English lessons December 10, 2005Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
One of my most joyous moments, if I zap lazily through the billion TV channels we have at home, is when I stumble across a deliciously antiquated, though only from the 80s, English-as-a-foreign-language show. Joy struck this morning. There are two actors in all – an actor and an actress – and a beardy presenter, and the sets are normally a photograph that the two prance around in front of.
Now I understand, rather like the Italian lady in Italian for Beginners, that I don’t strictly need English lessons. As relatively rarely as I get to speak the language, I don’t think I’m in danger of forgetting my mother tongue any time soon. But I do understand the longer I am away from ‘home’, the dearer the place the language occupies in my heart. I have lived in three countries other than my own: France, Russia and Germany, in that order. I was a slip of a thing in France, had a gaggle of anglophone friends anyway, and was full of the fervour of a new convert. This was my first stint abroad, I was obsessive about learning French and what London and England and English represented then were just that they weren’t Paris, France and French. I eventually went home, thinking my stint was done, and perhaps mistook what I thought was simply a matter of time for what was in fact an actual need. Ostensibly, there was no need for me to leave France. I could have stayed on and made France my home. I enjoyed my time there, liked the people, the language, the lifestyle. And yet I went home.
Stint two took me to Russia. Here I longed for home. There was no mistaking it any more. I longed for England, for the language, for any phone call from home, for contact with English people. This was perhaps due to the inherent roughnesses in Russian life. Perhaps. But I rather think it was more to do with age and a genetic understanding that home was more than just a house number and a street (and it certainly wasn’t Sovetskij Sojuz). I dashed for the World Service whenever I had the chance and would despair when – I never learnt the schedule – the station would inexplicably switch from English into Russian.
But love, fate and history eventually made non-English home move once more. Berlin seemed like the perfect compromise choice. Between England and Russia, between east and west, between left and right, between everything for anyone who grew up with a Cold War world view. And so it has proved. A compromise choice for both of us. And, perhaps, like any good compromise, neither of us seems spectacularly ecstatic with it, but it’s not the worst of both worlds. Yet as time goes on, the longing for England and English ebbs and flows with ever greater ferocity, and I am sure it is no coincidence that this third home from home is the one in which I have ‘integrated’ least.
Which is not to say that I want to return to England tomorrow. I am a natural complainer, so of course have a moan about London the second I arrive there. “God, isn’t it expensive? God, isn’t the transport crap?” But I of course still love it, and make my pilgrimages to Waterloo Bridge and other spots of beauty as soon as I can. Yet I am in Berlin for a reason, so I can’t just up sticks and dash back to London tomorrow. This realisation is a good and important one for any émigré with doubts. It means that I can understand London and England and English mean something of ever-increasing internal importance, and there can always be the thrill of having a trip there to look forward to. (Not one on the horizon at the moment, unfortunately.) But it can also aid the understanding that home 2, that home from home, is also a home of sorts. Perhaps with time Berlin will mean as much to me as London. Perhaps. And I am, in spite of the moans, always perfectly happy to get back here from any trip away. But it’s still always nice, as I languish on the sofa, thinking about work and Christmas and breakfast and electricity bills and the lot of the émigré, when I stumble across a ludicrously perfect England with a perfect English lady asking a perfect English policeman for directions to the Houses of Parliament.