I just came back from England* where I spent a long weekend visiting an old friend and attending a Guardian Masterclass. All very nice but not what I want to write about.
I just came back from England where I hadn’t been for 18 years. I left after passing my A-levels, first planning to come back for my studies but then things turned out differently.
I had enjoyed my two years in England. However, I always thought that I had not felt quite as much at home there as I did in France or parts of Germany. And I never had the urge to go back, funnily enough.
So when my friend found this course for me (‘How to write fiction based on family history’), I immediately decided to go. Especially as I hadn’t seen that friend – let’s call her Sandra because it seems to be the perfect name for her – for 15 years either. We had attended the same university in Germany before she left for Oxford and I for Stockholm.
I had a feeling that my English was getting a bit rusty in some ways as I only ‘practised’ passively, i.e. watching British programmes and translating texts. But as I keep telling everyone that it’ll all come back once you’re there, I was quite convinced myself that after one or two days, I’d be fine.
I took the plane to Gatwick Airport.
When I was still at school, Gatwick was one of the train stations where I sometimes had to change trains (coming from or going to Pulborough), and it was one of the train stations where it was especially cold.
So I leave the airport section to go to the station. First thing I see: WHSmith. Second: Boots. Third: Marks & Sparks. That was the moment my brain switched to English. I buy the ticket to go into London and am not surprised that the few coins I had found at home are still in use. Although there is a 2 pound coin now, that’s handy!
What happened then was a trip to my past that I have never experienced before. Or have I? Haven’t I?
I get on the train (looks different). The train is coming from Pulborough. Goodness. It’s been ages. The houses we pass look like … England. Those old windows. Those roundabout signs on the streets.
18 years and it’s like I’ve never been away.
I don’t need to wonder if the Christ’s Hospital pupils still wear the same uniform. It’s tradition. It’s England. But does nothing really ever change? Redhill. ‘Change here for Guildford.’ I used to change there coming from Thatcham. Once had to take a taxi because I was missing ₤20 (apparently had lost them) and didn’t have enough money on my for a ticket back to school. I had to wait for ages at the station because if I had left too early with the taxi, my house at school would have been closed and I wouldn’t have been able to get the money out. Didn’t have a cash card yet.
We stop somewhere at a station and the female voice says ‘Mind the step.’ How about the gap? What happened to the gap? How irritating. I feel the urge to look at the map (Southern Network). Burgess Hill! Hove! Brighton! Bognor Regis!
Two years in England and I always had the feeling I looked at it from the outside. Unlike France: I arrive in Paris and I immediately feel at home. The smell, the people, everything. Here and now, I feel exactly how I felt then, 18, 19, 20 years ago. I look at it, I like it even. But I stay outside.
We pass East Croydon where I stayed with my family at a B & B during our first trip to England in 1988. Even more ages ago.
My mind wanders off. What will it be like to meet Sandra again after 15 years? Which language will we speak? It feels like the last time I saw her was, well, maybe not yesterday but much closer than 15 years. So much has happened since then she doesn’t know because we lost touch in between. Looking back, my life seemed so spectacular. How about now? I’m a settled mother of two. Working mother, happily married. I feel bad because I’m not wasting one thought on my family. This is just me now, me and my personal memories.
Ha, there it was! ‘Mind the gap!’ It’s not fun when it’s a woman who says it and who even explains where the gap is (between the train and the platform, in case you ever wondered).
We pass a house that looks like a student hall I once spent a night at in Copenhagen (14.5 years ago). My mind seems to be a tiny bit overexcited.
I love the pictogram of the pregnant woman above the priority seats. All others, whether blind, old or with baby – have arms. Pregnant women just have a belly.
Arriving at my final destination, I see left-hand driving. My mind tells me the same it always did when I was in England: ‘Watch out, the cars are coming from the side where you don’t expect them.’ The thing is, you get used to the cars on the wrong side and then you’re expecting them from the right (as in correct, as in left) side while your brain still tells you to watch out for the other side. Confusing? Yes. I look at the street and I’m immediately profoundly confused. Luckily, at the pedestrian crossings they write ‘LOOK LEFT/RIGHT’ on the street. Expensive left-hand traffic it must be. But it’s tradition. I’m in England.
Before starting the Guardian Masterclass in the actual Guardian building on Sunday, we’re told where the fire exits are. And the disabled toilets. Toilets for the disabled, I mean. I’ve attended many a course in my life and never did anyone bother to tell me where the fire exits were. Even on the tube map, you can see whether a station has step-free access. Marvellous. I’m thrilled. I’m even more thrilled about the course, I get so many ideas I can hardly wait to write it all down.
On Monday, I take the tube to Leicester Square. I need to buy a book that was mentioned yesterday and I just want to wander around a bit. I wander for an hour, not finding a single bookshop. This is just ridiculous. I even find a map with all the shops in the area on it – but there isn’t even a category where I would suspect to find a bookshop. Finally, I ask a homeless lady who points me in the right direction (at least one of the few streets where I haven’t already been twice). They don’t have the book. But the other branch at Piccadilly should have it. It’s a huge Waterstone’s. Somewhere in there, there should be one copy of the book. I ask on the first floor (‘fiction,’ ‘romantic fiction,’ ‘historic fiction’) – but the bearded guy can’t find it anywhere. Finally, he sends me to the ground floor, it might be there somewhere. As I can’t find it, I ask another nice person who takes a thorough look (in vain) and asks me whether the guy upstairs I had asked had a beard. Apparently, he is their best man. Finally, I am sent to Hatchard’s, a two minutes’ walk away. They should have ten copies of the book. And so they do. I have a book token I got for my A-level coursework, worth ₤5. They accept it. Very happy, I return to my hosts and we spent the afternoon shopping at Tesco’s. Cadbury’s, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Walkers salt and vinegar crisps (not for me!).
And with Sandra? No surprise – it’s like I’ve never been away. Great British house,** great family. Great to watch Downton Abbey. Great to have a pint of cider at the pub.
It was great to be back. Luton was a bit of a come-down, though, I’ve never been to an all-cheap-flights-airport before and it’s a bit like flying from Woolworth’s. But as on my way to England, the view from the plane is excellent but I still don’t see the place where my school used to be.
Arriving at home, I’m happy to see my family and I’m glad to be back. My mind is still somewhat stuck in the past, though. I didn’t really stay outside after all.
* I say England though really, I was just in London. However to me, it was more universal than that.
** The toilet flush handle! No carpet in the bathroom, though. My friend is German after all.