Wednesday, 29 June 2011


I'm sitting here in my kitchen in Bayreuth, listening to Radio 4 on iTunes Radio and waiting for my freshly-made cup of PG Tips has brewed sufficiently to be acceptable to a card-carrying Englishman like myself. There's a pot of Marmite in the larder and a few jars of Patak products in the fridge: mango chutney, korma curry paste and mixed pickle. To all intents and purposes I'm one of those nightmare British expats on the Costa Brava who is basically just looking for Luton with a bit more sun and cheaper beer, but the reality is that this parochialism is very recent and only indulged in because it's possible: computers can now locate you wherever you want and provide you with anything in any language and the Britfood came from an Asian supermarket in the centre of town, here. When I first moved to Germany in 1987, none of this was possible (at least not in Koblenz) and the irony of the matter is that the increased 'internationalisation' of just about everything we see around us merely serves to push people further back into their narrow-minded cells. Seems to be a contradiction, doesn't it? But it's not. Here's why:

Using Koblenz, 1987, as an example: if you arrived from abroad, you would have needed at least a smattering of German in order to get the basic legal residential requirements done: registering yourself and, if applicable, your family, finding out where the relevant government offices were located etc. Then you would have needed to register yourself for tax purposes with the local finance offices, inform the police where you're living etc. Not one of these services was available in English, so my second day in Germany was spent wandering around town with a phrase book and a pile of official papers (contracts etc) from the local theatre, my employer. After a few hours I'd got everything done, so I went home and continued studying the language. This being 1987, there was no satellite TV where I was living and all radio stations were - naturally - German. The message was clear: learn the language or go under. Now it seems that none of that is necessary and the eternal celebration of one's origins merely pushes new arrivals further back into their caves. You have satellite TV as standard, so you need never learn that pesky new language, cuisine has become so international that you can enjoy all of your own delicacies from home without ever having to buy what the locals eat. Chances are there's also a thriving, convenient expat community which will jovially sound the death knell for any remaining urge you may have entertained to actually mingle with the natives. Many people even survive in France without learning the language, and that's quite some achievement.

Being honest, I like having a little piece of England where I live, but I say that from the standpoint of someone who speaks five languages and has lived and paid tax in seven or eight different countries, only two of which were English-speaking. The books on my bedside table are in German and Spanish, the magazine in the loo, French. Here in Germany, I prefer coffee in the morning and my beverage of choice is Weissbier. Think global, drink local.

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