Having arrived in England almost 30 years ago, I have now lived here longer than in my country of birth. I can report that the process of becoming British has been a long one and is by no means complete.
The results of long-term relationships with two Englishmen, were two German-British daughters, a three-quarters-British grandchild as well as a plethora of British step-children. So what does that make me? A German Brit or a British German?
I’m not sure. While I came to England by chance I stayed by choice.
I stayed because I liked people’s tolerant and open attitudes, the way authorities treated Joe or Jane Public, the relaxed way of driving (even if on the wrong side of the road). I stayed despite the fact that I constantly seemed to say the wrong thing and didn’t catch on when someone told a joke.
And, last but not least, I stayed because I liked the weather.
So what were my impressions when I first came to England?
Growing up in a smallish German town, I found the people there were small-minded to match. “What will the neighbours think?” was the major concern of almost everyone. As a rule, each liked to be the same as all the others. Being different was dangerous and easily made you an outcast. For this reason, it was a real eye-opener to me how tolerant the English were towards people who were not quite like most people. Eccentricity seemed more an asset than a bane. Rather than picking on those who were different, they were embraced and integrated into a society of eccentrics.
Authorities’ treatment of “the public”
Unlike German authorities, British authorities didn’t revel in asserting their authority over you. Mere citizens were not just there to be ruled over and regulated – there was actually a dialogue going on. Citizens were more on an equal level with those in authority than I’d ever experienced in my home country. It was such a relief to find that bureaucracy did not rule the UK as it did Germany.
Driving in the UK
Refreshingly, in the UK almost everyone stuck to the relatively low speed limit of 70 miles per hour on motorways. In stark contrast, on German roads, owners of fast cars did and do feel they have the divine right to go as fast as possible. If you are unlucky enough not to have a fast car or CHOOSE to drive at a more sedate speed, those “superior” drivers will hassle you, tail-gate you and flash their lights at you, they’ll come up behind you at such a speed you fear that any moment now they are going to push you off the road. It is intimidating at best, frightening and dangerous at worst. In the UK I found it was almost relaxing to drive along a motorway (as long as it was not the M25 or another urban multi-laned monstrosity).
English people often used to give me strange looks when I proclaimed I like the weather here. While a lot of Brits head off to warmer climes, coming from Germany, where I had found the winters too cold and the summers too hot, I much appreciated the more temperate British seasons. Seeing trees in bloom in February was unbelievable for someone like me who had never seen trees in blossom before April!
Regrettably, some of these positives are actually not quite so positive 29 years later.
The weather has become more erratic – though still more bearable to me than continental conditions. But I can hardly blame the Brits solely for climate change!
I think British authorities still treat their “clients” better than German ones ever did. But the gap is slowly closing. Bureaucracy is gaining a foothold.
Drivers have become a lot more impatient and rude since I moved here all those years ago. There is so much more traffic now and people overall appear pushier and less willing to give way. Horns are used more often; thankyous – except perhaps in the more rural areas – have become rarer. The average speed on motorways (when there isn’t a holdup) seems to have increased. More people now rush past those who stick to the speed limit. The saving grace is that the volume of traffic remains light compared to the volume thundering up and down German autobahns.
People still happily accept eccentrics but tolerance of foreigners has decreased. This is especially true of people who are “obviously different”, don’t make the effort to fit in or stick out like a sore thumb by their clothes or habits. Due to worldwide terrorist activity, a lot of Brits are now especially nervous of anyone who might be a Muslim.
And yet. In the UK, I have often experienced that being a foreign national was a point of interest and it often came up in conversation. But in all the time I have lived in the UK, I have only once met serious xenophobia.
The times they are indeed a-changing
Becoming British to me has always meant integration into British life by doing as the Brits did.
I donated blood. Overall, I dressed as everyone else (no expense spared – top of the range charity shop clothes!). I took up English country dancing; why, I was even a Morris dancer for 10 years! I played Scrabble like a native and actually cooked English food every once in a while. To cut a long story short, I felt that I fitted in pretty well.
As a result of the Brexit vote, however, I suddenly felt insecure in my status as a fully integrated UK resident. So I thought it expedient to apply for British citizenship. This would at least allow me to take part in future votes – and no one would be able to “make” me leave the country unless I wished to do so.
While my application has been successful, I feel that there is much more to becoming British than owning a citizenship certificate. I do not expect that holding it in my hands will make me any more British than I have become over the years. Rather the opposite: having felt perfectly at home here for a long time, being made to jump through lots of citizenship application hoops made me feel more like an alien than I had felt since my arrival.
Becoming British by jumping through bureaucratic hoops is another story.
The author of this article is Mecki Testroet, a long-standing colleague of mine.