I’m a stranger ‘back home’

I was glad to get back to back to the comparative safety of my brother’s house in inland leafy suburbia after our trip to the Lincolnshire coast to see Elderly Aunt, a bastion of the Daily Mail reader. My brother and I are feeling remarkably chastened by the experience and to some extent are also shaken. I’m not a frequent visitor over to the UK for various reasons, but as duty called, I went over.
My brother suggested that we’d need something to stave off the grimness, the biting wind and bleakness of a deserted coastal town in November, and whereas we might have sought sanctuary at a nearby pub, an online reccy convinced us that the prospects were futile, and that we should restrict our alcohol consumption to the comforts of our Elderly Aunt’s home. Our now departed mother had often told us to check up on her sister, even if (in her words) “you do have to grimace your way through your stay there.” Our mother had fled the delights of Lincolnshire as an impressionable teenager, and until her dying day had always been very hostile to the county of her birth, but that was well before the current situation of pre-Brexit Britain.

I have never held much loyalty towards any county, or country, having moved frequently from one base to another, both in the UK and overseas, before eventually moving to Austria for lust (it was too fiery and volatile to be true love – that’d have been down to my reason being half-Hungarian) without a plan of what I’d do when I got here. Typical “forces brat” rebelliousness. Not even a lifetime supply of Lincolnshire Poacher and an amnesty on Haslet would have got Mum to return to the sticks, and even my brother, who usually argued with her for the sack of argument now agrees.

Our draughty garret reminded us of a bad holiday in Cleethorpes from our childhood – in Elderly Aunt’s guestroom, with thin synthetic bedsheets and a scratchy old blanket and on beds that even Japanese might have called “half single” that were the same ones I probably have slept in every visit since the 70s – and a wafer thin “party” wall that barely muffled every vigorous stroke of the “lively” neighbours and their newly-wed bliss (a just married sign above their front door being the grounds for suspicions). Alas the antiquated “Z-bed” had been disposed of after a mishap when her nephew-in-law had visited so that option was not possible. Ever hospitable as was to be expected from years, Elderly Aunt of course expected us to “make ourselves useful” while guests, so I volunteered to go off and get some shopping from the Main Parade as soon as we arrived.

The town was depressed – even at dusk under streetlight it still feels grey. The Main Parade is like a graveyard with the only signs of happiness coming from a gargantuan seagull that terrorises chips off schoolchildren who don’t go straight home after school. The chip shop and newsagent-cum-minimarket are about the only shops there. Over the other side, the Polski Sklep was replacing its window – the glazer looked brow-beaten and as though it might have been a sadly recurring event.

There has always been a vibrant Polish community in the town – many had settled after the War and married local lads and lasses. They had been hard-working – we’d used electricians and tilers to do Elderly Aunt’s shower room, house clearers (three of them had cleared out another hording relative’s house for us), and the seasonal farm labourers (the former less-amorous neighbours on the other side of the party wall) would bring fruit to Elderly Aunt when she still baked (and possibly wasn’t quite so xenophobic). I remember popping round with a cake for them, and being invited in to have a drink, and their hospitality was second-to-none. It wasn’t a trip to see EA without saying hello to the neighbours and bringing them a bottle of Schnapps to enjoy together. But as EA put it when I enquired whether she knew if they’d be around when I came to visit, “Oh them, they went back home last year!” – a desperately sad way to dismiss the neighbours who had been so friendly and welcoming each time I had met them.

I went into the Polish shop to pick up some beers and pickles. The usually full noticeboard was practically empty as I scanned it, particular as Elderly Aunt needs help in the house. I struck up conversation with the owner, who looked like he was carrying the worries of the world on his shoulders, and who I recognised from past visits. The nearby jam factory had closed last year and had meant that his side-line of paying guests had dried up, both the fruit pickers in the polytunnels and the factory workers.

We took Elderly Aunt out in the car for a shopping trip, as she’d not left the town in nearly two years, and with our first joint meal being a grim role call of her friends that have recently died, it was clear that age being coupled with loneliness has made her very polarised in her views. She perked up from escaping out of her local environment, and we did a big shop to stock the worktop freezer that we’d ordered in advance for her – it was a sad indictment on the local infrastructure that there was nowhere near her to buy electronic goods anymore and as she is not a silver surfer, her isolation really struck home, we also disposed of the old freezer, that had probably been by the front door waiting to be chucked for a couple of years. She no longer goes to the bowls club and the austerity-based cuts are making it a real struggle. The church hall is her only form of socialising, but even the canasta group and the WI struggle to motivate her to go out.

We tried to invite the amorous neighbours in, to try and see whether their consciences might be prepared to interrupt their busy love-life even for a few minutes now and again to give her a bit of company. Unfortunately they wouldn’t – the burly husband was going to be starting with a different haulage company, and wife was going to work in a nail salon and was off to college to train. They did try to strike up conversation, but when I said that I was visiting from Austria, it was met by a remark of “that’s in Eastern Germany isn’t it?” and I had to consider how best to respond, without patronising or exposing their poor geography. I wimped out, asking if they’d ever been, and got the husband’s reply “don’t think the trucks go that way” and wife’s reply that she’d been to France once but didn’t like it, but Spain looked like a good place.

Back at my brother’s we popped out to the pub after we got back from the drive back to have a couple of beers. The local bar was in the process of trying to rediscover itself as a bogus traditional pub (it will never be able to feel olde worlde) and quite frankly, drinking overpriced Peroni in the UK is a pleasure I can do without, when I can grab a local beer in Italy, enjoy fantastic Italian food in a genuine trattoria, and also have a great holiday only a few hours drive away from home. Save for the odd ale on tap that doesn’t give me terrible gas, I can really do without the facets of UK life that family and my few remaining friends in the UK swear to be so wonderful.

Elderly Aunt’s situation made me realise that for all the curtain twitching of my neighbours, that I do like the fact that I can have a chat with the neighbours, as well as the essential nature of a strong social circle. Recently, a well-meaning British guy, who was working in a restaurant in Vienna and struck up conversation while on his break, had suggested I get on Facebook to join some British groups when I had found out I was finishing working for my employer, although I think he had thought I was younger than I was. The trip to Lincolnshire, had made me glad that I have a broad mixture of friends – and that my Austrian drinking partners will keep an eye out for me. Even the lack of shops in and around the Cottage (although we have lots of doctors and chemists) makes me realise that Vienna feels so welcoming – even if apparently it is 2nd rudest in Europe or the World. I certainly won’t take it for granted.

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