Thursday, 22 June 2017

Common Courtesy: Or, Life on a Small Island

Our street in Durham.
In Durham, England, the recycling-pickup truck comes equipped with an automated warning voice, blasted out at the decibel level of  a stadium football announcer: Stand well clear. Vehicle reversing. [beep, beep] Stand well clear. Vehicle reversing. [beep, beep] Stand well clear .... All right, you get the idea.

The voice is a clipped, posh-sounding, south-of-England male voice: Staahhnd WELL clear. Vehicle re-VUH-sing. Nothing and no one can stop these remonstrations as long as the recycling truck is, well, reversing. (That is to say, backing up.) And very often this truck seems to reverse the entire length of Victoria Terrace, the street below Dave's and my bedroom window, in the wee hours of morning. Once when this guy's stentorian tones woke us up, Dave rolled over in bed and said, "Now, what exactly is it that we should do while he re-VUH-ses?"

Thought I'd prefer they did not wake me up at half-six*, I'm sort of in love with the overly articulate warnings of British culture. Once when Dave and I were in Edinburgh, a fire alarm went off in the office building across from our hotel on St. Andrew Square. (It must have been a drill or a mistake, as we never saw flames.) With this alarm, too, came a loud, posh automated voice: "This is a fire alarm (FI-yuh ah-LAHM). Please vacate the building .... This is a fire alarm. Please vacate the building ...."

St. Andrew Square, in Edinburgh
Hearing this, I said to Dave, "It's just like that damn recycling truck. It not only beeps, it has a voice."

"The British like to make sure you understand why you have to do what you have to do," Dave remarked. "Think of their signage, too."

In America, if someone wanted you to keep your dog off the grass, the sign would just say, NO DOGS or at the very most, NO DOGS ON GRASS. But here the signs literally say, Dog owners are advised please to keep their dogs off of the grass. Dog feces attract rats and other vermin, which we here in the park would like to prevent for health reasons.

Dave and I went on listening to that Edinburgh fire alarm for a while, till he added, "I'm actually sort of surprised it doesn't say"--he affected an upper-crust accent--"'Caution, a fire is burning. Please stay well clear of the flames. The burning flames could cause harm to you, or to others. Please stay well clear of the flames.'"

We had our laugh, as we periodically do here in the UK over such things as signage and alarms. But really, isn't it kind of wonderful? Who in America would even bother to explain things so thoroughly, to try to reason with whomever is being cautioned? How many of us in America, upon seeing a warning sign three sentences long, would stop to even read the whole thing?

There's something about British culture, I think, that calls for a little more slowness, and a little more awareness of others, than we are used to in the US. Rather than flying past signs that are often more image than language -- really just semaphores -- you have to slow down a little in the UK, to read the more detailed signage. And the makers of British signs and alarms go out of their way to be polite, to offer explanations for their requests, in a way that feels, well, more personal. I've come to think there may be a link between being personal and thoughtful of others and having to live close to them.

In America, land of comparatively huge houses and roads and wide-open spaces, one's coworkers and friends and even one's neighbors may actually live miles away. Thus it may be easy to forget that we are not alone, after all, in the spaces we occupy. In England, meanwhile, the presence of others around you is hard to miss. The country of England is physically tiny. It's somewhat smaller than the state of Illinois -- 50,350 square miles, as opposed to Illinois's 57,910. On the other hand, England has a population density of approximately 1,100 people per square mile, while in Illinois the average number of people per square mile is 232. In other words, England has about 5 times as many people per square mile as the state of Illinois. People here live comparatively very close together, even in the English countryside and in small towns like Durham. This physical proximity, in my experience, breeds a kind of politeness -- an awareness of others -- that is not always present in the US, where we may take our big spaces for granted.

As one example, I remember when Dave and I had recently moved to downtown Chicago, to a condo in a converted warehouse. We were at the time teaching at a deeply suburban college, to which we commuted by train. Despite the 90-minute commute to work, Dave and I loved living in Chicago's Loop and raved about it to some of our colleagues at the aforementioned deeply suburban college. "It does sound really great," sighed a fellow professor. "The restaurants, the clubs, the museums! All the street life! But I'm not sure I could live so close to other people."

Downtown Chicago
"What do you mean?" we asked her. "Why not?"

"Well," she said, "how thick are those walls in your condo?"

Dave and I looked at each other. We didn't know. "Pretty thick?" I said. "Thick enough?"

"Yeah, but can you really blast your bass when you want to?" our colleague said. "Can you just turn your music up loud whenever you want to?"

It perhaps goes without saying that this former fellow professor of ours never did make the move downtown. And while I do get the joys of cranking up one's sound system, that feeling of "I should be able to make all the noise I want, whenever I want to" is a feeling that flourishes only in places where our neighbors feel distant from us. (Whether they actually are distant from us -- distant enough that we can jam out at three in the morning -- is another question. I wonder now if the other people who lived on that former colleague's street perhaps heard her bass beat sometimes, even without sharing a wall.)

Durham University students, on Kingsgate Bridge
Because we moved here from the U.S., where that mentality is stronger, Dave and I were leery of all the houses on our street in Durham that were occupied by twenty-year-old students. Durham is a university town, first and foremost; the population literally doubles every October when the new school year begins, so it's hard to find a street in town that doesn't contain student housing. But we did wonder, at first: Are all these university students going to stress us out? Are we going to be up at all hours because of some neighbor kids' wild parties?

The answer is, simply, no and no. (I feel I should touch wood as I write this; who's to say that nice red-headed guy who's always typing in the window across from my office won't turn on a disco ball this very night, invite his 30 best mates over, and fling his window wide? Except that I've watched him and his roommates come and go out for almost 2 years now, and I'm just pretty sure that they won't.) Dave and I do see students on our street every day. This time of year especially -- between final exams at the beginning of June, and graduation at the end of the month -- university students are out at night in full fervor. Most of the time, they seem to be going to fancy-dress balls. The guys wearing tuxes, the girls wearing gowns. This week alone, as I walked around town in the evening, I saw a guy in an actual top hat, two guys in tails, and two others in full-on Scottish kilts. 

Just like this. I kid you not.
The students are out and about. They are partying. I know this, too, because they sometimes throw up in the street. (The city always comes by and cleans up, the day after.) But do I ever hear them? I mean, ever hear them? Again, I hope I'm not jinxing myself as I write this, but I don't. These students are amazingly, wondrously, and -- to my American, noise-jangled mind -- almost miraculously quiet. 

Perhaps the university students never think of it this way, but their relative quiet, even in the midst of their June-long revelry, is a form of respect and politeness to others. I can totally get behind it. And even while the recycling truck's announcements at the crack of dawn and the voice-aided fire alarms may make me groan at times, or just laugh, I think the impulse behind them, too, is a form of respect and politeness. An acknowledgement that we're all sharing this space.

*That's how the British say six-thirty. Isn't it pretty? I think so.