When I was a little girl growing up in Germany, I decided that one day, when I was grown up, I would be English, live in England, and be the Queen. This ambition was kicked off by two events I still remember very clearly. The first was the broadcast of James Herriot’s nostalgic memoirs of life as a Yorkshire vet, All Creatures Great and Small. This triggered my love for what I considered to be the quintessential English countryside: green and pleasant fields; rolling and gentle hills; picturesque villages. The other was the fact that my grandmother pointed out one day that my birthday coincided with that of the Queen – and the Queen came to symbolise English traditions for me.
With those credentials, I thought, nothing could go wrong. My family was, at first, bemused by my attempts to become English; later, their attitudes varied from tolerance (my mother) to annoyance (my father) when, during holidays in France, I stood wistfully on the beaches, gazing towards where I thought England was, or when, during England vs Germany football matches, I hung a Union Jack out of the front window. Once I finally started studying English in school, that was it: I refused to go to France or anywhere else other than England where I spent all my summer holidays, and once I started university it was clear that there was only one subject I could really pursue with real passion: English literature which for me epitomised the idea of English history and culture.
Several years down the line and I have fulfilled at least some of my childhood ambitions. I do, indeed, live in England now, and while I am not (yet?) strictly speaking English and I’m not the Queen either, I do consider myself part of English culture as I now teach English literature and culture at an English university. My childhood love of the English countryside is still intact and the Queen still represents English tradition for me. Nevertheless, several years of living here have taught me a more critical attitude. Studying theories of nostalgia I have come to realise that my early feelings for this country fell into the category of ’simple nostalgia’ – albeit a nostalgia for something I did not really know from personal experience but only from hearsay or rather, in my case, from books and films. There are, of course, inherent dangers to simple nostalgia in that it takes things for granted and closes its eyes to reality. A reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, queries the notions of nostalgia in the first place. Why is it that I fell for this country so unquestioningly at a stage in my life when I couldn’t really judge things? When nobody in my family had even ever been here? And, more importantly, how do I cope with the realities of living here now that do not really conform to my childish notions of the mythical England? After all, not all of England equals the chocolate-box village with thatched cottages, content villagers and happy sheep that I came to expect. Living here has taught me that not everything is better here; the Health System, for one, or the fact that the trains generally don’t run on time. But this is counterbalanced by the continuous joy I get from a walk in the Peak District; or by the tolerance, even friendship, I have been met with by people from all walks of life, in particular by my students who do not query at all that they are being taught about their own culture by an ‘outsider’. This tolerance in particular is something that sets the English apart from other people; of course we now hear and read in the media about rising anxieties about increasing immigration; about the alleged disadvantages of a multi-cultural society. But the reality that I have experienced is the exact opposite and that, for me, means that England is still the one place where I want to be.
Christine Berberich is a Lecturer in English at the University of Derby