So I decided to take a trip back to Europe as I was missing my sofa, my own bed, my clothes, Monmouth coffee and European markets, not to mention friends and family with my niece fast growing up beyond the stage of unconditional affection. The final push was the chance to spend three days at Lake Como with some old friends and given I had been dreaming of continental culture this seemed too good to miss. Coming into Heathrow, I took the tube to Monument to round off my homecoming with the walk over London Bridge then through Borough Market. The weather was glorious and the views delivered spectacularly.
British queuing manners however did not. I caught the stalls setting up and arrived ten minutes before Monmouth coffee opened their shutters. In my fresh homecoming enthusiasm I attempted to strike up a conversation with the other person keen enough to be waiting already. He rebuffed my overtures and queue barged his wife and another couple in front of me, the two wives then making an upper class dash for the all you can eat baguette table despite having no challengers for the jam spoon. I thought queuing was supposed to be bad in China but generally I found them more polite and patient over there. Thankfully the coffee was smoother than the queuing experience and lived up to my memories; part one of mission accomplished.
I do love Borough Market but it’s an expensive habit and not really the place for a weekly shop but as a treat to myself I invited some schoolfriends for dinner to justify shipping in the high end goodies. The provisions came to over one hundred times a canteen meal at Tsinghua and while I know that’s comparing civet ingested coffee beans and nescafe I was slightly horrified. Food inflation regularly makes headlines in China but prices still have plenty of slack.
In China I did not miss the attitude of UK cyclists any more than UK queue bargers. To be fair I think I have mentioned before that I far prefer the Chinese system of merging and acquiescence; it is unsurprising to me that London’s shouty, aggressive racers probably have more accidents per capita than China’s two wheeled population. I guess there is an assumption of gentility and politesse in the UK that just doesn’t exist any longer. I have observed for many years that there is a hypocrisy about British manners with our slightly laboured “after you”; “no really, after you” approach. The Chinese have no such artifice: their attitude more “I am going this way. Move if you don’t want to be bumped into”. I have a bit more respect for this straightforward honesty. What you see is definitely what you get and there is no time wasted in dancing around doors.
Along with manners and prices my trip so far has left me reassessing a few factors I previously ranted about in China. Transport, while crowded, I found efficient: my 24 hour train journey from Beijing to HK went without a hitch and with lovely fellow passengers. The Heathrow Express outbound to Geneva for my Como visit could not manage 15 minutes from Paddington without breaking down as a consequence of which I missed my flight.
To cap it all, on the return flight we were told after an hour’s delay to our departure and an hour and a half in the sky that a technical fault with our decrepit BA plane necessitated a detour to Paris. I had thought we were flying the wrong way. I suppose I should be grateful that with BA at least our odds were better than with a local Chinese airline but the escort of two fire trucks and an emergency car as we touched down was more than a little unnerving, even if in the soit-disant first world they tend to overegg the safety side.
I shall not bore you with the detail of negotiating my way around the French work ethic in trying to leave Paris but the whole experience has left me more convinced that the glories of Europe rest firmly in its history. With the travails of the US this century and the recent bankruptcy of Detroit, it is hard not to conclude that the future is East. Even if, so far, it just looks like the winner of the ugly parade.