I’m usually reasonably at home in different situations: as my dad was in the RAF, I grew up all over the place. I don’t expect to live around the corner from the same people I’ve known all my life: for as long as I can remember, I’ve been used to people around me having different accents, different regional backgrounds. When I was very small, we lived in Germany, so it was quite normal for me not to be able to understand what people were saying in shops, to eat paprika flavoured crisps instead of salt and vinegar, and to get my pocket money in Marks and Pfennigs instead of 50p pieces.
Whenever I have felt particularly foreign, though, is when I’ve suddenly realised that a concept very familiar to me has a completely different meaning to people from a different background. Call me naïve (and you’d be right to: I was), but it was only when I met my Irish husband and his family that I realised not everyone saw Oliver Cromwell purely as an early Republican and political idealist. When I visited Tokyo, I was discombobulated not only by jet-lag, but also by a city where the architecture seemed to swing between Bladerunner and The Tale of Genjii within the space of a few city blocks, in which I was suddenly rendered utterly illiterate, and where people would ever-so-politely move away if I sat next to them on the underground. I think that’s the point about this feeling of foreignness: suddenly you see the world, and yourself, though somebody else’s eyes and from a completely different perspective.
I looked through my photo archive to try to find something which encapsulated this feeling: unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures from my trip to Japan, which is in the days before the ready availability of digital cameras. I did, however, find another picture which demonstrated two different points of view on a particular event.
This is the war memorial in Nizhny Novgorod. This rather stark and dramatic panel stands in the centre of a large open space, facing a permanently-burning flame. The square itself occupies an impressive position behind the Kremlin, at the top of a steep slope looking over the Volga.
What gave me the feeling of foreignness in this case, though, was the dates of the war which it commemorates. For me, the Second World War ran from 1939-1945, and, stupid though this may be, I suppose that, subconsciously, I had always assumed that these dates would be on any memorial to the conflict. Of course, this isn’t the case if you’re Russian: they were actually fighting the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis instead. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that, in America, WW2 starts in 1941. In Ireland, they don’t talk about the War at all: rather, it’s known, officially, as the Emergency (An Éigeandáil). It’s a small thing, but it’s easy to assume that your own point of view is the universal one, until you realise that a vast swathe of people, just as reasonably, think of things in a rather different way. It’s rather salutary, I think, to be brought up against this feeling of foreignness: it’s a little jolt to shock you out of complacency and parochial thinking, and that can only be a good thing.