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I’m Here to Stay
14 September 2018 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
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by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
For the past four years, I, a Dutchman, have lived among the English. At the moment I live in Malmesbury (Wiltshire) together with my sister, who has been in England for more than thirty years (‘but it doesn’t show’).
Because of the impending Brexit, the English reputation has increasingly deteriorated on the continent, even though they liberated Europe. If push comes to shove, they will do it again. I’m an Anglophile; my doctor assures me it is harmless.
Authentic English people are actually quite hard to find in this town. The town in question is located on the southernmost edge of the Cotswolds: in short, it’s in the South West, where you expect everyone to be dyed-in-the-wool English.
It just so happens that my neighbour on the left is Irish; so too is the one on the right, whose husband hails from Wales. On the corner lives a Scot who is married to a woman from Bangor. If you trace histories down the street you come across people who grew up in Cyprus or are descendants of Polish people who ‘made this country their home’.
Around the corner is an Indian takeaway and, as you know, in this country people from India – after those from Pakistan and Bangladesh – feel the most British. In a nutshell: background-wise it’s a bit of a shambles, but at the same time they are all quintessentially English people, even though a Scot will insist they’re Scottish, people from Ireland are Irish, those from Wales Welsh, etc.
Whatever their background, the English are invariably a bit shy. But they do bring you plums from their garden. At home, the greatest football hooligan is a pussycat. ‘If you want, there’s more!’ Or when they go away on holiday they tell you to please use their parking space. Even when completely legless they still stop to make small talk, albeit with only one leg to stand on, often posing this question: ‘How are you today?’ You’re expected to answer: ‘Not too bad.’ An English person doesn’t exaggerate but also doesn’t complain too much either. They certainly won’t admit to being tipsy.
Occasionally I get the impression that, before going out onto the street, they check there aren’t any strangers around. People like to have a friendly chat with friends and acquaintances, but when confronted with strangers they like to keep their distance. The Englishman’s home is his castle. Townspeople regularly take up position behind their front door window to check if the coast is clear.
It’s not that we’re never invited into our neighbours’ homes, but those visits always have a few awkward moments. They apologise on behalf of their fellow citizens who have voted for Brexit, only to knock over the table with the hot teapot.
People here are so civilised that it causes several traffic problems. For example, you’re driving along a priority road, it’s busy (in this neck of the woods we’re talking about six cars in a queue) and you spot cars waiting to emerge from a side road. The done thing is to use hand signals and flash headlights to invite these cars to fit in. This can lead to minutes of ‘After you’, ‘No, you go first’ – but no one blows their horn.
Here, people thank you with a wave if the road narrows and you make room for oncoming traffic. This has caused many a waving driver to steer into the roadside shrubbery.
There are roundabouts everywhere, in some cases consisting of nothing more than a painted circle. You have right of way once you are on a roundabout, and I once tested English patience by driving twelve times at full speed around the roundabout so that all other cars had to wait. Usually the English remain understanding: ‘He must be lost.’
Further down the road there is a bowls club, where people – the name gives it away – play bowls. This is the British form of the French jeu de boules (but under no circumstances use this term). At official games, when the club flag is raised, participants (kitted out all in white, the club’s dress code), with one foot on the bowls carpet, roll the wood in the direction of the jack or kitty, accompanied by dignified applause from members and opponents.
Well, they’re normally dressed all in white, except during the annual summer carnival when, in aid of charity, they appear in fancy dress costume on the closely cut grass. Recently I encountered a figure dressed as a dog and another one donning a Victorian top hat. Merriment all round, plentiful pints of beer, but this provided no distraction from the serious business of playing bowls. The English keep going whatever the circumstances.
And that’s how I got chatting to another of the spectators. I asked him what he thought about Brexit. A somewhat direct question: rather a Dutch trait.
‘We’ve been playing this game since the thirteenth century’, he said. ‘Well, it could have been the twelfth.’ He sighed. ‘Not exactly on this spot,’ he added, ‘but on this island, I mean. This in contrast to the French petanque, which is much more recent: that really has only been played since 1907. Those French just throw balls around. We roll. In short, we’re not going to give this up any time soon.’ There was nothing to get worried about.
For the coming spring, this keen sailor was planning a sailing trip to France ‘in case I have to pick up my father’. Father was enjoying his retirement but getting worried about the impending Brexit. ‘A second Dunkirk’, chuckled his son.
The local Waitrose supermarket has already adjusted its product range. More and more products are replaced with their own brand and the French wine selection is shrinking.
I think it might well be a very hard Brexit. But I hope I can stay. And I do enjoy cider too.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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