Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Professional Foreigner Writes....


I'll start this guest post with a confession: My name is Rhino75 and I'm a professional foreigner. By that I mean that I'm one of those people who have lived outside their home country for so long that they no longer fit in properly anywhere. Ask me where I'm from and I won't miss a beat: "I'm British" I say in my best Home Counties accent. But when I'm actually back in the "old country" I fumble with small change, I'm confused by public transport and I don't recognize two-thirds of the people on the telly. Yet in France, my adopted country, I'm seen as the embodiment of all things British, a kind of unofficial spokesman. "What do people in *your* country think about this?" French friends ask me, while offering me another cup of French-style tea (weak, without milk). Or "We're planning a weekend in London, what do you recommend we see and do? And where should we stay?" Do I come clean and say "I've absolutely no idea"? Or "The last time I was in London, I spent almost the entire weekend in Dalston, with only a brief foray out to the White Swan in Stepney"? No, because they'd be disappointed. So I quite simply make it up. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining - being from a different country has provided me with a nice sideline in media punditry over here. But the truth of the matter is that, after 12 years, France is naturally more familiar to me than Britain is. When I bump into people in the street, my first instinct is to excuse myself in French. I know the names of most of the main politicians - in Britain, I recognize Brown and that's it - and all the tv stars. I can tell the difference between a 2 centime and a 5 centime coin with my eyes shut and can describe all the symptoms of my cat's asthma without getting a single noun gender wrong. I know the right wines to drink, the right gifts to take to dinner parties and can even decipher the alphabet soup of French bureaucracy. While the Britain I knew, the Britain I remember, no longer exists, not quite as it was anyway. The references are different, the goalposts have shifted, leaving me feeling hopelessly old fashioned. Someone asked me on a recent trip home how I feel when I return to Britain and I replied "Like David Niven" - and yet the country of my birth is the very thing that defines me, at least initially, to many people I meet. "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man," runs the old Jesuit motto. But does that count for national identity too, I wonder?

7 comments:

  1. I am bring my children up as expat. They still define themselves as Australian, but the gap between their experience and those of your average suburban Australian children is very wide. They are happy confident little souls but it will be interesting to see how they define themselves later.

    It will be interesting to see if the Australian link will be much stronger for my oldest son who was 9 when we left home than for his brother who was 5.

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  2. I know exactly how this feels. Having spent almost two decades out of my own country, being back "home" is a weird experience. Familiarity and alienation merge. I think that the UK has changed beyond recognition in many senses - but the railway systems are still rubbish, the food is overall (sorry, Jamie) still populated by too much post-war junk....maybe the reasons for one leaving the country in the first place simply raise their heads and grin at one again....

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  3. A fascinating post from rhino75.
    As a born traveller spending most of my working life living or working overseas, I understand how you feel, as a Brit I've always been thankful my parents introduced me to different cultures from a young age, I call Spain my second home and even in the UK I find my ears will constantly tune in to a Spanish voice, like many I can turn on my Britishness, most notably in the US of course, where people somehow expect a deer stalker and a cut glass accent, I guess I'm finally a European.
    So thanks for reminding us of our roots.
    Mike :)

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  4. I completely understand you, only for me it's Hebrew and English

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  5. I am adopted Welsh ... not quite Welsh enough to be considered .. capable, or intelligent :) but also after spending most of my 20's in Spain I am no longer English .. more European in my attitude to life .. so I kind of know how you fee

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  6. Hi there and Happy New Year to you. I've tagged you in a Meme over on my blog.

    Helena xx

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