It might not be the first thing you think of when you think of England, but I did spend a rainy saturday last weekend kayaking through the canals of midwestern English towns. The event was put on as a fundraiser for underprivileged youth in the UK, and teams of ten or eleven came from around the country to Stone, England for the race. The idea is that each team puts their kayak in the water at staggered times and races for time trials. Each pair would kayak between 3 and 5 miles and then switch out at different locations throughout the day. The team who gets to Stone with the best time wins. Let’s not forget the bacon butty’s and the hours in the bus for all those who weren’t kayaking.
This was quite the introduction to true British culture. Imagine me, the optimistic yet reserved American entering a bus of ten bouncy Brits with razor sharp wits. Seriously, to keep up the socializing with these people requires every single ounce of wit that I have, which is not much. Their humor is light years advanced of ours, which essentially means they have no need to laugh when they tell a joke. They assume that you got the joke, because intelligence is king after all, and that somewhere inside your steel trap mind the joke may have puffed into a small spark of laughter, but you would never show signs of this. By the time they say “yes quite good,” they’re on to the next pock shot and off they go. I was left in the soggy trails of damp senses of humor, while the boisterous British, cracking cans of Carlsburg, remained dry as a stone.
I did see Bristol and Bath though, which looked like gorgeous towns. Once we arrived, we strolled around the town of Stone and enjoyed the cobblestone nightlife after an expensive Italian dinner with Sir Nick, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, or who I affectionately called LP (Lord Phillips) after he bought me a strongbow. We crashed at the hotel and were up at 0-dark-thirty for the bacon buttys and our entrance into the canals. Much ridiculous footage was shot throughout the day as we wasted time in the bus airing out our wet clothing from the windows and doing calisthenics in farmland. My two legs of the canal were adventurous. At one point we came up to a straightaway where 15 fisherman stretched themselves out along the rainy riverbank under umbrellas. They started yelling at us in this strange western drawl – couldn’t understand a word of it. The 75 year old math teacher in the seat behind me translated that they actually wanted us in the middle of the river instead of on the far bank so we didn’t scare away the fish. This was exactly where their poles were. So one by one, they lifted their poles like drawbridges and we plowed ahead. It was really beautiful swampland in the “narrows” once we left the suburbs behind, but the drizzle kept coming. It was about 45 degrees as well. My second leg was with a guy my age, and we vowed to have the fastest time of the day. The four locks over which we had to shoulder our kayak and run did not even stop us. We made record breaking time on the penultimate leg, just in time for the last group to come through the finish line in the flood of flashbulbs, checkered flags, and women pouring champagne from silver goblets all over us.
Not quite. There were four officials standing in the rain in bright yellow vests looking at a stopwatch. But in the back of my imagination, I thought I heard a marching band.
Now for the didactic part of my tale. I learned about the English countryside north of Birmingham and I hung out with quite a variety of Brits. I picked up on all of this, yes, and it was quite the adventure. But I learned something more than these cultural bits and pieces. I learned how much like Christ many British people can be. Although that sounds strange, many of the teachers and staff members at Bryanston are astounding people with award winning character. Examples of this included the person who reminded us that gossip can ruin friendship once we began to speculate about another’s moody persona, the person who threw the kayak on and off the roof of the bus without a single pretension of macho-ness, the person who cheered us up in the wee hours of the rainy afternoon with jokes and street dancing, the person who volunteered to take care of the menial paperwork that everyone hates, and the person who reminded me that unless I had something to prove by earning extra degrees, I could remain perfectly happy and intellectually satisfied in teaching for the rest of my life. Not to forget the Lord Chief Justice himself, who invited me to the House of Lords next time I am in London. No one delights in the law more than him. Whether believers or not, I am tempted to think that many of the British have the willpower of oxes and the hearts of angels. Perhaps they are, as Austen probably wrote, “pure as the driven snow.”