The following essay is a personal reflection by Dr. Andrea Papp (1950 Debrecen), an associate professor at ELTE university. Her main fields are English children’s literature and literary translation. She has compiled some university textbooks and written a number of articles concerning the above topics.
First of all, let me define the three most important notions in the title:
- England – when I say England I mean England, unlike the English who may mean the United Kingdom, the British Isles, but definitely not England (see Mikes: How to be an Alien p. 14 Penguin 1966).
- The English – when I say the English I mean only the English and exclude the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish and the Americans.
- Bloody Foreigners – when I say bloody foreigners I mean bloody foreigners unlike the English who’d say distinguished Europeans and still would mean bloody foreigners. (see Mikes: How to be Decadent p.15 Penguin, 1981)
Well, definitions done, I might as well get down to business.
I started to get acquainted with the language at the age of 13. Why did I start learning the language? Don’t think because I wanted to understand the Beatles – this happened in 1963 – or because I wanted to read Shakespeare in the original, no, not in the least. The reason was much simpler: I was in love with the English teacher’s son! Love as motivation – not bad at all. But besides being in love with the son, slowly but surely, I fell in love with the language as well. I even remember sitting in a dark room, when all my peers were out somewhere having fun, collecting the names of plants and animals in English!
My first encounter with a living English person was at age 16. My English teacher (not the one with the son) invited me to her flat. The English person in question was a very nice elderly (50! or so) gentleman, we had a nice chat on indifferent topics, and the first cultural shock happened to me when after dinner we were served some peaches and the guest started to eat it with a knife and fork!!! I was so embarrassed I just left the tasty piece of fruit on the plate…
Then we had some English pen-pals: I, for example, had a girl from Swansea, Wales, and another one from London, England. Both of them visited Budapest, stayed here for a week, we had very good programmes together, and the funny thing was I could understand the Welsh girl much better than the English one! When they returned we kept on writing to each other, but when – to my great horror – I realised that the English girl’s letters were full of spelling mistakes, I decided to stop writing to her. She must be regretting it ever since…
How is it that the English do not know their own language? Why don’t they spell their words correctly? Then, all of a sudden, I remembered the good, old joke about English spelling, that the English put down the word Shakespeare and pronounce it as Moliére… So, I decided to forgive the English for their spelling mistakes!
Incredible as it may sound, I hadn’t set foot on the island until I was 41. So, between seeing the first living English person and seeing the island itself 25 years passed. Quite some time! You’d ask what on earth I did during these years, how come I didn’t go to see this relatively small island, why I didn’t take part in language courses (to this question I’d answer conceitedly that due to my hard-working collecting-for I kept on this job with idioms, sayings, phrasal verbs, proverbs etc. – my language skills were just excellent and didn’t need any improving, which, of course, wouldn’t be quite true), why I didn’t go just to have fun for a while, etc. etc. well, the answer is: I simply do not know.
During my university years there were not too many scholarships – unlike these days when only those do not travel who do not want to – (they might think that travelling narrows the mind). We needed a visa and you wouldn’t believe the heaps of very stupid and very personal questions you had to answer. The very democratic, tolerant English who allowed all the people from the former colonies to enter the country seemed to be afraid of the people behind the “Iron Curtain”. The English did not seem to bother with us – people from the Soviet bloc. The English did not differentiate between the different nations – for them – all my regards to the few exceptions – Budapest and Bucharest were all the same. In fact, the English were not really interested in the outside world, i.e. the Continent. Remember the good old joke, or was it a newspaper headline? “Fog in Channel – Continent cut off”. You might as well remember the football match between the English and the rest of the world, or at Heathrow how you have the EU line and the rest…Yes, the world is divided into two parts: the English and the rest, and I have the vague feeling that the rest does not really count … (see Mikes How to be Decadent p.14 Penguin, 1981).
Well, I still haven’t answered the question why I stayed at home for 25 years. Perhaps the shock (remember the case with the peach) was so great that I needed some time to recover from it … After university I had some other things to do, e.g. getting married, having kids, writing my doctoral thesis, teaching at the university, so I simply had no time or inclination??? Anyway, I might say, the 25 years passed in preparation for THE trip. Well, to be honest, I really had enough time to do so. On the one hand, I buried myself in English books, varying from language ones to novels, and, on the other, I had some good English friends working here in Hungary. So, if I wanted to feel English atmosphere I either turned to e.g. Mikes who was a Hungarian, but I do not think there was ever a man like him who understood, loved, honoured and criticized with love the English as he did. Or I turned to my above-mentioned friends and changed ideas on life’s important issues such as birth and death and what is in between. But feeling the English atmosphere here in Hungary is still not the real thing. So, I started to prepare for the “Great Trip” but I was always hindered in doing so. But I am sure man is born to surmount obstacles, so although I am ‘only’ a woman (true, one of my male friends told me once that I was ‘almost’ as clever as a man!) I decided to take serious steps towards organizing the trip. I began it in the year of 1984, but as luck would have it, nothing came out of the arrangements. Getting a bit tired of work, I rested some time and after a three-year pause I had a go again – no success! Then – third time lucky – in 1991 my husband, son and I set out into the world i.e. to England.
We must have been very brave for we went by car! After travelling through the continent, we arrived in Calais and embarked on a huge ferry towards Dover. The crossing was quite ok. Seagulls were flying above us, the weather was beautiful, well it was July, and everything went smoothly. And – all of a sudden – the white cliffs of Dover came into sight! We arrived and immediately found ourselves in the ‘rest of the world’ situation for the immigration officer was not too kind – to say the least – with us. At that time no visa was needed, but the questions he asked were as personal as ever, e.g. how much money we had, and at this point my husband had enough of everything and said: Sir, it is none of your business! The officer got so shocked that without a word he waved us on! So not only did we find ourselves in the ’rest’ situation, but in ‘the just the other way round’ one as well. We had to keep to the left, which was quite something with a right-hand drive car. Anyway, we managed somehow, only sometimes did we go opposite the traffic…
We stayed for a fortnight and saw almost all the major sights of London. As we stayed in Surrey every day we took the train to Victoria then spent the day in town and returned home in the evening. Thus, we could study the English way of commuting. Yes, they do read their newspapers, and if not, they look out the window, and spread their hats or umbrellas on the seat next to them, trying to prevent others from taking a seat beside them. Arriving at Victoria we took a double decker – and – to our surprise – people were really queuing! So what else could we do but join the queue? When in Rome do as the Romans do. Queue-jumping is an insult to the English, and we had not the slightest intention to hurt their feelings.
During the fortnight spent there we could experience all (almost all) the national stereotypes we had learnt about. Since Queuing and commuting have already been mentioned, I’d mention the stereotype of the English being ‘reserved and taciturn’. Well, as we could see, they were not at all reserved let alone taciturn. They were very normal, friendly, kind and lovable people. Whenever we asked the ‘how can we get to…’ question, usually half a dozen people turned to us and eagerly wanted to help. The only problem was in nine cases out of ten we simply couldn’t understand what they were saying … And this leads us to the problem of the language. G. B. Shaw writes somewhere: “… the better the foreigner speaks the harder it is to understand him, for no foreigner can ever stress the syllable and make the voice rise and fall exactly as a native does”. What can I add to this? Yes, I can quote my master Mikes who in his brilliant book How to be an Alien writes: “… the next seven years convinced me gradually but thoroughly that I would never know it (the language) really well, let alone perfectly.” (p.31)
After the first visit, I had the opportunity to go to this lovely island several times, mingle with people, talk to them, and usually I was praised for my accent, apart from one situation, when in Edinburgh in a gift shop not even was I praised but given a good dressing-down for my bloody English accent!
Another important stereotype is, of course, the weather and talking about it all the time. At school, we learnt that English weather is rather terrible, rainy, cold, etc., etc. Well, during our first visit it really was terrible – terribly hot for that matter! Any time later I went back I didn’t really experience this ‘bad weather’ stereotype, except perhaps once, when in January! I got wet to the skin (it was pouring) and this must be understood literally. I wouldn’t have believed that talking about the weather is a real thing and not pure fiction. When once in Plymouth, queuing for the bus, a nice lady turned to me observing how lovely day it was for January – well you could have knocked me down with a feather – but, being a polite person, I answered her something like ‘oh, yes, well, it seems or in fact it is…’ and it must have been a good start, for she began talking to me and in no time it turned out that she was Catholic (mind you in a country of mainly Anglicans) didn’t know too much about Hungary, her children lived far away and didn’t see them too often, and that the nearby park was a dangerous place to visit…Had my bus not turned up, we’d still be there talking…
And, yes, the ‘green grass’ stereotype. I would have never believed had I not seen it for myself. This is the typical ‘can’t be true’ feeling but when you see the lawn – be it in Hyde Park or somewhere in the country – you just gape and gape, then realize that it is not artificial, it is the real thing.
Another well-known stereotype is that the English do not speak any foreign languages. Well, why should they – you may say. English is the lingua franca of today, everybody speaks (at least thinks he/she speaks) English. The thing is that it is again partly true. The majority of the population learns French at school, but does not really speak it; however, there is a relatively large minority, which speaks more than one foreign language. I have a good friend, whose French is excellent, and as he was once the teacher of a Saudi Arabian prince, obviously his Arabic is quite good, I must say. But the most miraculous example is a certain David whose Hungarian is almost native, he introduces himself the Hungarian way i.e. I am Matley Dávid, and in addition speaks German, French and Portuguese as well. Not bad for anyone, let alone for someone who is English! Well, the fact that his wife is Hungarian might detract a bit from his merit.
Anyway, this language business is not that easy at all. When I was praised for my English when I heard sentences like ‘you must have lived here for a long time’ or ‘you must have some English relatives’ and when my answers were ‘Oh, no, no,’ and, of course, seeing their surprise and acknowledgement was great, but all in all their final conclusion was always this: Well, she is almost English.
And the famous English pubs! Yes, they are part of Englishness, they are part of every town and village. Yes, without pubs, England would be different. At school, again I learnt everything (well, I might be over the top, almost everything) in connection with pubs and pub life, even different expressions such as e.g. pub crawling, be a regular, my local, etc., etc. and, in spite of my thorough studies, during my first visit I didn’t cross the threshold of any pub! Well, the reason might be threefold: 1. My lord and my master (not my husband, my son) was under age at that time, and we didn’t want him to fall to temptation. 2. My better half does not like alcohol, and he is not very keen on pubs, restaurants, cafés. 3. I didn’t want to enter on my own…In the years to come, thank God, I made up for what I had lost and got acquainted with pub culture, and in Plymouth where I travelled several times I even had my local one, the Sippers. And I experienced some – at least for us Continental people- strange things. E.g. while in the train they did not enter into conversation, in pubs total strangers turned to us and suddenly we became – well if not friends – but chance acquaintances. Or dressing, we Hungarians, if going out, usually dress up, if not in our Sunday best, but still well, while the English dress rather casually. And right they are! If you dress like this you won’t be ill at ease when drinking some red wine…
And now some more things I learnt at school (and mind you, I was a hard-working girl) which proved to be ‘the just the other way round’ matters. Now I’d mention just one thing. At school, we learnt that Birmingham and Liverpool were industrial towns, with dirty streets, poor people. And when I was there, to my pleasant surprise I found beautiful parks, clean streets, friendly people and two of the best art galleries of England! So much for school knowledge.
Of course, at school I learnt many things about the English countryside. Well, this was definitely not ‘the other way round’ feeling. I must say I am fascinated by rural England. I do not think that London is the number one place in England. For me the country is the real thing. If you did not see it, you cannot imagine e.g. Dartmoor, where you should drive with ‘moore’ care, or Tamar Bridge where you still have to pay a toll if you want to leave Cornwall. I do not think you can find such nice pubs anywhere else as in Devon, e.g. ‘The who’d have thought it’ or ‘The Plumpe and Feather’ where every Sunday there is live music. Or the gorgeous manors, such as Saltram House where Sense and Sensibility was filmed. Or the fantastic fishing village Polperro (my number one place in England) where you can find England’s smallest shop, a Fishing and Smuggling museum, and a lovely coast. This is the place where I could and would spend the rest of my life. I feel at home there, I have my dream house, I know all the shops, places of interest. Last time during my strolling along the narrow streets I was addressed several times to show the way to somewhere. I was very proud of myself, for in ten cases out of ten I directed them to the right place without hesitation. Yes, I was very proud of myself, being so helpful, but on second thought I realized I was too straightforward. Now, thinking back they were a bit surprised too, they asked the way and were told immediately. Where is the good, old England – they might have thought. Then I remembered the joke (or was it a true story?) about a trueborn Englishman travelling to Birmingham, leaning out of the window, and looking at the people passing by on the platform. Another man who also wanted to travel to the same place asked him if the train was due to Birmingham and the man in the train answered: Well, let me think, I am not quite sure, but I think so.
And last, there are reasons why I love the English. They still do keep their traditions, e.g. I think, from ‘95 pubs had to use the decimal system, but the English just ignored it and went on drinking a pint or half a pint. And they had the balls not to join the Euro zone! And although they lost their colonies, ceased to be an empire, and have less great weight in world affairs, they still have their language. A language, which can never be learnt or acquired totally by a foreigner. If we just think of the Cockney rhyming slang, then we can easily realize that it is nothing but total protection against ‘the rest’ of the world. And we can only hope that in spite of the often-harmful American influence on the language, the English will never surrender, for as long as the language lives the nation is not dead! So long live England and the English, but according to the ‘live and let live’ idea, long live the bloody foreigners, as well!
By Andrea Papp