Sunday, 4 November 2012

Guest Post by Marie-Paule Graham: Why Would a Brit Leave Britain?

It's a question I get asked a lot, at weddings, parties and randomly as I try to make my way through speaking exercises in language class. Why did you come here? Will you go back? Why not?

Why did I come here? Love, is the simple answer. The more complex answer is probably better addressed with a question: why would you ask the love of your life to move to a country that is falling apart; a country that is the most surveilled nation on Earth, where the economy is stagnant, at best, and that infuriating phrase "I'm sorry for any inconvenience caused" is the answer to every problem. 

Baffled faces stare back at me as I talk about the reality of living in Britain. "But, when I stayed with my host family it was great." is one reply. Of course it was, you were a guest and everyone was on their best behaviour. Visiting a place and living there are two very different propositions. A visit is finite and often enjoyed with that holiday feeling. The visitor often leaves before culture shock kicks in. The resident stays and lives through their culture shock, allowing themselves to become a part of the fabric of their new home.

“But Britain is a great democracy and you've got the BBC!” is another answer. Democracies don't spy on their citizens, they don't extradite them to foreign countries and as for the BBC, google the name Jimmy Savile.

And then there are the middle aged British expat women whose expressions turn to mild horror when I say that I live in Chemnitz.

Chemnitz has always had a rough deal. The first DDR leader Walther Ulbricht changed the city's name to Karl-Marx-Stadt and made it the model of Communist industrial ideals, i.e. dirty, grey and unimaginative. They even concreted over the river Chemnitz to obliterate anything that spoke of a life before Socialism. In April 1990 the people of Karl-Marx-Stadt voted to reinstate the city's original name and today the river is being restored to its original path through the centre of the city. 

Like all cities Chemnitz has beautiful parts and less desirable parts; there is commerce and there are areas of post-industrial emptiness. In Britain I couldn't leave the house without my iPod and headphones to drown out the constant cacophony of life on a crowded island. Here, I can walk through the city without headphones if I want to and, standing in the main square on days when the market isn't there, I can hear the sound of shoes on cobblestone and church bells. I also walk upright because I know I am not under constant surveillance. I can ride my bike on the roads here without fear of losing life or limb at the hands of needlessly aggressive drivers - something I never felt happy doing in Britain. Riding for 40 minutes in any direction will take you into the countryside. There is also an Olympic size swimming pool, while some towns in Britain don't have a pool at all. Prague and Berlin are two hours away and if I want to ski, the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains, if you wish to be Tolkien about it) are 30 minutes away. Gangs of youths don't roam around with menace, in fact, young people will say hello to you. I was leaving my building laden with luggage one morning and sitting outside the front door were two teenage girls. Cue the sudden sense of foreboding I've been conditioned to feel at the sight of teenagers, but before I can finish my thought, one of the girls asks me if I needed any help. I had to hide me astonishment because teenage girls don't behave that way in Britain.

I watch the faces of these middle aged British expats as I recount the above and realise that, while the city I live in has made the best of itself since reunification, it's reputation hasn't changed. “Oh, it's so dreary”, says one lady in that withering manner I don't miss at all. No, places without employment are dreary, where everyone is scared of everyone else and people would rather seethe about foreigners taking their jobs than actually fix the problems that brought their country to its knees. 

So, why would a Brit leave Britain? Because there is love and peace and stability in this small corner of Saxony. Isn't that what everybody wants?

Marie-Paule Graham writes "Adventures in Waldiland" [] and tweets @mpg4.

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