One often forgets what it means to be living in England. Well, of course I wouldn't know since I don't live there actually. But that's not the point. What I mean is that when I approached the gate, I knew already that it is a different type of a flight - first, the person behind the Mövenpick counter was a Greek and he still managed to sound British enough in his politeness apologizing profusely for the lack of soya milk and stirring my sugar in my regular black coffee. Then was the fact that people at the gate chatted - I mean they chatted loudly, and they approached each other - they approach each other although they were perfect strangers - they found someone in common just by looking at each other - maybe it was the fashionable outfit with the green Vuitton holdall and the red driving Tod's, or maybe it was the Indian dark-skinned complexion and fast speed of everything they said, or maybe it was the pink-skinned cheeks reminding one that England is rightfully a place where sunscreen is needed once a year (in case you wonder, that's in spring - when the foreign tourists start flashing their camera flashes).
But what is most stunning (or "jolly" if I want to try to sound more British than I should be allowed to) is that every sentence contains a word of endearment - it either starts with it or it ends with it (if it s a question it usually ends with it; as a statement it might as well be both in the beginning and in the end). "Lovely choice, darling", "what did you think of that film we saw last night, dear?", "what will it be, mate?", and on and on (and if you prefer: "darling, what can get you?" To which one replies cheerfully "I'd have a lovely coffee, please" even if one doesn't know that the coffee is going to be [or not] lovely).
Once in place, of course we have Lufthansa so we have a very German greeting attempting to sound well-placed "Good evening, this is your captain, the weather in London is slightly worse than in Dusseldorf..." - of course the weather forecast takes precedence but not because one needs the information but because one has to be able to channel that frustration - you know, the one that is suppressed when one is saying "Sir, what drink can I help you to?" They don't need it to know what to wear or which umbrella to bring. And of course, the weather was nothing that a Brit would consider "worse" - not even compared to tropical sunshine - "nah, just a little bit of wet air, that's all - nothing to write home about".
And of course they will be the ones to make you a compliment on the camera - nowhere else do they do that - not even in Germany although of course they all know the Leica - they are so proud that they happily would tell you that the last German Leica was made in the 1960s. But no - they just stare at it trying to be inconspicuous. But I've been outbound to England for a mere hour before two people chatted me up about it. And the trouble is - I don't know how to respond to such compliments - I've lost the touch of being tossed an opportunity for small talk and not knowing how to handle it - almost like being tossed a ball you were very good at catching in the distant past but your callous fingers are no longer able to register it. So we do the best we can - we smile casually and let the ball fall. Perhaps I need just a day or two - we shall test and them I will know if it is because of my orange bow tie or simply a logical continuation of the "cheers, mate".
The flight goes uneventful of course - because we are all polite German travellers who don't talk to each other. Apart from the loud English party at the back - I am not sure what they argued about but I hear "biscuits" and "Elton John" mentioned on several occasions - not that this would have narrowed down the topics - "biscuits" and "Elton John" are pretty much present in every conversation between the British. And for a very good reason. Biscuits go with tea so they are ingrained in the culture of the society ("naturally") like nothing else (no wonder they have a special association - English Biscuit Manufacturers - like the unions in France or the guilds in Terry Pratchett's novels). And then there is Elton - Sir Elton (he couldn't possible be called Sir John - that's way too informal and generic); he is part of the conversation as a quintessentially British icon of the rebellion they all want to wear on their sleeves: rebellion in music, rebellion in lifestyle, even rebellion in ageing.
But I don't think they were discussing Elton John's choice of biscuits and when we disembarked, I was too jittery to focus on their conversation - I was walking on British soil, breathing in the British air (saturated in humidity), and feeling as if I had landed on a different planet - confusing enough that I had to keep repeating to myself "right, left, right, left" - but also embracing enough that wherever I looked, I could see the melting pot - the immigration officers weren't pink enough in their face, the souvenir stands were served by what appeared to be Asians, and only one of the passengers in the underground on that first afternoon wore tweed. And I felt part of it - I felt included without giving up my pink-and-turquoise socks (now that I think about it, they probably even helped with their semi-sartorial look).
And that's the thing about the British - they include you. You go to a museum, and they don't care if you are a student of art theory, or if you read tabloids and the gossip column - you get to get in - you are admitted without the punishment of an entrance fee. You are living the idea of free and widely distributed education in that most fundamentally aristocratic nation. And perhaps this is where the difference between the French aristocracy and the British one is born: exclusivity vs. inclusivity (that, and self-efficacingness vs. self-aggrondization).
So, my lessons of a weekend in London state that no matter what nation your host comes from, you take the biscuits with a polite "oh, that's lovely, isn't it", you dip them in your tea (first milk, and then the tea, of course), you smile looking through the window (with the casual remark, as if to yourself, "oh, isn't that a lovely day, darling"), and, in the words of Sir Elton, you "surrender to the rush of day" and enjoy the "enchanted moment" with your precious company and go take pictures!