Ob(li)viously European

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Ob(li)viously European

By Aisha Ashraf

Global Living – Issue 13 | July/August 2014

I was born into a farming family in the rolling emerald fields, lonely peat bogs and leafy lanes of rural Ireland. Unexpectedly, when I was eight we moved to suburban England and I experienced my first taste of culture shock. Everything was different – landscapes, unspoken understandings, expectations, pace of life. Suddenly, without having altered, I was different – my funny accent and galling ignorance of plimsolls and the rules of British Bulldog the source of much hilarity to my peers.

When I arrived in Canada four years ago, once again my differences marked me out as “not from ‘round here”: again the accent, the different words for things, the realization (too late) that you’re not supposed to speak when the national anthem fills the school halls.

The brave souls who struck up a conversation with me inevitably got around to asking, “Where are you from?” Some would be so bold as to hazard a guess, with varying degrees of accuracy.

“Is that a South African accent?”

Or… “Australia, right?”

“No, I’m here from the U.K.”

It turned out that identifying as a witness to Britness was the cipher that unlocked a shared heritage. I’d hear about an English grandfather who, in the impetuosity of youth, landed on Canadian shores with just the shirt on his back and five English pounds … or the aunt or uncle living in Telford, or some more obscure U.K. town I looked clueless for never having heard of.

I’ll be honest – although I hold an Irish passport, I usually identify as British to save time and confusion and long-winded explanations. I lived there longer than anywhere else and it’s what people anticipate when they ‘guess-that-accent’; my Irish lilt is long-gone. But when fielding questions abroad, there’s always an expectation (self-imposed or external, or maybe a bit of both) that you’re an authority on your homeland – a bona fide cricket-loving, Shakespeare-quoting, walking encyclopedia on Prince Phillip gaffes, fish and chips and the London underground – and there’s nothing like a gap in your knowledge to make you feel like a fraud.

Thankfully, when I arrived in Canada most people were more interested in sharing their own knowledge than probing the holes in mine. Unable to resist an opportunity to display cultural intelligence, enthusiasm shining in their eyes, they unwittingly gave me surprising insights into what ‘British’ means to folks across the Atlantic; how the accent apparently makes us sound soooo intelligent, but we’re all expected to have awful teeth.

Most nations have their stereotypes, and these assumptions were not a total shock, but something else surfaced that did surprise me. I’d never realized it before but, that thing Canadians in particular hate so much, that lumping together of everyone who lives on the landmass known as North America – they do the exact same thing to those who live in Europe.

I’d never thought of myself as European before I came here – not because I’m particularly patriotic, but I guess because it does little to convey anything meaningful about me. Certainly neither I nor anyone else had ever labeled me as such. Even the British themselves talk about how things are ‘on the continent’ as though we were removed from the whole deal; and don’t get them started on the Euro, the once hotly-debated European single currency to which we do not subscribe.

The 50-odd countries that make up the world’s second smallest and third most populous continent are so diverse that the term ‘European’ is little more than a geographical reference.

But if, when leaving the gym at 8 p.m., I happen to mention we’ve yet to eat, there’s the knowing head-nod, “Well, I guess you Europeans are used to eating late anyway.” Perhaps in France or Italy, but not so much the U.K. where dinner or teatime is still in the region of the six o’clock news. There’s also some confusion about exactly what we eat – a Mediterranean diet or rhubarb and custard? Noting my bewilderment as she reeled off the meatloaf, pot-roast, pea-meal ham and dinner-rolls planned for the week, a new friend asked, “So what do you eat in your house?”

That was all the excuse we needed. We’ve been plying friends with pukka curry, bread and butter pudding, roast beef with Yorkshires, and Marmite on toast ever since.

Even the finer points of childrearing can be classified by continent, it seems:

“Your kids are so well behaved. European parents have a much stricter approach to discipline, don’t they?” A shared thought-bubble montage of Mary Poppins, marching Hitler Youth, and Swiss finishing schools bobs fleetingly above our heads before someone clears their throat and changes the subject.

“I love your clothes. European fashion is just so much more sophisticated.” This I have to agree with; the predominant style in North America seems to be casual comfort – everything is a variation on jeans and T-shirt, or yoga pants (they don’t call a lumberjack shirt a Canadian dinner-jacket for nothing you know). But how do you sum up European fashion when there’s a vast difference between French or Italian chic, and edgy, enigmatic German streetwear?

It seems being European is a whole new side to my identity I never knew existed. Is it reflective of a larger, more inclusive world-view as global travel becomes increasingly accessible and cultural differences more generalized, or just that age-old explorers wisdom: perception is less a reality and more a manifestation of perspective?

We’re all different things to different people.

“You must be sad you missed the Royal wedding.”

“Yes, but not as much as Kate. She was devastated when I told her I couldn’t make it.”

May as well play along.

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