When I first moved to London, I expected my idyllic vision of the Brits to be confirmed. You know, people drinking tea all the time and the men offering their umbrellas to you when it rains. I believe movies from my childhood like 101 Dalmatians and Mary Poppins are partly to blame for this. After a few weeks in London, that pretty picture got dimmed – and not just by the rain. This sorry tale of disappointment is how the myths of London were busted for me:
The so-called British gentleman
If you, like me, expect overly-polite behaviour from British men just like in those Jane Austen novels you love, you should take a reality-check and prepare for the modern reality. The first few weeks in the capital certainly taught me better.
I imagined men wearing fancy suits and long grey overcoats, ready to jump at every opportunity to help the ladies around them. Although I have travelled a lot to and from London, often with heavy luggage, I have never received any help whatsoever. No offers, not even sympathetic looks. Nothing. I will admit, this could be due to my scary annoyed face whenever I am in public. And yes, of course I can actually manage to lift my heavy suitcase alone. But hey, I am still a woman with a bloody heavy suitcase. Where are all the polite men everyone brags so much about?
Next big myth bust: men who love opening the door for you. He stands to the side, smiles and says “After you, love” while holding the door wide open for you. Not going to happen. The more probable version, which I have experienced far too often for my liking, is this: the person walking in front of you will give the door a nice good push so that it will be open just long enough for you to sprint through before it slams back in your face.
The most disappointing myth-bust however, was when my romantic image of gents offering their umbrellas when it rains was crushed. I like to consider myself a feminist, so perhaps I should just feel proud every time I stand in the cold rain with the wind blowing in my face and the men standing on the sides with their own umbrellas nicely ignoring me. “You are a strong and independent woman and can therefore find your own umbrella.” Lesson learned: if you are too stupid not to bring an umbrella with you all the time in rainy London, you have only got yourself to blame. Nevertheless, it is certainly not what Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley would have done.
Where is the rain?
And as if that weren’t bad enough, and although one should always have an umbrella close by, you can’t even rely on the damn rain. In fact, we’ve had annoyingly good weather and it’s been sunny on several occasions here.
But, of course, nothing is to be trusted when it comes to the weather in London: it can rain all of a sudden for five or ten minutes and then get nice and sunny, just like that. What a disappointment! I was expecting to see it always raining outside whenever I was sitting inside my cosy house with a good book. Besides, the already tiny probability of a romantic gesture from a stranger (offering his umbrella to me) decreases even more with all this sun.
Brits drink tea all the time – or so I thought. This old cliché has haunted Britain for centuries, with everybody obviously expecting the British to drink their colonial Indian tea on the balcony looking out towards Buckingham Palace. I – admittedly, in hindsight maybe still naively – imagined the more modern version of seeing Londoners in cosy cafes sipping cups of tea and eating biscuits all over the place.
Well, rather shockingly, it turns out that they all drink coffee just like everybody else. There are Starbucks stores everywhere, and the few fancy tea houses that do exist are usually ridiculously expensive. It’s not quite as romantic as I imaged, but when you have to get up at 7 am every morning like me, you will be grateful that there is a coffee bar near you and not just a tea shop.
Londoners – actually not complete introverts
I thought I would meet some fellow shy introverts in this large and cold city, but nope. Instead, I am habitually met with smiling, sociable people who love to chat! In fact, I cannot sit on the bus or Tube of an afternoon without some person (sometimes drunk) sitting right next to me, even though there are several other available seats, and starting to babble loudly about his or her life. And that is without any proper introduction, by the way.
What happened to all the stressed Londoners sitting by themselves on the bus while going through some important papers for work I’ve heard so much about? Who will freeze when some stranger comes within their personal space and look at you with a death stare if you interrupt them by politely asking if the seat next to them is taken?
Well, maybe the only folk who still are like this are the superrich business people who I never see, because they can afford to drive or take a helicopter to work every day. Finally, a stereotype that could be true after all: Britain as a society riven by class divides. But that is quite another story.