13. October 2022

Going back to Britain – the joys and frustrations of returning to the mother ship

Old Blighty York Minster

If you have read some of my other work, you will know that I was born and grew up in Yorkshire in the UK but went to live in Austria in September 2004. It’s now 2022 and I am still here – I have even naturalised as an Austrian citizen. But I still love my trips back to Britain. Most of the time.

Even though I am as integrated as I will ever be here in Austria, the UK will always be my home. All my family are still there and so I try and get back to Britain at least once a year (pandemics allowing). Even though I love my visits back to Old Blighty, they are always a mixed bag of feelings. For everything that makes my heart melt, there is at least one other thing which drives me up the wall.

Notes from an old and eccentric country with a habit of completely losing the plot.

1. Getting off the plane in Manchester or Leeds Bradford and hearing someone say “hiya love, y’alright?”

Aye up!” will also do nicely. These two typical Northern greetings are the siren call of home. Brutal vowels that take no prisoners and the allergy to pronouncing “h”. Not to mention the comforting feeling that — even though I’m just buying a sandwich from Boots — the lady calling me “love” would actually hand me a tissue and dispense sympathy should my emotions get the better of me right now. There’s nothing like it.

2. Eating strange food that is so wrong that it’s right.

Now, in general, British food is far better than its international reputation. But there is also a lot of what I call “rude food”, which is food that — by objective, non-British standards — tends to trigger a reaction of the “you’re not going to eat THAT are you?” variety. Food that seems so irremediably WRONG — and yet it is so very RIGHT.

Tacky, sugary British chocolate. Scotch eggs. Ribena. Cream soda. Proper salt and vinegar crisps so strong they make the inside of your mouth sore and your fingers sting. Irn Bru — a bright orange drink that neither looks nor tastes of anything that occurs in nature. I can’t get enough of it.

3. Driving through the countryside.

You might think that living in a country with such dramatic geography as Austria might make Britain pale in comparison. Not so! There is something uniquely beautiful about the British countryside and coast that allows it to stand as an equal beside the high mountains of Austria, the great rivers of Europe and the deserts of Africa.

From the desolate and exposed Yorkshire Dales to the lush Wye Valley and the cliffs of Cornwall — Britain’s landscape is as diverse as it is lovely. It is the charm of small things.

4. Going to a proper pub.

Of course any trip to Old Blighty has to involve a trip to a pub. And none of this late 20th century/early 21st century gastropub nonsense either! I’m talking a real, farmer’s pub out in the countryside.

The kind with low ceilings and wooden beams that will make anyone over 5 foot 7 stoop — just in case. The kind that manages to be simultaneously cosy and yet exceedingly draughty. That has tiny windows looking out onto sheep punctuating green fields criss-crossed with dry stone walls. Where you can smell warm bodies in Barbour jackets and mud on the soles of welly boots as soon as you come in. THAT kind of pub.

5. The evening sun

This phenomenon is not specific to Britain but can be observed across the whole of northern Europe. At times during my visits to Iceland and Sweden, I’ve wondered why things instinctively felt so familiar even though I was so far away from home — and the evening light is the reason.

I don’t know why — perhaps it is the northerly latitude — but the evening sun in these countries has a soft, almost liquid quality to it that is completely absent in Austria. At about 3pm in winter in Britain, if the sky is clear, the sun bathes everything in an intense red-gold light that warms you from the inside, even on the coldest of days.

6. The normal, everyday friendliness

OK, so it doesn’t mean that everyone likes you and wants to be your friend. But the informal chit-chat that coats almost every social interaction in Britain is a real addition to life quality.

There is not much of this low-key joviality among strangers in Austria. Trips to the supermarket or shops tend to cover only the absolute essentials in terms of communication. Stand-offishness is the norm and rudeness is frequent (especially in Vienna).

To me, it doesn’t matter whether a shop assistant likes me or could imagine going out with me for an afterwork drink or not. I am the customer and I am therefore always right and basic politeness should go without saying in such situations. But the British way of oiling the cogs of social interaction with a bit of a laugh and a bit of a joke goes a long way to making today a good day.

7. Having oodles of history everywhere you look

Austria is also drenched in history so I am not exactly starved of it where I live. But there is something uniquely homely about plunging back into the history of the country where you grew up.

And England is a place where the sweep of history is immediately and obviously palpable wherever you are and whatever you might be doing. From the ancient medieval ridges and furrows in countryside fields to ruined monasteries and soaring cathedrals — there are very few places in the world where you can feel such a direct connection to the past.

1. When the “mustn’t complain” attitude goes too far.

The British resistance to complaining when things aren’t exactly as they would wish is, in essence, a Very Good Thing. Compared to more exacting and fussy people like the Swiss or the Germans, the British are less likely to get in a tizz when something isn’t working perfectly or if there are a couple of hiccups on the way from A to B. “Just getting on with it” is absolutely something to be applauded.

Problems crop up when the refusal to complain results in the acceptance of abysmal standards or even resignation to a state of failure. A collective willingness to stand up and say very clearly “this isn’t good enough” (as opposed to the kind of passive-aggressive tutting that the British specialise in) would go a long way towards ensuring that the country and its infrastructure worked in the way it should. Everyone would be happier for it.

2. Even intelligent, worldly-wise people don’t have any understanding of anything that goes on outside of the island.

To say that Britain used to have such a sprawling global empire, its inhabitants are pretty rubbish at knowing what’s going on outside the country’s borders. To say that it’s RIGHT THERE, continental Europe seems to be a particular blind spot. While the mess of Brexit exposed this weakness in a very public and sustained way — it is a habit that has been deeply ingrained for many decades.

Rare is the British journalist whose writing indicates a decent understanding of European political affairs*. I am no fan of the EU from a political point of view, but at least living out in Austria means having a better understanding of how people on this side of the fence (or rather English Channel) feel about it.

[* For the record, this goes both ways. I haven’t yet found a journalist in the German-speaking area who understands the first thing about the British mentality.]

3. The inexplicable urge the Brits have to make themselves slightly uncomfortable all the time.

This is closely related to the “mustn’t complain” doctrine but is nevertheless a separate and distinct pathology among the British. Darling Old Blighty is a country of draughty windows, people putting on shorts when it is still less than 15°C outside and feeling like they absolutely HAVE to have a barbeque in the garden even though it is chilly and threatening rain.

The Germans and Austrians have committed so fully to finding their own optimal level of cosiness at all times that there is a special word (“Gemütlichkeit”) as well as a multi-billion euro industry devoted to it. Compared to them, the Brits are clearly a people who do not set great store by their own comfort.

I’ve often found myself asking — why this dogged commitment to low-level masochism? Have you all been trying to toughen yourselves up for some unspecified unpleasant future event which will cause living standards to plummet so far that you can all claim to have been prepared all this time? Do you not feel entitled to comfort? Is that just for wimps? You CAN put your jumper on BEFORE your teeth start chattering, you know.

4. Products and services have all kinds of bells and whistles but the basic function is lacking.

Britain is great at customer service. Shop staff tend to be friendly, helpful and approachable. The general openness to novelty and innovation ensures that there is always some new idea or approach being put out onto the market to make people’s lives easier or more pleasant.

However, the effort to produce these new bells and whistles frequently overlooks the fact that the core good/service is lacking. What good is a world-beating rail loyalty card with super-duper offers if your rail infrastructure is crumbling and the train service is unable to get you reliably from A to B?

In so many ways, the UK needs to go back to basics.

5. The determination to pretend that it is still the 1950s.

The basic dimensions of the infrastructure — from the narrow roads and driving lanes to the trains to the squat little Victorian terraces — are rooted in a Britain that has long since ceased to exist. In the past, roads were filled with horses and carts, bicycles and then small cars. Not massive SUVs. A refusal to take into account the changes of modernity has turned Britain into a country of people nudging each other into the ditch on a narrow road — both literally and metaphorically. This is no longer the charm, but the frustration of small things.

The same goes for how Brits live. Britain is, and has always been, a land obsessed with house living. There may be terraces and semi-detached houses — but fundamentally, the British have stayed stubbornly attached to separate and distinct living spaces rather than the kind of apartment living which is widespread on the continent. With a population of 65 million which is still growing, you need to start using the space you have more efficiently by building higher and living together rather than just co-existing.


Related articles:

18 years living in Vienna…some thoughts on a very special anniversary

The Battle of Flamborough Head – American history in Yorkshire

Yorkshire words and phrases I still use after 19 years living abroad

Kiwi shoe polish bids goodbye to the UK


Photo: York Minster (Katharine Eyre © 2021)