England was a foreign land
My mind wanders when attempting to present interesting stories about my life in 2012. Instead it came up with the memories of arriving in England 20 years ago. I had managed to get a scholarship under the Erasmus programme to study at Warwick University for a year. In return a student from Warwick would spend one year at Leuven university, my base. I was 20 and craving a break from the path I had been laying out for myself. I had no idea how much that would change me, and I am so glad I took that leap.
At Warwick I found myself falling into a crowd of foreign students, who were all trying to get to grips with the specifics of living and working in England and relishing being different, in equal measure. We wanted to get under the skin of Englishness, but we would not be mistaken for being English, oh no! We would do things that we wouldn’t have back home so we would stand out as Norwegian / Israeli / American / Dutch / Greek / Flemish or whatever we all were. The key was that we all expected to go back home again after our English adventure; we weren’t really trying to integrate, merely understand to better utilise for our own purpose. We learnt that:
There are squirrels everywhere. Funny at first, then you see them for what they really are: furry rats.
English humour is very dry indeed. It suits me.
The word “interesting” is often used to mean the opposite: when people say it in a trailing-off tone, their attention clearly wandering, you know you’ve been boring your audience witless.
English people really do queue in a disciplined line and stand on one side of the escalators. Everyone does it, so you join them.
English people are not really more polite than the rest of us, they only say “sorry” as they bump their way through and use polished words with sharp meanings you only understand once your English skills reach a certain level.
You could not find decent coffee anywhere near Warwick in those days. I had to go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon, which caters for Shakespeare tourists, to get coffee. Of course one could drink a perfectly good tea, but tea just doesn’t always cut it does it.
I also learnt that I did not miss my boyfriend and told him so during a visit back home.
In hindsight I have never felt as free and rich in options as I did then. Even if I went back to Belgium I know that my year in England has been decisive for my later choices in life. Up until then I had completed school and gone to university as expected and dated a decent but uninspiring boyfriend for years whom I might have ended up marrying because there wasn’t anything wrong with him. Except that, when pulled out of my comfort zone, I unearthed more selves who all wanted things he could not have provided. Unfortunately for me the process of finding more layers to myself continued, so I still ended up making a decision that did not work out on the long term.
Eventually I ended up back here in England less than 10 years later. Another decade on and my children have gone native, and I found myself struggling to find the right words in my own language. I’m not even sure what language I dream in.
You can get good coffee in the shops now, just not in offices – you still get nescafe when you ask for a coffee.
I feel much more a part of England now, I have a stake in it. Not sure which, but I live here so I am entitled to an opinion. I no longer consider myself a passing visitor. I am settled. Man, did I just hear myself say that? It may be time to move on. Where shall I go? Let me think; definitely somewhere the sun shines…