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Europe diary: Abroad and home

13 July 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell reflects on the difficulty of finding fresh lemon grass in Brussels, the easiness of listening to Radio 4, and expat children's complicated sense of national identity.

The diary is published every Thursday.

NOT HOMESICK

Brussels city centre
It may be that Brussels is not really very foreign

By the time you read this, I'll be back in Britain for a brief holiday. It's my first proper visit to the "UK" (as expatriates and no-one else calls it) since I moved to Brussels: a couple of day-long trips for work hardly count. And I know what people will ask. Given that until now I have never lived abroad, it's the natural question: "What do you miss most?"

I fear I'm going to have to give them a rather unfeeling answer, "Not a lot..." adding, to soften this unpatriotic blow, "Except YOU!" It goes without saying that I came to Brussels looking forward to what was different, rather than searching out the familiar, but I did expect the occasional twinge, even if not full-blown homesickness.

It may be that Brussels is a particular place, not really very foreign, with its vast expat community, its pretensions to be the capital of Europe and its proximity to London. Friends and family, of course, top the list of things I miss, but many have made good use of the tunnel and popped across for a visit.

CURRY DEPRIVATION?

Benn Gunn longed for his cheese on his Treasure Island and one hears of British expats in far-flung places dreaming of Marmite, but such traditional foodstuffs are scarcely a problem here. Most supermarkets stock everything from thick-cut English marmalade to tinned rice pudding.

pint of beer
Nice: A properly pulled warm pint

Given the range of cheeses I'm not fussed that what goes under the name of Cheddar in supermarkets here is a bright orange abomination, but if I fancy something hard and sharp I know an Irish butcher's that does the real stuff. And there's at least one big store specialising in British produce, if you really have to have Angel Delight.

But there are a few things that I can get easily in London that I miss. Fresh pak choi, for a start. Most of the lemon grass is frozen and fresh galangal never to be found. As for grachai it's impossible. But missing a few ingredients for Thai curry hardly counts as deprivation. As for curry houses, there are a few around but a visit to a proper British one will be a treat. A properly pulled, warm pint would be nice, but with all the Belgian beer around it's not really a yearning.

COFFEE, TOAST AND TODAY

Now Radio 4. I really would miss that. But here in Belgium we can get it on long wave, although it's too often replaced by a couple of old blokes wittering incomprehensibly about silly mid-somethings. So in the end it's not geography but one facet of that bundle of phenomena annoyingly called "globalisation" that comes to my rescue. I listen to the Today programme, as I am doing as I write, on my computer with my coffee and toast (and marmite). Moreover, I listen to the podcast of that brain-expanding glory of the Western world, In Our Time, as I walk to the metro.

BRAIN EXPANSION
Engraving of pastoral scene

If there was nothing to read in English, that would be a horrifying deprivation, and I am looking forward to a root around in a really big book shop, but many book shops here have an English language section. Newspapers we get at the office, but even if we didn't there are at least two shops next to my nearest metro that sell the full range. I may even come to love Sunday newspapers again. For so many people reading the Sundays is one of life's important little pleasures. But my years in Westminster meant I felt I had to read the lot, cover to cover, for all the myriad of political stories.

Since I moved I've given them up and just check online that there's nothing too vital. But I'm beginning to hanker after them again, and will soon start picking them up on a Sunday morning. Here I can get the freshly baked croissants at the same time.

BON WEEKEND!

What about the less tangible, the cultural? Most Brits, Aussies and North Americans are at first driven mad by the fact that the thought, "The customer is always right," never seems to cross a Belgian mind. But, after a few months, I'm amused by it and recognise it's not rudeness but another aspect of "social Europe". And it's a friendly place. Although "Have a nice day!" can make me sneer, I really like the way that every transaction ends with "Bonne journee!" or "Bonne soiree!" or "Bon weekend!"

The Chilterns (Picture Dave Gilbert)
It would be possible to miss the English countryside

It has to be said that a lot of Belgium is boringly flat and I would miss the English countryside. "Would" rather than "do", because I am lucky enough to travel a lot and the countryside I've seen in Italy and France alone makes up for a few rolling hills and peaceful village greens. This really is my problem. There are things about Britain I "miss" but there are also things I miss about Germany, or France or Bulgaria when I am not in those countries. There's not much that tugs at my heartstrings. Am I alone?

What do you miss from your country if you live abroad? And if you've really been exiled in the back of beyond, rather than moved to a comfortable European capital, what do you crave?

MULTIPLE IDENTITY

We were talking with friends the other day about how their children see themselves. Mum is American, Dad is German and they've lived in Switzerland and then Belgium for a good many years. They don't think they'll return to either of the parent's homelands. So how does their son, about 11, think of himself - German, American, Belgian? "French," he replies. Well, that is what he speaks at school, after all.

I asked the daughter of some other friends the same question. She's in her teens and was born in Singapore and moved to Belgium when she was eight. Her mother is Malaysian and her father British. She's British, has a British passport, and intends to go to university in Britain, but doesn't feel any strong ties. Does that ever bother her? "Only when people ask where I'm from, and I have to decide what to say."

Do people gain or lose form having multiple, or no national identities? And what do they miss when they are away from "home"?

Please use the postform below to comment on any of the issues in the diary.


The Brits have to miss something. If Heinz Baked Beans are longed for and suddenly become available the average ex-pat would be secretly annoyed. We desire what we can't get, baked beans, Marmite, proper bacon, the next-door neighbour's wife. When they are present to us on a plate we don't want them anymore. This wretched globalisation simply means that we will have to yearn for increasingly rare and bizarre quintessentially British items like cow's tongue and the smell of a real pub at closing time. I'm just popping next-door to borrow some sugar!
Stephen Taylor, Newark Delaware USA

I am "British", having grown up in UK, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. Professionally, I have lived and worked in UK, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Germany. I have worked each for a Taiwanese, British, Swedish, Swiss and German company. I travel extensively in my work, speak several languages and have friends from all over our little planet - from whom I have picked up some (mostly) wonderful ways. Frankly, I find the notion of "being" British bizarre and alien as I am not sure what that is supposed to mean. Thankfully, it *is* possible to live life beyond a cultural criteria of 20 bullet-points that, by their definition, seem to cause people to actually behave like the sterotype, perhaps for some sort of group-belonging. Sadly, though, from my experience, it seems like I am in the minority of the minority. And I can live without Angel Delight, too. That said, if you took my Marmite off me, perhaps the notion of "London Calling" would disturb me much less..
SW, Cologne, Germany

This forum -for once- allows me to say something positive about my little country. What I appreciate about Belgium when I'm abroad, is the following: The lack of chauvinism (ever seen hords of Belgians behaving stupidly on exotic beaches?), a tendency to look beyond one's own frame of references (including the ability to speak several languages), the surrealistic touch (things are not always what they seem), the fact that we usually don't synchronize movies, and above all the quality of our pastries! Who said we were boring? Now about the things I don't miss...
Jef Peeters, Brussels, Belgium

I was raised with a multi-cultural background (Dutch father, Afrikaner mother, American grandmother, of Jewish descent), born and educated in Scotland with my early years in Canada, working initially in France for a few years and then in Cyprus. I then married a Greek (born and raised in Egypt, with origins in Albania) and we are raising two children here in Athens, attending the French school here, speaking Greek with relatives and neighbours, English at home (and on the TV), French at school. They are happy, secure kids, ready to adapt their language and conversation to suit whoever they are talking to. When confronted with the question of where we come from or where we feel home is, we all select whatever answer we think the listener wants to hear and whichever facet we feel like stressing for his benefit. What a blessing! The stronger the "global village" becomes, the more this multi-cultural salad will become the norm and perhaps the less national and cultural barriers will count and drive people to aggression. There is no nation I would pick up arms to defend, nor would my children.
NvW, Athens, Greece

Mark's comments re the Sunday papers really struck a chord. I have been living in Lithuania for nearly two years now, and I still cannot obtain British daily or Sunday newspapers. I have resorted to bribing colleagues to bring the Sunday Times over with them when they come for meetings - and can extend a single edition over two weekends with judicious reading! Oh to be able to read a current edition on the day it is produced!
Janice Ramsay, Vilnius, Lithuania

Very interesting to read your comments. I grew up in the UK and moved to Brussels at the age of 23, and stayed for a couple of years. I became a cultural chameleon there and have remained so. I got into the 'Euro' circle immediately and also got to know Belgians. I don't think I was ever properly localised or even a UK ex-pat. Most of the people I became friends with were from Southern Europe, and I often found myself in Spanish, Greek, Italian places. My TV at home had 100 channels from 20 plus countries. I have learned how to see past my own culture in order to understand a different perspective. The result is I find it very difficult to find things in common with mono-cultural people now. I think the EU environment there creates an extra culture. It is neither national nor supra-national, just unique. The upside is that you spend every day working with people from completely different places, the downside is that you never really know where you are. Today I live with a Spanish (oops... Catalan) girl in France - so some part of me is forever Bruxellois!!!!
Simon Harrow, St Germain-en-Laye, France

Born of British/French parents (next to the Marmite factory in Burton-on-Trent), I was brought up in England (on Skol and Double Diamond) and left for Paris after university, convinced I was more French than English. After spending ten years in Paris - where the Parisian's notorious rudeness finally got the better of me! - I decided I was more English than French and returned to blighty only to discover this wasn't true either. In the midst of my 'nationality' crisis I was offered a job in Belgium and have never looked back since! Despite the flatness of Flanders, Antwerp is a jewel of a town and neither my daughter or I would want to live anywhere else. Vive la Belgique!
Alice Cameron, Antwerp, Belgium

Born in the UK, 20 years in Germany, a year in Luxembourg, 18 years in France- and now a holiday flat in Spain too- Super- we can go nearly anywhere with no worries- except back to the Uk- we just don't feel at home there! And the big advantage- apart from learning languages- you don't have to put up with closet xenophobes, peolpe who don't like "foreigmers just don't bother to get to know you - saves a lot of time!
Maureen Wright, carcassonne, France

I fully agree with Mark Mardells comments. On leaving the UK I moved to Finland for 2 years and now I am in Luxmebourg. Life in Finland was very different to the UK, but here in Luxembourg it is like a stress free UK with decent medical services. I mainly miss my family and friends, everything else can be found for a price.
David, Luxembourg and Finland

My English mother, Turkish father, Canadian self and brother moved to the US when I was about five years old. I have been back to Canada exactly once since that time almost 30 years ago now. While I have spent much time both in England and Turkey and, obviously, the United States, I have felt a twinge of patriotism exactly once -- watching a red maple leaf-emblazoned flag fluttering over a harbor in Vancouver. Given my adopted country's history of, let's call them, "questionable things" it's also quite a relief to be able to call myself a Canadian in a crunch.
Andrew, Boston, Massachusetts. USA

If mark wants to find good thai fresh vegetables then he should head down to the thai shops in st gery....i lived in Brussels for 6 years and there is more thai/vietnamese fresh food stalls there that london.
Mr Josh, London

I would have to agree with many others here, having moved to the US by virtue of marriage I have to say that other than family there is nothing I miss about the UK. Other than for brief vacation visits I dont foresee myseld returning.
Peter, Upstate New York

I like the idea of a 'third place'. I'm from Britain and have lived in Korea for almost eight years and now I feel like my identity is that of a 'third place'. Neither British or Korean but in many ways I feel more privileged than both.
Glenn, Hayang, Korea

Having been an ex-pat in Asia for 16 years I do get homesick - for real Fish'n'Chips (especially now there is no Harry Ramsden's in Hong Kong) and for police that are trustworthy yet not always touting a gun - but to be frank when I come "home" within 30 minutes I know why I am, and will remain, an ex-pat. Today's average Brit is lazy, especially those in the service industries who, in the main, consider Customer Service to be a hinderance to their ability to sleep on the job !
John, Hong Kong

I lived in Belgium until 6 years ago, and - oh boy - did I miss things when I moved over here. In the mean time, the only really Belgian food I still miss is Northsea shrimp. All the rest I can get here or in the Portuguese quarter in Newark. I do miss a good Belgian newspaper although I've become a NYT addict in the mean time. And what I miss most of all is the cozy Belgian pubs where people from the neighborhood gather to chat and have a beer. Although I don't seek other Belgian expats at all. I don't think of myself as Belgian anymore (did I before?)but more than ever as European: we simply have other values than Americans.
Geert, Kingston, NJ, USA

Why is it that the Brits living abroad are expats, and any other foreigns in the UK are immigrants?
Andres, Bedford

I definitely miss Salt & Vinegar crisps, a proper curry restaurant (all curries are yellow in Belgium), coleslaw and the fact that you can take anything back to a shop easily in the UK. However I would really miss clean and reliable transport systems, cheaper consumer goods prices, open-air terrasses and the talk-instead-of-TV-dinner culture if I moved back....
Claire, Brussels, Belgium

I was American, married to a Londoner in Tehran, our three daughters have American and British passports. After living in England and then Scotland for 20 years, I took British nationality after Bush renegged on Kyoto. We moved to Portugal from Scotland the day after taking our youngest to university in Edinburgh; she considers herself Scottish. The eldest lives and works in London, and I think she would call herself English. Our middle daughter has spent time in Israel and is currently a missionary on the streets of New York. She would call herself a Christian first and foremost. We avoid the tourist areas of the Algarve. I miss the English summer, and rain. And cheddar cheese and fish'n'chips. At least I can have the BBC on the internet. I love TMS, and when the BBC states that some transmissions are for UK listeners only, I get very cross.
Carol, Portugal

I'm a Finnish expat, with a Finnish passport and Finnish parents, but after having lived abroad (in the UK and Far East) for much of my childhood and going to university in the UK, I'd be hard pushed to identify where "home" really is for me. I feel like a foreigner wherever I go now, but would not change it for the world, it makes me feel unique.
Laura, Edinburgh

Hey, I'm from North America and have been living in the U.K. for 4 years now. I do miss a lot of things... My friends and family, my food and the descent weather. But that's life, I choose to live here and I'm here because I want to so I better fit in or go back home... By the way, why is it so hard to find peanut butter chocolates in the U.K.? And in the U.K. I can only buy white or brown bread, there is no potato bread or rye bread, Hawaiian bread, etc, etc.. I can go on and on about things but it's useless, people better adapt or go back. What's that - Burgers with cold buns and no mayo? Sandwiches with butter? The list is endless... I try to focus on the important things in life and not on those things that are not relevant...
david, Glasgow, Scotland

Nice to have someone write down my thoughts! I origunally come from Tyneside but left in 1974 to work in Germany for 7 years before moving to Sweden in 1981. I'm married to a Swede and our children are Swedish although my son is both British and Swedish. Since my daughter was born in the late autumn of 1982 she didn't qualify for British nationality (the UK changed the law in January of 1983 so she missed being a Brit by 10 weeks!) So she looks upon herself as Swedish with an English Mum (has spoken English at home her whole life) whereas her younger brother looks upon himself as neither one thing or the other. I've tried to explain that he is like me - both British and Swedish as I have dual nationality but he finds it hard to know what he is. So I think it can be hard on the kids of expats sometimes. (By the way it can be hard for us as I discovered on the 20th of June when Sweden met England! I wanted a draw because I wanted Sweden to go through to the next round!) So it's not just our kids who are confused! I miss nothing from the UK except my Mum and my sister. Most other things I used to miss in the past are now accessible here too.
Kathleen Andersson, Åstorp, Sweden

My mother is East African Indian, my Dad, Belgian... I was born in London, live in Paris and am about to start University in Canada. I have a Belgian passport. I don't really have any sense of national 'identity' as such, and I don't feel that in this day and age it is really very important. In fact, whenever someone asks where I am from, people find it more interesting when I tell them my family background, rather than if I were just to say: "Cheshire!". Home, for me, is where my suitcase is.
Farid, France

Home sickness wears off as your life fills up find new things to do in your adopted country, in fact it makes me nostalgic for the time when I scoured the local library for something half decent in English to read. I have the sneaking feeling that this process is accelerating now that you can have your culture fix piped to your desktop.
T Kubitz, Erfurt, Germany

"National Identity" is, along with other thigs, an attribute which has been resposible for hundreds of wars in Europe throughout the centuries, so why not just forget it ? I was raised in England and Sweden and have lived over thirty years in Germany - I feel I'm a European.
Nik, Karlsruhe, Germany

We have a massive chinese supermarket in Ghent, in the Vrijdagsmarkt, they sell FRESH pakchoi, lemongrass etc. only 40 mins on the train from Brussels
Mike, Ghent Belgium

When I went up north to College I was a bloody southerner. In Pakistan I was a bloody Brit, and now in Macedonia I'm from the bloody EU. All of which are obviously me to some others some of the time. Oh, and my wife says I'm like my bloody dad. The cultural relativist.
John Stiles, Skopje, Macedonia

I have been living here 13 years and i miss the rain,countryside,parks theatres and of course sitting outside at a riverside pub in the summer. But i love the climate here for 9 months of the year, being able to swim and play daily at the beach,having affordable childcare and help in the house. The supermarkets are full of all types of food catering for many nationalities....but no pork...so a bacon sandwich and a bitter shandy are high on my list when i go back to the 'UK' next week.
jenny, Kuwait

I was born in Botswana, English Dad, Swedish Mum, grew up in Luxembourg and now live in Benin, married to a Belgo-Beninese. Although I always say that I am English (I have a British passport - though soon to have a Beninese one too!), I, like OD, feel more European than English. I think this has to do with the fact that when I studied in the UK at university I always felt a bit foreign..or at least different. I also realised with some consternation that some of my English friends, lovely though they are, thought that Brussels was north of Amsterdam, and Luxembourg near Prague. It is true that many Brits, with little experience of being abroad except for holidays (where they go by plane), are ignorant when it comes to anything foreign..more so that the French, Spaniards etc. And now that I live in West Africa...goodness - for many it is as if I am on the moon! Few come to visit me here, but always want to know when I will be back visitng the UK! I tend to feel at home whereever I am, wherever my family is, though Luxembourg will always be special for me as that is where I spent my childhood. It is true that the hardest question to answer is "where are you from"? The answer is not always the same...
Sara, Cotonou, Benin

I would certainly agree with everything Mark says. I have now lived in Brussels for six years and have slowly moved away from the 'expat' culture which some Brits here feel is a neccessary (nay essential) part of their lifestyle. There are still a few things I miss but living in Brussels is such an easy experience it hardly matters. And, if an example were neccessary, I would still rather have my family and friends visit me here than go back to the UK (sorry GB or England, I think).
DS, EC, Brussels

Being a child who's parents were in the Armed Forces i travel through most of Europe. I find myself looking to have a place to settle down roots. I am Northern English born, speak witha typical Army Brat accent, and i now live in Scotland yet when people ask me where i'm from i always answer 'Orginally from the North of England'. Though living in Edinburgh for other 5 years i constantly battle with the need to move on to a new place. Am i simply a unable to settle or i am the product of my parents decision to take me with them during Postings around Europe?
Zoe Morrison, Edinburgh

ive lived for 28 years in berlin. over half my life. i am a european. the only things i miss are really my friends and family. ok, maybe the occasional stroll throught the pennines and a certain selection of intelligent tv documentaries too, but really there was never anything significant that has ever given me homesickness or ever made me feel like i wanted to move back to the "uk". berlin is such a wonderful city to live in (you can even buy salt & vineger crisps).
mark, berlin, germany

I'm Scottish and my wife is German, so our two sons have dual UK/German nationality. But they were born in London and call themselves English. A large proportion of my elder son's schoolfriends have similar mixed backgrounds (Portuguese, Polish, Italian, French, Jamaican and so on) and as far as I can tell, most of those kids call themselves English too. It seems to me that most people define themselves from where they have lived most of their lives.
Mike Woof, London, UK

Having lived in Brussels for almost six years, I agree mostly with what Mark says. I'm also a journalist here so am probably pretty attuned to his way of life. One of the best things about this city is the fact that one can sit on a terrace outside, say, the European Parliament and hear five or six different languages going on. I love the kissing-when-you-meet routine and, with all these different cultures, it's extremely laid back. Yes, the customer service is often a joke and the red tape a nightmare but it's a small price to pay for cheap trains that run on time, the convenience of Schengen and the euro in cross-border travel, a great health service etc. On the rare occasions that I go home I'm always asked: "So Tony, when are you coming back to the UK?" My reply is always: "Which part of 'never' don't you get?" I would never do it, as I'm too used to this wonderful melting pot here. I've done more travelling since I've been here than in the whole of the rest of my life and I now have the confidence to visit other countries, steep myself in the local way of life and try the language. Brussels gave me that. And, by the way, Mark - my magazine 'UP Front' (a leisure guide which you can find free in most of the Schuman bars etc) recently organised an English Real Ale festival. It was small but perfectly formed and apparently the first one ever in Brussels. We sold out in one day and we'll definitely be doing it again. Look out for it and you won't have to trek back to the UK for a decent pint of finest foaming!
Tony Mallett, Brussels, Belgium

An Australian now married to an Englishman, I came to Europe 32 years ago and remained in England for 25 years, returned to Australia for 4 years and retreated to France 18 months ago, convinced that I had become a European. What I miss of Australia are the landscape, the wildlife, the bush. The people and material goods, hardly at all. Of England, like so many of your correspondents, I miss "a good Indian". Being so close to England, I can see family and friends with ease - and Skype, satellite television and radio, email and the Internet enable me to remain in touch and keep abreast of everything which interests me elsewhere in the world. Mostly these days I deny my nationality out of utter shame for the antics of the Australian government, and happily refer to myself as a European.
Glenda Rousseau, Finistère, France

I'm European. In the last 31 years, I have lived in Belgium (10), UK (11), Belgium (again - 3) and France (7), and I intend to stay here. What do I miss from Britain? Theatres, wide open spaces to walk the dogs (there is no common land in France), farmhouse cheeses, double cream and Cox's and Bramley apples. What I don't miss is the unwarranted sense of superiority, the narrow-mindedness, crowded roads and general aggression - oh, and security cameras. I don't feel the need to be photographed 300 times a day. What I miss from Belgium are the wonderful restaurants (partly mitigated by Marc and Andre at le Tresor Belge, 10 minutes from here, in Pouancay), but not the road rage and general hatred between the Flamands and the Vlamse. People here are open and friendly, we have a wonderful social life (celebrating the Fete Nationale tomorrow) and terrific health care. Great local services through the Mairie, where we can drop in and discuss local problems face-to-face. But we do both speak fluent French and avoid the British cliques that certainly abound around here. Life is so good, the local estate agents are besieged by Brits wanting to escape from the UK!
Sally, Montreuil-Bellay, near Saumur, France

As well as friends and family, including of course Smudge - the wayward, faithful Jack Russel, I miss the trips to the pub for a pint of cider on a lazy weekend, the lush Dorset countryside, spring flowers in the garden, the roaring log fire in winter and pottering about on our lovely old farm.
Thomas, Freetown, Sierra Leone

I have to say that what Mark Mardell misses about the UK (a term also used by East European immigrants to the UK) is pretty trivial. Convenience food, beer, the papers etc. It is people that most people miss; friends and relatives. I am a Scot who lived abraod for six years, then returned for four. I am considering moving again, mainly becuase what I call the background shabiness of British life.
Richard, Edinburgh, UK

I read this article thinking how I've experienced it from the other end. Born in Brussels as a second generation Brit expat, I've come back for the summer from my first year of uni in the UK (and the first time I've lived there). One thing that typifies Brussels for me is the closeness of the expat community, and the girl you mention in your article has a suspiciously similar heritage to a schoolfriend of mine. One thing I miss living in Britain is that my mother tongue, English, is now the same as everyone else's and everyone speaks it in the street. Very offputting.
Felix, Brussels, Belgium

I am an expat living in America, Originally from Sierra Leone. I miss having my culture surrounding me. I sometimes feel very far away from who I feel I am because most people in the US cannot relate or identify as they are not usually very knowledgeable about Africa. I have lived in the uk as well and I find moving around does make it easier to adjust to new places. I would like to return to sierra leone someday but fear the longer I stay away the more foreign sierra leone will become. For now the US is home although I would like to live in the UK or somewhere in Europe again
Chantal, New Jersey, USA

I was born in Israel. I grew up there as well as in Thailand, the US, the UK, and Panama. My parents are both American but I do not feel a strong sense of nationalism for the US or any other country. When people ask me where I am from I really don't know what to say. I do not have a "home" in the traditional sense but I like to consider myself adaptable enough to be at "home" anywhere.
Sarah, Washington DC, USA

My family and friends, a good English pint of bitter, a good Sunday roast, a crisp cold frosty stroll in the countryside. Having said all that, Thailand has a lot of other things to offer. When I dwell on the thought of living in the UK again I think of the things I would miss in Thailand
richard, Hua Hin, Thailand

It's absolutely fantastic to see the Brits complaining about other countries' cuisines! As a 22-year-old Korean having spent loads of time in the US, then Paris, and then most recently Milan -- studying -- I must say boundaries and national pride became passé for me and my cosmopolitan friends. I find myself perceptive and bias-free facing every new people, culture, and land. But I've also seen expat children turn just uninterested, been-there-done-that. We just have to work extra hard to update playlists and review headlines in different languages. To me, it's a thrill to be in between.
Jay, Seoul, Korea

One thing living abroad has taught me is that Britain is dull land yet the people are brilliant. I don't think any other nation has a such a developed sense of humility or fun.
neil, amsterdam, holland

1) A lot of people refer to the UK as 'the UK' not just expats. 2) There are plenty of Asian food shops in Leuven, not far from the English shop he mentions in Everberg. 3) The countryside to the south and south east of Brusells is very rolling and l;ike England. 4) There are some very very good Tai restaurants in Leuven. 5) If you cant find anything to read in English, learn French, c'est pas trop difficile.
fat_boy, belgium-leuven

Very often people ask me where I am from, which nationality I am, which is my mother tongue - I don't know... I don't have one. I was born in Russia from a Korean mother and a Sri Lankan father, grew up between Ecuador and Kazakhstan, lived 8 years in France, 6 in Scotland now I am in London. I really don't suffer from that, on the contrary: I adapt fast, I can learn languages easily and best of all I have roots everywhere!!! The only negative part would be leaving people behind and missing them...
Jancy, London UK

Mark have you found that shop called I think 'The Manor' yet? It has every British product, nothing else, and is a nice drive ito the country 10 km or so from Brussels. It used to have a courier post service i.e. you just put a British stamp, which they sold, on your letter and certain days someone took it and posted in the UK - useful if the Belgian post was in one of its negative phases or on strike. (re post can anyone in Belgium confirm my experience that sending registered was the best guarantee of it getting lost?) It must be listed in The Bulletin or other expat resources.
Edward, London UK

Having lived in Australia, Singapore, Scotland and now Zambia - after having been born in Holland - I don't feel I have a "home". I'm comfortable wherever I am, and make sure I adapt myself to the place I live. There's nothing worse than foreigners clustering together and complaining about the host country..... especially diplomats are prone to that....
Maarten Elffers, Lusaka, Zambia

My parents are from Bangladesh. I was born and brought up in the East End of London. My wife is German and my chldren were born in the United Arab Emirates. We spent a decade living as expatriates in the Emirates before finally settling in London. Whilst living abroad we observed Europeans preferring to socialise amongst themselves. All gatherings were based on National Identity. We are a well travelled family and we have concluded that the world would be better place without borders and religon. We feel no allegiance towards any country, and view National Identity of importantance only to bigots because of a basic failure to integrate at any level.
Moni Razzaque, London

I was born & brought in Mauritius before studying in Paris for three years followed by three further years of study/work in London in the 1970's. This was folowed by 10 years of living in Brussels that enabled me to visit the whole of Europe frequently and in particular France and England. After five years working in Abu Dhabi with regular travels to India & Pakistan I returned to London only to be sent to Turkey and the Middle East at frequent intervals for professional reasons. This nomadic lifestyle for the last 30 years has taught me one thing: to enjoy the culture, food and traditions of the country I am in at the time rather than to miss what I have left behind. In other words Home is always where I happen to be as long as I can buy an English or French Newspaper everyday!
Feroze Bundhun, Istanbul, Turkey

Lived in Malaysia all my life, went to Calgary for med school and have the odd distinction of being in Minneapolis-St. Paul as a young "alien physician" (cf. the "expatriate" Brits/Aussies on the streets of Kuala Lumpur!). I could not have done this without the Internet. Identity-wise, I am Malaysian. I look ethnically Chinese (but have never set foot in China). With a handful of accents under my belt, I can pass for Canadian. Which is my one defense mechanism against the probing "Where are you from? Hong Kong/China/Taiwan/Japan/Vietnam? Are you Hmong/Thai/Korean/Singaporean?"-type questions from random passersby at the supermarket or bus stop.
MN,

I am British working in Kosovo. I miss firstly, friends and family, then the culture of London and the beauty of the English countryside. We get a bit of Radio 4 through the British forces radio, but not enough, so I miss that too. And perhaps most of all, I miss the fact that I cannot take it for granted that traffic regulations will be respected!
Jane, Pristina, Kosovo

When compared to Brussels the supply chains to Kampala are somewhat less developed! When items familiar to you at home are then not accessible when overseas, it somehow serves to increase your desire for them. How is it possible to pine so strongly for Branston pickle of all things?! In part, when living in a country that is comparatively less developed than your home country, there is a slight emphasis that you bring with you the learnings and approaches from home. When moving to a country of similar economic and social development, perhaps the onus is more on assimilating with that country's ways.
Oliver Haywood, Kampala, Uganda

What do I miss most? Friends and family (especially my daughter). Long walks in Derbyshire, the Yorkshire Dales, North Yorkshire Moors and the Lake District. The NHS. Old-fashioned pubs. The first Winter snowfall. Andrew, Rio de Janeiro
Andrew, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

If it's a good curry house you are after then try the New Delhi Restaurant 108, Chaussee de Wavre, 1050 Bruxelles. The owner speaks with an Essex accent so I felt right at home. However after living here for four years I must admit that I don't miss home either.
Steve Howland, Brussels, Belgium

I moved to the Middle East in 1987 (when i was 7) and have been based there ever since. I came to the UK for the education (much better than ME alternatives). I found it a huge culture shock to come back to the UK but after a few years appreciate it (excellent micro-breweries and beautiful countryside)!I feel no sense of national identity to the UK and agree with Peter from Brussels, it is better to have no sense of national identity as it allows people to be individuals. I plan to live and work in the ME eventually as the culture and the lifestyle is what i have been brought up with.
Johnny, Manchester, UK

Almost two years living in the sandlands and - as Donald Hankey suggests above - it's the intangible moral and legal structures that one half-assumed were universal that are most missed. In a country where the lingua franca (of the fortunate) is English and the population transient and all the buildings just five minutes old, it's all too easy to forget that the UAE is not just a tabla rasa. This can have the ironic effect of leaving the braying, spoiled and red-faced expats that one used to associate with the right, spluttering at the level of sexism, racism, and double standards found in some of the policing and court decisions (such as are reported) out here. One other thing - the driving's shocking. Flashing your lights in England means 'hallo, I've seen you and am giving you right of way'. Here it means you have 10 seconds to live.
Jeremy Hunt, Dubai, UAE

I think the Customer service comments were more that fair. It's got to the stage where we don't buy electrical products here any more as we always have problems with after-sales-service. Still we find it gives us plenty of conversation topics when speaking to other xpats.
Joe, Brussels, Belgium

I have always lived in the UK, indeed always in Lincolnshire, but I have always felt perculier in so much as I have never felt any national identity. The notion that I would care more about someone or something just because it originated on the same island of me is absurd. It is no more than an accident of birth! Of course I have cultural connections to things here and am certainly not ashamed of this country, I enjoy living here, it¿s just the connection thing; it¿s always baffled me. I love new things and seeking them out, national identity is surely no more than a glorified ability to reminisce
billy, Lincoln, UK

Although my parents are both from Hong Kong, I was born in Britain, spent my formative years in HK, sent back to Britain for school and uni, and now find myself married and living in the US. I do miss many British things (Why doesn't anyone in the States eat rhubarb?), but I most often go back to my Chinese roots to find my sense of 'home'.
Jennifer, Brookline, Massachusetts, USA

I was born and raised in Germany and came to the UK about 10 years ago in my early twenties. Last year I decided it was time to return to my home country - what a shock! I experienced terrible reverse culture shock, I missed friendly people, pubs, the culture, the food, decent hairdressers... After 8 months of soul searching I'm back in England. Home is where the heart is and mine is definitely here now!
Bettina, London, UK

I lived in both Nuremberg and Franfurt am Main, Germany from 1978 to 1987. The standard of living was far superior to the UK and even now when the economy there is not so buoyant, I find the quality of goods in the stores far better. When I lived there the things I missed most were double cream, bacon and smoked haddock. Fortunately their was a Marks & Spencer in Strasbourg so I only had a two hours drive to stem my lust!
Graham Wilkinson, Twickenham

Being a Greek who lived in Greece for 20 years before living in London for 5 years, Paris for 5 years and now Brussels for the last 6 years, I can say that I miss London's feeling that it is an "alive" city full of energy, choices of entertainment and job opportunities (as long as you have the right educational background from a UK perspective). On the other hand, I miss Parisian life's finesse.Above all tough, I miss the Greek blue skies and sunshine, the fresh food and the ability to be on a turqiose water beach within maximum 1-2 hours depending where you live.Compared to that Brussels seems a boring place with the longest winters I have experienced, with people lacking business sense (the customer is far from being treated like a king here), without any decent coffee place (preferably with a nice view) or lounge bar or high quality club. You can only find here restaurants and beer bars. So, if you are a woman who does not want to eat every night nor drink beer your choices are limited.
Maria, Brussels, Belgium

I was born and grew up in communist Eastern Germany. My mother is Dutch, father German. When I was 17 we fled to Holland, started to talk dutch within the family and started to think of ourselves as Dutch. Only since a couple of years I started to miss Germany somehow - vague things like colours, shapes of strangers faces and hearing German spoken around me. If I step in the car I can be in Germany in an hour and buy the best thing that's impossible to find even in a cosmopolitan city as Amsterdam: bread. And my italian family in law sees me as german. Thinking about moving to the internet-less italian countryside, the thing I might miss most will be the In Our Time podcast though...
Jan Hendrik, Amsterdam, Netherlands

I've been an Expat for a large number of years (since 1992) and in the Middle East, I've been back to the UK 5 times in these 14 years and I dont miss it at all....yes every thing is green, at least when compared to the deserts here. We even have a TV channel here that show's only the UK stuff (not that I watch it). I guess the thing I do miss is the Beer, fizzy beer just doesnt cut it.
Paul Ransted, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I suspect that Mark spends too much time in the tribal enclave of the EC and not in the real Brussels. I've lived in the Marchée aux Poissons area of Brussels for over 5 years, it's cosmopolitan, friendly (bon jour, merci, pardon....not hiyerr), full of bars and restos that don't serve Guiness and, ok, not as clean as it could be, but for me as a regular UK commuter, after the experience of Heathrow T1 and Central Bus Station, I can't just wait to get back to Brussels. So what do I consider myself? Just grateful to be here. PS Mark, try the Chinese supermarket in Rue Vierge Noir opposite GB!
Ian Ramsay, Brussels, Belgium

I enjoyed my first few years in Brussels but, and sorry if this sounds curmudgeonly, loathed it by the time I left fifteen years later. It has all the ingredients of a fantastic cultural melting point and yet is distinguished only by its blandness and the introverted nature of the locals. It is a city grown too wealthy on the back of public-sector money and international institutions. This probably accounts for the rudeness of shop staff and the abysmal standards of service. Coming back to London full time (I had long since taken to spending my weekends here, thanks to the Eurostar) was like opening a bottle of champagne. The clubby after-work culture; the brazen wit of taxi drivers; the comparative lack of racism (Brussels treats its Arab and African minorities very poorly) and the sheer energy of the English capital are great. I do not miss Brussels one bit.
Dominic, London, England

I moved to Bruseels from New York and spent four years there before moving on to Nairobi, Kenya. They were among the best four years of my life. Apart from family and friends, I didn't miss anything about the US and, quite frankly, I've become quite bored with it. The US is a great country, but there's too much sameness about it as you travel from place to place, and there's just not as much of a social atmosphere, particularly in the pubs. Perhaps it was the smallness of compactness of Belgium that appealed to me. I enjoyed spending more time walking and pub-hopping as opposed to my life here, where I devote a lot more time to driving. Additionally, the anti-alcohol mentality here drives me crazy.
Steve, Woodstock, VT, USA

I was born in Austria of Anglo-Austrian parentage, and spent my formative years moving around Africa and the Far East courtesy of my fathers job. Eventually, age 14, I was sent to school in Brighton (slight culture shock!),before escaping to university in Scotland when I was 18. As soon as I finished there, I went to live in Switzerland for a year, then back to London for 2 years before moving to Germany for 2 years, back to London, then Basingstoke(!) and finally left Britain for good about 2 years ago to move to Spain and my resting place for the moment is Barcelona. I blame my parents for providing me with an insatiable need to keep moving (the longest I have spent in one place is 4 years). I have spoken to other offspring of roving expats and most of them have similarly itchy feet. My next move?...well, possibly Switzerland again....I saw an interesting job in Singapore...or alternatively land is cheap in Chile...!! ps I have never missed the UK.
Christina, Barcelona, Spain

I've been in a North Italian village for over 20 years. What I missed at first was the chance to see a film in English if I wanted - DVD's solved that one. Something I wished for (before Mr.Ryan came along) was a way to get home without having to spend half a month's wages or two days hitching. Being relatively close means that I've always managed to get back at least once a year to stock up on all those little things everyone mentions (Marmite, Branston and baked beans). Culture shock was never an issue - Northern Italians like to think of themselves as Mediterranean (yes, even the most extreme members of Lega Nord) and the mentality is very North European. Naples or Sicily would have been a quite different story. My boys were both born here. My wife is Italian but the surname immediately identifies them as Anglosaxon. I speak to them in English and they answer in Italian and they'll normally tell people they're 50/50.
David Macdonald, Lake Garda, Italy

It has been thoroughly enlightening to read about the experiences of expatriates around the world. I was born in Wales to a Greek father and an American/English mother but my grandparents were Welsh, having adopted my mother when she was a baby. It was being trundled round the woods of the south Wales valleys in my push-chair that I gained my national identity. My brother, though born in Cardiff, regards himself as British but I, with no welsh blood in me at all, regard myself as half welsh/half Greek (depends on whether I'm watching football or rugby!). On the subject of living abroad, I spent my childhood in Brussels and Brecon and have subseqently lived and worked in Poland and Germany. I have to say it's the language that I miss. Being understood, or not, is such a fundamental part of our existence. Food is something you adapt to - my first french phrase was "Un pain blanc, coupe s'il vous plait."- For example, Polish vodka is great, but best appreciated at -25 degrees!I do not miss english beer as the Kolsch(the local brew) is cold, fresh and flavoursome, ideal on hot,muggy german days with plate of Currywurst mit Pommes. I'm soon going to move to Gran Canaria where I will, hopefully pretty quickly, pick up enough Spanish to order tapas and Aguilla beer and soon perhaps forget what Kolsch even tasted like. However, the english language can be like a breath of fresh air after you have tried so hard to learn enough of the local language to get by, then someone pretends not to understand you because you haven't pronounced it just so. This will not stop me trying by any means - you owe it to your hosts to communicate in their mother tongue - but, arriving back in Birmingham on Sunday, even if the taxi driver tries to rip me off I'll at least be able to tell him where to go!
Luke Kadinopoulos, Cologne, Germany

I have an Austrian father and Canadian mother, was born in the US and spent my earliest childhood in Austria before we moved to California. For some reason I always felt more European than American, while for my sister, it was the opposite. I went to univeristy in Scotland, where I learned to feel very at home in British culture, and spent a year abroad in Germany. For the past two years now, I have been living in Vienna. I certainly have no feelings of "national identity" for here nor for anywhere else I have lived (or Canada where I have never lived) but I have never seriously been bothered by this, at most when someone asks me "where are you from" and I have to decide whether to tell them the long or short version, or, even worse, they insist on telling me I "have to choose" or deciding for me what I "am". Growing up multilingual and between several different cultures teaches you that our common humanity is the most important thing, and preserves you from falling int! o the traps of petty nationalism or blanket ethnic/cultural stereotyping. As someone currently working on a PhD about immigration to the EU and European identity, I find it interesting that so many of the things we miss have little to do with our home "nation" at all. While Mark Mardell misses fresh lemngrass and curry, what I miss most from my year of living in Bonn is Orient Express (surely the best Doner Kebab this side of Turkey!) and all the things I long for about Southern California are ones most Americans probably couldn't identify with at all: the ocean/palm trees/perfect climate of course, but also real Mexican food and the richness of that culture and the Spanish language I grew up surrounded with.
Alexandra Skwara, Vienna, Austria

I suppose i have the reverse life to many quoted here. I have lived in many countries when growing up, and have now come to live in the UK. Before I was 18, i lived in Australia, France, and South East Asia, during which I was lucky my parents dragged me across europe and africa. I am very lucky to have had such an interesting childhood. I spent most of my time in Indonesia, then moved to the UK to go university. My take on life is, I like the UK, things work. Yes may be the NHS doesn't work as well as it should, but it does work, and you get care. However, aboard I find life itself is more interesting, more unpredictable and just the day to day routine is more fun. Thats what i miss about the far flung places I've been, the small bits of life we do day to day are more challenging, but just living is more interesting, more endearing, more fun. I'll move on again soon, nationality means little i feel, the only bearing i find it has is the type of visa you can get.
! Tim, Southend, UK

I am living abroad in Nice,South of France and also India. Lived in Great Britain since 1964 as a young boy.What I miss is how my beloved country Great Britain has changed over the years.From !960s onwards, it has become less desirable to live.Used to walk after midnight without fear.Miss British sense of humour and fair-mindedness etc.Gets put off by excessive multiculturalism and sexism and England does not feel England anymore. Unique British pubs have given more pleasure to humans than anything else.
Govinder Singh, Nice, South of France

I've been in Frankfurt for over half a year and whenever friends and family come over to visit, they always ask if they can bring anything out for me. It's hard to explain that actually anything I really want I can get here; baked beans, curry, english papers, jam even english crisps. They don't seem to understand that I've invited them over because I want to see them! Europe really isn't as different as people seem to think. It's just a shame you can't take all your friends with you when you travel...
Matthew Preston, Frankfurt, Germany

I have been an Expat for 40 odd years, living just west of New York City. All of my family is in the U.K. and I miss them most of all and always look forward to visits 'home'. I'm married, with children and grandchildren; I am even an American citizen, but England will always be 'home' to me. Yes, I can purchase my Marmite and Branston Pickle and other delicious English treats here, but it's not the same as buying them when I'm actually there! I don't think I would ever live in the U.K. again, but that doesn't stop me longing to visit as often as I can. Roll on August for my next trip!
Melodie Kelmer, Newton, New Jersey, USA

2 Things. Going to the pub; not just having a beer, we can get that here, even Boddies and Guinness. No, the atmosphere of standing at the bar or sitting by the fire in an English pub. Second, the NHS. Everything Matt Frei said about the US health 'system' in his article a week or so back is true!
Sue, Houston. USA

I have been living in Bangkok for 4 years now and only return to the UK out of necessity - bringing my son home to see his Grandparents and the rest of his relatives. When I return to the UK with my Thai wife and son I can honestly say that I miss Bangkok. I have never felt homesick for the UK. I have the same gripes as Fred Southgate (see his earlier posting) but after living away from the UK for so long I have many more gripes about the UK. Living overseas has given me a different perspective on my home country, for example the UK tabloid press obsession with inflicting personal attacks on individuals who's only "crime" was to become newsworthy through some chance good fortune. There is also the issue of making our own culture look better by putting down foreign cultures. This negative attitude is not limited to the tabloid press. Life as an ex-pat has taught me diplomacy, given me an appreciation of diversity, and removed my naivety about my own cultural background. I highly recommend spending time overseas.
John B, Bangkok, Thailand

I loathed living in Manchester when I went there for three years for university. My flatmates would call me 'the Belgian' or 'the Italian', and in some ways, it made me more 'unique', but they wouldn't accept the fact I was British... There were the odd jokes and small digs about my diverse background which in the end got to me a little. I really missed the diversity of Brussels. I remember getting all nostalgic and excited when I saw mozzarella for the first time in my local supermarket and when I saw a Duvel being served in a pub, but the cost of such products was prohibitive, being your average skint student, I couldn't really treat myself to these sort of things while there. Every youngster in Manchester seemed to either listen to the same type of music, dress in the same style, and partake in the usual activities of hanging around street corners with a plastic bottle of Strongbow giving passers-by the customary intimidating stare. Where else can you ask a German for a lighter, pass a Spaniard a stool or tell an Italian where the nearest supermarket is, all in English? You know the answer. For your Pak choi, try Chinatown, just off Boulevard Aanspach, in the centre of town. There's a huge Korean supermarket there in which I'm sure you'll find everything you'll need to prepare a perfect Asian dish.
Carlo Alaimo, British-Italian born in Brussels, Belgium

I've lived in India for three years now, and usually go back to the UK once every six months for work and catch up with the family. Usually by the end of a six month stint I have my fill of things and am desperate to get "home". Then I arrive back, only to find that nothing much has really changed, and after a week or so I'm keen to get back to India. On a day to day basis I don't miss too much about UK. The first few months are undoubtedly a culture shock, but once established here you know the tricks of the trade, like where to get Marmite and English Sunday papers. It's all here, just takes a bit more seeking out. I guess the things you miss most are the things you take for granted back home, like stable power supply during key football matches!. Six months without even a rain shower is just unnatural, and I also miss surley service in shops (people here tend to be over nice and over helpful, which is just downright irritating!). What is most surprising, is coming to feel about a place like this as home, and coming to accept all the madness around as normal. As for curry, its all a question of perspective. On my last visit I went to a UK curry house for the first time since moving out here and it was a big disappointment - it tasted so bland! Mark may think he knows what a good curry is, but he's really missing out!
Darren Burnham, Chennai (Madras), India

I was born in Geneva (Switzerland) from a British father (actually from Trinidad when it was still a British colony) and a French mother. By birth I had both nationalities French/British. At 16, I was allowed to apply for the Swiss nationality which I received after passing the relevant exams! I lived in Switzerland until the age of 17 but attended a French school. I then went to university in England and spent 9 years there. I have now found a job in Munich (Germany) and am living there with my "purely" British boyfriend. The problem with multiple nationalities is an "emotional" one. You belong everywhere without really belonging anywhere at all. When people ask where you¿re from, it's always a dilemma what to answer. If I say Switzerland, France or the UK, then I get "ahh no, but I mean where are you originally from?" The point is that people always ask where I'm from, even if I find myself in one of "my" countries! Can't win really. The way I see myself is as a wanderer, a nomad. I can't imagine settling down for more than a few years in the same place, without having the itch to go find another "home". I've had to get used to the idea of never belonging anywhere, but it's not all bad! With it comes a sense of freedom and also of tolerance for any place on this planet which could one day become home!
Heather Bourne, Munich, Germany

Moving to another country as an 'older'adult was hard work as we had to relearn all the things we thought we knew like how the banks worked, bulk billing at the doctors, traffic lights, the meaning of words ( 'root around' in Australia does not mean 'search for', it is very much ruder!) and we found ourselves trying to explain why we didnt know/understand. Our children rapidly acquire the accent and settled easily, and so did we, no homesickness and everyone was only an email away. We had to return to the UK and this was in many ways more of a culture shock, the weather, having to wear coats and hats, the long dark days, and I had the most awful homesickness for my 'new ' country. I missed so much and still do. The children were surprised by an England they didnt really remember but once again settled quickly, lost their accents ( and acquired the less appealing local one!). We have Australian citizenship and taking part in that ceremony was a wonderful occasion;the children say having two passports doesnt bother them and they may never live in Australia again though do return for holidays. I feel my future is in Australia and I will return to live permanently as soon as possible.
Ros Bannerman, currently Nottingham, England but also Currumbin, Queensland, Australia

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