I'm sitting writing this in a foreign European country, in a rural setting with a view of vineyards, alps, rivers, hills or any other picturesque scene of your imagination which is not urban or industrial but does not give my location away.
When choosing a holiday my number one priority is to find a location outside the UK. Not because there is anything wrong or bad with the British Isles. To the contrary, having travelled as far north as Gateshead, south-west as Lands End and east as Cromer I know this country from the craggy rocks of the Isle of Wight to the verdant rolling countryside, its lonely clouds and crowds of daffodils, its generally clement, if somewhat unpredictable, climate and its harmonious landscape. However, when vacationing I need more than just different scenery and location. In order to get away from it all there must also be different number plates, shop signs and language. But it is not simply that a variation in the jingle of coins and different mastheads on the newsstands transport you away from the stresses of home and work, so let me explain.
I am for most of the time confined geographically to a square mile in an insignificant corner of the capital. To a large extent I might as well be inhabiting a different country with its own self-imposed morals, mores, laws and customs. It has its benefits and advantages. Worries are taken care of by communal bodies, neighbourhood shops cater to our diet and palate, schools ensure that if little else our children will on the whole follow in our footsteps, neighbours and passers-by who, when not directly related, are related to someone who is, and a local population of non-coreligionists that tolerates us in its midst especially when we're not pushing a rear extension alongside the length of their garden.
It is however when I leave our natural habitat of urban ghettos that I am reminded how little I belong to my country and countrymen. Even writing the above words with the possessive, first person pronoun sounds strange. While correct by definition as I was born and bred in England and have lived here most of my life there is still an air of falseness about it. I remain visibly different to the vast majority of my compatriots and never more so when moving about in what should be, and strictly speaking is, my homeland when I feel like a legal alien. But unlike the song I’m an Englishman in England.
Stopping at service stations along the motorway, taking up residence for a fortnight in a village in the Cotswolds or a farmhouse in Devon, attending circuses, fetes, seaside resorts and country fairs I am constantly reminded how little I belong to this land, its people, history and culture and how foreign I am in my own country. Observing families with their children enjoying the weather with an ice cream and hot dog at ease with themselves and I realise that not only do I not belong but that I shall never belong. I might ignore some of the stares or even the occasional frown or worse. I might exchange pleasantries with a family, compare notes about our children but it is temporary and fleeting that serves only to magnify our differences. Rather than await a suggestion to join them for lunch I reflexively keep a safe enough distance so that such an invitation does not materialise.
Little things like greeting a villager in the morning take on a huge significance. Am I just being polite and behaving as one does in the country? Am I being over familiar which may be Jewish but not very English? Might I say sorry unnecessarily and overdo my Ps & Qs and so emphasise my alienation? Is this what they mean in trying to make a kidush Hashem? And I haven't even dealt with the feelings when the greeting is not returned or when the seat opposite is vacated shortly after my arrival.
Some might accuse me of being embarrassed of my religion or at least my version of it. Awkward might be more precise. Not so much with who I am but with what I am not. I have no issue with my practises and culture. I don't try (very ineffectively) to conceal my yarmulke with a flat cap and I enjoy visiting Jewish places of interest on my travels. My issue is with the isolation forced upon us for no apparent reason. But rather than try and reason with my accusers I would point out that I am not alone in my sentiments. Others may have found a solution by holidaying with their own and creating a mini-Stamford Hill-on-sea on the south coast, a micro Broughton Park in Llandudno or for the more affluent kosher hotels with pools and 5 star cuisine anywhere from the Alps to the Apennines and Nice to Naples. Ostensibly it may be for the daily prayer quorum and readily available kosher food but it also avoids the discomfort of leaving certainties and absolutes behind.
Rather than travel in my year-round shell I seek a holiday from that too and how better to invite questions and doubt than for a short while leaving oneself to one's own devices. Sitting here on the veranda outside a living room where the main focal point is the TV adorned by a colourful array of remote controls and watching my host and hostess and their teenage children lead what appears a blameless if simple life I query how exactly are we special. Were we chosen to dwell in urban ghettoes and deny our children a decent education which would ease their way in life and enable them to earn an honest living? We pride ourselves on our oral teachings, yet the diction and articulation of the children I encounter are vastly superior to local kids of the same age group. How is the teenager in her rather tight top, shorts and painted toenails morally inferior to my daughter in hosiered legs and knee-length skirt when doing anything from horse riding to roller blading? Is my hostess with her visible cleavage in the French style deficient to my wife's permanently snooded or bewigged head? Is there purpose in rearranging a functioning kitchen and transporting boxes of food to a land of abundance? Is Saturday intrinsically special when there is neither a shul nor a Jew in sight for miles?
The answers to me at least are obvious. My way of life is not a value judgement but that this is my culture and that is theirs. Neither is better nor worse and each has its positive and negative points. Our respective lifestyles are however different and it is this diversity that is valuable and should be celebrated.
So boarding the ferry - actually, taking the Eurotunnel is preferable as the ferry calls for mingling and being quite literally together in the same boat, seeing middle, white England as a family going up and down the stairs to and from the car, relaxing in the lounges, queuing at the bar or shop, watching me suspiciously as I open my car door as if sporting a beard and skullcap predisposes me to cause a nick in their car. So coming off Le Shuttle I spend 2 weeks amongst descendants of Gauls, Helvetians or Etruscans when I may be viewed as Jewish but where I am equally considered English. When I bump into my fellow island dwellers they need not know that they share a homeland with me. When they see my GB sticker and left hand drive let them avert their gaze. If I do strike up a conversation and give Hackney as the response to an enquiry of my origins, it won't matter that my reply feels somewhat misleading as if that isn't proper England or it isn't really from where I am. I am comforted that we are united by a strangeness in a foreign land and that they can no more call Innsbruck or Salzburg home than I can.
There is even the off chance that I will gain the acceptance it seems I crave only many miles away from home. Some years ago driving to Prague I was passing Pilsen, home of the famous beer, when a lorry with English plates came towards me from the opposite direction. As our vehicles passed the truck driver flashed me as a mark of fraternity towards a fellow countryman far from home. Needless to say I flashed and waved back. It was only much later that the irony dawned upon me that I had to travel some 700 miles from the shores of my homeland to feel that I belong to my country.