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England – and the lure of the Exotic

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Italian days 2010

We English are a contrary lot. We spend a lot of time banging the drum for the supposed virtues of our own country, while simultaneously yearning for all the things that we perceive it is not. We have a long tradition of enchantment with the exotic, which probably comes from living on an island, from which escape takes some effort.

Maybe it is also something to do with living in a place which whose climate old-fashioned geography books used to describe as ‘equable’ and whose terrain is never much more than mildly challenging, when compared with that found in some places elsewhere. We have become masters of the dull and ordinary, trumpeting the virtues of that – and in parallel wishing we could be somewhere else.

‘Exotic’ is, of course, relative. The meaning of the word implies mild culture shock: encounters with places,people and things that are not familiar. And in that sense, England would seem exotic too, if you happen to come from the Yanomami tribe of the Brazilian Amazon.

I’m no different, I suppose. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the places that I love, though being somewhat cowardly, I like my exotic fairly mild, and am usually content with places further into Europe. That’s what draws me to the savoir-vivre of France, the dolce vita of Italy, and even the rather more low-key crisp and sometimes chic  efficiency of Germany and Switzerland.

There is more to it than that, though, because there are many things about those places that I admire which I know are more than skin-deep. To my mind, there is a clear culture-gap between these islands and our neighbouring continent – and I’m not certain that the appeal of many of their ways is only down to the appeal of the different, or exotic.

The difficulty comes when you try to emulate it at home. For the last month or more, the temperatures in Britain have been on a par with those more normally found in southern parts of France or northern Italy. It’s what we spend a lot of time yearning for – and yet the ways people are reacting (or not) are instructive.

I’m ignoring the media hype, and thinking about everyday life. Not the novelty has worn off, people have started complaining about the heat and craving rain. Well, if you’re a gardener, I can understand why – though our peppers and melons are doing exceptionally well this year – and I’m not sure they would even really need their poly-tunnel, inside which it is in the low 40s. I’m even noticing a gradual change in what people are wearing: the number of loose, lightweight flowing garments and brighter colours seem to be on the increase – a distinct improvement on the normal dull British turn-out. Tight denim and trainers are just too hot in this weather.

I wonder what people are eating. For once, our preferred Mediterranean-style diet doesn’t seem out of place, and neither does sitting outside to eat on days when the air is as warm until late in the evening as we find it on the continent. I’m not sure I would want to be eating burgers and chips in this weather, even if that were my normal preference.

And yet certain other things don’t seem to change. Unlike in the regularly warm countries, people don’t seem to be slowing down much. They are muscling on through the daily routine – though to be fair, I suppose daily life continues as normal in the south too, even when it is hot. But in the U.K. people struggle and grumble; I wonder how many are staying indoors in the relative cool during the heat of the day. Working days don’t really allow for it of course – but maybe we should adopt Spanish practice and take a siesta, at least temporarily? What would it take to do that?

More puzzlingly, evening life doesn’t seem to have adjusted. Having spent the day either sweltering, or taking refuge indoors, it is pleasant to get out and about in the relative cool of the evening. That’s where the Italian passeggiata comes from – and the general tendency of those cultures to live long into the night. But even in our small town, the streets are deserted in the evenings. Some are away on holiday, but the evidence suggests that people remain sweltering inside, as glued to their T.V.s as ever. Ours really is not an outdoor culture, for all we go on about it.

So here we are, basking in the kind of temperatures that we spend much of our year craving – and what are we doing with it? Not a lot, really. It is worth remembering that our current temperatures are just normal for places further south, where we often holiday. One hot summer is not enough to bring about real cultural change – but one can wonder what will happen if this is a foretaste of what is to come more frequently as global warming takes hold. Will the Brits adapt and become more like the southerners are today? Will our gardens become more like those dreamy places in Provence or Tuscany which thrive on hot dry weather (as my oleander and palms are doing this summer)? Or will we just sit at home amongst our new-found exoticism and yearn for the lost ordinariness of England?

Because, of course, when this becomes the norm, it will stop being exotic at all.

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English nights 2018

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