It’s a common phenomenon as we age: we look back on our childhoods through rose-tinted glasses, pining for a youth our memories endow with an unrealistically positive hue. If you’re a Britalan like me, or an ex-pat for that matter, or anyone who’s lived away from their own context for many years and has not witnessed its gradual changes first-hand, the culture shock of spending time back in your homeland can hit you quite hard and mess with your bearings. My memories of 1970s and 80s England actually become more vivid as I grow older, which can accentuate this culture shock when I am back there, as it’s become a very different place to the one I remember. One notable consequence of this is its effect on my opinions about my adopted country. You see, over the many years I’ve lived here I’ve found myself naturally comparing my homeland to my adopted country - hence the origins of this column - and I’ve always been comfortable passing comment on both cultures in an attempt to draw conclusions about similarities and differences between the two and thereby orientate myself in what is in many ways an alien existence. The problem comes when I realise that some of my perceptions of my native culture are antiquated and thoroughly unreliable, as happened to me this summer.
I have long believed children in my adopted society to be poorly behaved in comparison with kids in the UK. That stems from my childhood, when adults would put children in their place if they were acting out of line in public. Obviously, there were still kids who acted out and ignored the adults, but the majority behaviour, and that’s what we’re dealing with when we’re making broad comparisons like this, was polite and obedient. Many visitors to the UK have commented on this when they have witnessed it, particularly if they come from a, let’s say, more rambunctious society themselves.
Imagine my dismay then when I boarded a bus after taking my son to meet his grandma for a pub lunch in Derbyshire this summer and spent the next twenty minutes surrounded by kids neatly dressed in school uniform screaming and shouting like they were in a zoo, ringing the bell incessantly, and hurling water and rubbish over seats and down the stairs (it was a double decker). There was then the confusing contradiction of pretty much every one of them giving the driver (who had steadfastly ignored their abhorrent behaviour throughout the journey) a genuine thank you when getting off the bus, before then walking out into the road in front of it to deliberately stop the traffic in an open display of belligerence. My teenaged son found my bewilderment at this behaviour highly amusing, and when I asked him for a comparison with school kids on buses in Barcelona he said they could be just as bad so he was used to it, before adding that the English kids were only acting like that because they were the majority on the bus and there weren’t any adults to stop them. Other than me, I guess.
On reflection, the whole episode made me feel a bit sorry for my son, realising he’d been subjected to what now seems like a near Victorian-style upbringing that had little to do with the society he has grown up in and has long since disappeared from the society where it originated.