Saturday, 26 December 2009

Back again in England

Written after a visit to England in November 2004

Being back in England again was fun. In many ways it was clear that a lot of
time had passed since I was here last, but still, it was good to be able to
count in miles, ounces, pounds and pints again and to see the traffic moving
on the other side of the street than in the rest of Europe. I wasn't sure what
it was about England that I missed most. I have often thought about it, but it
is hard to really pin it down to something specific. Going back again made me
realise that it was perhaps not anything definite but just
the general atmosphere, the ambience that I missed.

First it was great to be back in a world where I did not have to strain to
make myself understood or to understand what others said. It was very
comforting to be able to almost effortlessley read and understand what was
written on newspapers and magazines and was being said over the radio
and the television. It is amazing what a massive difference just the language
can make. Not just that, the topics being discussed, like Wimbledon
and cricket, were also familiar. It was sheer bliss to be able to curl up
in one of those very comfortable and deep arm chairs, armed with a
steaming cup of tea by my side and the latest edition of the Saturday
Guardian or the Sunday Times, and just be...

Also the people. Those I saw on the streets in England were so different
from each other that one could easily claim that there was no one canonical face
that could be called British. And when that is the case, no one needs to feel
like a foreigner there -- I guess that is what makes England so unique -- in the
sheer ethnic and cultural diversity of the people living there. Of course this
must lead to conflicts and tensions too, but then, aren't there tensions
everywhere for one or the other reason? I loved the anonymity, of not being
singled out (which happens to me so often in Germany), of not having to explain
myself. I could just be myself and nobody seemed to care.

The summer sale was on, and everywhere one could see big colourful banners:
'Buy one get one free' or 'Hurry, last three hours of sale; all stocks must go!'
The advertisements for tandoori burgers and sandwiches, and the smell of mince
pies, sausage rolls and cornish pasties made me realise that I had missed these little things
too. Not that I liked eating them very much, but still, not having the choice
can be a loss in itself. In all those years I had
lived in England, I had never liked baked beans but to my great surprise, I
found myself asking for some at breakfast one morning this time!

The English weather of course played very true, and did not stop being anything
but itself, even for a single minute during the whole time I was there. In other
words, it drizzled ALL the time, literally. Of course I had gone prepared and
after a few hours of getting used to the idea, did not let it bother me, nor did
I spend any time in making predictions. There was no point in doing so, whatever
you said, you would be proved wrong. So I just decided to forget about it and
get on with what I had to do. And the British trains have also not changed --
they are as inefficient as they always were! But the sight of the newly
renovated Leeds Railway station (with its smart baggage escalators to every
platform) was a very pleasant surprise.

The real treat however was access, once again, to the charity shops which are
ubiquitous in England. They had been my favourite haunts while I lived in
England, and it was just wonderful to be able to do that again. There was no
knowing what one might find inside those wonderful places -- a much-wanted book,
some lovely crockery, a pair of almost new curtains, a lovely woollen scarf or
a wonderful old painting. And I simply loved chatting with the elegantly
dressed, kind old ladies who helped out at those shop-counters. I
revisited all the shops I knew, and in some strange way, that more
than anything else, made me feel like I was back home again.

Of course those shops had more to them than just nice second-hand things which
one could buy for very little. They represented some cause or the other --
cancer research, children, spastics, animal-welfare, blind, homeless,... the
list was growing. And with it also people's participation in one or more of
these charities. There was a clear sense of public support for these causes, as
well as against the war in Iraq as well as for difficult issues like cutting the
debt in third world countries and insistence on fair trade so that farmers got
their rightful share of what the end consumers paid for their produce. In the
few days I was there, I saw more processions, rallies and signature-campaigns
aimed at raising public awareness and support for one or the other of these
cause than I have seen in more than a year in Germany!

Not everthing had remained the same though in these years of my absence. Every
single university student seemed to have got himself or herself a mobile phone in the
meanwhile! Some shops had moved or just closed down; the
thick bushes of bright and colourful rhododendrons and fragrant azaeleas
at the entrance of Roundhay park had been removed, presumably to make way for a new restaurant; a new
building for the Music School had been built in the parking lot
just opposite my old office in the University; the city had a posh new square
called the Nelson Mandela Square right opposite the City Hall.

But there was one change which was much more than
I could bear, it made me wish that I had never gone back --
it was the sight of the house in which I had lived in -- my lovely little
home with its quaint irregular shaped rooms and its lovely triangular rose
garden, that house where I had lived a whole year, entertained so many friends,
woven so many dreams and still have so many beautiful and happy memories of --
was dead! It was locked and all the window blinds were firmly
drawn. High fences prevented passersby from looking into the rose garden.
It looked as if no one lived there anymore. As I stood in the rain and rang the
bell, I knew that there would be no
answer and that there was no point in waiting and getting drenched.
In despair I looked away at the houses across the street and wondered if that
old lady who always used to keep my mail for me was still there -- but this time
too the bell evoked no response -- instead two big Toby cats looked out of the
house window and glared quite nastily at me. I realised that it would be best
to just go away and to never come back ever again. That house which
was such an integral part of everything nice that
happened in that year I spent at Leeds, did not exist anymore.
It was dead for me. Gone! That part of my past was lost forever.

Maybe that is the story of life itself: changes with time -- some for the
better some for the worse, new dreams making way to old memories,... as I flew
back from Manchester, I wondered what other changes I would see the next time
I went back to England again -- will it hurt so much again? Would I have the
courage to face the new reality? Why can't I think of all the nice things that
I also saw? Why can't I just let go of the past? But again, maybe that is part
of human nature too -- for where else do we exist if not in our memories of
the past and in our dreams for the future...

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