I’m irritated at myself after a weeks-long trip through Britain. This is usually an indicator that I really liked a place for reasons that I could not have fathomed beforehand. It betrays a specific kind of ignorance that haunts me constantly. In almost a month, Scotland is largely responsible for moving this place to high up on my list of favorites. England, however, is where I did the most digging in, and got to see a little more below the surface.
To start, know that the UK was the very first country I ever visited on my own, with a friend, right after we finished high school. London was our base for two nights before we set out across Europe for the summer. Once of those nights was spent on a train station floor, unable to find a bed—such a rookie mistake. Ever since, those two days were, in my mind, as sufficient an experience as any for getting to know a new country. We saw Piccadilly, Westminster, and I’m not sure what else in London. There was a pub crawl around somewhere.. Soho ? Unsure.
In any case, I never went back, nor ever really considered it. Even with standby benefits, the UK had some of the highest taxes on flight tickets — $200 at least! Real sticker shock. There were so many other places to see for less, most of which, frankly, felt far more interesting and exotic.
And now it’s been 8 years.
So imagine the “no shit” moment upon realizing that there’s an entire culture here! One that has taken on many more dimensions, I think, since 2011. Scotland now offers the unique mix of reverence for rural life with social openness and inclusion. The UK in general is much more eco-minded in its consumerism, with catering to “veggo’s” and vegans being the norm in eating out. Disposable plastic is less ubiquitous and usually costs extra. All very good things, as far as I’m concerned.
Beyond the more recent trends, one will also find over 1 thousand years of (very) well-documented and (very, very) well-analyzed history, framed by traditions that can be both stuffy and structural. The mythology of the monarchy can be endlessly explored, re-examined, and placed into modern context. This country’s influence has extended outward over oceans and across the entire globe, born largely of crude colonialism and empire-building, which would later serve as a sort of cultural and political baseline for many subsequent nations and peoples.
And yet, these days, the UK’s future appears troubled and uncertain. The distinct roots of Scottish and English identity seem as separate from each other as ever. The UK has recoiled from the EU, and therefore the greatest experiment in supranational cooperation in human history. From this vantage point, there appears to be no non-regressive way out in terms of the Irish border, Scottish sovereignty, and further integration with the Europeans (who most Brits, interestingly enough, consider themselves as not).
So, unfortunately, as is the case in many parts of the world, it is unclear where to go from here. Looking ahead, it’s hard to say when again I’ll be back. But, if anything, there’s a lesson in the value of re-exploring a place you thought you had already figured out.