Memories of a culture

Joruna Hrabalová

The pang in my heart when I heard the result of the Brexit referendum this morning caught me unawares. Is that country still so close to my heart, more than twenty years after I decided to swap it for promises of freedom and the infinite possibilities of the Czech Republic in the nineties? An almost tender longing for all of what I voluntarily lost, not realizing most of it until I had sobered up from the initial enthusiasm of the change, flooded my soul and took me back, almost against my will, to the year 1986.

I still remember my very first sight of Britain. Eagerly looking out of the window of the ferry towards Hull after an overnight crossing of the North Sea, the only thing to be seen in the darkness of the early morning were orange street lights diffusing in the fog. But my first encounter with British culture had been a little earlier still, when the steward knocked on our cabin door to wake us and had left a tray with tea behind the door. Why on earth should I drink black tea with milk before I had even dressed? I did not know then how much tea can contribute to one’s psychological wellbeing, and how many critical points in my life would be saved and settled by a simple “cup of tea, will you”.

So there we were, driving through the streets of Hull towards our new home. Why are their houses all the same? Why are they so close to each other? Why on earth are they all built from this dark, almost black stone? Why are there walls along the roads everywhere? Can’t I just run into the countryside as I am used to? These and many more questions were to hum in my head during the next few months, most of them left unanswered in the great turmoil of adaptation to a new culture.

Before we moved into our new house, the previous owners organized a barbecue party, inviting all the immediate neighbourhood in order for us to get acquainted with everyone. A lot of people asked where the Czech Republic was. The older generation usually came up with the story of the pilots who helped in WWII, but sometimes there were questions of the type, “Do you have things like radios in your country?” and “Is it close to that war in Yugoslavia?”, which left me wondering about the general level of education in my new home country.

Not understanding a word of English spoken in the Yorkshire accent when I started at the local grammar school was a pleasant alleviation of my previous stressful and extremely demanding school in Bavaria. Teachers and classmates were friendly, understanding, and offered help wherever possible. Within six months I understood almost everything without the slightest effort. Core subjects like maths and English were divided into achievement levels, which meant that we changed classes between each lesson. So I was present in my classroom only for registration in the morning, after which we rotated according to our level or optional subject. At my former, German school, I was very bad at maths, nearly failing the year. Once I had been relieved of the pressure of performance by being placed in a lower level class, it was as if my brain had been freed to work. I suddenly started to comprehend even more advanced arithmetical operations. Within two years I had worked myself up to highest level. How proud I was to join the top class! The A-level course (post 16 years) consists of only three optional subjects. It is very different from here, where students will have to graduate in Czech and maths, together with one foreign language. In Britain, students do the chosen subjects very intensively, corresponding to a lower Czech university level. However, they lack the broader education which people have here.

I have to confess that on my first walk back from school, I got lost among all the similar streets and houses. As there were no commonly available mobile phones or internet at that time, I had no choice but to ring at somebody’s door and explain in my broken English that I was looking for a certain address. The first person to answer immediately devoted all their energy to digging out a map of the town, searching for the street and finally accompanying me to the right location. That was just my first experience of the embedding British kindness, which I shall carry with me as a treasured heritage to the end of my days, and disseminate wherever I may be, however many rude and uncivilized persons I shall encounter.

Another time I was locked out of our house by some mistake and had to wait several hours until my parents returned. Finding refuge in our neighbour’s house, I sat down on the carpet in their lovely sitting room and gratefully accepted the offer of the biscuit tin, which forms an indispensable part of every British household. I had been brought up in the due Czech manner of “Mind you eat up everything you are offered, it is rude to leave anything!”, so I decided to eat my way through the entire tin whilst my neighbours were upstairs putting their twin babies to bed. Not until many years later did I understand how shocked they must have been on coming down and finding the tin empty – but I didn’t realize it at the time, as they just stared for a few seconds and never even hinted at the faux pas.

Of course there were many things that I could not or did not want to get used to. Apart from the physical ones, like playing field hockey with socks and a short skirt in freezing weather, separate taps for hot and cold water and fences and walls in the countryside, there was the ever-present mental problem of not getting direct answers to my (sometimes very direct) questions, with which I unfortunately managed to insult a number of people. I still think that maybe an unconscious reason for my leaving the UK was that somehow I could not really get through to the inner British person, not even with my close friends. Maybe this requires a greater art of communication than I am able to achieve, or maybe it’s just my blunt and rough way that does not fit into that culture. Whatever it may be, I carry only the warmest and fondest feelings of admiration for that country, and somehow understand why she wants to leave the EU. Dear Britain, wherever you may go in future, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. Keep all your separate taps, double decker buses, aversion to duvets, love of traditions and eternal politeness. It is what makes you so special.