Though I miss some tangible stuff, like Twiglets, and the English countryside, the thing that conjures up nostalgia for England most of all is a good idiom.
Though I have plenty of opportunities to speak English at work and with my friends, it’s and international variation of English. I’ve lived away from home for so long that it’s become second nature to strip out all the confusing sayings, the proverbs, the slang and the idioms. In short, I get rid of all the things I love about the language.
So these days I’m not sure if the penny drops any more in the UK, if people know their arse from their elbow, or whether it’s just a storm in the teacup because I am just pissing in the wind. Who knows?
One of my favourite idioms is “a fag and a brew”, a saying of a friend who didn’t smoke and I don’t remember ever seeing drinking tea.
During a spell living in France, the Ox was one of the few other British people around and we fell into friendship with him in the way only foreigners can do. At first there was a certain level of English reserve; like us he hadn’t escaped the UK just to spend time with other Brits abroad. But in time a friendship evolved. The Ox once fell asleep with his head on my shoulder at 3AM during a lock in at our local bar and missed out on an invitation to visit some of the best microbreweries in Eastern France, but that’s another story.
A fag and a brew was a moment in an afternoon’s cycling around the hilly battlefields of Verdun, when worn out form all the peddling, he went ahead and promised to meet us on the brow of the hill for a rest. Or out in the French Alps in late June we stopped at the top of a snow slope to catch our breath. Sometimes we actually drank something, but we never brewed up our own tea.
A fag and a brew came to signify an interlude, and in a time when a lot of the English I heard was spoken by French people, it was a reminder of everything I’d left behind when I made an effortless decision to leave the country to be with the person I loved. He was there with me, but sayings like a fag and a brew reminded me that there was still a place I thought of as home, back there, somewhere.
Now, living among other foreigners in Amsterdam, I miss those conversations, rich in idioms and words that give away my cultural roots. So today, when a new volunteer arrived in our office from the UK, I pounced. I needed my fix of British English – I was hoping for idioms and phrases that would make me smile to myself and long for home. But instead of a fag and a brew, I was reminded of Pearly Kings and Queens. And for the homesick Londoner that will always live inside me, that was no disappointment.