national essence

If you’ve spent substantial time in a second country, you probably recognize certain qualities of everyday life that distinguish that nation from your own: for example, the smell of common cleaning products, the items on menus of cheap eateries, the uniforms of bus drivers and janitors, the cadences of conversations that you cannot quite hear, the shape of electrical outlets, the most common building materials, whether or not packs of teenage girls hold hands as they walk down the street, the layout of sidewalks, the taste of popular candy bars and soft drinks, the typography of signs, and the color of light from streetlamps.

Having been a kid in both England and upstate New York, I always felt I could recognize the essential texture of Englishness–which is most concentrated in places that tourists never go, like school lunchrooms, suburban playgrounds, and doctors’ offices (“surgeries”). Lately, however, on trips to the Low Countries and Scandinavia, I have begun to wonder whether what I thought was English, or perhaps British, is actually the shared vernacular culture of Europe north of France. For instance:

1. A sandwich shop where I ate in Antwerp could have been in London, save for the language. The daily menu on the chalk board standing on the sidewalk, the food itself, the clientele–businessmen in a certain kind of suit–all could be found in Soho.

2. The snack bar outside the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo resembled innumerable such shops outside of “stately homes,” public gardens, and archaeological sites in England, ca. 1980. There was something about the list of ice cream novelties, the typography of the sign, the summer sunlight at that northern latitude, and the line of expectant schoolchildren with pocket-money that I would have considered essentially British.

3. At the Nordbrabantsmuseum in ‘s-Hertogensbosch, the Netherlands, a reconstructed kitchen from the 1930s reminded me of similar displays in South Kensington and in provincial British museums–not only because the kitchen and its supplies looked English, but also because a certain nostalgia had caused it to be rebuilt in a museum.

I’m starting to think that there’s a Northern-European vernacular that stops at the French border. Did it originate in Victorian England and spread across the north of the continent in the age of English dominance? Or does it reflect some profound commonality among the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Norsemen who settled modern England?

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