Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1997, I visited London as a tourist. I must admit that from the very first minutes of acquaintance with this country it produced the impression of a very different world - not how England had been imagined for fifteen years spent studying its language, literature, and culture first in school, and then in two institutes. From the Soviet and post-Soviet far away, UK seemed to be such an illustration to the Dickens' books - a country frozen in self-contemplation, constantly rethinking its history, following which English became the main and only universally recognized international language.
However, having taught the whole world to speak their own language, the English were not in a hurry to adopt from the world rules almost universally acting in it. That's why the first cultural shock for a tourist coming from Moscow was the fact that the bus that transported the group from Heathrow Airport to London suddenly went on the left side of the road.
This test was not for the faint-hearted since on the first kilometers it seemed that the luxury bus that had gone "against all rules" would now crash if not into an oncoming car, then into some bump. Surprisingly, the movement on the left side did not lead then to any accidents and troubles, and soon a group of Russian tourists with curiosity examined the houses and subway stations which were crawling outside the windows.
All this architecture was so different from the usual Moscow building that it almost seemed as if it was nothing more than a theatrical scenery, and soon, when they finally run out, a "real world" will open around with the usual huge houses and wide streets. However, this expectation was not to come true, and soon the tourists, having gone to their hotels, have been already filling in the arrival cards on the couches at the reception desks.
The next, even more, powerful than the left-hand traffic, a shock, was the first walk along central London street. The plane came there in the middle of the day, and so the working afternoon was at its height, when white clerks sat in their offices, immersed in computers and documents. That's why there was a strong feeling that the plane was off course and instead of London brought everyone to some kind of Arab or Asian country. All the streets were filled with people of absolutely non-European origin and not even in European dress.
A few passers-by, wrapped in something like white sheets, proudly carried the real turbans on their heads. As well as it is necessary to Indians, they were silent and looked somewhere ahead, and most likely not on street, but somewhere to meditative eternity. Nearby, groups of noisy, low men, reminiscent of Pakistanis or Afghans, scurried about. They roughly discussed something, and it can not be said that their speech was like English.
Arabs, Indians, Asians, often dressed in their national dress and speaking their native languages - that's who made up the majority of passers-by in the Paddington station area at the beginning of July 1997. At the same time, there were so many of them on the streets that even the white-faced passers-by appeared in the crowd almost like tourists, just as decided to visit this mysterious eastern country.
The very next day, this observation was reinforced by a young Arab who was distributing some flyers on the same patch. Trying to take from him one, I called the unbelievable surprise of the guy. It turned out that they were written in Arabic script, that is, they were originally intended only for Arabs, which, it is likely, he expected to meet on the street in large numbers. "You read?" - he asked me with a bewildered grimace, obviously not an Arab, and showed that the yellow leaflet was covered with mysterious wavy-curly letters.
Naturally, I could not read them and refused to take the flyer. Only in the evening after the working shift in the central streets appeared "white", as they would be called in America, unexpectedly turned out to be in London a separate ethnic group, and yet not the most numerous one. Wearing business suits, they were hurrying with their suitcases in their hands on the subway, to the shops, home or somewhere else - that is, they were clearly distinguished by their vanity and disunity from the not in a hurry at all Hindus and the Pakistanis who spoke loudly in large groups.
Already at that time, a feeling arose that it were visitors from far-away southern countries who were dark-skinned passers-by in exotic outfits who made up the majority in this country, for some reason considered European and soaked with European culture. It turned out that in the large Garfunkel's Restaurant on the corner near Paddington at the checkout near the scales where it was necessary to set up a plate with dishes gathered together on a buffet, an Asian woman stood, for some reason conditionally nicknamed by me as "Vietnamese", although she could be a Chinese woman, and a Korean, and a Mongolian, and the daughter of any other Asian country. Alive, mobile, greedy and at the same time cheerful, she never missed the opportunity to poke fun at the client, she did not resemble the cold-blooded Englishwomen.
"You took everything!", she exclaimed with surprise and discontent, when on the second day of staying in this strange city I, having already studied the way of service in her restaurant, filled the plate with herring, salads, meat, crabs, and potatoes. In response to my objection that I did everything according to the rules of this restaurant, the little "Vietnamese" laughed and, remembering my visit the previous day, asked "Large Sprunklist?" - referring to the bank of fizzy drink, by color and taste reminiscent of Fanta. It was I who chose it on the previous visit, not finding in the list of the proposed beverages one or almost none of the names familiar to the European.
"Vietnamese" fed tasty, but a little expensive, ripping for dinner from eight to ten pounds, so I did not go to her restaurant anymore, but looked in a small cozy place nearby, just as suggested to the guest himself to fill the plate with the dishes of the buffet to your taste and then pay for the whole portion.
Here above all, a swarthy middle-aged Indian man reigned, who, despite a serious and even gloomy look, took for a full plate of meat and some completely unfamiliar dishes just over two pounds. His food was cheap, tasty, but ruthlessly spicy, and only sitting down at the table I found out that the red pepper was generously sprinkled over meatballs, cutlets, and something like potatoes, and in general over everything I collected there in large quantities.
After sitting in his small dining room for about two hours and eating everything, I involuntarily plunged in his silent society into a state resembling meditation, clearly felt in the cramped atmosphere of the hall, with almost total absence of other visitors, and now the world outside the windows seemed not to be some cheerful Vietnamese Holiday, but stream of Indian life focused on something. Thanking him for a delicious dinner and going out "to London," for a long time I felt like a yogi sitting on a lotus and staring at one point.
That is why a long time ago this country, in the center of the capital of which it was possible to visit first one Asian world, and then another one next to it, had already little in common with Europe. Not surprisingly, in mid-March 2017, almost twenty years after that trip, the upper house of the British Parliament authorized the Prime Minister to begin withdrawing from the European Union. The bill was approved almost with a threefold preponderance of votes - 274 against 118. The Lords did not introduce amendments rejected by the House of Commons. The government opposed the amendments, and the chance of obtaining their approval was negligible. By and large, Great Britain was not in Europe, as it had been living for too long in its isolated island cultural and historical environment.
The fact that in London hotel they ask in the morning what kind of breakfast to serve - British or Continental - best of all referendums and bureaucratic decisions suggests that England has never felt like part of the "continent," that is, Europe, and preferred to live in its own way. It is unlikely that in its streets there will be fewer dark-skinned visitors - it has colonized the rest of the world for too long and let immigrants from all over the world come to British territory, so it is hard to believe that one of the reasons for parting with the EU is fatigue from labor and other migrants. England leaves the EU because it is foreign to it, and it is alien to it, so it is difficult physically, culturally and mentally to this geographically isolated state with strong island thinking to share political and economic space with EU.