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‘One can become American but one can never become English’

European Eye Modern Life

As I type this, I’m not where I usually sit to write my column, a maisonette flat overlooking the fashionable part of former East Berlin, the place that I have come to call home for almost two years now. Today, I’m where I first had a sense of what it meant to be at ease with oneself. I’m in Hampstead, London.

I came here 11 years ago almost to the day, on a student exchange that I had applied for on a whim, mainly because I thought I liked the English in general —whom I (rather foolishly) expected to find in London — and Morrissey’s moodiness in particular.

 Looking out of the window of the one café that so far hasn’t been turned into a chain, I can still see the bus that dropped me here one afternoon as a shy but curious 21-year-old Berliner with an inexplicable crush on all things English. (For years I would irritate potential boyfriends by telling them of my stern resolution only seriously to date Englishmen.)

“So, what has changed?” An old English friend of mine posed the question as we walked on an autumnal Hampstead Heath. Well, I began, there are the obvious changes: more chains on the high street, the excessive consumption of coffee, an influx of Eastern Europeans who make the city feel more continental, and of course more Americanisms. Somehow expressions like “you guys” or “oh my God” sound endearingly wrong to me when said with an English accent.

 With the distance provided by a few years spent in America, I can better understand what some of my German or French acquaintances have always complained about: the English being reclusive, London a dirty, expensive, overcrowded mess, and so on.

And yet, London — or rather, my London — hasn’t changed all that much. I still have a romantic idea of the city and of what constitutes being English, while I’m fully aware that I’m not and never will be; one can become American but one can never become English. My idea of Englishness is quite different from conservative images of England in the good old days of empire, even though it may have similar cultural roots. It is much more an impression of the heart, as it were, than one derived from reality or even from books and films.

This dawned on me when I read, just before returning to London, my friend Karl Heinz Bohrer’s memoir Granatsplitter (“Shrapnel”). Now one of Germany’s leading intellectuals, he first visited England as a young man and much later settled there. Our experiences couldn’t be more different. Bohrer came to the country soon after the war and was most impressed by the serenity of the English, by a certain manliness and panache combined with a comforting sense of stuffiness. (When he is introduced to Laurence Olivier at a swanky dinner party, he tells the great actor with touching, if slightly clumsy, formality: “I like you very much.”) 

And yet, there are aspects of Englishness that I can relate to, even if they are clearly no longer extant as a cultural norm: the sense of being in a world that is appealing because it is so foreign and exclusive — the opposite of embracing. While I suspect that the downright welcoming atmosphere one finds in America is more appealing (and probably healthier, too), I’m happy to have made it through England’s rites of passage, if only because it brought me closer to myself.

Now, there’s been a lot of talk about the Olympics and the Jubilee changing the image of Britain, boosting the mood, showing the world that the English are a welcoming nation. To me, however, the appeal has always been that they were not accommodating, or at least not readily and openly so. One had to make an effort to belong, even if that meant getting rid of one’s accent — again, something unthinkable in America, where that badge of one’s heritage is welcomed as a marker of individuality.

My English friend thought my dark romanticism with no bearing on real life was a rather ridiculous masochistic streak that only a German would feel free to share. Be that as it may, I said, it was this atmosphere that made it possible for me to develop a sense of belonging in this place, even if I knew that I would only ever belong by association and, it has to be said, this was only possible within the privileged frame of academia. I wouldn’t want to compare my situation to that of immigrants from poorer backgrounds.

Coming back to London this autumn, I still felt the same sense of being at home, even though I no longer live here. And what is being at home, if not the feeling of being understood? The place where I first made my own home is, even now, much more exciting than the city in which I grew up.

A single “Sorry, love” can be enough to suddenly illuminate the difference between the Englishman’s caring and common sense vis à vis the more pedestrian, coarse way of interacting in Berlin. Yes, being home means much more than being where one was born.