First Footsteps in Europe: Among the British Blog

First Footsteps in Europe is a Somali ethnographic diary in three parts.

I. Among the British

London

“Hiya”

I paused for a moment, unable to quite decipher the meaning of this odd sounding term. Was it a hello, or a how are you? Hi…ya? The man’s unchanged expression left me no clues. I took a guess.

“Hi, an earl grey tea please.”

“Takeawayorsitin?” Take away or sit in, I managed to decode from his garbled speech.

“Um… to go, please.” I grabbed a seat by the window and stared out into the dreary cityscape while I waited. It occurred to me that he didn’t ask me for a size. Among the many peculiarities of London cafes, or what they sometimes call “tea rooms,” is that you cannot get anything larger than what would be considered a medium in an American coffee shop. That, and their inexplicably early closing times. Despite the city’s size, it has very much the character of a small town.

I set out for the “tube station” and into a barrage of “customer service” messages detailing the latest delays. The British are, as one informant described, a pompous, polite and brutal people. With the propensity to overshare, I added to my field notes. Scarcely a moment passes during my trip in the “carriage” without being interrupted by some sort of service update unnecessarily explaining the most minor of delays, or a gentle reminder to watch your step or mind the gap, to coddle the fragile British public. Their dependency on these calm voices of authority for assurance and security is regularly affirmed with the announcement to report anything suspicious. There is danger lurking at all times, whether it’s a threatening person or an escalator. A brown man coughs suddenly after the announcement, startling the white woman next to him, who had been carefully eyeing his backpack.

“Beautiful day lads, innit?” I heard one young man say to two friends wearing coats in August.

“Fanks,” says a pregnant woman after someone finally offers her a seat.

***

History is what defines London’s sense of self. It is a particular history sold to us foreign visitors, one of royalty, great plagues, famous writers. A tour guide tells us about Jack the Ripper and his various murder sites, and remains awkwardly silent when we pass an Egyptian obelisk in the centre of town. Selective memory typical of the British, I jot down.

An advertisement for the Tower of London tells me I can “see real graffiti from prisoners 500 years ago.” Some excited tourists agree to go there next.

The new sits in uneasy tension with the old, as odd looking modern buildings like the bullet-shaped Gherkin and the lopsided “walkie talkie” building transform the traditional skyline. The Shard, aptly named for its appearance as a shard of glass stabbing the sky, strikes me as particularly British in its violence and arrogance.

***

The British pub, as another informant explained, is simultaneously a town hall, a community building, a religious site, a sports venue, and a job centre. Though I knew I had to observe the pub ritual at some point, it was the frustrating inability to find anywhere else open to eat in London that brought me there earlier than planned. Every day I would see local pubs fill up after the work day, people crowding inside and spilling out into the street.

I pretended to understand the man at the bar and ordered fish and chips, and began to eavesdrop on the conversations surrounding me. One man seemed visibly upset while speaking; his friend, stoic. Arsenal had lost to West Ham that afternoon.

A small group sings along obnoxiously to Peter Gabriel. A Spanish couple appears lost and unsure of why they were there. A young woman squeals.

Bored and unimpressed, I decide to head out. Drunken young men roam the streets in packs.

Two of them are fighting outside the door, arms locked around each other, blocking my exit. No one seems to be winning, or trying to.

“Ay, let the lady fru mate,” one of them says to the other, and they stop. I pass, and they start to wrestle again.

As I walk back to my room, I catch a glimpse of the massive and hideous ferris wheel, grandly named the London Eye.

Part two: “Sojourns in Ikea Europe”


Safia Aidid is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard University, whose research focuses on Somali nationalism and its interaction with the Ethiopian state. You can find her on Twitter @SafiaA.

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