I am becoming a country bumpkin. No; not becoming – have become. This was quite clear during a recent short trip to London. I haven’t been there for a while and noticed some changes.
It all started at Toulouse Blagnac Airport. I wouldn’t say it was just a hut in an airfield when we moved here in 1997, but it was much smaller than it is today. They added a spanking new hall at one end in 2010, from which the Easyjet flights leave. The airport seems to expand each time we go. New multi-storey car parks and buildings pop up everywhere as well as different road configurations to service them.
Blagnac now has a passenger capacity of around 8.5 million per year – still well below the giants of Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle, but pretty big nonetheless. It all seems reasonably well organised. In fact, the airport was voted top among French airports in 2012. Since it was an afternoon flight, I got through security etc. fast. This has not always been the case. In previous years, having been held up by the Toulouse rush hour traffic, I have had to sprint for the gate, which does nothing for your blood pressure.
Arriving at the other side, I noticed that British passport control had undergone some changes, too. They now have something called an e-passport, where you stick your passport under a scanner, look at a camera and, if it’s satisfied, it lets you in. Not knowing how it worked, or even if I was eligible, I stood in the much longer queue for the traditional passport control by human beings.
‘Could I have used the e-thingy?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ replied the official. I wish I’d known.
Next up, the Gatwick Express to Victoria. You used to be able to buy your ticket on the train. Now, they have electronic ticket gates. Assuming that this didn’t apply to Gatwick Express passengers, I approached the gate and an obliging man let me through. I was a little surprised, therefore, to arrive at Victoria without anyone wanting to see a ticket or sell me one. There, a man with a mobile ticket machine said I could have been fined £40. Fortunately, he let me off with just the price of the return.
Some things about London haven’t changed. It’s still awash with discarded fast-food containers, tourists and uncouth people in a hurry. And it remains expensive – or has become even more so. I paid £18 for an indifferent bowl of pasta and a glass of wine and then felt obliged to add a tip for an unsmiling waiter who clearly didn’t think I was hip enough for the establishment.
A lot of things were different, though, even in the space of a couple of years. I noticed a new syndrome, which I’ll call iPhone-itis. Almost everyone in the streets has their elbow crooked and a hand permanently clamped to one ear while talking to themselves and not watching where they’re going. And people afflicted with this disorder crammed into the Apple store in Covent Garden to look at iPads to match their state-of-the-art phones (the SF and I are the only people on the planet who don’t have them).
The technological revolution was evident in a lot of shops, too, where they now have self-service tills. They’ve had them in supermarkets in France for some time but I saw them in W.H.Smith (newsagents) and other shops, too. It took me ages to work out where to insert the cash. Underneath, stupid.
London has long been a cosmopolitan city but shops and restaurants in central London are staffed almost entirely by people who are not British – mostly Eastern European. I’m not making any value judgements here, just reporting on something noticeable. And Waterstone’s bookshop in Piccadilly has an entire section called a ‘Russian Bookshop’. I’m surprised it wasn’t Chinese, but that will no doubt come.
Someone like me, fresh from the boondocks of SW France, feels a little bit old and more than a little bit out of touch. London is a young person’s city, a cultural melting pot where everyone works hard and plays intensely. No doubt all large cities are the same. I do like the London bookshops, art galleries, museums and some of the shops. Toulouse – our nearest big city – has become trendy but you still have to go to Paris to find anything similar.
When we drove up to the house on my return, I felt as if I were really coming home. I freely admit that I am not a city person and never have been. But I reflected that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone from time to time: it makes you appreciate what you have so much more.
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We arrived in France in 1989 and even then used to feel a great pleasure surge through us when arriving back. We were in the UK unfortunately last August and it was the first time we had been back at that time of year and oh my goodness what a shock! There was no space on the roads and everywhere was full of people moving about. Getting back to French motorways was a joy. What a relief to get back home. It is also encouraging that we are not alone in preferring to live in a “foreign” country.
Since moving here in 97 we have driven in the UK only a few times. Each time it has been a nightmare. Where I was brought up in Kent is a just car-ridden London suburb now, having been a sleepy village, and you can understand why road rage incidents occur. I always feel that sense of relief coming back here – mind you, even here, the traffic has increased quite a lot since our arrival 16 years ago. But, even if the winters can be dull here, I realise that je ne regrette rien.
I’m such a hick that not only do I not have an iPhone, my phone is 9 years old. It makes techies gasp to think that anyone can still have a phone that old. It works – most of the time, and I can leave it in plain view anywhere knowing that it’s quite safe from being stolen. That said I do enjoy visiting London for short periods of time, not too long though otherwise I get sensation overload, especially with the amount of things in the shops.
Our phones must be at least 7-8 years old but they still work and do the job. I do enjoy visiting London – of course, in the post I was hamming it up a bit. And I spent a frightening amount of money on shopping. Good thing I don’t go more often.
Can I be a member of your anti-iPhone club? I do have a cell phone, but I told the woman at Orange…all it needs to do is make a phone call. I don’t need anything else! Sounds like your trip to London was a bit of a culture shock. Aren’t you glad you’ve left that fast-paced lifestyle behind?
It’s nice to go and enjoy the culture then come home to the real world!
It sounds as if the anti-iPhone club is developing a following! Like you, I just feel I need the phone to make calls. I was very glad to leave it all behind in London. But one does need a shot of culture etc from time to time. It would be too easy to slide into real hickdom down here.
Couldn’t agree more. I left UK at the end of the eighties and now I find the place almost unrecognisable, especially London. Apart from the culture, there’s absolutely nothing there to attract me nowadays. As for an iPhone, we have one fairly ancient mobile between us for emergencies and that’s all we need. Sad those people who can’t be ‘alone’ for a moment. Dread to think what it’s doing to their brains! Yes, it’s great to come home.
As I said in the post, it’s good to go to somewhere like London, partly because of the cultural opportunities available that we just don’t get here and partly because it’s good to come home afterwards and be thankful for what we have here. In the winter I lose perspective sometimes and wonder what the hell we are doing here, so a visit to London is a useful corrective. Glad there is still a select band without iPhones. Perhaps we should start an anti-iPhone club! I feel the weight of Apple bearing down on me, though.
And here I thought I was the last person on the planet who does not have an i-phone. Enjoyed your post and observations of London — which we love to visit and then return home to the coast of beautiful Suffolk. Also clicked on your post ‘What Do I Miss about England’ and enjoyed that one too — our local pub dates from 1400s and I too adore the bookshops and sense of humour (my hubby is British, which is why/how I got here).
Cheers and have a happy Christmas.
No, we are clearly a select band without iPhones. Long may it remain so, although it’s a bit like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ where I suppose we will all eventually be inoculated by the aliens. I do like visiting London for the cultural experience; but I do like coming home afterwards. You are a long way from home but it sounds as if you have imbibed some of the British culture, in all its eccentricity.
A very happy festive season to you, too.
I haven’t been back to the UK since Jan 2012 and I’m sure I’d find it just as harrowing though I would still be in the country of sorts in leafy Cheshire. And we don’t have any fancy phones, well a friend gave me a Blackberry (which Simon insists on calling a Strawberry) but all I do is play Solitaire on it! Great post, Vanessa and glad you are back in your comfort zone… 🙂
Even in leafy Kent, where I was brought up, I think things have changed hugely. Too many people, too many cars. Mind you, even here the number of cars has multiplied in 16 years. As for Blackberries someone I know calls them Raspberries, which I think is pretty appropriate…