15-21 June: Ave Britannia
My trip to England, my birthplace and “home” for the first two years of my life, began last week with a short hop from Paris to London Gatwick aboard a “Vueling Airlines” flight. I know you haven’t. Clearly inspired by the phonebooth stuffing fad of the 1950s, it’s a Spanish airline that maintains rock-bottom ticket prices by regularly breaking its own world record for how many people can be crammed inside an Airbus A319. If you’re at all claustrophobic like me, before even attempting to board I strongly recommend you consume as much booze and opioids as your body can withstand without actually dying.
Not knowing this at the time, I was lamentably mostly sober when I got on the plane. Immediately seized by two flight attendants with Dali mustaches (one of whom I’m pretty sure was a woman), I was manhandled and squeezed, like an unopened tube of toothpaste, between a fat sweaty Geordie* and a fat sweaty kid who looked like his son.
“We can switch places if you want to sit with him,” I said to the Geordie praying for his aisle seat so I wouldn’t have to endure the flight with my already-injured knees unnaturally folded up to my chin.
“He’s not with me mate,” slurred the Geordie, his breath so thick with alcohol it made my eyeballs burn.
“I see,” I said, wiping away the tears. “In that case, would you mind breathing on me for a few minutes? I’m not nearly drunk enough to handle this.”
Half an hour later, as our oversized tin of sardines lumbered over the English Channel and commenced its landing pattern, I craned my neck around the fat kid’s fat head and saw through the window the ships gently bottle-necking into the Strait of Dover. I was struck by the proximity of England to France and felt a faint nationalist stirring within me: for more than a thousand years the French haven’t dared set foot on our soil but until relatively recently we have invaded and occupied them at will. I found myself starting to mouth the words of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech before the fat head shot me an unpleasant leer and I snapped out of it.
Where in fresh hell was all this coming from?! Given my apoplectic rage at all things British ever since the titanic calamity otherwise known as Brexit, I was dumbfounded once again when my heart reflexively leapt at the sight of the countryside suddenly appearing not so far below. Tolkienesque little villages, rooves bristling with terracotta chimney pots, nestled in those familiar rolling hills; a patchwork of lush fields, dotted with peacefully grazing sheep and stitched together with thick green forest, as comforting as a favorite old cardigan on a cold winter’s night. I could almost smell the damp vegetation and fecund soil. And everyone down there (including the sheep) speak the blessed English tongue, I mused dreamily.
What was happening to me?! I felt a sudden urge to slap myself across the face. I hadn’t felt this way since I was a boy when I would get so distraught at the prospect of returning to Toronto (where I attempted, and mostly failed, to grow up before moving to Montreal) at the end of summer vacation in England, I actively willed the plane to crash on takeoff so I wouldn’t have to leave.
I cast a suspicious glance at the Geordie who appeared to be drinking gin from a plastic water bottle. “Do you think it’s possible you actually are intoxicating me by osmosis?” I demanded. Shrugging, he turned away, head lolling, and muttered something totally unintelligible with the exception of the word “cunt”.
By the way, if you are one of those who despair at the ever-increasing proliferation of profanity in the English language and your ears literally bleed when you hear the word “cunt” (you know who you are) do NOT, under any circumstances whatsoever, consider going to England. I know you were enchanted by the quaint and squeaky-clean language in The Crown but NO ONE (except, unsurprisingly, the anachronistic members of the royal family) talks like that. No, if you’re like me and relish eavesdropping on people’s conversations in pubs, virtually every other word you hear will be either “fuck” or “cunt” or one of their myriad variants. In fact, the big conspicuously unilingual signs at the airports reading WELCOME TO GREAT BRITAIN, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! would be more accurately replaced, especially after Brexit, by ones that read: WELCOME TO GREAT BRITAIN, YOU FUCKING CUNTS!
In any case, the eerie childhood nostalgia that had been freaking me out during the flight mercifully ceded to relief once our flying crate of over-population finally landed. Because my joints had been twisted at unnatural angles for over an hour, my body felt like compressing and expanding accordion bellows as I Slinkyed down the plane’s stairs and plopped on to the tarmac. Unburdened by check-in luggage, it wasn’t long before I departed the airport and, forgetting yet again the maddening British habit of driving on the left, promptly almost got run over by my cousin as he attempted to pick me up.
During the 15-minute drive to his place near Redhill,** the car thundered so much with laughter it seemed vulnerable to tipping over as we veered through narrow arterial country roads canopied with overhanging tree branches, like organic cathedral vaults, in the shadowy fading light. This is because my cousin is the walking, talking epitome of the wicked English sense of humor. He has this enviable innate ability to convert the banal into the hilarious without so much as pausing to think about it. And “innate” is the correct adjective. I suspect humor, as well as authentic gregariousness, is somehow genetically baked into the blood of the English.
As proof of the old adage “time flies when you’re having fun,” the first three days of the trip with my cousin, his wife, and their son vanished before they started. The morning I left, the battered empty crates of beer at the foot of the staircase shabbily stood at attention as I passed by, a lazy salute to the epic late nights of laughing and drinking through thick banks of cigarette smoke. These guys are the rare types you seamlessly pick up with where you left off, without any initial awkwardness or need for ice-breaking, even if it’s been ages since you last saw each other. That said, I’m ever the outsider, with my Canadian accent and baseball hat, peering in on their quintessentially English world which, by some quantum emotional trickery, I simultaneously intimately relate to and find wholly alien.
The second three days of the trip was spent in Chichester*** with my mother and her partner. By hosting highly regarded theatre, film, and music festivals Chichester distinguishes itself from other small towns in Southern England. In common with them, it’s pretty little homes are mortgage-free and there is an almost total absence of ethnic/racial diversity. I say “almost” because when my wife and I were there over this past New Year’s, as we were walking along a canal on the outskirts of town, to our astonishment we sighted a real in-the-flesh black man walking towards us.
“So, they do exist here!” I exclaimed, as if we were walking on the surface of the moon.
“Well, there’s ONE here,” she said after the disgruntled looking black man had shuffled past. “And he doesn’t look terribly happy about it, does he?”
“No. Maybe he was run out of town by a mob with pitchforks and is coming back to try and collect his things… Maybe-”
Anyway, despite its homogenous rich whiteness, like most of the rest of the country Chichester is an exceedingly friendly place. For example, when you go into the pub, a warm feeling of welcome will spread over you when the comely bar wench asks you “what’ll it be, luv?” (sometimes it’ll even be “my dahling”) and the man standing next to you gives you a nod and “awright, mate?” Of course, the regulars around you will be calling each other “cunt” but in time you’ll realize that, at least in a social context, it too is something of a term of endearment.
Speaking of pubs, on my first night in Chichester my mother took us to one to have dinner and watch England’s first World Cup match. The typically pleasing atmosphere was especially bubbly and electrified with excitement and I spent as much time observing the crowd as I did watching the action on the TV screens. Regarding the latter, the first thing that struck me was that there are more black guys on England’s national team than there are in all of West Sussex. The irony was therefore not lost on me that a great many in this entirely white crowd, fervently roaring their support every time England took possession of the ball, were inherently racist Brexiters**** anxious to see their country rid of minorities (except, of course, the spectacular God-like footballers currently representing them on the international stage… okay, and perhaps Meghan Markle as well).
Don’t worry though! Today is not the day for my Brexit rant. I don’t yet have the heart for it (not sure I ever will, really, seeing as Brexit has mangled it beyond healing). Suffice it to say that it casts a long and dark shadow over all of my happy and loving feelings for the country and its people.
What I was dwelling on more was my relationship with “home”. As I watched the match and the avid fans in the pub, I found myself once again on the outside looking in. With the exception of the truly breathtaking athleticism, European football is in large part lost on me. It just doesn’t do it for me when a grown man, indeed a professional athlete in peak physical condition, rolls around on the ground feigning abject agony for five minutes if he’s so much as sneezed upon. Even less when, after the inevitable miraculous recovery, he’s awarded a penalty kick for doing so. This so tarnishes “the beautiful game” for me that I almost find the celebrations after goals (on the rare occasion any are actually scored), as homoerotic and acrobatic as any Cirque de Soleil performance, more entertaining than anything else. I found myself almost physically craving a Montreal Canadians hockey game: exciting, lots of scoring, sensible rules, fair allocation of points, and righteously tough and violent.
Still, when my dear mother and her partner took me to Arundel Castle, to the South Downs, to the Fishbourne Roman Palace, and to the sea, my sense of my own Englishness confusingly flowed in and drained out like a fickle tide.
Back at Gatwick airport I found myself sitting at the bar (surprise!), this time getting properly potted and doing some calisthenics in advance preparation for my Vueling flight back to Paris. Checking the departure board on my phone I ruefully noticed a flight was leaving for Montreal around the same time as mine. I felt a tug of acute homesickness and an intense desire to board that flight. This was followed by an intense desire to board a flight to Germany where I also have family and friends. This was followed by an intense desire to flee the airport and stay in England. This was followed by the most intense desire of all: get on my scheduled flight to Paris and see my wife again.
“Awright, luv?” asked the comely bar wench inquisitively.
“I’m fine”, I sighed, rubbing away the moisture in my eyes. “Fine.”
“Where’re you from, dahling?” she asked.
I searched her kind face, strangely moved by the question.
“I have absolutely no idea,” I said.
* Pronounced Jordi see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geordie
** South of London in the county of Surrey: https://bit.ly/2KrBDaA
*** A 20-minute drive from the English Channel in the county of West Sussex: https://bit.ly/2KxeXFX
**** Southern England, outside of London, predominantly voted Brexit.