Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Tower of Babel

When we arrived in the UK, my son commented on how nice it was to hear English all around him again.
"I can listen to people's conversations & understand them." (clearly got his mother's genes there....)

In London, however, everywhere we went we heard numerous different languages, all around us, all the time, to the extent that my son asked what language people spoke in London. In fact a statistic in the Tower of London said that more languages are spoken in London than any other city in the world. I can believe it.

It was interesting to notice in shops, cafes & museums, waiters, assistants & curators spoke with foreign accents or spoke to each other in another language. It truly is a cosmopolitan city. I guess many of these are immigrants doing the jobs we are told Brits don't want to do anymore.

And in tourist shops like Hamleys & Harrods, we felt like the foreigners. We were definitely in a minority. It wasn't just the language, we also saw things that seemed quite different somehow. In Hamleys there were three very large lads, (I wont say where they were from) looking like (as my son put it) Augustus Gloops, each with one of those enormous bags they give you now to shop with. And each was dragging it behind him like a lifeless limb, because the bag was so crammed with toys it was too heavy & cumbersome to lift. My children were agog watching this display of conspicuous consumption. At this point, I confess, I was slumped on the floor by the Nintendo DS games, waiting for the children to finish their toothcomb search of that particular floor of Hamleys, having exhausted all the other floors (& me) previously. So when asked 'How this could be possible' (let alone fair), I resorted to similar 'literary' comparison & said they were like Veruca Salt (only boys).

In Harrods we felt even more alien, not only because it was more like the glittery, opulent stores you would find in Abu Dhabi airport than the reassuring familiarity of John Lewis, but also because once again the Brits seemed no where in sight or sound, it was full of foreigners & tourists.

We were going to the toy department, because an employee at Hamleys had told my son the lego selection in Harrods was actually 'much better' (in truth there wasn't much in it). To get to the toy department we walked through 'Pet Kingdom'. We had no idea what this was, but we were soon to find out. Everything for your pet is here, assuming that is, your pet has more in common with 'Trickywoo' of "All Creatures Great & Small" fame than the average family's pet 'labrador with a bit of terrier thrown in for good measure'.

You could get a 4 poster dog bed complete with silk sheets & a pink frilly canopy, a leopard skin dog bed, probably even a canine hammock, or doggy water bed. I didn't ask. We passed jewel encrusted dog leashes, before arriving in a room full of clothes rails with, you've guessed it, doggy coat hangers with dog tutus, dog mackintoshes, dog superman outfits, even dog bikinis on them.

Now I know us Brits have a soft spot for animals & are probably guilty of a fair bit of anthropomorphising, but I do not think, as a rule, we go in for luxury dog bedding, dinky doggy outfits & bejewelled dog collars.

So who is this (almost entire floor) marketed at? I know in America they have dog spas & probably dog therapy, & in the Balkans 'small dog as fashion accessory' & dressed in silly coats is very common, but surely not the British??

Anyway all this struck me as quite ironic that here we were in our 5th year of living abroad in other cultures, broadening our minds, adapting to foreign environments, yet London (& Oxford actually) struck me as far more cosmopolitan, eclectic & racially diverse than anywhere we've lived. It made me realise just how homogenous a society we live in in Albania. I mean everyone is ethnic Albanian. Apart from the Roma that is, who are marginalised & totally alienated in Albania. Nobody wants to emigrate TO Albania, most people want to leave (for America usually) so there are no immigrants there, apart from the few who have married Albanians, or ex pats working there temporarily. as a consequence other ethnicities are regarded with suspicion & overt racism quite often.

So my children hear & see sights in the UK they are totally unused to. They are used to seeing beggars on the street, dancing bears, people riding donkeys & animals getting slaughtered on the edge of the road, but they are totally unused to seeing a woman in a burkah (despite Albania beign 70% Muslim), electric wheelchairs & golf buggies, men with beards or people with bodypiercings. I had to stop my 10 yr old son staring fixedly at a guy on the tube with a Mohican & enough body piercings to keep a small jewellery shop in business.

Funny, I never really expected Britain to be so full of culture shock for them.


Iota said...

I can't get past "dog bikini"...

Miss Welcome said...

Great post!

Potty Mummy said...

I think you're right about the dog clothes not being for the Brits - I see far more of that in Moscow (although possibly all bearing a Harrods label) than I do in London. And as for the rest - the diversity - in London, have to admit that that is part of the reason why I love it so... (Lovely post)

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

iota, they probably had dog one pieces too, if you prefer that;o) or even a tankini, or wd that be a caninki??
MW- thnx. I wrote late last night & then remembered I hadn't added the bit about the sights they are used to, & those they aren't. Or abt the Roma, so have just re written last bit!
Thnx PM. Yes I love that abt London too, it's so vibrant. And the effect of such a non diverse country as Albania wch was so closed for so long, does make them v intolerant & racist.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I've been having similar thoughts back in London on a trip from Asia - just how much more diverse and cosmopolitan London is compared to almost anywhere else.

Transcendental Neon Blob said...

At least there's the added comfort of knowing those fat over indulged tourists parted with your country with out perhaps taking low blow racist hate filled swipes at "the Brits".

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PantsWithNames said...

We found the same coming back from Bosnia. Particularly I couldn't get over how many burkahs there are here compared to a so-called muslim country. But all of it is so different. Hopefully your children haven't got into the habit of thinking that no one understands English around them and therefore they can talk about the people they are looking at in detail and at full volume... So many embarrassing moments. Sigh.

Iota said...

Are dogs allowed to go topless, I wonder?