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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

It was a British friend who used to throw bits of French into his letters, which impressed me in spite of my having discovered early on that he was not in fact reading Gide in French, but in a Penguin translation that kept the French title on the cover. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” came to mind today, as I took the train to Nottingham to visit the China Policy Institute.

The customer service in Britain used to be so awful that it was almost blistering to someone who came from California, land of eerily cheery (perhaps stoned) wait staff. But I thought that privatization and Americanization, not to mention deunionization and perhaps even concern about having a job next month, had changed things. Not so. The train service is a bizarre combination of super-efficiency and old-fashioned surliness. “Poor track conditions,” “Taking the train into the yard for servicing,” and, on the London Underground, “Problems due to a body under a train at Earl’s Court.” I was trying to figure out why they would be so explicit. Perhaps to reassure travelers that it was not terrorism disrupting service.

Yesterday I was sent round and round King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations to get a simple question answered: would there be wifi on the trains I’d be taking to and from Nottingham on Monday? (“Why what?” said one man). After being told emphatically “No” by both of the train companies, I had free wifi all the way to Grantham.

Le plus ca change applies to that, but also to a sight that puzzles me: middle-aged to elderly women wearing long tweedy skirts and cardigans, with sensible lace-up shoes. When I first came to England as a student, over 25 years ago, I noticed this Miss Marple look and thought it amusing and sweet. But how is it possible that women are still dressing this way? They are not (yet) my contemporaries, but definitely getting close. I’m baffled. It is 2008. Where do they buy these things and why would they want to look like Miss Marple? Could it be counted as a traditional indigenous costume, like the bowler hat and thick skirt worn by the first female indigenous judge in Bolivia, who was interviewed in one of the papers yesterday?

By the way, to be fair, the new St. Pancras International station, where one picks up the train for Paris (how tempting is that?), is stunning. And has free wifi through the vast Victorian space.

3 thoughts on “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  1. The more I hear (or read) people describing their travels in England, the more I want to visit Scotland or Ireland – or go back to France. What time does that train leave for Paris…?

  2. I knew I felt a kinship with you for some reason! I too studied in England in the 1980s–in Grantham, in fact. I’ve been back several times in the last decade (most recently in April) and have also noticed that funny clash between new and old. Most disturbingly, have you noticed how many old row houses now have white metal and glass sunrooms tacked onto the back of them? My British friends told me it was because of climate change–it’s now warmer and sunnier than it was 20 years ago, so they’re all taking advantage of it. Personally, the realization of what this represents chilled me to the bone.

    On the other hand, it makes me happy that the “pepperpots” are still dressing like Miss Marple (or Mrs. Thatcher). Maybe they are still taking their cues from the queen?

  3. Thanks, Lori, for the reminder about the Queen’s wardrobe–true, that may have an effect. Surely, though, no one would ever have copied Thatcher’s clothes!? (The news today–I’m back in the US–is full of detail about Sarah Palin’s wardrobe.) And I agree: climate change is so very obvious when one goes to England. Better weather, yes, but it won’t be the same green and pleasant land. I was pleased when the English colleague who happened to be on the same flight from Frankfurt to London last week said, “Bound to be raining.” That’s the England I know and love. Not just the rain, but that cheerful pessimism about the weather.

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