10 things I love about England

I was making myself a cup of tea this afternoon and was suddenly filled with gratitude towards England (and by extension China) for good tea. Twinings just ain’t the same in France, it’s weak and terrible and like drinking sock juice, whereas England is full of good strong brands like PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea and Clipper. It got me thinking about all the wonderful things I like about England, so here are 10 of my favourite things, in no particular order of preference, and guess what, they’re not all food-related!

English: A loaf of tiger bread. Photograph tak...

A loaf of tiger bread (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Tea – I did not drink tea before I came to England, and then I drank it with 4 sugars. I am now a hardcore, ‘milk no sugar’ tea drinker and it is my favourite beverage for keeping hydrated aside from plain water.

2. Tiger bread – It’s all crunchy on top and soft inside and is one of my favourite English breads.

3. Weather forecast summaries – I am endlessly amused that despite the fact that every (mild) type of weather happens somewhere in the UK on any given day, the BBC still tries to give us a nationwide soundbite summary, which often reads a bit like this: ‘sunny with some showers and possible snow in the north’. The beauty of it is that they still manage to get it wrong.

4. Pubs – it’s been a while since I’ve gone to a pub in the evening (you know, babies and all that) but we’ve gone out for lunch a few times recently and I just love the whole pub atmosphere. I love sitting in a beer garden with a half-pint of beer and a plate of fishcakes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the French café culture but the two feel very different. My favourite pub memory involves getting my hands dirty sharing a platter of chicken wings and chips with friends and nursing a Guinness.

5. Baby & Toddler Groups – believe it or not, toddler groups are very rare in France. Sometimes your only choice might be to go to the park. In England, you can go to a different toddler group every day of the week. Some are even run by churches and people don’t find it strange or off-putting. Yes, breaking into a clique of mums can be difficult but it’s so great to have the option, if only to get your child off your legs for a few minutes whilst you eat a bit of cake.

6. The job market – It may surprise some of you but even with the current job crisis, it is much easier to find a job in England than it is across the channel, especially if you are a first time worker/young person without experience. What I love the most about the British approach to work is that prospective employers look at the whole person and not just the education part of a CV. They look at what you’ve done and make assumptions about a person’s capabilities to do a job even if they have trained in something else. In France, it doesn’t matter what you have done before if you haven’t got the specific qualification required for the job.

Here is how it works for someone like me who has just the French Baccalauréat (or ‘bac’ = A-Levels equivalent) and 15 years of experience working in England in various office management and PA roles. In England, prospective employers will look at my experience and employ me on that basis. In France, because I only have the baccalaureate and no actual qualification for secretarial work, I would most likely be required to take a test to confirm I can speak English and also undertake a secretarial course. Basically an English employer will assume I am intelligent enough do the job because I had very good grades at the bac, and a French employer will think I was not intelligent enough to go to university and get a degree.

7. The Full English Breakfast  – without the beans and the black pudding <shiver>, so in my case consisting of sausage, bacon, fried egg, tomato, mushrooms, hash brown and toast on the side. You wouldn’t think it would work as a breakfast but there’s something special about the Full English, and it is such a classic it had to be on the list.

8. BBC Dramas – The BBC has given us Dr Who, Sherlock, Downtown Abbey (which I haven’t actually seen but I hear it’s brilliant), Spooks and North & South; and of course 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, which was thrust upon me the first week I arrived in England, and which I loved despite the fact that at the time I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying. And I haven’t even listed their superb nature documentaries, which I would normally not have touched with a barge pole for sheer boredom potential but are so visually stunning you can’t help but sit mesmerized as David Attenborough‘s soothing voice lulls you into a false sense of security moments before the little baby otter is killed by a polar bear, or such similar horror.

9. The English sense of humour – not so much the Carry On type of crude slapstick but the self-deprecating ‘everything is crap and isn’t it hilarious’ approach to life and the intelligent banter as displayed in TV shows like QI and Have I Got News For You. And sarcasm.

10. Being able to dress like a girl – I’ve said this before, but in France jeans and a t-shirt are almost a uniform for the youth and 30-somethings everywhere, and people wear a lot of black, white and grey. Here, I go to a party wearing proper girly dresses, bright colours and glitter and I don’t stand out.

And now for a thing that England does very well that is not on my list:

– Indian Food: people love curry over here, and Indian takeout is amazing. I can’t get excited about it, I find the food too rich and too spicy and it’s just not my thing. But it is very good, very popular and there are hundreds of fantastic places to get it from.

Your turn now. What’s your favourite English thing?

Culture shock: the early days

I sometimes feel I should have started a blog like this one when I was still new to British culture but I’m not even sure blogs existed then. Nowadays, I am never sure ‘what’ I am. I know I am not British. But am I French? My passport says so, so does my accent and a lot of my food preferences however it would be foolish to ignore that some Britishness has surely seeped through my pores along the way. I am not the same person I was thirteen years ago at so many levels that I can’t tell which part of the change is cultural and which is personal. I’m going to guess it is a bit of both. Nowadays I don’t always recognise a cultural difference when I see one. I am most likely to think ‘I wonder how the French do this?’ rather than recall an actual experience from my past. I am so used to life here that when I learn something new, I can’t always tell if it is a completely new thing or if it is something I knew differently in France that I am re-learning.

I have also noticed that my memories become dim after a major physical move. I find myself focusing on the ‘now’ and everything else is put aside for a time as I do the practical things of putting down furniture and acquainting myself with a new place and new people. I have had two such events in my life and what happens before and after gets its own ‘feel’; I box it up and label it in my head. So my first 18 years in France are ‘my life before England’. It is a dark and troubled time followed by lots of brightness towards the end when I become a Christian and events unfold to take me across the pond to England. The nearly 9 years I spent in Romford were such an intense learning curve culturally, personally and spiritually that it still feels strange to think of it as ‘the past’. Some of it I can barely remember happening whereas other things are very bright and near in my mind. Towards the end, things fizzled out a bit, I met my husband-to-be and life’s adventure took me elsewhere. The four years between then and now have been a major adjustment after the intensity of the previous nine and I don’t know how they ‘feel’ yet.

All this to say that I have been trying to recall my early days in England and the things that struck me as not French, things that I don’t notice anymore, with some difficulty. I was eighteen and had just been dropped off by my mum in the strange-looking place that was Romford, Essex. The plan was that I was going to live with a family for a year; they were part of a local church who were friends of my home church in France.

English: Havering/Romford welcome sign at Rone...

Image via Wikipedia

– I went to an evening church youth group within days of arriving and one of the guys started praying. I swear, the first thing I thought was ‘I don’t understand a single word of this, is this guy even speaking English?’ I could understand quite a bit of what other people were saying so this was an extreme case but it threw me completely. This was my first introduction to the local practice of dropping the end of words and pronouncing ‘th’ ‘v’ e.g. tryin’, innit, alvough instead of although, etc.

– We went straight to the pub after. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing this was to me. From church to the pub and no one breathing down your neck telling you that alcohol is the devil? It was a revelation.

– For months, conversations down the pub went like this for me: ‘they’re talking about the weather. Oh there’s something I can say about this. Quick, check translation in your head, and out… Ah, missed it, what are they talking about now? the latest film. I have something I can say about this. Quick, check translation…’ And so on.

Honestly, I spent my first six months in England in silence because I never had time to speak before the subject matter moved on. In most cases people had already changed topics twice before I could gather my wits and hope to join in. This is just not the case in France, where you can spend an entire evening on the one topic. But to change subjects every few minutes, that was a huge culture shock for me. There was also very little space for me to join in. Because of the group dynamics as they were, people just carried on talking without worrying about whether I understood anything or not. With hindsight, it was both good and bad, good because I would have to learn eventually but at the time, mostly bad and lonesome for me. Making friends is difficult at the best of time. Never being able to join in because you’re not ‘fast enough’ is hard work.

– Girls dress up to go out. For the first time in my life, I was able to buy a dress and wear it with makeup and heels without standing out in a crowd of plain janes in jeans and jumpers. Being able to dress like a girl and enjoy it, that is one of the greatest gifts England gave me. My fashion sense when I moved over was atrocious. I wore home-made cotton dungarees for goodness sake! England saved me from graver fashion disasters, I am sure of it. What can be worse than home-made dungarees, you ask? Let’s not think about that, I’m sure I would have come up with something.

– I was going to live in a box room for a year. It’s hard to describe how astonished I was that people thought this was adequate living space for an 18 year-old girl, or any human being for that matter. It was the size of a broom cupboard. I hadn’t come with all my belongings by a long shot but I still had a lot of clothes and not quite enough space. I survived by the way; in the end it wasn’t a terrible hardship to live in a box room. But after all this time, it still makes me laugh that English people use their box rooms as living spaces. It is unfathomable to me.

– English food can be good! You won’t catch me ordering the steak and kidney pie at a Wetherspoon pub anytime soon but the home-made food I have sampled over the years has been mostly amazing. I still remember a lime cheesecake I had thirteen years ago, that’s how good a cook some people are.

These are just a few things I remember from those early days. I will try to recall some more