Saturday, April 21, 2012

Culture Surprises: London - 3/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

Part 3...

The place we were supposed to go for accommodation was Croydon. First we had to go to the High Street in Croydon, collect the keys and then go to another place in Croydon itself. Every neighborhood has a High Street in London. It's a very English thing. It's similar to what is called 'Main Street' in many countries or the 'bazaar' in ours. Like the Hallis (Bommanahalli, Kammanahalli, Marathahalli, etc.) in Bangalore or the Pets (Saidapet, Teynampet, Kannammapet, etc.) in Chennai, the place names in London all end with a 'don' or 'ton', like Croydon, Kingston, Kensington, Wimbledon, Addington, Paddington, etc. London itself is a 'don', right?

We reached Croydon High Street by 8.30 PM. We went with high expectations about the 'hotel'. But what awaited us was a shock. It was a cramped reception where not even four or five people could stand. The stairs were so narrow that if the guy is little fat he can't even use it or if there are two people coming opposite to each other one of them has to go back up or down fully leaving way to another. The good news is, we didn't have to stay there. We just went there to collect the keys. We were supposed to stay in a service apartment that is run by the same hotel guys. Service apartment is an apartment where you get everything like kitchen, stove, utensils, etc. It would have been just impossible to stay in a hotel room with the family. The hotel guys themselves suggested to stay in service apartment. The difference in rent for between a single hotel room and a service apartment with multiple rooms was so less that I also agreed to that suggestion.

When I travel within India on duty the kind of hotels I get are of such a high quality that I never imagined that I would ever land in a place of that quality, that too in a place like London. Even the hotel that I stayed in Singapore was of great quality. I just couldn't digest that the hotels in London were worse than that. Then I consoled myself saying, 'It may not be the case with all hotels in London. It may be because this one is an Indian hotel'. Maybe this was a wrong sample.

All the shops in High Street were closed. The Indian young man who was in the hotel took us to the nearby Tesco shop and asked us to buy the most important things needed for the night as no other shops would be open at that time. He spoke in British accent. Can you imagine someone with that kind of an accent doing that kind of work in India? Impossible, right? It's a very common thing there. All the students work part-time somewhere like this for pocket money or in most cases manage all their expenses with this income. I have heard a lot about it when I was in India itself. But it was a different feeling witnessing it in person. In Tesco also, there were a lot of Indian staff, mostly north Indians. We just bought rice, lentils, milk, etc. and headed for the apartment.

The hotel guys arranged for a car, came till the apartment, helped with the luggage and left only after we were safely inside the apartment. It wasn't an easy task carrying the luggage till third floor. Yes, we were in third floor and we didn't have a lift. They had told me about it earlier. But again when you see it in person it's more disgusting, right? You built an apartment with three floors and didn't think of having a lift in it?! Funny! We don't have such buildings even in India these days. With all the luggage and the difficulty of carrying them all the way up to the third floor through those narrow stairs, I was haunted with many questions. At least if the stairs had been little wider I would have been okay. In India itself while looking for rented house we used to judge the quality of the house by the width of the stairs. In India itself I don't find such narrow stairs these days at least in those areas where I move around. All the new houses that are being built now are built with wider stairs. Then how come in a country like UK, that too in a city like London??? I was really confused.

I had a mental picture about the houses in London. When we entered into the apartment all those imaginations collapsed in disappointment. I blamed India for that also. I said it's run by Indians, right?! I know it was value for money. That was the value possible for the money paid by my company. Some of my colleagues who visited the place later even said, "You must be happy that you have got such a good apartment in London. I have stayed in worse places!". I was clueless. I just couldn't understand what was going on. It's not that I grew up in palaces. Five of us have stayed in a 10x10' room in bachelorhood days. But that's not the point. After that I have seen a much better quality of life in our own land, which is supposed to be a 'developing' country still. Even today I count every rupee that I spend. But I have certain criteria for a good house. That apartment unfortunately didn't meet those criteria. That's the reason I couldn't understand how so many people said that was a good apartment.

When I think about it, the biggest problem with that apartment was it had wooden floor. When I understood that it's all wooden floors only in all western countries I was trying to come to terms with it. I have seen wooden floors on the first floor in old village houses in my childhood. But after people became affluent they got rid of them and built concrete floors. 25 years later, when I had to see the same thing (though this is different from that) in what is called a developed country, I felt different. Another problem was, it's a very old apartment. Even the biggest and best houses will have their own problems once they get old. It's those problems that I had to deal with. The carpets were old and faded. Most of the things in the apartment reminded of how old they were. But otherwise I would say there was no major problem.

There were some good things as well. All the switches are kept low to be accessible for children. Isn't the idea of making them independent and not being dependent on elders for even silly things like this a thing to be appreciated? Not only in this. In general, western countries are known for bringing up their children to be independent from childhood.Why is it so? Maybe because they are not sure when their parents will decide to part ways?! They are particular about not passing on their problems to their children. It's good, right? I have even heard that they have laws to ensure their kids sleep in a separate room right from their childhood. They even say that when you look for a house you need to ensure that each child has a separate room in it.

The house that we stayed is right behind the Home Office in Croydon. The Home Office is their government department responsible for immigration, security, passport, etc. All our visas go there for approval. So we ended up in the place where they made the decision to let me in. It was well past 9 PM and there was nobody on the roads. The first feeling that I got as soon as I landed in Singapore was the feeling of safety. Likewise, the first feeling that I got as soon as I landed in London is the feeling of insecurity. From the day one we landed every day we heard some story. The main reason for that was the place where we ended up. I said it's called Croydon, right? Let me tell you now what kind of place it is.

Croydon is an English-minority neighborhood like many such neighborhoods in London. It's filled with Africans, Srilankans and Indians. A friend who is staying in Croydon told me last year itself, "Hey, all the rowdies in the area where I stay in London are all 'your' people only. Only others will find it difficult. You won't have any problem if you come to stay there!" and smiled (I hope you got what that 'your' meant!). As soon as I landed there, on the second day itself, another friend said, "The London riots that you would have heard about last year... it all happened in your area only. So be careful!". Isn't that enough for us?! I started inquiring about it with everyone that I met after that. "It's not that the whole of Croydon is like that. Only the West Croydon is little unsafe. Just avoid that part after the dark", said two - three people almost in the same style. Hell with Croydon! Every now and then I could also see the signs of whatever I heard. Every second or third day there would be a story about some mugging or crime in the neighborhood.

Maybe this is what is making the local whites unhappy. Who will tolerate their own place where they were born and grew up being spoiled by outsiders? An English man I met in Coimbatore 7 - 8 years back was cribbing a lot about this. "We have a culture that absorbs everyone that comes in. But we are not able to tolerate when those who come try to spoil our culture itself", he said with a worried face. I had no answer when he asked, "What's this arranged marriage? How can you arrange a marriage?" (It sounded similar to a comment made by a Telugu friend about food - "What is limit meals? Why do you have limits in eating? It's called meals only when you eat with full satisfaction, right?!"). They are shocked by our culture as much as we are shocked by their question!

Already they were not very happy with the way their city was being taken for a ride. Looks like it worsened after the London blasts. A colleague who was in London during those days of blasts said that the locals showed their anger even on Indians. Just like how north Indians call all south Indians 'Madrasi' here, it seems the Londoners call anyone with the subcontinent face a "Paki". 'Paki' is a short form of 'Pakistani'. It's supposed to be a discriminating - racial abuse there. It's like how Malayalis call Tamils 'Pandi' in Kerala and Tamils call Telugus 'Gulti' in Chennai. It's cheap. But this culture is there everywhere. All it says is, when it comes to hatred there is no difference between the so called civilized societies and the rest.

Since all shops were closed by 8 PM itself, I couldn't even a buy a sim card to inform home about our safe arrival. Whichever country you go, this is always a problem. That too, if you reach in late night it will be a major problem. You can't even do those important things that you are supposed to do as soon as you reach. There was no phone in apartment also. Luckily there was internet. So I could send a few emails. Next day morning I had to go to work. So I had to do all the preparations for that also in the previous night itself. So I unpacked the suitcases, ensured the important things were in place and went to bed.

How is this? The end of the first day itself comes in the third part only. We were there for a month. Then how many more parts???!!! Calculate it yourself! :)

- TO BE CONTINUED...

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