A few posts back I wrote about how being an expat has made me a better Canadian. After thinking about it a bit further, I have actually come to realize that being an expat has also made me a better English and Irishwoman. Now I have to admit, I have never been to the UK, nor Ireland, and would never presuppose to be an expert on either place, so this may all sound a bit whacky. But bear with me as I explain how being an expat in German-speaking Europe has helped me to really discover my Irish and English roots.
Growing up in a multicultural country like Canada, we are taught from a young age to appreciate our own unique ethnic backgrounds. There were “Multicultural Day” festivals at school where students were asked to come wearing clothes that represented their families’ ethnic heritage. Amongst the beautiful traditional Chinese, Aboriginal, Ukrainian, East Indian etc. outfits, I recall going to school on that day wearing a plastic green cap that came as a free gift with a case of beer on St. Patrick’s Day. That was about as close to being “authentically” Irish as my family really was, or so I thought for many years.
My great-great- grandparents came from England and Ireland, as such is the case for so many Canadians. With the exception of the Aboriginal people, being Canadian essentially means being from somewhere else. That was just normal to me, not special. So as the years went on and Christmases and Easters passed, I never consider our family traditions, what we ate, what we said, what we did, as being culturally significant. But now, as I live here in Germany, an adult making a life for myself and my husband, fighting to keep home traditions alive, I am coming to realize that life as an English-speaking expat has much deeper English roots than I had ever considered.
Although I have never been to the UK or Ireland, I do feel like I get a good dose of the culture on a daily basis. In order to have English-language TV, we have (what may or may not be exactly legit) Sky TV, a British broadcasting company, via satellite. This means that for going-on-six years, I have had not only English television shows, but English music, news, and most importantly, English commercials. I’ll tell you, I have never shopped at Sainsbury’s, but I sure feel like I have! Watching commercials from the UK and Ireland, particularly around Christmas time (which apparently starts now), and particularly ones by Marks and Spencer (yum!), I have learned that so much of the foods my family, and now I, prepare for our holiday festivities are very much English. The mince meat pies, butter tarts, plum pudding, yorkshire pudding, (well, all the puddings really), essentially our entire Christmas turkey dinner menu, including the all-important eggnog that must now be made from scratch, are all deeply rooted in English and Irish tradition. As an expat in Germany, I work hard to seek out the ingredients to make these dishes here, carting cans of cranberry sauce back from my visits home, visiting the British/American food stores for the perfectly dense fruit cake, or hunting down close German substitutes, like jars of wildpreiselbeeren in the case of the cranberry sauce.
English media and food aside, I have also discovered that as an English-speaker in Europe, when searching for other English-speakers you are sure end up in an Irish or English pub. With the exception of one wonderful bar in Uznach, Switzerland called “The Canadian”, I have found English and Irish pubs to be the quintessential meeting places for the English-speaking expat and traveling community in virtually every European city I have been to. While you might run into some Americans or Aussies, such pubs are mostly inhabited by the English and Irish, naturally. Oh the memories I have made in English and Irish pubs, meeting true English and Irish people, speaking a common language, but in our own beautifully and humorously unique ways. I catch their funny sayings here and there, the same funny phrases that my grandparents used to say, and I make yet another connection. Anyone for a hang sangwhich?
Being in Germany and travelling Europe has given me such an incredible opportunity to meet people of many different cultural backgrounds, also including Ukrainian people, another part of my ethnic makeup. I am not sure that had I stayed in Canada that I would have truly come to appreciate my European ancestors and the traditions that they have passed on to me. While the German people have the opportunity to carry on traditions that have been practiced for centuries and centuries, as Canadians we lack the chance to engage in traditions so rooted and rich in culture. It feels good to have my Irish, English, and Ukrainian roots to hold on to here, and it makes life as an expat that much more fulfilling and meaningful.