Two months after arriving in Canada, I’ve just spent a week working in Oslo as part of a group representing both Canadian and Norwegian music institutions. One of my Canadian peers commented that I must ‘feel at home in Europe’, which is rather contradictory to the common British perspective that visits to mainland Europe are ‘abroad’ and almost exotic: Different languages and currencies; driving on the right (wrong!) side of the road; better wine, drunk more sensibly; national football teams that actually win tournaments…the list goes on. Britain is an island and for many of us there is little interaction with other European countries or awareness of being part of a European community, despite much of our daily lives being influenced by decisions made in Brussels.
I was surprised, therefore, to feel a sense of familiarity in Oslo. It took a while to recognise it and to realise why. It’s a small city and we walked around it confidently, along with lots of local people. One can walk along pavements looking right into shop windows, acknowledging people enjoying the outdoor seating at cafes, and cross streets easily when the need arises. Unlike much of North America, it was designed for pedestrians rather than drivers. Compared to Canada, food was very expensive – but much fresher and healthier. Portion sizes were sensible too, demonstrating that eating well does not always mean eating generously.
For some time, I’ve been meaning to write a post about my new ‘language skills’ speaking English in Canada. Visiting Norway further demonstrated the differences between British and North American English. Talking to Norwegians, who almost all spoke excellent English, I was careful not to use slang, abbreviations and figures of speech: Accordingly, I was more aware of these in my conversations with Canadians and picked up on a considerable number of phrases that had different connotations depending on our cultural background. For example, I now know that Canadians split dessert rather than sharing a pudding, but that sharing/splitting dishes is generally less common amongst platonic friends than in my UK circle – possibly because food is generally so cheap in Canada! In making an effort to understand and be understood by Norwegians, I also paid attention to improving communication with my Canadian peers.
We travelled back via London Heathrow and my two hours there really did feel like home; familiar accents and humour from airport employees, Colmans’ and HP sauce served with breakfast, binge-reading British broadsheets to savour journalistic language and content. But seeing another country through North American eyes has made me realise that as much as European countries vary, they do have a lot in common too, giving the continent distinguishing features amongst its many nationalities. An appalling understanding of politics and history means that I’m often reluctant to comment on ‘big’ topics, but it does seem to me that Britain and the British have much to gain from remaining in the EU, and that we should take our fair share of responsibility in matters such as the current refugee crisis. I sincerely hope that Friday’s awful events in Paris do not cause the UKIP and Daily Mail brigades to turn further against the plight of refugees, many of whom have witnessed similar atrocities far more frequently than we often choose to acknowledge. This week I experienced a Europe where it is possible to walk amongst a community and be welcomed. May we find a way to extend such a welcome to those in need of one.