At first, I was worried. My mother was coming to visit for four days over the bank holiday weekend and I had no idea what to plan. She’d been to London a number of times before, so tourist attractions were out of the question. Her English is essentially non-existent, meaning that excursions to the cinema or the theatre were a no-go as well. Four days is a long time, when you think about it; I just didn’t know how we could fill it.
Increasingly despondent, I suggested a day trip to Brighton, a city I have been to so many times that I just see it as an extension of home. “Brighton?”, my mum said excitedly over the phone. “Briiiiighton!”. She wasn’t just in; she was thrilled. It made me worry even more; how could she be that excited? Brighton’s just, well, Brighton.
Of course, I’d got it all wrong. We took the train and went down the Lanes and walked around the Pavilion and she loved it. I then informed her, without great fanfare, that it is a bit of a British tradition to buy some chips and eat them on the beach. Her face lit up. Chips! On the beach! It’s all she talked about for the next hour.
Still, the best was yet to come. While in Marks & Spencer, we walked past the tinnies aisle. She stopped dead and asked me what they were. I didn’t even know what she meant; they’re cocktails in little cans. What else could they possibly be? Then I remembered that gin in a tin just doesn’t exist in France or, for obvious reasons, Morocco.
Like a glossy salesman, I ran her through all the drinks on offer, and explained that people usually buy them for train journeys. It is barely an exaggeration to say that I’ve rarely seen her that happy in the 31 long years we have known each other. Tins of gin were purchased, and she proceeded to spend the rest of the day muttering “ah, the British really know how to live”.
Two days later, we left the house to go for dinner at Tayyabs, an east London institution that happens to be BYOB. Shall we buy a bottle of wine for dinner, I asked? She laughed in my face. We turned up to our table with a bag of cans, like teenagers.
Earlier that day, we’d had an entirely unremarkable afternoon, walking around my neighbourhood and browsing charity shops. Again, she’d been ecstatic; all shops are closed on Sundays in France, and second-hand stores remain a rarity there. What felt to me like a regular day was entirely exotic to her.
By the time she left on Monday evening, I’d gained a real spring in my step. It’s very easy to live somewhere for a long time and get so used to the local quirks and habits that you stop noticing them entirely. I’ve always loved London, but it had not felt novel in years; being able to see the city through the eyes of a foreigner was a balm to the soul.
It can also be easy to forget that there are upsides to living in Britain. Sure, the wine isn’t as good, the lunch breaks are shorter and the weather can make you feel like God has personally decided to ruin your day, but that’s not the whole picture.
There is a quiet hedonism to British life that may not be as showy or internationally recognised as other places, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Going to the seaside for a swim, but realising it’s too cold and windy to take a dip? No worries! Just put on a scarf and eat some hot chips. Trains are often late and overly busy? Eh, we can deal with that with a bit of gin. Wanting to buy yourself a little treat but everything has become too expensive? No trouble! Just head to a charity shop and find yourself a trinket for a couple of quid.
It’s a way of life I had become so accustomed to that I could no longer see it for what it was, until my mum rocked up and had a lovely time. I’ll make sure she comes back soon, and I’ll take some cans with me when I go home for Christmas.