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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2003 / 14 Shevat 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Peculiar about being eccentric | One of the stories the media grossly underplayed last year was Britain declaring itself "The Most Eccentric Country in the World." I waited all year for the mainstream press to pounce all over this outrage, but once again was disappointed by my fellow journalists.

I am not, however, going to let this new year fall deeply into the throes of 2003-ness before I debunk this bit of English pretension, foisted on the world by the British tourism industry.

It's not that the English are ferociously sane or utterly unencumbered by oddity. Any country that can produce King George III, Monty Python and Benny Hill can't be all stable. And notice that I haven't even mentioned the current royal family, which, in the dictionary, is pictured next to the definition of abnormal.

I recall being in England in January 1958 and staying with friends outside of London. Central heating had been a common amenity in many American homes for decades by then. But the British - or at least our friends and the folks in their neighborhood - preferred to struggle by with bulky sweaters, hot tea, fires in the fireplace and hot water bottles.

By morning, you could see your breath in the bedroom. The hot water bottle that was heaved into your bunk when you crashed had become, by dawn's squirrely light, a cool, clammy, rubbery thing that served only to frighten the waking sleeper into imagining that a small pig had crawled under the covers in the night and expired.

So, yes, the Brits can be eccentric, but is England "The Most Eccentric Country in the World?" Oh, please. Let's ponder some other possibilities.

What about the Canadians, who think a good time is pasting dead maple leaves in scrapbooks and boxing each other's ears with hockey sticks? I love Canada. Toronto may be my favorite city in the world. But any country 3,426 miles from west to east has lots of room for wonkiness.

Or don't the Swedes qualify? Can a people who live on herring and lingonberries maintain the kind of balance needed to keep from sliding into strangeness? Hey, I'm half Swedish. I love Sweden, too. But you get that far north of the Equator, and your equilibrium starts taking long lunch breaks.

And if you think Australians can live with kangaroos, dingos, koalas, Tasmanian devils and wombats without slipping over the edge, think again. The Aussies not only are down under, they're also over the top.

Let's not forget Iceland. Any country with a prime minister whose last name is Oddsson has to be in competition for most eccentric.

Eccentricity, however, is not limited to any particular race of people or to those rooted in Western civilization - whatever, if anything, that is.

Consider, for instance, the Japanese. What has Japan given the rest of the world? Sushi. Which, as others have noted, is what many folks in the Midwest call bait. But it's the sort of eccentricity you might expect from a country started by an emperor named Jimmu. We had one of those once in the United States - Jimmu Carter.

Another country in the running for the title is Greece, also known as Eccentricity R Us. Greece is full of old structures that are, quite simply, in ruins. Despite that, it tries to sucker tourists into visiting these places. The really bizarre thing is that all kinds of people fall for this scam.

In Saudi Arabia, speaking of weird, women aren't allowed to drive. What do politicians running for office do? Appeal to the chauffeurs of soccer moms? In a country called the Vatican, the head of state wasn't even born there, but in Poland.

Almost anywhere you look, eccentricity is running amok. Still, I admit that only the British have been so eccentric as to claim the title.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved