During annual summer trips home to the UK you are always hit by an element of culture shock that takes you completely by surprise and can turn you into a bit of a bumbling fool. One year it was chip and pin in all the shops (I still can’t really get the hang of which way round to insert your card). Another time it took me a while to click that shop security had not suddenly been increased tenfold, but in fact the people chatting to no one in particular with ear pieces were simply using their mobile phones ‘hands free’. Last year I was caught out by the oyster cards for the London buses and underground. My first time back after having lived in Africa for a year (in 1999), was my amazement that supermarket carrots, beans cucumbers and tomatoes were all of identical size and colour (and often lacking a bit in taste). I had become so used to buying ‘green’ oranges and lemons, knobbly cucumbers and sorting through dirty potatoes of varying shapes from roadside ‘dukas’ or shack/shops. The ‘perfect’ produce is still there on UK supermarket stands, but is now countered a bit by the more normal looking ‘organic’ veg that is now so popular.
This time what knocked me sideways was the sight of people smoking outside pub doors due to the smoking ban. It was a clever ploy to introduce the new regulations as summer was looming with long light evenings, but what happens in wintertime? I’m not a smoker, but a visit to the pub; nightclub or wine bar was always smoky and formed a major part of the atmosphere. How are gardenless pubs and bars managing now I wonder? Will they ban mobile phones (as I’ve seen on some train carriages that call themselves ‘quiet zones’) or simply talking too loudly next? Perhaps jukeboxes will go… It’s all kind of ironic as whilst smoking is being stamped out in Europe, it’s finally beginning to take off in developing countries now that people have increasing amounts of disposable cash. Cigarettes are often sold singly to make them affordable, advertising is big and tax is low. The tobacco firms’ main competitors here are the mobile phone companies (i.e. buying credit for your phone) and lottery scratch cards, as these are other things that spare cash is regularly spent on.
Everyone in England was being terribly conscientious about switching off lights and turning tvs and computers off standby, in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. It struck me as being a bit of ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’, but what do I know?! In Africa people have negligible carbon emissions as they walk everywhere; have only one or two lights and a couple of power points (if any). Possessions are few and everything is recycled. Surely this should be enough of an argument to buy more produce from Kenya and the developing world and forget worrying about the ‘food miles’ stickers slapped on African produce in the supermarkets.
Another total shock to me was how Macdonalds has gone healthy!!! The kids begged for a visit having never been before. I guess that somehow the marketing had reached their consciousness somehow and to be honest I am always up for a cheese burger and chips. When we got there I was staggered to see salads on offer, matchstick carrots on the counter and little bags of peeled apple and grapes for kids?! Orange juice or water was the drink option in a ‘happy meal’. My niece was chanting ‘Macdonalds is good for you!’ In addition, you could choose flora or light Philedelphia instead of butter, low fat dressings and organic milk.
Each food tray was complete with a Macdonalds information sheet about ‘Our food, nutrition and you…’.complete with GDA (guideline daily amounts) charts and a complete ‘nutrition breakdown’ for each of the foods on sale. The information states; ‘we hope this helps you and your family make more informed choices about your food’. Good for them! I watched the ‘Supersize me’ documentary and was shocked like everyone else, even though it was complete madness to suggest that anyone else would really choose to eat every single meal at Macdonalds for a month. Having said that, I would never have dreamt that the world’s biggest fast food chain would take lessons learned so much on board and make so many positive changes.
Charity campaigners seemed pretty rife in London. When an Oxfam lady approached me at Victoria Station with a dazzling smile and a line that started; 'I'm not here to take your money today...' I said that unfortunately I could not help as I live overseas (thus implying that I've no UK bank account to set up a standing order from). I felt quite mean. Later I was hit by a three pronged attack along the Kings Road, where not one but three collectors for Crisis were spread at intervals of ten paces along the pavement. I suppose it was a sort of persuasion via attrition technique with the third guy saying 'I know my two colleagues have failed but couldn't I have a quick chat with you about Crisis?'. Sadly my feelings about charity have become ambivalent after living in Africa for the past eight years.
My final eye popping amazement and total respect was reserved for those London mums coping with tiny babies in prams or multiple small children on trains, hideously crowded tubes and buses. I don’t know how they do it. They didn’t seem to be getting much help either.