion, don't get enough food to support normal daily activities

Africa now produces 27% less food per capita than in 1964.

1.7 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and by the year 2000, the number of urban dwellers without access to safe water and sanitation services is expected to grow by 80%.

0.1% of pesticides applied to crops reaches the pest, the rest poisons the ecosystem.

Each year 25 million people are poisoned by pesticides in less developed countries, and over 20,000 die.

One-third of the world's fish catch and more than one-third of the world's total grain output is fed to livestock.

It takes an average of 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat in modern Western farming systems. It takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.

Each person in the industrialized world uses as much commercial energy as 10 people in the developing world.

Vaibhav Garg said...

Hi Naomi,
This is Vaibhav here.I used to enjoy ur blogs at Hindustan Times site and am quite happy that u have not lost ur touch!!

By Naomi Canton said...

@ Craig - I beg to disagree. Are you saying that Romania is a better place to live than England? I think not. All The Romanians are setting up slums in Paris to escape their country and getting sent back home by Nicolas Sarcozy.
@ Projenator - My blog wasn't meant to be about cleanliness and waste consumption, but rather about what it feels like to be an expat returning home..that first impression of your own country..I have no doubt that there is a lot of wastage in the western world, but I think it's far higher in Japan, where I have never seen so much packaging.

Matt said...

Hi Naomi,
Its quite ironic that the Indian experience has restored your love for England. You wanted to escape the dreariness of everyday life in the organised British society and came to India. Like many of its visitors, you were enticed by the chaotic life in India with its crowded streets, child beggars and homeless pavement dwellers.
But is this all you found in India? Were you just fascinated with the "colourfulness" of poverty like other tourists? Tourists do get what they want to get by seeing what they want to see and believing what they want to believe a country is in their short vacation. But in three years, you must have found others things in India not perceivable for a tourist. If your fascination with India was just its chaotic life and poverty, you would have got bored of it in less than three years. So, do tell me how else India helped you in understanding life.

Naomi Canton said...

I loved your questions - very perceptive and smart. Do you have your own blog? If not, you should:) If you do, please share it...
To answer your questions almost requires a whole new blog - what I liked and didn't like about India perhaps. I did one onwhat I like about India for HT in my Expat on the Edge blog - read here:-
Anyway I think I will save the answers for one of my next blogs here that I can think about them. One thing I will say now is that right now I am finding England fascinating. Three years ago I found India fascinating. I am looking at England now through the eyes of someone who has just spent 3 years in India - that is a unique perspective, and one another Indian may share, but a Brit would not, and it would be impossible for a Brit to connect..unless they too have lived in India 3 years and returned...Having said that, how I feel about England now, may not be how I feel in a year's time...

Matt said...

Naomi, thanks a lot for the reply(and your comments on my comment). Well, i do not have a personal blog but have penned a few entries at I do also occasionally write for other publications.
Yes, it would require a separate blog entry to address what i raised. I am for sure awaiting for your entry on India.
Glad that you are discovering the charm of England- almost through an Indian's eye. Again, its not possible to predict how long it will last for we can all be victims of monotony.
Thanks for sharing the link of your HT post on what you like about India. Actually i found your blog a few days ago when i stumbled upon your column in the HT blogs. I was quite fascinated by a some of your entries in HT and hence wanted to follow your new blog. Anyway, hope to catch you here often.

Naomi Canton said...

Hi, Please note this blog will not tolerate defamatory or abusive comments about any person or organisation. They will be deleted. If you wish to engage in lively, rational debate, then please comment!

Mick said...

Hi Naomi
Its taken a while to do this and I'm sure it was more by luck than judgement and i won't be able to do it again.
Yes your back to being a good blogger I like this one. The comment about Magdelen St norwich by Craig is spot on but it has been worst there during the Thatcher era it was worse. if i was still married it would be my 40th wedding about right now in fact can't remember the date. You are right about Heathrow and that silly german man who wears a dress but he needs to sit in munbai airport for a few hours watching the claeners until he see's one wearing odd shoes thats when you know your in a 3rd world country. how's the cats.

IndianBlogger said...

Hi Naomi

You have got it spot on when you say that you looked through the 'Indian eye' and realised the good old things about your home.

This is exactly how I felt when I first traveled abroad - and thankfully have been to the best parts initially - South Africa (Jo'burg, Pretoria, East London) - UK (London and Scotland).

Though the entire UK cannot be described the same (same as anywhere else in the world) one thing has to be said for most parts - the cleanliness! I just cannot forget the clean streets, parks, stores, trains, stations...

I miss the shopping experience on the famous streets.. people going around, musicians playing, kids playing.. lovely.

Though one has to say that Glasgow/Edinburg is more 'warm' than London any day... the 'visual' appeal of the cities is something you dont forget.

So I can totally understand the extreme relaxation you have felt on reaching home.

I am also happy for the fun and festivities you had... wonder if you managed to finish off all the wine - or do we miss you for longer durations as you may be the designated 'wine taster' for some time to come LOL!

Mick said...

Have you got something against Norwich?, if you haven't you should have. It's a pimple on a boil on the bum of the universe. That said what is it that makes Naomi's blogs nice to read. When she was blogging from Mumbai I suppose only Indians and people who had experienced India could understand a lot of them. I love the down right crazziness of the place, you know when your walking somewhere and you see something happening that is totally crazy and you catch someones eye and and you can see they are just as amussed as you. At first Naomi didn't understand what I meant by this, when I visited India last winter I realised why my previous experiance of India was 30yrs ago and it was slightly different. Still I'm glad she's still writing aren't you?

Vivek said...

Not all Romanians are setting up slums in Paris - it is the Romas and they can be connected to the gypsies of Rajasthan! UK may be a clean place with pavements but the economy is stagnant and jobs are being cut everywhere - especially in the print media - so good luck!

Home is always home as India will be for me but I feel fortunate that someone is paying for me to experience of living in China but I doubt I will never try to compare Delhi and Beijing!

Mick said...

It sounds as if you have been blessed with the right sort of parents Naomi 40yrs married is quite an atcheivement, when I had allotments 40yrs was quit common but every couple i met who's marrages had survived where some of the nicest people I've met. Is this proof that marrage really only suits some people. So i reckon that should you have any wine leftover stick it in the celler for the 50th.

M.D said...

yes. definitely from an Indian eye! just that in india place is not given that much of an importance as people are! so if you say glorious britain(except for the brits! not serving the purpose then. lol)and just commented right now to tell you. your understanding of "jugaad" is very thorough. A "jugaad" on a larger scale just happened with CWG!! haha.. what a wonderful opening ceremony even afater all the blunders. :)

Naomi Canton said...

@Craig..What is wrong with Magdalen Street in Norwich? I can't remember which street that was?
@Projenator - I agree that India's savings culture is its saving grace...
Re: your other statistics on waste and consumption, very interesting - thanks. To be fair though, re: some of the problems you highlighted in developing countries, such as lack of clean water, these matters are all being targeted now by Western aid agencies...
@Matt just to answer a few of your questions rathr simply, and off-the-cuff....India taught me the importance of dressing to the occasion and appearance (that came from the page 3 party lifestyle I tasted); also I learnt some tricks in office politics (India is still highly 'political' when it comes to getting things done - I learnt how to handle such situations); think I also learnt how to handle difficulties better - with more calmness and less panic, as I faced quite a few; I liked the way alcohol wasn't such a focal point of socialising there, as it is in the west - and the acceptability of ordering soft drinks (plus wide range of them); you could see that the strong family structure created a non violent society (political parties aside), where most young people felt safe, even at night, which is a huge plus..People were careful with their money; people were also serious in their relationships, the sense men would get to know you before dating you..
@Indian Blogger - funnily enough I was in Covent Garden at the weekend and there were all these street performers and the atmosphere was wonderful. The "organised" street life in England is superb.In Norwich, too, we used to have Indian dance performances on the streets, and an ice rink put outside in the winter. This is one area where India could improve - the "High Street shopping experience." Places like Linking Road in Bandra are horrible. So overcrowded, noisy and dusty. The on only places you can shop in comfort in Mumbai are malls. But that is so American! The beauty of shopping in England in places like Norwich, Exeter, Chester and so on is that you can wander down the strets, pop in and out of shops, stop for a coffee, and it lacks the sterilised feel of a mall. Mumbai does not have this.
You are right too about the visual appeal of British cities like Edinburgh, Bath, Noriwch and Cambridge. South Mumbai does have nice buildings, but the suburbs are very ugly. It seems as thogh the builders did not care about the visual appeal.
@Vivek - why not compare Beijing and Delhi???!! That would make a fascinating read, don't you think? Millions of people would read it.

Naomi Canton said...

Ok, Just to deal with some of the comments about Nicolas Sarkozy and his policy of sending Roma gipsy migrants back to Eastern Europe.
Firstly, thanks to Anonymous for pointing out I had misspelt Sarkozy in an earlier comment. Re: Anonymous and Vivek's comments that I had mistakenly said Romanian instead of Roma, they were correct. I was referring to the Roma (Romani people) who, yes, indeed Vivek, do have their origins in India, but now live in slums and illegal shanty towns across central and Eastern Europe, especially outside Paris. However many of them do live in Romania. Nevertheless it is not all Romanians, but rather the Roma, who live across Europe, who are being expelled from France. These Roma say they want to live in France as life there is better than where they are from (Romania, Czech republic, Hungary etc)..They say life there is better, even though they live in a dirty slum, than it is in whereever they are from in Eatsern/Central Europe. That is the point I was trying to make to Craig's claim that the UK was the worst place to live in the UK (hardly backed up by the number of people trying to migrate here.)

Naomi Canton said...

Anonymous also made several comments regarding the fact that the UK was in recession, as its welfare system has been built on "unaffordable debt", according to him. For anyone in the UK right now watching the news, the way the Coalition is dealing with the nation's debt is headline news every day. Spending cut are being announced all the time. However, there is a difference between being in recession and having debt. The UK came out of recession in the last 3 months of 2009, and has not returned! Germany, France, Japan and the US came out of recession a year ago. This whole "the west is in recession" thing is kinda over, much as some people try to believe it isn't. A country is defined as being in recession if there is no growth in GDP. This is NOT the case.

Naomi Canton said...

And finally whether Roma gypsies are staying in Paris because they do not believe they are citizens of any particualar state; or whether it is because they are being persecuted in their own countries (eg Romania), I do not know. Perhaps a Roma could answer this one! (Someone said they were not fleeing their own countries, but by nature just wandered from country to country.)

jusAnotherThinker said...

Very interesting to get a glimpse into your life back home.
And glad to know that London is not England. That there's much more to the English culture what the city offers. Makes me interested to visit the country again, this time to explore more than just its capital.
But the same goes for India as well. Mumbai is not India. Not by a long margin.

Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.

pramod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pramod said...

At the end of the day, one feels best about the place one grew up in. Iam an indian and lived in the UK for 5 years. I loved the quiteness, peacefulness, the way everything is organized in the UK. That was all good. Nevertheless in Britain u can get bored too.... The weather can be a disaster. No Sunshine during a lot of the days.
When I was back in India, I wished some of the aspects of the west were in India, like -->
clean streets, good Architecture (which is missing in modern india), better organized, people able to drive like they have some sanity!, clean air and some sense of aesthetics, lesser population.

Well one is never fulfilled with anything. Perhaps that is human nature, man is never satisfied about anything, he wants something more all the time, perhaps somethign spiritual only will quench this thirst!