And now for something different…

I’m not normally a football fan, but I’ve been watching some of the Euros matches with my older son, who has been getting excited about major international football tournaments since 2010. He keeps asking me whom I support in games such as Netherlands vs. Austria (he assumed I’d support Austria, having spent most of my childhood there, but to my own surprise, I found myself in the Dutch camp, and I told him that was because my Dad and I would dress up in orange and cheer them on, way back in their glory days of Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten). I was very torn indeed when France played Germany, as I love both countries very much, having many friends there and having lived in both. [In the end, I sided with the Les Bleus, partly because Zoe the French cat was giving me very long, hard stares – and because I still knew most of the team from 2016, when we were still living in France.]

But – and I realise this might make me very unpopular, except I have the feeling the readers of my blog are not rabid football fans – I do not support the England team. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want them to do badly, but it’s not a matter of life and death and me automatically cheering for them against whoever they might play. Maybe if it had been a united British team, I could have got behind them, but I’m very fond of the Welsh team, and I care about the Scots as well. And if England plays against France, well…

So that got me wondering about my current conflicted feelings about Britain and living here.

It’s been almost exactly five years since I woke up, on my birthday of all days, to the news that the UK had voted for Brexit. Shortly before the referendum, I wrote about my disbelief that anyone would vote for more borders and barriers, and fall for meaningless jingoistic tubthumping, even when it goes against their own interests.

Unfortunately, that coincided with my reluctant but unavoidable return to the UK – a country that I had previously considered the closest thing to home, but one that I now struggled to recognise. Social media and a government bereft of any ideas other than blaming others (particularly foreigners) for their own incompetence has amplified the feeling of being a second-class citizen here.

To those who say: ‘Why are you still here, if you don’t like it?’, I could go into self-justification mode and list all the practical reasons.

  • When you get divorced, you don’t have as much choice of location as you might think, because if you have a joint custody of whatever percentage, you need to stay in the same country as your ex-husband.
  • Your children thought of themselves as English and wanted to do A Levels and go to British universities, in spite of living for many years abroad. (Interestingly enough, they have started being more proud of their diverse heritage and appreciate the rich culture of their ‘third’ country, France, much more in the last year or so)
  • The divorce court would be kinder to me about the financial settlement in the UK, or so I thought (that was not quite true).
  • It would be difficult to find a job in the Geneva region that paid well enough for me to raise the boys as a single mother, and if I had to move anyway, I might as well move back to the country where I had been paying into my pension for far longer and where the children spoke the language.

I could say all that and then smirk and add: ‘Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be here for much longer…’

I could describe my well-meaning but far wealthier neighbours, several of them second-generation immigrants, who are devoted Tory voters and care immensely about the Royal Family down the road in Windsor Castle. How back in the days when we could go out, I had to turn down a number of Mums’ outings, birthday parties, posh taster suppers and spa days because I could not afford them (or because I prefer paying for theatre tickets or books instead). How my boys have stopped inviting their friends to our house, because they are embarrassed that my love for interior design does not match our actual interior design (at the very least, that sofa badly needs replacing). I whisper to myself at least once a week: ‘How many more years before the youngest goes off to university and I can sell the house and move out of Theresa May’s constituency?’

So I could play the victim, blow cold and sarcastic, or simply be all practical and clinical about things… but the truth is that British culture still feels like home, even if the country no longer does.

I wonder if this is the case for those who grew up in the former British colonies and went to school learning all about the Tudors, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Despite our very diverse backgrounds and nationalities, at the Vienna International School what we all had in common were Enid Blyton’s cream teas with lashings of ginger beer, Wordsworth’s daffodils and the music of Greensleeves. We ended up knowing more about the Victorians than we did about the history of our own countries – not necessarily a good thing – and the history that we learnt was of course schewed to the British interpretation of events.

Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to live, study and work in other countries as well, so I’ve been exposed to other histories, cultures and interpretations. (An opportunity that is now becoming more and more difficult for the next generation, sadly.) I can see the best and worst that each country has to offer and still love those that are close to my heart, while acknowledging their faults. But when my son scolds me for not supporting Austria more, I suppose what happens is that I remember the xenophobia I encountered there as a child. This is not done consciously: it’s taken me a lot of thought and analysis to come to this conclusion. It is a sudden involuntary tightening round my heart based on tiny past traumas that I didn’t even perceive as traumas at the time (I was a blithely unaware child). Can you imagine how much more this is the case with England, now that I am fully grown and aware?

I love Britain, but, like a loud-mouthed, self-absorbed, drunk and loutish teenager, it does make it very hard for me to hold onto my love at times.

This is the cliche image that instantly springs to mind when I think of England…

P.S. To return to football, I do like Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips from the England squad though, both thoughtful and modest young footballers, who come from deprived backgrounds, raised by single mothers whom they visibly adore and respect.

Reading in German: The Ungrateful Stranger

Brezna

This is a book by a Czech writer who fled to Switzerland with her family as a teenager, during the brutal reprisals following the Prague Spring in 1968. But it is also the story of asylum seekers everywhere, of just how welcome they are made to feel, how grateful they are expected to be, how they cope with major cultural differences, how they learn (or don’t) to build new lives and new identities for themselves. Part novel, part memoir, it is written in a very candid way, showing not only the disappointments and discriminations of immigrant life, but also the naivety and sometimes mistaken obstinacy of the new arrival. Interwoven with the personal story of cultural adaptation of the young girl, we also have little vignettes of new immigrants and their misunderstandings with the social workers, the medical profession or the local authorities. The narrator has now integrated into Swiss society and acts as an interpreter for these people. These scenes are often deeply moving, sometimes quite funny, always highlighting the vulnerability of those who flee impossible conditions at home and try so hard to make something of their lives in a new country, yet fear losing their cultural identity. The host country and its people may be well-intentioned, but also often comes across as arrogant or patronising.
Irena Brežná has a style which is at once wryly humorous, indignant and yet also poetic. In the very first scene she describes how Swiss bureaucracy strips her of all the little wings and turrets (diacritical signs) from her name, as well as its feminine ending in -a.
‘You don’t need this fiddle-faddle here.’
He slashed my round, feminine ending and gave me the surname of my father and brother. The two of them just sat there speechless and allowed me to get crippled. What was I supposed to do with this bald, masculine name? I froze.
Then she is asked what she believes in (a scene which is repeated with another child at the end of the book).
‘A better world.’
‘Then you’re in the right place, little girl. Welcome!’
This was a very timely reminder of what it means to ‘become Swiss’, the week after Switzerland voted for curbing the rights of foreign workers. But I hope it will be translated into other languages, for wider circulation in a Europe of so-called free movement, where certain countries or ethnic groups are still maligned and political rhetorical fever runs high against foreign nationals who come to ‘take our jobs’ but also at the same time ‘claim all our benefits’. A painful book for both immigrants and their hosts, but one which deserves to spark deeper, more authentic conversations.

Mal-Entendu

OK, last poem for a while, I promise.  I will be back with some prose and some reviews or discussions of writerly influences next week. 

Almost immediately after I write that, I ask myself: why do I feel apologetic about writing ‘only’ poems?  I am not implying that writing poems is the easy or lesser option.  Just that, in my case, it is very often compensation activity for not finishing that b***** novel.  Come on, lass, only 2 chapters to go (or so I believe). 

Anyway, this poem is about the challenges of a normally chatty, even glib person becoming tongue-tied in a new country with a language she only half-speaks.  Yep, this time it is personal!

One might say the magic faraway tree

is walking away and not toward me,

Always almost, but never quite there.

Haunted by failure, aware of the dangers,

I navigate, anxious, between the extremes.

All blandness in word choice,

accents raining in all directions,

avoiding the telephone for fear of rapid riposte.

My jokes are more plodding,

some meaning eludes me.

I snigger along even when I am lost.

Distracted by how I pronounce the word ‘pain’,

the baker hands me the wrong kind of bread.

I think I’ll stick to baguette in future.