As an American working state-side for a London-based company, I’ve been following Brexit with great interest. There are several parallels between the E.U. referendum and the issues we face in the U.S. during this Presidential election year. The economic, social, and political ramifications are long-term and deeply impactful.
However, in light of recent domestic events, the U.S. news cycle last week gave little space the updates from abroad. We have had a full plate here lately. And, quite frankly, the magnitude of Brexit was a bit too complicated to comprehend in our already roiling national psyche. So, the media minimized the updates from Britain to feel good fluff pieces. The major headline last Thursday was: “Wills Knocks Kate’s Cooking.” Fair enough. Perhaps it was the media’s way of realizing that was literally all of the additional bad news we could digest.
That was, until Friday.
To be honest, I knew the vote would be close, but didn’t think Brexit would pass. In an informal poll of friends and family, none of us did. Stand up and make a dissenting opinion heard? Absolutely. But, actually leave the union? That was unfathomable to Americans – our nation was founded on the rallying cry “Join, or Die.”
So, I went off to bed Thursday evening giving it little thought. Then, once again, awoke to hear that something BIG happened overnight. Now, the news from overseas dominates our headlines with the sudden, blaring questions:
- What does this mean?
- How does it affect us?
- What happens next?
Over the past few days, I listened to and thought about both sides of the “remain” and “leave” arguments. However, I realize that although I am a very interested party, I am admittedly an outsider to this situation. So, instead of dwelling on all of the economic and political “what ifs” that Brexit raises, I started thinking about the sense of nationalism that attributed to a “leave” vote.
I love to travel both on business and for personal exploration. Regardless of the circumstances, I enjoy packing a bag and taking off. Fortunately, working for a U.K.-based shop has given me the opportunity to visit London and the continent several times over the past year.
A national culture is, by definition, the unique customs and behaviors that exist within a population. While the sharing of information through technology and other means can be hugely beneficial on an economic level, the erasure of national boundaries can lead to a cultural dilution. When all of the flavor is watered down to satisfy a bland global palette, there is little left to identify the original taste. I think of it as "the Starbucks effect."
I have two travel rituals. First, I use my iPhone app to find all of the closest Starbucks on my likely routes. Shameful? Absolutely. I actually select my London hotel based on its Starbucks proximity for my walk to work. Disgraceful, I know, but when traveling abroad, this familiar morning habit is a lovely way to start the day. I justify this by convincing myself that the drinks taste differently overseas. That the food selections are unique to the location. That, in fact, the Starbucks abroad are in keeping with the local culture.
Who am I kidding? They are the same out-of-the-box global product I can find in 63 countries (including Monaco – I found the Rue de la Colle location on business trip last year). I might as well hit McDonald’s for a burger and fries.
So, I have to ask myself, why I would actively seek out a homogenized brand when I can support the local culture? Is it really just about sticking with something familiar, or am I afraid to sample change?
On the flip side, was it fear of global sanitation to the British culture that swung the vote in favor of “leave”? Did the voting majority get sick of seeing their way of life being diluted? Were the masses appalled that there are 202 Starbucks locations in London alone? (And that I’ve visited most of them?)
On a recent trip to the U.K., an English-born friend of mine lamented, “Look around you. There is nothing distinct anymore about London. We could be anywhere.”
It was true. The city felt so much different to me than when I first visited 20 years ago. In the 1990s, I fell in love with London because it felt brooding and British and foreign. Back then, the Hard Rock Café was a touchstone of global commonality, but now… something feels distinctly familiar. Building facades have been gentrified. Entire areas of the city have been razed and raised anew. It all feels clean, efficient and homogenized. To me, London actually seems… a little American.
So on my last trip, I got out of the city and away from the familiar. I visited historical sites that were distinctly British: Windsor Castle, the city of Bath, and Stonehenge. Sure, all had been marked by signs of global tourism, but the ride through the Cotswolds had not. The air smelled of fresh peat and crisp leaves. The houses and trees were dappled in golden sunlight. I sampled cheese, drank cider, and delighted in sweets from a local bakery. I was not just anywhere in the world – I was in the English countryside – and there was no mistaking it for someplace else. It was my first distinctly British experience in many years.
When I think about that beautiful weekend on the Salisbury Plain, I understand, on a very small, but personal level, why the majority of British voters would elect to leave the E.U. Strength usually comes from numbers, but sometimes standing alone is the key to self-preservation.
If the news outlets are to be believed, Brexit will cause global economic catastrophe and a great rift in the social landscape of the western world. I’m not inclined to believe such hyperbole. Separation is very difficult. But, I’m confident that the British know what is best for them.
Which brings me to my other shameful travel ritual. This one is reserved for just before I board the plane to return stateside. At Heathrow, I stop in WHSmith to spend what’s left of my hard currency on Cadbury chocolates. I fill my entire carry-on with Flake Bars and the like. I know I can buy them online. I know I can drive to the local “Best of British” store downtown and clean out their stock. But to me, buying the Cadburys in the U.K. feels right.
Somehow, they just seem to taste more British.