A while back, we set out on a weekend’s holiday with high hopes. We had no idea that Staycationing (taking a holiday in the UK for overseas readers) would prove such a dire experience. What happened? What went wrong?
To be honest we had become so used to holidaying in Italy that we had forgotten about the English and the Rules of Englishness. Why does this matter? Well first we need to remind ourselves of Kate Fox’s brilliant summary of these rules in her book, ‘Watching the English’ (2004):
The key thing to remember is the quality of ‘social unease’ that clings to the English when they are thrown together – whether among family or strangers.
It’s hard not to feel awkward in English company. If you look at the diagram you’ll see at the centre that ‘awkward’ is the way you’re expected to feel. So the first experience we had, on meeting our Bed &Breakfast hosts – who were perfectly nice – was a feeling of awkwardness and the need to pretend to be comfortable, even though the accommodation was far from uplifting: small poky spaces, kettles and electric points that didn’t work, a barren and utilitarian character that didn’t suggest warmth or conviviality.
Even that was not fundamentally the issue: the point is that once under the thrall of awkwardness there is little opportunity to negotiate the boundaries of the arrangements. Were we invited/allowed to walk/sit in their garden? Did the eggs on sale in the porch apply to us – or were ours free, and if so, how many? They made us a fresh loaf which was nice, but we were not eating wheat/grains [I am diabetic] so the loaf was useless. They didn’t ask us what, if anything we would like to make our stay more pleasant! We felt constantly on edge.
This is a real problem with what I’ll call civil as distinct from professional service. Ordinary folk trying to serve others tend to imagine what they would like in similar circumstances, do that for you and call it service. As a recipient you are left, having to resort to good humour and pretending to like what has been done to you (rather than for you).
Inevitably you feel hacked off and resort to complaining the minute your hosts’ backs are turned. Oh to have been Americans who might have taken all the eggs, tramped all over the garden with their cameras, while lobbing a twangy “Where’re y’all from?” at their hosts. Perhaps in another lifetime! If you would like a pdf of this post with my interpretation of Kate’s model, it is here: