Fritz the German and I have been together for coming up on a year now – depending on who you ask. He was very particular that we be an official couple after a certain date, which amused me greatly.
Eventually, there will be a moment when we have to decide whether to “shit or get off the pot” – as Chris O’Donnell so quaintly put it in “The Bachelor” – and it could well be that we stay together and commit to living in the same place. Which is generally how relationships work, I believe.
People have been asking what I’m going to do.
Realistically, I will move to Germany and live in Munich. His career is much much better than my job; his family are all either in that country or within driving distance; the standard of living is better in Germany; Brexit is about to slide this country into the sea and who knows what the next election will deliver.
With dual nationality, moving to Europe is a lot easier for me than it is for him to move here where England – excepting London- and Wales have actively chosen to be unwelcoming to Europeans.
On the face of it, it shouldn’t be a big deal. I speak German already; I work for a German company already; Munich is very cosmopolitan; most of my friends don’t live in London any more, so I travel at least an hour to see them and we’re all on Whatsapp already. Not that much would change.
Every time someone asks me when Fritz will move to London and I say that I’m more likely to move there, a small part of my soul screams a little.
I just don’t want to. I made a life for myself here in London. I went to university here, I have friends across the country, I found a job in London and lived through so much joy, despair, heartbreak, hope, loss and love here. I speak the language, and I mean, I really speak it. I don’t spend the start of every conversation explaining why I can speak good English, I don’t have to run through my education background, I don’t (usually) have to explain Northern Ireland and how it fits into the UK. I can have conversations about things I don’t know or understand but passably fake it. I can express displeasure and fury at retail or service situations without bursting into tears in frustration. I understand the nuances of sales assistant chat. I can ask questions in a way that makes doctors take me seriously, rather than fob me off with paracetamol. In English I am competent, confident and assertive, even if my personality might not be.
In German, I’m quiet. I’m more reserved, I make smaller jokes, I take a backseat conversationally. I go with ideas rather than suggesting them. In German, I can’t exactly tell where the line between drunk banter on public transport is approaching sexual harassment. In German I don’t have the confidence to argue with the pharmacist that, actually, I would really like to buy the medication I asked for, rather than the one you keep insisting is better. In German I am terrified of official documents and the tiny-font-massive-paragraph fonts.
I’m very concerned that I will lose my confidence in Germany and become a shadow. Or worse, an ex-pat yearning to go home.
To be clear – I love Germany. I love the friendliness of the people – that the friendly ones are breathtakingly friendly and the grumpy ones are so stunningly obviously grumpy. I love that things just function there and when they don’t, people make efforts to rectify that. Objects and services are of good quality by design rather than as a selling point. I love that the cities make sense and that society is much more equal than the UK. I like that it’s a much more socialist society than ours. Teachers are well qualified and well-paid. Doctors aren’t harassed and as exhausted as ours. The healthcare system works. There is Nutella everywhere you go. The work-life balance is sensible and society is built for it. That there are ice cream kiosks on virtually every corner in the summer and the flavours are sublime. That Ritter Sport and Milka are in every newsagent and sparkling water is the norm.
Aside from the language, what I already know will annoy me in Germany is that I will not have hot and cold running access to baked beans or ready-meals. That I won’t be able to channel surf for reruns of NCIS: LA or Friends where the voices are right. That everything is just that little bit more expensive, because they believe in paying for quality and I struggle with that as a person who buys twice cheaply. That the shops will close at midday on Saturday and not open until Monday. That anytime I want to buy painkillers I will have to have a chat with a pharmacist who will try and sell me some sort of herbal tea instead. That I will be an hour out from all my English friends and even further out from my North American people. That the food is so salty (Germans aggressively season their food) and beige or pickled. That is will be COLD with snow in winter and HOT with sunburn in summer, because they have proper weather. That online shopping isn’t such a big deal there. That I’ll have to pay for health insurance. That I’ll have to do a tax return. That there isn’t a Boots, or a big Tesco or a Marks&Spencer where you can buy makeup, a meal, a five pack of pants and some other random purchase.
I’m afraid I’m going to be wistful for a United Kingdom that exists only in my rose-coloured memory and that I will be bitter about the people I will have chosen to live amongst. At the moment, it’s sort of acceptable that I make fun of my Germans, because they heavily outnumber me at work and they’re on my turf. In Germany, if I make fun of the Germans, I’m going to look like someone who holidays in Costa Del Sol, but only eats fry-ups at the English pub and only speaks to other English people.
Aside from the cultural differences, I am essentially afraid of change and also of being dependent on someone. I’ve been on my own for a while now. I’ve become accustomed to my independence and having created a life that suits me entirely. Fritz has been very careful about not pushing it and agreeing that we would have UK Sky for the TV and that I would go back to the UK every six weeks or so. We would speak English in the house. Our imaginary future children would go to an international school. The bigger EDKA’s have world food aisles and sell Heinz Beans, we could stock up.
I know it would be fine. I know I would be fine. I would be beholden to F and his people for a bit til I found my feet and a job and a routine and some friends of my own, but that happened when I moved to London. My German would improve. I have friends there I could visit. With Whatsapp and Skype, it’ll not be that different from how I communicate with my friends anyway. It would be fine. It would be better than fine.
But it wouldn’t be London.
When I moved to London it was for a boy. It was for a boy and a job and my friends. The job is fine, the boy went away and my friends married and moved to the suburbs. The constant was London. It feels such a cliché to say that the city is a character in my life – one skewed wonderfully by the Paul Rudd/Amy Pohler movie – They Came Together (which is one of the most disappointing movies I’ve ever seen, by the way. My expectations were beyond high). Every day, whether I am having a great or terrible day, I see something in London that stuns me. The skyline, graffiti, human interactions, foxes in places foxes shouldn’t be, tube station messages, the newest hipster wankery. Irony, stubbornness, stoicism and mild hope are built into the very pavements of the city and hold us up when we are weary.
When the Westminster Bridge attack happened, I remember thinking “The first “pray for London” image I see on Instagram is going to make me lose my temper. We don’t need that and we don’t want that. We don’t need your pity.” Such a ridiculous thought, but I was not the only one who had it. Most of my Instagram was of Londoners resolutely carrying on and not making a fuss – we’re fine, look at this avocado toast. Those PrayForLondon posts didn’t come from Londoners. My thoughts are garbled and spikey about the attack. It was terrible and shocking and awful for those involved, but it didn’t affect the city. Westminster is an integral part of London, and Big Ben is a symbol of the city, but it’s a rarefied world of politicians and a sanitised world for tourists as well as being the area people stomp through on their way to the train home, or that good Japanese restaurant behind the hospital. London had seen worse, and wasn’t here for your attention-seeking sympathy, thanks. London sees worse on a Friday night in Peckham and we all just get on with it.
London has become a family member to me. I can complain about how dirty and polluted it is and how stupid the cereal café is and how it’s full of tourists, but if you – a Non-Londoner – start on it, I will defend it to the hilt. The parks are beautiful, maybe you just haven’t actually seen that much of london; it has more green space than most capital cities; people LIKE cereal and sometimes want to try a foreign one without committing to a box – so AKSHURLY it’s a genius idea; the tourists are where the main attractions are, the nine million people who live here tend to avoid Oxford Street during peak hours.
How can I leave it? How could I love anywhere else nearly as much? I’ve inhaled so much tube brake dust and city grit that it’s part of me.
But then again, as my friend Jude pointed out, the first time I came to London – I hated it. So who knows, maybe Munich will be great?