Two years ago this week, I moved into the place I live now.
Ever since I was a student I’ve been fussy about decor and because this was the first place I’d ever bought, I decided to mark the occasion by painting the walls in the boldest colours I could get away with.
The place dates from the days when Herne was Germany’s mining capital, and was probably used by miners, so in the kitchen I decided to do something that was reflective of the area’s mining roots.
I went for sky blue walls, black kitchen units, black-and-white tiles and dark wood throughout. I picked up a couple of posters locally advertising famous events in the town’s past and then I moved in the usual personal effects.
A couple of months later, a German friend came to see the place for the first time. As we cracked open two beers, plonked them down on slate coasters and sat at the kitchen table decked out in blue-and-white chequered tablecloth he looked around pensively before giving his considered opinion.
“Nice”, he said, “very British.”
Regardless of my current citizenship status, we are getting to a certain stage in my migration experience. In a couple of years a line will be crossed. I have lived here for sixteen years now. If we add on the two years I was in France then I have been away from the UK for eighteen years.
In a couple of years I will have been away for more than half my life. If becoming German was crossing one threshold, it’s worth remembering that there’s another one on the way. Perhaps then it makes sense to put my friend’s assertion to the test and ask the question: How much British is left in me? To what extent am I — whether consciously or unconsciously — still British?
There will be contradictions. Not buying property until your late thirties is certainly very German. One of the reasons that Germans rent so much more often than the British do is that they have a security of tenancy that rarely exists in the UK. Rental agreements are usually for an unlimited period of time and landlords can only terminate them under exceptional circumstances.
In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that German tenants usually own everything in their flats right down to the flooring and often even the wallpaper, no German, whether buying or renting, will ever paint their walls any other colour than white.
The few exceptions to this rule are when the occupier opts for an extremely pale shade of an inoffensive colour that can just about be made out if you squint your eyes and press your nose up to the wall. “Ah yes”, I’ll say to them “very…er…subtle.”
Coloured interiors are very British. Germans do not really understand that one can run the gauntlet of bad taste and have something that looks good as a result. Kitsch is a German word and yet they don’t do it very well.
My burgundy bedroom and turquoise living room probably stem from tastes acquired in the United Kingdom. I must confess that I very much like Homes and Gardens and I should probably give my friend full marks when it comes to the kitchen.
On a subconscious and instinctive level, I am still very British. I don’t apologise when somebody steps on my foot any more, but I constantly find myself in everyday situations wondering what my mistake was when actually the other person is in the wrong.
When confronted with hotheads who are quick to apportion blame I am slow to display annoyance. I would use the phrase “now look here old chap” if I thought that anyone here understood the latent aggression it conveys.
I hold doors open for people and expect to be thanked for it. I tut-tut to myself when I see people standing in doorways. I hate untidy queues and have been known to give the “look here old chap” treatment to pusher-inners.
Physically I am big in stature and have a loud voice, prized assets in discussions with Germans who value assertiveness, self-confidence and knowing what you’re about, and yet I try to make myself as small as possible whenever I can.
I would never dream of interrupting somebody or talking at the same time as somebody else. I hate sounding interesting or clever. All this its roots in British modesty but I am not necessarily proud of it. Modesty includes false modesty after all, and falseness is not a quality to be prized, not in Germany.
I still follow rugby, whose rules I understand less of at every sitting. I speak English every day, something which is not a given when you live abroad. I can do so without breaking into German, a trap that surprisingly many British living here fall into.
In spite of this, my English is deteriorating at the same rate as my understanding of rugby. After sixteen years of German punctuation, I doubt I will ever be able to use a comma correctly in English again. Whenever I can, I drink dark beer and I drink it warm. Shockingly perhaps, I have never really liked German beer very much.
There is also a flip side. I no longer use words like “mate” or “pal”. I find British handshakes strangely effeminate. For reasons outline above, Germans prefer a firm handshake and good eye contact; this I very much prefer . I automatically offer a hand to people I see every day, normal in France and Germany but slightly over the top in the United Kingdom.
For the most part, I have given up talking in riddles. My students still have to learn that I never say the phrase “you are wrong” but rather codify it by saying “there is a better way.” In spite of this, I can be frighteningly direct when I have to be.
I never ask the question: “How are you?” unless I really want to know the answer. At work I tend to be friendly, brisk and businesslike in the German style rather than matey in the British manner.
When I speak to Gavin, my 28 year-old bank manager in North Yorkshire and he greets me with phrases such as: “Now then Brian, how are you?” then I long to tell him: “Fuck off, it’s none of your business.” Perhaps it is an indication of how long I have been away that I still believe that I have a bank manager and not just an extension in a call centre.
Anthropologists often like to talk about the peach and the coconut. A typical British person, goes the theory, is a peach: soft on the outside and hard within. Germans on the other hand are coconuts, with a hard shell surrounding a soft interior. I am still a peach, albeit one which has been hardening in the fruit bowl for a couple of weeks.
In terms of values, a split is beginning to emerge which is pulling me further and further away from the motherland and nearer and nearer to the Fatherland. I loathe and detest Spitfire-and-St George patriotism.
It depresses me sometimes that so many British tend to overlook their country’s more enduring historical achievements in favour of the fleeting glory of foreign battlefields. It makes no sense to me that people who live in the cradle of parliamentary democracy should boast about how Britain had an empire. Similarly, there is much more to its industrial legacy than the simple Spitfire.
I often wonder why the sort of people who like to brag about two world wars and one world cup don’t brag instead about the fact that England invented football. It’s a much less controversial boast, and nobody’s going to counter it by saying: “Ah but you couldn’t have done it without the Americans.”
My greatest fear in post-Brexit Britain is that the sort of people whose attitude to their country’s past makes the rest of us wince will gain the upper hand over how we interpret our history.
Already I fear they are dominating the scene. By stressing the country’s military achievements and using them as propaganda for a political blueprint they are selling Britain short. By acquiescing, we aid and abet them. There is much more to Britain than two world wars and I fear we are struggling to shift perceptions of our destiny away from this.
For this reason I don’t get Brexit. Not the most extreme aspects of it anyway: If you could show me sound economic data — by which I don’t mean scrawlings on the side of a bus — that indicated that the UK would prosper outside the EU then I would say “why not?”
They would have to really prosper mind you. Unless Brexit is a roaring success then the debate will continue with the roles reversed. But the mindless mud-slinging, the accusations of EU imperialism, especially those directed at the Germans, I find deplorable and utterly devoid of reason.
I can forgive people for perhaps not understanding that the EU was forged on the premise that what happened in the Second World War should never be allowed to happen again.
But the notion that the French, harrowed by their defeat at Waterloo and the Germans, determined to gain revenge for El-Alamein, should join forces in a secret pact and try to subdue the British by making them eat straight bananas is one that I find utterly ridiculous. Nobody in Germany casts envious glances at Scunthorpe, Middlesbrough or Grimsby, I can assure you of that. Or even Bromley, now that I come to think of it.
I find the notion that the EU is trying to conquer Britain by stealth ludicrous and cannot empathise with those who hold such views at all. The EU has bigger challenges; on its eastern and southern frontiers, in the face of emerging economies, and against radicalisation within its own borders; to care about subduing the UK. Whatever else I believe about Britain, I do not believe it to be exceptional.
There is a conflict of visions opening up. Blighty seems intent on pulling up the drawbridge while I very much believe that there is no enemy at the gate.
Would I ever move back there? There’s a simple answer to that one: I couldn’t afford to. Gavin couldn’t believe how little I paid for my flat here and quite rightly pointed out that in the UK you wouldn’t get a garden shed for that. Like many British expats, I would not entertain the thought of moving back because my standard of living would drop dramatically as a result.
It’s a sign of how long I’ve been away that I was among the last year of undergraduates in England who went to university for free. All those who have come after me have either had to stump up the cash, or have not gone at all. In any case, rising debt and rising house prices work to the detriment of the young, while those not saddled with student debt who have been on the housing ladder for longer stand to gain.
The most common phrase I hear from British expats to explain why they do not wish to return home is that they have no desire to return to the “rat race”. Life in Germany is equally stressful, draining and mindnumbing but we do not step on each other’s heads.
Though a widening gap between rich and poor will be a part of Mrs Merkel’s legacy as it was with Cameron, Brown and Blair; there is at least a basic acknowledgement that everyone’s essential needs should be covered and that nobody wins unless everybody wins.
To plagiarise a UKIPism, we do a much better job of “looking after our own”. We are also much more generous in defining who “our own” are. I find the polarisation and exclusion prevailing in Britain counterproductive and depressing.
In a future in which immigration will continue to play a major role in our development as a society, adherence to prescribed values are becoming as important in defining nationality as birth or blood. Thus I do not feel out of place in saying that in many ways I feel more German than British.
I will always be Scottish. This too is perhaps strange, seeing as I left Scotland long before I left Britain. In actual fact, much of what makes me cringe about British or English patriotism has equally wince-worthy Scottish equivalents. I find Braveheart quite a bad film actually.
I treasure the notion that Scottish values such as solidarity with one’s fellow man, openness to the world and down-to-earth demeanor much more compatible with the European vision than anything currently on offer south of the border. Often I meet Scots who test this notion to the full.
Not that it is any business, but I believe that the terms “Scottish” and “British” are not incompatible, not yet anyway. The UK needs Scotland and vice-versa. The English invented football but it was the Scots who revolutionised the game by hitting on the idea of passing the ball.
It would be tragic if, having dismantled one integrated system by pulling back from Europe, the British had to dismantle another one within their own borders. In enacting Brexit, Britain runs the very real risk of giving Scotland justifiable cause to loosen the Union.
Nobody will ever ask me to vote on that one of course, and quite rightly so. Nobody asked me to vote on Brexit either, and here I must take umbrage.
As the drawbridge is hauled up, I and a million of my fellow Britons will be left on the far bank. Nobody asked me for our opinion on this. I, as it happens, am fine, thanks largely to my own initiative and no thanks to those of the British government.
Had I not become German, the arrangements revealed last week (somewhat incorrectly referred to as a “breakthrough deal”) would have guaranteed my right to stay in Germany but robbed me of the right to move to anywhere else in the EU.
This may or may not be academic, but in any case a democratic principle has been undermined. I would have risked losing rights without access to the democratic process. “My” country has stabbed me in the back and is not in the least dismayed. On the contrary, its leaders seem rather proud of what little they have achieved since this diary began.
Neither I nor any other British person I know living over here has ever had the feeling that the UK has been actively fighting our corner. At best we’ve been made to feel like an inconvenience, a hurdle to be overcome before the sexy stuff about trade can begin. At worst, the UK government’s actions have been counterproductive and have actually secured a worse deal for us than was initially on offer.
In the flurry of negotiation you never once heard the sort of reassurances that the British government was actively representing our interests. In this respect they have been utterly foolish. We are, so we are told, the country’s best ambassadors. I for one have not been keen to show the government’s best side of late.
I will continue to make the case to anyone who asks me that the views of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are not the views of most of us. You must give me cause to believe this if you’re reading this in Britain. Say what you like about them but they are not men of vision.
Nigel especially. If Nigel Farage, a man whose party manifesto once included making hotels and restaurants reintroduce dress codes, ever becomes the defining image of Britain, I am out of there. I have no desire to be a four-nation liberal in a glorified golf club full of one-nation conservatives.
Much as I hate to give him the last word, he is the abiding motif of all that is odious and cack-handed about Britain’s current political direction. If I could summarise Brexit in one image, it would be of him standing there flashing his passport and fuming that the words “European Union” were printed above the name “United Kingdom”. Whatever happens after Brexit, I’m sure that particular revision can be arranged.
For my part, I’m quite happy to have the EU’s name on my travel documents. I’m not a eurocrat: Although I believe the pros of EU integration outweigh the cons I won’t be standing for Jean-Claude’s job any time soon. But I am a European, first and foremost, and I’m happy that I can still say that.
I’ll keep the British passport for the time being. It has seen so much action that the gold letters have rubbed off. When the time comes to renew it I’ll probably get a German one instead. It allows you into 158 countries without a visa, that’s two more than the UK for a quarter of the price. I’ve got a fine collection of stamps so I’ll never throw the British one away, but it’s only a piece of paper after all. I don’t know what it says to Nigel Farage but to me it says “thanks for the memories”.
Mind you don’t forget about me just yet Theresa. You might be contemplating pulling up the drawbridge but I — and a million others like me — can come in any time we like. I’ve waxed lyrical about Scottish virtues but the Scottish character is not all good. We know how to bear a grudge for one thing.
I doubt very much that I’ll come marauding across the moat but if you hear the pit-pat of someone chucking pebbles against your window in the middle of the night then that’ll be me, just making sure you’re awake and on the ball.
It’s my country too. Mate. Some day I might want it back.