Munich doesn’t really ‘do’ cool. The clothes are too chic; the hair too well groomed; the streets too clean and the cars? Since the concept of a second-hand car salesman doesn’t really exist, after a while, all of those Mercedes and BMWs and Audis merge rather boringly, into a dull mélange of mediocre-ness.
Berlin ‘does’ cool. It has a sort of, arrogant contempt for conformity:
“OK – we may have been communist once and, technically we’re not as rich as you bastards in the South, but our creative spirit is still alive and kicking, having survived years of oppression, and we have things we want to say – we demand to be heard!” That is what Berlin would say if it were a person.
For me, London has more in common with Berlin, than Munich. There’s a creative energy, a similar proud conceit and an individuality that is, unquestionably, ‘cool’. I’ve always loved London. My Dad took me up for a day there for my 14th Birthday – black cabs; ‘The Mousetrap’ at the theatre; an exhibition at the Royal Academy and an Italian meal in a proper Italian restaurant. Back in 1978 I fell in love with the lights, the sounds, the smells, the fashions and that pulsating energy, palpable on every street corner. Such a stark contrast to my home at that time, in rural Leicestershire.
40 years later and, after what could best be described as a challenging year, I’m back in London for my birthday – this time accompanied by three of the most interesting, intelligent and entertaining women a girl could hope to surround herself with – my dear friends Jill (Canadian), Sabine and Doris (both German).
As the Birthday weekend approached, the weather in England got steadily worse. By habit, as I began the process of cultural, cognitive dissonance, the English part of my brain started to adapt to low expectations. With news reports of cancelled flights, a railway network in meltdown and death traps on the roads, ‘English brain’ nonchalantly dismissed this as pretty standard. Meanwhile, the German part of my brain was saying: “This is inefficient and ridiculous. Who’s in charge? Someone is responsible and should fix it. How can we possibly make our plans when there is so much chaos over a tiny bit of snow? Make a decision somebody!” Thus, with my brain somewhat conflicted, I headed to Munich airport and met up with the girls. Whilst we waited for news of our flight, Jill planned an alternative break at a Spa in the mountains – just in case. Sabine went to the loo and put on her thermals. Doris collected all the times of all the trains/buses/planes we might need as alternatives in 2 countries. I got out the Kendal mint cake , blueberry muffins and thermos that always travel with me in an emergency. But, in the event, our flight to Gatwick was only delayed by one hour.
We got to our hotel in snowy Kensington in time for a good night’s sleep. Correction – Doris, Sabine and Jill headed for the hotel. Being a little behind schedule, I headed straight for ‘Party Number 1’ with Anna (who is Polish) and we plunged straight into our long awaited catch up at Pizza Express (and how cool is Pizza Express?!) We talked, and laughed, and cried a little too, then parted – too soon – having only just scratched the surface of our respective lives. Both conscious of needing much more time together, it was a rather sad reminder of how international friendships and relationships can be tough on the heart strings. If you don’t make the physical effort to meet, then the relationships fall apart. But making that effort takes time and money and can leave you exhausted. Glad we did it though.
Probably one glass of red wine over what was sensible, I walked, with my hand luggage through the slushy snow, to the hotel. Late. I couldn’t find the entrance. I have never seen such a big hotel. It was a massive concrete triangle. I tried to get in the back of the tavern where I could see people laughing and drinking – locked. I went down to the car park – no entry. I walked around the other side – just rooms looking out and still no doors. Back to the opposite side through what was now quite heavy snow and a forceful wind – the warehouse bit for deliveries and entrance to the back of the kitchen. Eventually, after skirting 2 sides of this monstrous edifice, twice, I finally made it to the 3rd side and checked in, feeling just a little bit like I’d sneaked out after lights out!
The beds were comfortable, the shower hot and breakfast went on and on and on. From pastries to paté; muesli to mushrooms and black pudding to bananas – every breakfast item from every country you could think of was available at the Holiday Inn, Kensington, and we took full advantage! Conversation flowed easily and magnificently.
I settled down with a pot of Earl Grey and just soaked up the stories from these wonderful women. Doris regaled us with her account of what it was like to teach at the University in Tian’anmen Square in 1989 (Doris – “ I was supposed to stay for 2 years but had to leave because there were no students left to teach”). Sabine waxed lyrical about her visit to Poland back in the 1980s to meet Lech Walenska when he was in hiding! (Sabine – “We did not know where to meet him until about 30 minutes before hand to not reveal his whereabouts to anyone. Finally we met in a church and had a great hour with him, where we discussed politics, the situation in Poland and so on. I remember him as kind, humorous and rather switched on. Mind you, the wall was still up at that time and even travelling to GDR was a risky activity, as you felt you were being watched all the time.”) Jill, who has worked in South Korea, China and who is married to a Japanese led the discussion on North Korea, the Winter Olympics and the comparisons with the GDR. And so it went on……
On topics closer to home, I found myself giggling at the tone my two German friends used to describe our journey so far:
“Please look after your children!” (Easy-jet);
“Who needs to be told to look after their children? Why wouldn’t you look after your children?”
“Mind the slippy platforms”
“Slippy? Is that even a word? Shouldn’t it be slippery? Of course it’s slippery – it’s snow. About half an inch of it! Can’t you even deal with that?!”
and the ever trusty,
“Gap? That’s not a gap! How big does it need to be to be a gap!? Why do we need to know?”
I should point out that it wasn’t just the Brits who got a large helping of cultural, caustic ribbing over the weekend:
“Americano? What’s that?”
“It’s an ordinary black coffee with the milk on the side, Sabine”
“That’s just a normal coffee isn’t it? How come the Americans got in on that one?”
We set off for the West End – on foot. We hadn’t gone far when Doris stopped and looked down:
“Look at this Sarah, can you take a photo for me? I don’t have my camera”. We were peering at an iron manhole cover, made circa 1850 in Notting Hill. 100 yards further on, there was another. Again, a photo. So it continued, each manhole cover becoming apparently more decorative than the previous one, with unique patterns and lettering on them.
“I collect pictures of them. They’re so interesting” said Doris as we continued and I had to agree, they were.
Rows of chimneys; higgledy-piggledy streets; the cranes down by the river; the beautiful brick work and architecture of 18th and 19th century houses – all quintessentially English. Crowds of people walking across the street just when they feel like it; tube stations with glossy Victorian tile work.
“Look at that Sarah!” And for the first time I really looked at the roof of the Victoria and Albert Museum, built in the shape of Queen Victoria’s crown. Despite many visits to London over the years, and especially to this, my favourite museum, I had never noticed the roof before.
So we continued, making our way through some of London’s best known streets to the West End: more bodies jostling and bustling; people touching one another, getting into each other’s space; red buses, black cabs; Piccadilly Circus; Shaftesbury Avenue – all so vibrant, colourful, noisy, dirty, cool. So ALIVE!!!
My friends squealed with delight as we sat down to tea and scones. And I reflected on how much I was appreciating and enjoying the beauty and uniqueness of my country. There are not many other activities that can fill your heart with so much patriotic pride, as walking through the streets of London.
I was so very happy to be there.
We saw two great plays. The first was ‘The Ferryman’ by Jez Butterworth. At over 3 hours, in broad Irish dialect and with barely a scene change, let alone a theatrical special effect, ‘The Ferryman’, directed by Sam Mendes, was epic in scope and breathtakingly real. This play has won just about every theatrical award going over the past year, and watching it we understood why: it was like a Shakespearean tragedy and a Chekhov masterpiece all in one. It was intense, emotionally draining and we were all – German native speakers included – completely absorbed. Set in 1981 at the heart of ‘The Troubles,’ it was a story about ‘Ambiguous Loss’. ‘Ambiguous Loss’ is a type of grief for a loved one who is ‘lost’ – either physically (when the person is missing but there is no conclusive physical evidence that he/she is dead), or mentally (when someone is physically ‘there’ but ‘not there’.
Now I have personal experience of this particular condition (my late husband fell into the latter category) and I found watching this production not only moving, but extremely cathartic.
When Caitlin’s husband Seamus, goes missing, she and her baby son are taken in by his brother Quinn and family. 10 years later, we see how Caitlin and her son have become totally integrated into this family. There are 17 members in all, and there are some wonderful family scenes with children of all ages, Aunts and Uncles and the mysterious wife, Mary who spends most of her time in bed. One of the family – Aunt Maggie Far Away – has dementia but ‘comes alive’ in brilliant moments at key stages of the play. As a dramatic device, her role is pivotal. Caitlin meanwhile, despite her doomed and unacknowledged longing for Quinn (and vice-versa) cannot have a full life as a woman whilst there is the possibility her husband might still be alive – she is still loyal to him.
One day, Seamus body is found – a suspected murder by the IRA – and the ambiguity of loss becomes real. Everything changes as pent up feelings and suppressed emotions are finally released. As the play unfolds and we observe the devastating consequences of the locked up grief, pain and tension on the whole family, we can only look on as events gradually spiral out of control.
It was, without doubt, the best production I have seen for years and it was just extraordinary to recognize so many parallels with my own life and family over recent years. Moreover, in the way of all great art works, I feel I have grown as a person for having seen it. How cool is that? And how amazing that there are British artists who can communicate so intelligently about our darkest and most difficult emotions as human beings. There is no way I could have had an experience like that, in Munich.
In need of a stiff drink, after the performance we headed for Leicester Square and a Mojito! Followed by a great curry in a Halal restauarant.
Our second production was Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’. Pinter has said that there are two sorts of silence. One, when no word is spoken. Two, when so much language is used it confuses and prevents genuine understanding. In this play, we had both.
A harmless, ordinary, even boring environment is created where we see Stanley eating breakfast in the seedy, seaside boarding house where he lives. The Landlady Meg, and her husband Petey, are both fond of Stanley. One day, on Stanley’s Birthday, two extremely sinister figures arrive from – we know not where. Pinter leaves this as an ambiguity and we are left to form our own judgements. They behave, variously, like two hitmen (and there are parallels with ‘The Dumb Waiter’), Gestapo interrogators and psychiatric nurses. They are dressed, like men from the government. The play becomes increasingly darker and more aggressive and we watch in horror as Stanley gets first brainwashed and bullied, then interrogated and humiliated before getting carted off in a black limousine. Both Meg and her husband try to protect Stanley but they back off when their own positions are threatened. As Stanley is dragged out of the house at the end, forcibly dressed in the same kind of suit as his visitors, Petey calls after him, “ Don’t let them tell you what to do!”
There was some fabulous acting from Steven Mangan, Toby Jones, Zöe Wanamaker and the rest of the cast and the dark political symbolism has stayed with me (of which more, later)
Sunday began with another lengthy breakfast and more international stories, the highlight of which was, for me, Sabine’s account of having to persuade one of her students not to live with the Thai woman who he had run off with, on a school trip to Thailand! Classic. We checked out, double checked transport options and headed for Gatwick via South East trains. It took some time to find the correct platform (there was lots of engineering work going on) but we were happy enough, pretending to be Pinter characters, improvising as we went:
“Are they nice? (pause) Are the cornflakes nice?”
“Yes they’re very good” (pause)
“They’re alright then – the cornflakes?”
“The cornflakes are nice” (pause)
“Nice are they?”
“Did I do them how you like them then?”
“Yes. They’re very nice” (pause)
“Is that your paper? Are you reading the paper? Good is it?”
“Yes I’m reading the paper”
Believe me, at my best (worst?!!) – I can keep this going for hours!!!
We’d been travelling for an hour completely absorbed, when, thanks to a bunch of chatty Arsenal supporters, we realized we had not stopped at Redhill and were headed for Brighton and the football match! For a few minutes only, there was a small amount of cussing and consternation as we tried to find out if we were on the right train. The signs actually on the train, said we were headed for London Victoria and we knew that was not ‘richtig’. The German side of my brain was emerging! Eventually, having travelled round most of Surrey, we finally arrived at Gatwick, only to be mobbed by crowds of people, getting onto our train. No one was more surprised than I to find the words, “Would you please let us get off the train before you get on it. Do not invade my personal space!” popping out of my mouth in my best school Ma’am voice. I was just the tiniest bit cross!
But oh – England! It was SO good to be back. The edginess; the unpredictability (like the best actors); even the pushing and the shoving…..
I did not always feel this way.
For years I really struggled to like my Mother country and would take refuge surrounding myself with German speakers as soon as I could get to the airport. Most of the time I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but that didn’t bother me – as long as I didn’t have to put up with things that didn’t work, or listen to the inane drivel that I felt (rather intolerantly) so many of my countrymen would spout in public places. Surrounding myself with alien sounds I couldn’t access or understand, also gave me the much needed headspace to create my own little world – a place where I could think clearly and decisively. A hybrid, safe place between the two worlds: Sarah-Land.
And it was a place where I could deal with my own ambiguous loss.
Although, these days, I can process the switch from one country to the other much more quickly, every time I leave England, I still get a little twinge of loss.
At the end of February, just before our weekend away, I went to a meeting of the ‘British in Bavaria’ my first visit to this group. A rep from the British embassy in Berlin was there and an HM Consul-General. Plus about 100 concerned Brits abroad. We were a very mixed group. Following the completion of ‘Round One negotiations’ for withdrawal from the EU, this meeting was a chance to raise any concerns and questions and to hear the view of HM Government in response.
I decided to attend, as much out of curiosity as anything else and with some questions about my 5 various pensions in 2 countries to clarify. I was surprised therefore, to find myself inspired by this meeting in ways I had not expected. A large cohort of the audience were retired, no longer ‘economically active’. Most of the people in attendance have either become joint British-German citizens or, like me, are in the process of applying for this before Brexit (we can’t apply afterwards). Everyone who spoke, described how this was not something they really wanted to do – most wanted to retain their sole British identity. Rather, it was something they felt they had to do to protect themselves from whatever political and economic chaos that might erupt post March 29th 2019.
We heard from several British men and women who have lived and worked in Germany for 25, 30, 40 and more years; individuals married to German citizens who have had children here; an Irishman who has lived and worked all over the world, choosing to settle in Germany; a couple who had worked for the British military in Germany for over 25 years. Real working people with real working lives. There were others, like me, who have been economically active in two (and more countries).These experienced, knowledgeable, hard working men and women commanded respect and spoke with great clarity and feeling about their loyalties to their mother land – their love of England. And it was painful and deeply moving to hear them describe their sense of betrayal by this same country.
Most impressive, to me was a woman who described herself as ‘disenfranchised’ pointing out that, as a woman, she was no better off than the female of the species 100 years ago. Why? Having lived abroad for over 15 years, she, like so many British citizens no longer has the right to vote. Even if you pay taxes to HM Government on, for example, a military pension, this group of British citizens living abroad do not have a voice. They cannot be heard. And there are 3 million of them.
What was the refrain of the American civil war? Ah yes! “No taxation without representation.” How is it possible that, at this point of our British history we deny so many of our citizens this basic human right? If they had had the chance, how might the voice of these ‘disenfranchised’ have influenced the referendum and last year’s election?
After my weekend away, the phrase “Don’t let them tell you what to do” Comes to mind!
Now I have a few things to say about all this, and I demand to be heard!
It seems to me that, especially among some sections of the British press, there is an image of the ex-pat abroad that paints us as sun-loving, sangria-swigging, beach-slumming-wrinklies living it up on the Costa del Sol. Nothing could be further from the truth. The British ex pats I know work incredibly hard and – guess what? It’s not always easy organizing your life in a country where you are not a native speaker. Words are long. Paperwork and administration is lengthy, detailed and laborious. Bureaucrats are pedantic. Things take time and need to be written down with 3 months notice on paper with a pen. In German.
I have worked hard all my adult life for no other reason than to put a roof over my family’s head and to give my children a decent education. This simple objective has cost me very dearly and when, 10 years ago my own country could not give me a job, after 6 months of being unemployed I eventually took one abroad. Economic necessity. That simple. At the start of the recession, my hard work meant that my family could avoid re-possession and possible bankruptcy; continue to pay the school fees; keep a car on the road and pay for the vets bills and a lot more besides. And it was Germany that gave me that job. When I arrived in Munich, I was fortunate to discover, that I was not alone in my quest for economic activity away from home. It’s how the world is now. Globalisation has happened. The recession has happened. You can’t put that particular genii back in the bottle. People, even British citizens, will seek work all over the world if they need it. And you can bet your bottom dollar that however our magnificent British government treats economic migrants from other parts of the world in the UK, that same treatment will be passed on to us by the remaining EU27 possibly before March 2019.
Living in Germany has given me so much more than a job. It has given me a decent state pension and a standard of living and quality of life that is the envy of the world. Last year, it gave me intensive cancer treatment – including a 4 week rehab programme known as the Kür – that I simply would not have had access to in the UK. I owe so much, including my life, to Germany.
The England I see from across the water now is a very different place to the England I left 9 years ago. It has an education system barely worthy of the name, a social care system in crisis and an NHS that is falling on its knees (and it was this same NHS that, over a period of 5 years repeatedly failed to diagnose my late husband with the brain damage, alcoholism and dementia that finally killed him).
There is nothing ‘cool’ about this.
I am a thoroughly international girl. I am your original ‘Third Culture Kid’ (google it). But this does not prevent me from being English or even British! My international roots were planted during my childhood in Walsall (near Birmingham) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And it was my mother who planted those roots. I vividly recall walking with my Mum through The Arboretum one day after school, whilst she explained to me all about Idi Amin and the exiled Ugandan Asians and why I should be kind and supportive of the little girl who had just joined my class from that country (must have been 1972). A few years later, there was Mohammed Arif, the Pakistani boy I was made to sit next to in class – Mum persuaded me that this was ok and that I shouldn’t tease him for being different. She reminded me that Dr Abdul, whom she worked with at the hospital and whom I adored, was also Pakistani. At this point of its history, Walsall was becoming cosmopolitan, diverse and yes – international – as different ethnic groups merged from all over the world to open corner shops, introduce chicken tikka masala and bolster the steel and textile industries (not to mention the NHS).
At this point of my life, whilst I am still economically active, it should not come as a surprise to anyone, that I feel at home in both London and Munich. Both cities are very international. They just ‘do’ internationalism in slightly different ways.
We returned to Munich on a glorious sunny Sunday afternoon. There was a whiff of Spring in the air. It was SO good to step back on to German soil – back to neat, clean efficient Munich. Shabbiness gone. Sleak modernity everywhere. Back to a place where everything works and I can think clearly.
But I am NOT German. I am English! I speak English, I think in English and I dream in English. I listen to ‘The Archers’ and the Shipping forecast on Radio 4; I drink copious amounts of tea (not just the healthy herbal stuff but the filthy dark ‘builder’s brew’). My flat is filled with furniture that is not from IKEA and I pack my suitcase with pork pie, unsmoked bacon, Hellmanns, Branston pickle and evil-sliced-white-bread every time I fly over. Despite all the noise and dirt and dysfunctionality and old fashioned-ness and rascism and xenophobia – I still love England. Incredibly, I still care about the country that my Grandchildren are growing up in and, even more incredibly, I want to be a part of that. I could no more turn my back on my Britishness than I could chop off my left hand – more to the point – why should I deny this part of my identity? Why should anyone, least of all a state, tell me what to do or how to live my life?
As I walked towards the S Bahn, I angrily reflected – why can’t I be committed to 2 countries? Why should I be penalized by one country for living in another? Living in, and being committed to two countries IS difficult – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but why can’t I sustain and develop a life for myself in two places if a two country existence embraces all that I am and everything I care about? Living in 2 countries enriches and enlarges me –it does not make me smaller. There are things I can get in England that I just cannot get in Germany and vice-versa! I am very happy with my life, just as it is thank you very much!
Birthday celebrations over, I am settling down to a new year of my life. My precious life. I don’t want to squander it. I don’t want to waste it. I want to share who I am and what I can do with those who can benefit from that – family, friends and country. I didn’t need to see those two plays to be reminded that life is short and we should make the most of it. But I did need to be reminded of how the state we live in can massively influence our sense of balance and well-being, and that sometimes, the choice of where to make your home is a bit of a no brainer.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY NINO KHUNDADZE
Report on 27th Feb evening
Expulsion of Asians from Uganda
Third Culture Kids
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