I first came to Britain on a class trip in 1992 and nothing prepared me for the melting pot that was and is London. Walking down the street, I couldn’t believe the sheer diversity of faces, nationalities, religions and cultures. This was G. E. Lessing’s dream of (religious) tolerance put into practice in everyday Britain in the late 20th century. Coming from a country where there was hardly any non-German soul living/working/studying/on benefits – this was extraordinary.
Another thing I clearly remember were the punks. By then they were probably old news for most people but for me they were exotic creatures with Camden as the Mekka for the dissatisfied and maladjusted. I got such a surge of energy witnessing lives lived in all kind of alternative ways that choosing which would be right for me seemed extremely difficult.
However, before I could enter the Promised Land and make choices, it was 1983 and I was attending a special school for chosen bright kids, though I’m not sure how I ended up there. Because we are talking East Germany, the special thing in this case were daily Russian lessons. Therefore the one foreigner I saw on a regular basis was a 50ies-something matryoshka-shaped Russian lady whose mood would change from sweet to stern to sulking. If really cross, Tovarish Nemschek would be standing silently, facing the window, her chin pushed forward, arms crossed in front of her chest. This could last for up to 10 minutes, to give us enough time to notice just how upset we had made her. Thinking about it now, it was actually quite cute in a stunted development kind of way. Not sure what or who made her come to a town in East Germany in order to teach non-interested kids Russian geography, but we did learn a lot about permafrost.
Eight years later I had my first proper brush with a different way of life when working as an illegal au-pair in the cushy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, (I hadn’t heard of New York, San Francisco or LA at that time). Nourished on 80ies series like Heart To Heart, General Hospital, Miaimi Vice and Love Boat, I found the American urban reality of shopping malls, sub-zero temperature mega supermarkets, all-you-can-eat-salad bars, endless highways and confusing exits, replica squares with at least one Wimpy and one Toys-R-Us nauseating and slightly depressing.
This directly led me to comfort-eating family size buckets of ice-cream and whatever else the wall-high fridge held. I also missed pavements, those historical places formerly used by people to walk on and consequently the car became my best friend. For the first time in my life I looked shapely. Not sure if that was what they meant by American Dream but I was pretty disenchanted. Maybe my existentialist Central European soul was misplaced in the shiny New World and the Old Continent wasn’t such a bad place after all.
To me it felt that mulitkulti London, the birthplace of capitalism and workhouses, rather than the US was the country of unlimited possibilities and moved here.
So what are the things that first fascinated me when I came to London and still fascinate me today?
- English people are exceedingly polite when it comes to trying to understand someone speaking their language. They hardly ever correct you, pull faces or roll their eyes (only God knows what they are thinking).
- The English sense of humour isn’t an urban myth and they make even Germans laugh.
- Punks invented the skinny trousers, not Hedi Slimane. Unlike their continental counterparts, they have a poetic, quirky and individualistic sense of dress.
- The English are diplomatic, discreet, well-behaved and tactful and find blunt, straightforward Germans slightly unnerving.
- English cooking has come a long way and might be called cuisine one day.
- They have things like BAs and MAs with designated years of study, which means your BA course will definitely end after 3 years and not 30 as was the tradition in Germany.
- Old people still mention the war.
- The English’s tolerance towards foreigners doesn’t mean they necessarily mingle or socialise with them.
- You don’t pronounce the ‘r’ in iron, it’s ‘ion’.
- Double-glazed windows and carpet-free bathrooms can now be found in London flats, though asthma sufferers might still object to the built-in mold.