This is an edited extract from the Introductory chapter of Make Me German. Which is why it begins in the middle and ends before the end. You can read the whole thing inside the book.
…If you live in one place for a long time, as I had in England, you are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, so it’s easy to forget how special it is. You see only its flaws and minor inconveniences. Or perhaps even worse, you think that the way you do things there is the right way. That there are normal people, and strange people, and fortunately enough, as chance would have it, you were born into the normal tribe, and all those other people over there, from other places, foreign places, with their strange cultures and languages and dress – those people are the strange ones.
Then, suddenly, you’re somewhere else with a completely different idea of normal. You’re dumped into situations where you no longer know the default way to do things. Where you are no longer a master of language, a genius of local geography, an expert on the mating customs of your nearby tribe. In the face of millions of people doing and thinking things differently to you, it’s only logical to conclude that maybe, there might also be something to their method? That your normal is actually just what you are used to. While it has become your magnetic north, the reference point to which everything else is aligned; it is nothing more than that. To these other people, your strange and often primitive ways and beliefs are south-south west.
Over time, you replace words like normal, strange, right and wrong, with just different. This is not the only thing you learn. As you try and fail to complete even the simplest of tasks – buying toothpaste at the supermarket, telling the taxi driver where you want to go, ordering that burger, only without the pickles. You realise that while you left to reinvent yourself, the first thing you actually became is a complete child. A time when curiosity and ignorance went hand in hand.
It’s magical. No, really! You get a few more golden years of happy, care-free ignorance in a Disneyland of foreign novelty, as sponsored by other people’s culture.
The great thing about children is how they are excited by everything. Something as simple as a puddle can give them pure, unrestrained existential delight. There’s no special reason that adults lose this sense of simple joy, other than the specialness of puddles gradually gets bludgeoned out of us by endless puddle repetition. Now, when I look down at a puddle, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a puddle. In fact, it’s probably about the seven millionth time I’ve seen a puddle. I might have been more excited six-million-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand times ago. By now, I don’t even see the puddle. I see the puddle’s effect on my responsibilities. I see wet socks. I see the end of summer. I see old age.
Which is why everyone needs to move abroad! You see, expats get to experience a unique phenomenon, called Foreigner Vision. This is like a magic pair of glasses, which we wear each day of our foreign existence. Through its special lenses, we get to peer out at a more interesting, colourful and exotic world. A foreign world. That’s not a puddle, it’s a foreign puddle. Full of special foreign water. Filling an exotic foreign crevice of an interesting foreign street. Stepping in it is not just a mild, soggy inconvenience – it’s an adventure!
As well as the world being slightly more interesting to you from the inside-out, it’s also possible that the world might be a bit more interested in you from the outside-in. Just like children are given special treatment to speak their minds freely, so will you be. After all, you’re no longer just an ordinary Belgian or German or Englishman in a rather cramped pool of millions of others. You have something new to offer the people of your adopted nation.
Now you’re exotic, like a mango.
Suddenly your boring family memories can be retold to your new friends as sprawling cultural exposés. Your simple pub stories can become great, enchanting fables from a romantic, distant land. Indeed, any mundane, seemingly “everyday” detail from your old life might be exciting to someone who doesn’t know it. Soon, you might find yourself enthusiastically recounting the story of Marmite like it’s .
But then, over time, your relationship to your adopted nation begins to change. Before you prided yourself on your outsider status. On your ability to not understand what was happening around you. You enjoy not being able to eavesdrop on the people on the table next to you. Not being distracted by the meaning of the T-Mobile advert on the billboard in your street. Not having to be outraged at the latest political scandal. You have a lot of quiet, you time.
But as the years roll by, you slowly begin integrating, first by learning the language, then by become an increasingly important person in the lives of your partner, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Suddenly, without even noticing, you find that when your partner’s Grandma phones, you are expected to talk to her, even just to say a few broken words in your adopted language. The longer you stay in your new nation, the less feasible it seems that one day you might leave. The more you begin to understand about the country you now call home, the more you realise you still don’t know and for the first time this irritates you. You may understand all the specific individual words in the sentence of the in-jokes of your new friends, but not the cultural references that live within them. Slowly, you’re no longer defining yourself by your outsiderness, because you now want to be an insider, one of them…