I blame the books. Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, I’m looking at you. Sternly.
Ever since I first picked up a novel set in a picturesque English village or stately home, I’ve wanted to go there. And since I couldn’t, not at 13 anyway, I picked up more and more books, until I could determine which was my favourite county, what part of London would be worth a day trip, and how to behave correctly when invited into someone’s summer residence.
It wasn’t only the classics, either. Ruth Rendell and Martha Grimes, my two detective fiction writers of choice, described London so well that to this day I am unsure whether the images I have of the city stem from personal experience or fiction. I lived through those books, and I made plans to leave my country as soon as possible to properly become myself abroad. I didn’t hate where I come from, but England had become the promised land, a place where everybody had read the same books I had read, and thus lived with the same pictures of a glorious past. Because I knew that all those pictures were, if not complete fiction, at least something that didn’t exist anymore.
And then, ten years later, I arrived in Liverpool. (If this sentence doesn’t make you chuckle, you’re probably not British. If you are, you know that Liverpool may be many things, but picturesquely English it is not.) And still, it was gloriously different. It’s hard to explain, even to myself, how many levels of different. There are still moments now when I look at a row of terraced houses and think to myself “I’m abroad!”, but these moments are becoming less and less frequent. Where tired, uniformed schoolchildren on the bus once seemed exotic, they have now become part of the routine. The weather really is depressing, and I don’t feel like joking about it anymore. And there are just as many painfully unfunny things on TV as there are back home. A few years ago we were considering leaving England, and I made a mental list of things I would miss – and there are plenty. But they are none of the things I had dreamt of as a 13-year old. That glorious, literary past only exists on the BBC, where it gets recycled and reused for people like me, who feel safer and happier in imagined places.
After eight years, I feel I have arrived in this particular state of limbo that settled foreigners often live in. I have a social circle, and my children are first-generation citizens whose accents are more local than foreign. All my adult life has happened here, with the ironic result that now my own childhood has become as remote as those English village idylls I read back then. I miss stuff. I want that stuff for my children, who don’t care because they don’t know that stuff. It’s getting hard to distinguish between differing personal experiences and differing cultures. It’s in this gulf that stereotypes grow. I have become very German in order to both be unique and provide my family with a narrative. I’m mostly trying to be ironic about it, but I’ve realized that I am more culturally fixed than I thought, or wanted to be. I will always hold anything the English call “bread” in complete contempt, and I will wait at a red traffic light, even if there is no car in sight. It’s those little things that bind me to my past, even though I’m living in a place whose collective past I have admired for so long.
There are so many ways of feeling out-of-place, even if you’re somewhere you should feel at home. For the most part, I’ve been lucky, and life is good. But there are days when I’m decidedly lost. Ask any immigrant, and you’ll hear another version of this story, adding layer upon layer to an already complex subject. I’m still trying to make sense of it, with or without the books.