The Culture Shock of Home

[Editor’s note: This story is the final story of regional rants that follows this article about a sense of home.]

Coming to the U.K. always brings a sense of culture shock. I grew up here until I was 23, so it should be familiar, but it’s not because I’ve spent most of my adult life in Germany.

The first few days have a regular pattern. I nearly get run over because I forget that in the U.K. vehicles drive on the left—and they don’t stop at pedestrian crossings. I talk to shop assistants in German, then pay with elaborate unfamiliar money.

The U.K. has never thought much of ideas from other places in Europe, or anywhere else: The stretch of sea between the U.K. and France is squeezed down to a mere 22 miles at its narrowest point, but it has shaped the whole culture and its way of thinking. In the days of Vikings and Saxons, you had to really want to get onto an island, which usually meant you had a compelling reason for leaving wherever you came from. Once you were on the island you had to defend it against the next boatload of marauders that came, so Brits are very independent, and we dislike regulations, especially from the outside.

After not being run over for a couple of days I remember other things, like red phone boxes, “fish n’ chip” shops and cricket matches. Only Britain could have invented cricket. It is very respectable, played in long, white trousers (pants) and absolutely takes ages. A match can last three days, and the rules are so complicated that I played it for years at school without ever understanding them. The other major “British” team game is rugby, a sort of cross between American football and tribal warfare, which the English, Scots and Welsh play with equal fervor. True to the traditions of British sport, we get beaten almost every time we play internationally.

The country is divided into two distinct parts: “The South” and “The North.” Signs on the main motorways state these compass points as if they are a tangible place. In a way, they are. The South is traditional thatched cottages, cream teas, climbing roses and pleasant fields. The North is altogether more formidable: breath-taking wild hills, fortified farmsteads, Hadrian’s Wall and old mills. As far as most people in the North are concerned the South is London, and who wants to go there? On the other hand, many southerners think Scotland is somewhere near the Arctic Circle.

I grew up in the North. The people are fiercely self-reliant, with a dry sense of humor. If you ask how they are you hear a litany of misfortunes, delivered without self-pity and followed up with a comment of “Aye well, mustn’t grumble.” Then they will change the subject and talk about the weather. British people wring a huge amount of conversational mileage out of the weather—which is odd as it is often grey and overcast, except for a short period in summer when we have sunsets beyond your wildest dreams and the atmosphere is so lively that we can see the Northern Lights in the islands of Scotland. Possibly because there isn’t much chance of improvement in this area, we have developed a completely different understanding of weather, which is why on a normal summer Saturday whole families will decamp to the sea and sit wearing heavy coats and eating ice cream, eyes half shut against the wind.

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In our early history the North was less a region than a battleground. The Celts, Saxons, Scots, Britons and Vikings all invaded at different times and left their mark. Britain is full of mysterious places and names reflecting the different people and cultures that came, saw and conquered, then were pushed off in turn by the next arrivals. It is possible to follow roads built by the Romans, past burial mounds raised for Celtic chieftains, along valleys named by Vikings and fortified by German Saxons, probably fought over by French Normans. The Dutch came occasionally too as well as the Spanish. Sometimes it seems we are knee deep in history.

My visits are relatively short, and just as I get used to looking left at crossings and British money, it is time to go “home” to Germany, where I work, rent an apartment and pay taxes. I used to wonder how I would survive without conversations about the weather, fish and chips and people eating ice cream in conditions that would make a Norwegian run for the sauna … but I discovered that in its own way Germany is just as eccentric. Besides, I think that Britain is part of me wherever I am. I don’t know if it is those 22 miles or the fact that when I look at a world map I can point at the green blob off the coast of France and say, “I come from there.” Either way, no matter how long I live in Europe, part of me will still be a Brit.

But then, with our history, perhaps to be a Brit is to be a European.

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