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Tales from an old country

OUR TOUR guide wouldn't have cut it in America. Her voice carried no more than three feet, her composure faltered any time a motorcar honked, and she left out important information even though she went on for two hours. But what the guide of our Oxford University tour lacked in quality, she made up for in personality.

Her stories were personal and marked by a delightful, idiosyncratic use of English. It was not the best nor was it the standard tour, because there is no best tour and there is no standard. Her tour was typical of my experience in England and what I've learned from my parents' year in this country. Everything is unique; everything has personality.

Personality is mentioned frequently here in England. Pubs, hedgerows, hotels, food, roads, even the tour guides--all things English seem to possess local charm, and impart a feeling that what you are experiencing is wholly unique and cannot be found in the same form anywhere else. To put it neatly, everything is neat.

Everything is unique. Everything seems to hearken to a simpler time, when people took their time. People stop to chat and stop to put on the finishing touches. In fact, they stop for tea or any other excuse. It certainly is not America.

Thank God for that. Personality is nice but has its trade-offs. When a young man in America asks a friend to set him up with a date, he frequently gets not the cutest girl, but one described as having "personality." There's nothing wrong with personality: it's just not what you asked for.

England has loads of personality, and little of what you ask for. The little country roads--and there are roughly four roads here that aren't little country roads--are narrow, winding and enshrouded with shrubbery. They're cute and full of personality. They're also hard to navigate and make trips long and inconvenient.

Newspapers contain descriptive and unique language, but only a few facts. They specialize more in rumor and gossip. Pubs are quaint and charming, but their menus are limited to anything and everything you don't want. There is an embarrassing national abundance of fascinating historical sights, but you have to pay to enter any of them. Never mind the fact that portions in restaurants and groceries are far smaller than in America.

Never mind the somewhat unwarranted belief that British food is awful. It's not that the food is bad; it's just that it's impossible to find food that's actually good. My sister--to the amusement of everyone at the table except her--ordered a trout and found herself staring at a fish head, attached to a spine and tail.

It's a hard country for a Yank deeply imbued with the Protestant ethic of hard, constant work. The charm of a pubkeeper who chats up the clientele cannot mask for certain customers the fact that he has no wait staff, his food comes slowly and in small portions, and that the sausage appears to have recruited the neighbor's cat. It seems he'd get more work done if he didn't talk so much.

It seems that all of England could get a lot more done if it weren't so happy doing such little things. It keeps magnificent gardens but cannot keep the peace in Europe. It makes a constellation of wonderful beers, but cannot manufacture to the scale of an American or German industry. It produces literature the likes of which few can imagine, yet it never will have a mass media machine as quick, sophisticated or broad as America's.

But having been here a while, I've started to realize what we get out of the trade. We get a country with high taxes but with a health care system we could learn from. A country with a labyrinth of roadways, but also one that preserves its small towns and keeps its hidden treasures hidden. We get a country with slow trains, but also a country with a rail network that covers a remarkable amount of ground.

What we get is a country that doesn't make as much. We also get a country that appreciates considerably more. We get a country that takes time to smell the roses--and to grow them. We get a country where great literature is written--and read. A country where wine, beer, food, song, dance and laughter are appreciated, encouraged and demanded. A country where the good life exists, and where one enjoying that life cannot be paged.

Not that America should be forgotten. I'll enjoy getting back to America, where I get what I expect, where the English is mine and not the Queen's and where a quarter of a pound is a hamburger and not a price.

We need countries like America, where speed, accurate information, reliable service and standardized products are all important commodities. We need a country like America to build the world's industry, win its wars and produce its sitcoms. Lest we get inflated heads, we should remember that we do all three, with varying degrees of success, and that each tends to get the same play in the headlines. We're efficient, but not essential.

We need countries like England, as well. We need them to remind us what countries were like when there were fishing nets and not Internets. We need countries that manage to keep up with the future while keeping hold of the past. We need countries where quite a few things matter, but not too much, and where everything has a little touch of personality.

I'm loving England. It's a place of profound poetry, beauty and history. It's a wonderful place to visit. But I wouldn't want to live here.

(Tom Bednar is a rising third-year College student.)


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