What’s my problem, you ask? I’m English

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

My mother accused me of alienating my English readers last time we were together. Apparently I’m critical of my home country. She’s right (as she normally is).

It’s a tough call because my English readers make up a lot of my traffic hits and if there’s one thing that is a cardinal sin amongst bloggers it’s killing your traffic with a few well – or rather ill – chosen words. But as with every other thing in life, what we feel about anything outside of ourselves is the sign of how we feel about ourselves. Living in 6 other countries has given perspective on how I see myself and my own beliefs. A lot of that due in part or in full to the culture and society I grew up in. I am highly critical of some facets of England… and of myself. And I’m not blinded enough by loyalty to my queen, my obsession with Sherlock or my love of Refreshers, not to say it.

There’s a disclaimer of course. Not all English people are like me, obviously; the lessons I’ve learned about myself and the country I come from, are not necessarily those of others. But there’s a significant proportion of people who grew up like me, who have the same characteristics and insecurities. I’m not the only binge drinker for example, I’m part of a binge drinking culture. Let’s start with that.

1. In Cyprus, I realized that my problem with alcohol is English.

In 1992 a fresh faced English girl moved to Cyprus excited about living in a hot climate. No wellies boots. No winter coats. No woolly tights under her school uniform. Was it the heat? Was it the lack of woolly tights cloistering my privates? Was it the lavish compliments spoken in a lilting foreign tongue? The unfortunate truth is that I became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Release a repressed, naive, insecure English girl into an environment flooded with cheap alcohol, latin-lover compliments and the chance to dance unchaperoned all night long… and she’ll end up drunkenly skinny dipping at 2am (NB. thankfully there is no pictorial proof of this otherwise my career as a future politician would be done for).

A year into my stay there, drunken British armed forces brutally raped and murdered a Danish tour guide. It was the first murder on the island in years. A peace keeping force that was allegedly only in Cyprus in the first place to protect our interests in the Suez canal. Our ‘peace-keeping’ presence was a joke and the consequences of our drunken behaviour entered the Cypriot history books. Regretfully not just because of my boozy exploits.

It’s not just our repression that makes us let loose when we go abroad although that’s a big factor. Scarcity is another. At that time we had a licensing law in England that only permitted drinking til 11pm which encouraged ‘doubling up’ on last orders to choke down as much alcohol as possible. Although the law was implemented during the first world war so that the munitions workers would be sober enough to work in the factories the next morning, these antiquated drinking laws weren’t changed until 85 years later …in 2005. Needless to say changing the law has not changed the attitude of an entire generation (my generation).

As noted in the recently famous Jonas Berger’s Contagious – ‘Why things catch on’, reciprocity also counts. There’s an etiquette that enforces drinking as a part of our English ‘fair play’. We buy rounds… something that other countries simply don’t do. And in our attempt to keep up with our social crowd (social proof) we’ll continue to drink even if we don’t want to, sometimes even faster, just to prove we can keep up with the Joneses.  Status is everything.

In Cyprus (at least in the older generation), respect for a man is destroyed if he gets drunk (as is the reputation of a woman). It used to be that way in England too. But in many circles (ahem, my old circles) nowadays it’s almost glorified. We laugh about the inanities of the night before. We become the social king or queen, the drunker and more foolish we get. The Jester of the party. Drunkenness is part of our humour, which is part of our identity. God forbid we should lose it. But we don’t have an exclusive on humour (even if we think we do).

2. In France, I learned that I hide my insecurity behind English humour.

In 1932 the Academie Francaise allowed the word ‘humour’ into the french dictionary for the first time (no joke).

It’s not for nothing therefore that the English think the French don’t have a sense of humour and as a student in Paris, I was all too familiar with the stereotype. And yet I was soon to discover that caricature, satire and farce are the backbone of this country’s society. Royalty (until beheaded), politicians and celebrities are cruelly mocked through various publications and programmes. In the 1980s a famous comedian joked that he would make a bid for the presidency, and polls taken showed that 16% of the country intended to vote for him (this from a country with ‘no sense of humour’).

Why then do we think that the French aren’t funny? For one reason only. The vast majority of us don’t learn the language or the culture. Localized cultural satire and play on words do not translate into English. Because we don’t understand it, we assume that it doesn’t exist.

It took me years to get it, after studying and working in France (a French husband also helped). One key difference between the two countries humour is England’s ability to laugh at herself. Our ability to send ourselves up, is something that the French simply don’t understand. For the most part France’s humour is laughing at someone else, whilst England’s sense of humour is about laughing at yourself. To the French, laughing at oneself is a sign of low self-esteem. To the English, the French’s inability to do so is perceived as arrogance. But humour in any of its forms is a defense mechanism. To laugh at others is to deflect attack. To laugh at yourself is to protect yourself by undermining anything that others might attack.

After many years living in Paris, I can safely conclude two things. We both have fantastic senses of humour. And we are both arrogant. Which leads me to…

3. In Ireland, I learned that the long-gone British Empire still makes me arrogant.

In my tour of Europe, I ended up doing an MBA in Ireland in 2003. But racking up my ‘international countries lived in tally’ I barely counted Ireland as different. Same language. Same Spar across the street. Same jaffa cakes on my table. My arrogance in dismissing the Irish without delving further into her soul was shameful.The thing is that Ireland looks kind of the same. The same Boots and Marks & Sparks on every high street…but only because we’ve put them there. But this is not meant to be a far reaching post on Anglo-Irish relations (I’m not qualified to write on it in any case), just an angle on how I see it. My perspective is psychological because I believe that it is our arrogance – my arrogance – in dismissing other countries’ importance in relation to our own or even making them into ‘little britains’ which is responsible for a lot of the international damage we do (what goes on in Majorca, stays in Majorca).

Culturally the Irish are different. They are far less reserved than the British which means that you’ll be chatting to anyone and everyone in the street. They’ll be genuinely interested in how you are and what you’re doing. Yes, genuinely interested. Not just a ‘How do you do’ (to which any English person would be shocked and embarrassed if you did reply sincerely). The Irish are far more community minded and see themselves as part of a larger whole… no clinging to their currency, or to their imperial measurements like England (note that imperial stems from the Latin for command, authority, empire). I learned a lot about the arrogance of the English in the past by living in other countries, but especially from living in Ireland where the British have committed atrocities within living memory. I never learned this at school. We learned how other bastards invaded or attempted to invade us (the Vikings, the Gauls and the Spanish) …but never what we did to the rest of the world (funny how our fair-play seems to have missed the boat there).

That’s not to say that the British empire hasn’t left a huge and lasting legacy on the world. Both good and bad. It was profitable for many and responsible for huge advancement in many countries’ civilization. I’m no empire apologist. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of acts I had no part in making. But those times are not now (thank goodness). I am however responsible for eradicating my own attitudes and my own arrogance, now.

4. In Germany, I learned that I resent other cultures for not sharing English values and traditions.

On November 11th at 11.11am 2006, my team leader in Dusseldorf bade me close my computer and stop work.

‘My god’ I thought. ‘The Germans take remembrance day seriously. Are they really going to spend two minutes in silence remembering all the people they killed?’

‘Now.’ She said seriously. ‘We drink. It’s time to PAAAAARRRRRTAAAY!’

And so, ever so slightly horrified (but not mentioning it because I’m English), I joined the entire population doing shots in what they call the fifth season, or the beginning of carnival.

Because on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in Germany (and Austria and Switzerland), is turned upside down. Begone decorum and welcome chaos. Now is the time to have drink and fun (that’s an order). And they do.

As it turns out the significance of the ’11’ has nothing to do with disrespecting the fallen. It started in the 19th century, a long time before our Remembrance day and was as a result of a sly poke at the French’s Egalite, Liberte, Fraternite (E-L-F meaning 11 in German). We’re not the only ones to make fun of the French. Each country has its own history and own values. We might know it theoretically, but in practice we find it difficult to take.

When I told my English friends, their responses ranged from shocked silence to obstinate resentment. Because apparently it’s difficult for an English person to imagine that the whole world does not fall silent when we do. Or that acting in any other way in this sacrosanct moment is not an insult to what we choose to do. Do the Germans take offence that we don’t celebrate carnival when they do? They do not (they’re too busy getting drunk for three days solid).

5. In Italy, I learned that my English individualism doesn’t mix with family-driven cultures.

How my husband and I rejoiced in 2007 when I got an assignment to Milan. It was all expenses paid 2 year stint in an international company with language lessons and a fabulous apartment. But I had underestimated the ethical divide.

I was the only woman at board level. I was the only foreigner in the company. I was 30 years younger than every other member of my team who had worked their way up from entry level through a hierarchy. I had no connections and no children. My husband on the other hand, was a man-of-leisure… in a country where men were, for the most part, not at leisure. He didn’t make any friends (especially when they learned that his wife was the one raking in the money). In England this wouldn’t matter, but in Italy, it did. Family structure and gender roles are important. England adheres to the protestant work ethic. Italy operates on the ethics of family (and er, not that much work).

The Italians I worked with didn’t go out drinking; they went home to their families. Few colleagues socialized after work in Milan as most of them came from the outskirts; if they did socialise at weekends it was with other families. That meant with children and we had none. It wasn’t really that we weren’t welcome, we just weren’t relevant.

I was far more culturally aware, and far less arrogant than I had been (it had taken 4 countries to knock it out of me) and the universe rewarded me with Italy. I didn’t find Italians arrogant and neither was I in my attitude to them; on the contrary they were charming and friendly but only whilst we interacted. We just didn’t interact that often. Italy is a culture driven by family, and we weren’t part of it.

I come from a country where fair play and individual achievement is valued. Everyone for themselves but ostensibly within the rules. But in Italy work and rules are less important than connections. It doesn’t take a genius to see that I had approached my situation and new habitat entirely wrong. I didn’t ask about their children (they thought I didn’t care or hold the same values). I didn’t take lunch with my colleagues, I worked with a sandwich at my computer. I didn’t talk about family in work hours (at least I hope I didn’t mention the fact I was estranged from my mother). I didn’t mention the connections I’d pulled to get the job –  because in England, using connections is just plain wrong and speaking about it is far worse. But if you don’t do any of that in Italy, it just means you’re irrelevant and disconnected. You are not willing to part of the social fabric. It made me wonder whether compromising my ethics was compromising myself and to what extent my ethics were myself. It gave me new perspective on how people operate in different countries and taught me that ethics are often purely subjective.

6. In Sweden, I learned that my conservative values form an obstacle between me and happiness.

After Italy, we went for many reasons, back to the UK. It must have been something I drank in the water because less than two years later, I was pregnant (but not with my by then ex-husband). And I encountered maternity leave, or rather lack of it. I’d decided to take advantage of the start up culture and recession to build my own business. Little did I know that doing so, would mean no maternity leave whatsoever. None. Zilch. Nada. My boyfriend got two weeks from his employer and he was lucky.

And so 6 weeks after my daughter’s birth I took up a well paid contract which included working at home with a hired nanny. My friends congratulated me on a wonderful coup. But blinded by tears I would work at my computer hearing my baby cry and coming out every 3 hours to breastfeed. Working was everything and given the cost of living, the only thing I could do.

Soon after that, we moved to Sweden where I was pregnant with my second child.

Here we had 13 months leave to be divided between the two of us as we saw fit. We had state funded daycare (indeed there aren’t any nannies or private daycare). We had child allowance… we had all of it, not only for my son who was born here…but for my half Swedish daughter retroactively! To be taken up until the time she was eight.

I can’t lay all the blame for our utterly unfriendly childcare policies at Margaret Thatcher’s door because her ability to equate privatization with freedom of choice is what we bought into. I believed in minimal state intervention (why should the government get my money?). I believed in private education and health care not realizing that by buying into the system I was fueling privilege for the rich. I believed in the power of the free market… until I went abroad and saw how different things could be.

Margaret Thatcher emphasized the value of hard work (remember the work ethic?) and made a lot of her own personal journey as a grocer’s daughter. Her children were sent to boarding school at the age of 8.

“All my childhood memories of my mother were just someone who was superwoman before the phrase had been invented. She was always flat out, she never relaxed, household chores were done at breakneck speed in order to get back to the parliamentary correspondence or get on with making up a speech” Carol Thatcher

Okay, so I guess I’ll never work in politics after all (there are too many skeletons in my closet for that) but that woman who never relaxed and who didn’t have time for her children? That was (almost) me.

I thank my lucky stars that I have by pure chance arrived here, in a country with socialist values which treats its population and children differently. A country which has challenged my own previously ‘conservative’ values and beliefs (inherited from my parents). I couldn’t have predicted that this way would be a good one. It’s shown me that there is a more humane and happier way of living. Maybe not if you’re single or already rich. But if you’re going to pay money to a system, pay it to one you believe in. Taxes are high for a reason here; it means a better quality of life. And yet even Sweden is slowly going the conservative route. Greed – would you believe – is universal.

I still love England and being English, with all that this entails. I’m aware that my arrogance and repression are what makes me laugh hysterically at A Bit of Fry And Laurie.

Our pop music and comedy is brilliant; in fact our cultural output in general is second to none. I’m proud of it even if sometimes I wonder whether our creativity isn’t because we have ‘a tiny little resentful piss artist inside of all of us’.

I’m even an angry defender of English cuisine whenever people attack me for it (that’s surprisingly often, even when you live in a country where the national dish is meatballs and mash).

So if I’m going down with this post, I’ll be going down with a pint of Newkey brown and a portion of cod and chips. It’s just that I’m not going back home to eat them anytime soon.