By: Alice MEYER
Alice is a very dear friend of ours who sails her clogs too & from from Britain & Holand with the unsheduled intermission of a folly in France!
I do hope you enjoy her essays on 'Life as an alien'!
I arrived in Britain with an inadequate vocabulary, one suitcase full of books and one stuffed with clothes to work as an au pair in a country house near Henley on Thames.
The address had the word ‘Oxon’ at the bottom. A place I had been unable to find on the map, but I thought it might be a village so small that it would not be listed.
The first proper British person I saw was an imposing policeman, complete with helmet, cape and truncheon, just like the ones I’d seen in black and white films on TV. He stood guard all by himself at the entrance of a hangar into which all the passengers from the Hook of Holland ferry were shepherded like so many sea-sick sheep.
I was just eighteen and the excitement of my first long journey by myself hadn’t worn off completely by the shock of landing in Harwich.
I’d been out on deck early for my first sight of England, to see the famous glittering cliffs rising from the sea like rough white towers and high waves breaking on the rocky shores below. Instead, depressing miles of mud flats stretched out to the horizon. Flat was where I came from, I wanted hills, mountains and most certainly cliffs. Harwich itself was nothing like the efficient, modern port of Rotterdam I’d left behind.
It almost looked as if they never expected any foreigners at all.
Customs and passport control were all located in a huge hangar which was probably a left-over from the war. But I was wrong - foreigners arriving in the United Kingdom were taken very seriously indeed. Even once allowed into the blessed realm, one still had to register as an alien at the local police station after arriving at the place of work.
The word alien was used for both extraterrestrials and the unfortunate souls who had not been born British. Landing cards were checked against passports.
Questions were asked as to the purpose of the visit and how long it was likely to be, forms filled in and traveling schedules checked.
My passport revealed my age as 18, eyes blue, hair brown, height 1.67 cm. The last measurement translates just over 5’6” which to my surprise turned out to be tall in the UK. In the Netherlands, my country of birth, I was considered of medium height and I had never met a man who was shorter than I.
However, contrary to my expectations which were based on old films, the UK supplied an adequate amount of short men in the years to come. After my papers were handed back to me I was examined for contagious diseases.
I had to open my mouth and a man in a white coat looked for whatever virus might be hiding behind my teeth. I’ve never understood why this was done and found it primitive and somewhat degrading. Or perhaps they were just checking if my teeth were my own. I still have no idea.
Eventually I found my porter and he saw me and my luggage onto the train to Liverpool Street Station. Porters used to swarm onto the ferry as soon as it docked and each would mark as many pieces of luggage with their individual sign as they could.
All a passenger would have to do is to go through the border control and in the customs shed the porter would heave the suitcases on the table for inspection. Then this marvelous five-minute servant would see you and the luggage onto the train and accept the standard fee which was all of two shillings at the time.
Now even the rich and famous trawl suitcases behind them when they travel.
The train was probably pre-war as well, a creaking wreck with just enough carriages to hold all the ferry passengers. More or less all passengers went on to London by train, very few people bothered to have a car loaded and unloaded by cranes.
Car ferries weren’t even dreamt of at the time and air travel was unbelievably expensive.
The view from the train was more to my liking.
Gentle hills, fields with cows or horses, interesting hamlets clustering around square-towered churches - Dutch churches al had steeples - I’d never seen the square crenellated kind before.
Towns, looking rather dreary in comparison to the neatness of Holland, Colchester, Chelmsford and finally the outskirts of London which seemed to start and never to finish. It appeared to be the size of an entire country.
It’s quite possible to drive through the narrow part of the Netherlands in 90 minutes as the distance is only about 86 miles.
Crossing London, I found, can take a lot longer. From the train window the grimy houses, blocks of high-rise flats, balconies festooned with washing were new but dispiriting. High rise was rare and very expensive to build in the Netherlands, the few new high buildings I knew in The Hague certainly weren’t decorated with laundry. Still more houses, office blocks and here and there a steepled church.
Front doors in all sorts of colours, purple, yellow, green, blue. Without exception all the buildings looked dirty with grey windows set in grimy bricks and mortar. Coming from a country where cleanliness was heaps better than godliness, and with two acceptable colours for exterior paintwork, London already seemed pleasingly foreign.
My future employer, Mrs. Kyle, had arranged that she would pick me up at Liverpool Street Station. She had no idea what I looked like, since I had omitted to enclose a photograph in my last letter to her (it made me look huge instead of merely chubby).
She had let me know that she would hold a red rose so that I would recognise her.
I trundled out onto the platform behind a porter and found a tall, horsey looking woman in a blue and white Chanel suit holding a rose. Eager to make a good impression and demonstrate my knowledge of English I walked over to her and said slowly: ‘Good morning, Mrs. Kyle. I should have told you I am rather thick, that would make it easy for you to recognise me.’ It was not a good start.
Mrs Kyle took me to her flat in Grosvenor Square by taxi, where we loaded my suitcases into her Mini and drove off towards the M4.
Our destination was a place called Rotherfield Greys, a hamlet between Henley on Thames and Reading. From the motorway there was little to see of the countryside but what there was of it looked promising. I had a great love for green spaces, wherever I could find them. In The Hague I had spent most of my truancy in the parks and the dunes. Mrs. Kyle asked me if we had motorways like this in the Netherlands. I had no idea, we had no car and hardly ever went anywhere.
Not wishing to give a bad impression of my country I said yes. I don’t think she believed me.
During my entire tenure at her house she always treated me as a half-witted peasant, possibly taking her cue from my introduction at our first meeting.
The house was lovely, a large brick country house, probably built in the late 19th century during the Arts and Crafts movement. Stables attached at the back formed a small courtyard. The front entrance was rarely used. One entered by the back door to the servant’s quarters, kitchen, scullery, larder.
I had a small bedroom and my own tiny bathroom opposite. This pleased me enormously until I discovered that hot water was thought to be a sybaritic luxury and my room was heated by a two-bar electric fire.
The main heating for the house and water was from the Aga in the kitchen which was stoked by the gardener/chauffeur who enjoyed the outlandish name of Skidmore. Although I was supposed to be living in as one of the family, I rarely went through the green baize door which divided the service quarters from the main house. My working day started with making breakfast.
For some reason (probably because I lied on my application form) she thought I could cook. I could, but only the limited dishes that my mother relied on. Most vegetables were a mystery to me. We always had tinned food and soup made from packets of dried powder.
I remember my amazement to see someone making tomato soup from actual tomatoes. Until then I thought the only way was to get a packet dry powder and add water, carefully squeezing out lumps. But here! Sausages, toast, fried fried bread! Grilled tomatoes, fried eggs, mushrooms - a very curious meal to start the day.
Lunch was also a cooked meal, in fact all meals were cooked except tea. The first week was a revelation. Actually, it all tasted very nice and from the moment I arrived, it was fatal for my figure. Only the evening meal is cooked in the Netherlands, breakfast and lunch are usually sandwiches.
Mrs. Kyle had breakfast in bed, on a tray with silver cutlery. Her husband was a surgeon who worked in London and after his early morning ride on the common I served him and the children breakfast in the kitchen. Meanwhile, having stoked the Aga, the gardener would put on a chauffeur’s uniform to drive him to Reading station, return and change into his gardening clothes again.
The same ritual took place late afternoon when Skidmore changed into a chauffeur again. I thought it was quite snobbish, putting a chauffeur’s cap on wasn’t going make him drive any better. Still, it made the Bentley look good. Apart from the Mini and the Bentley they owned yet another car which I loved best, the Landrover.
Skidmore promised me he would teach me to drive, but it turned out I didn’t want to do him the favours he wanted in return. Rolling in the hay meant nothing to me, but his gnarled hand creeping up my leg was clear enough. It was years before I learnt to drive.
Once a week, the char woman would come to do the serious cleaning. Her name was Ruby and most of the time I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about in her local accent. Her name was Ruby, another strange habit of the British, calling people Ivy, Ruby, Pearl, as if they’d run out of normal names altogether. Ruby often had her hair in curlers underneath her scarf. Yet another weird custom of the British.
On television, I’d seen Coronation Street, in which one woman alway wore curlers. She was a cleaner too, so I thought it could be just cleaners who kept curlers in for all the world to see. But when were they going to reap the benefits? The woman in Coronation Street had them in at home as well as at work. Perhaps she only took them out at the weekend, I thought. As for Ruby, I didn’t like to ask.
Coronation Street had other curious scenes, elderly women as well as younger ones, in a pub! Smoking and drinking! Ena Sharples and her hairnet (clearly some British women had problems with their hair requiring it to be kept netted or rolled) in the Rover’s Return with Minnie. Both looking like pillars of the community but in a pub and drinking beer. My severely orthodox reformed mother would have fainted at the thought. Her religion (and by extension, mine) was well to the right of the stricter South African protestant churches, going to pubs would get you excommunicated. British housekeeping was another strange experience.
In the Netherlands the great majority of housewives had a busy day on Friday. Washing windows, cleaning brass, polishing the furniture and floors and hoovering everything in sight. It used to take all day. When I offered to clean the windows at Cherry Croft, Mrs. Kyle said they’d been done only six weeks ago and could wait another six.
On Sundays nothing got done in the house and everyone wore scruffy clothes, actual patches showing where they’d been mended. After a large lunch, they would go for a walk and then read in the study. It was beginning to look like a way of life I could get used to or indeed, love.
The Kyles had four children, two girls away at boarding school, one 9 year old girl and a boy called Alexander at home. Sandra was an unpleasant bully but Alexander was a sweet 7 year old.
Mrs. Kyles’ old nanny would come over from time to time and still had her own room near the nursery. Ruby, myself and Skidmore made up the total workforce.
The menagerie consisted of two horses, a cat called Smokey and a nervous whippet called Winkie I had to take for walks on the common. Walking the dog was my favourite occupation, I loved roaming the common and coming across other lovely houses, the silent wildness of the nearby woods and the freedom to walk where you liked. It was as if the best books I’d read had come to life.
Mrs. Kyle had had several au pairs who’d hated walking and so she rarely believed me when I said I’d just walked the dog for an hour. She’d send me out again, one of the few favours she did me, albeit unknowingly.
One Sunday I joined the whole family on an outing to Nettlebed in the Landrover. We walked along a stretch of the downs, with glorious views on either side of the ridgeway. The children were quickly bored and we started back in the Landrover.
After a couple of miles Mr. Kyle suggested that as I liked walking, I could walk a couple of miles down the Roman road back to Cherry Croft.
That was fine by me so I got out and he gave me directions on how to get back. They drove off and I walked slowly along the deeply rutted tracks, enjoying the sunshine and the solitude. After about half a mile I detoured into a wooded area to the left of the road.
Then a most amazing thing happened. I came out of the wood and found myself looking down on a fantastically beautiful valley glittering in the late afternoon sun. It was empty of all habitation, just yellow cornfields and flower-specked grassland up to the tree line. Not even in photographs had I seen anything so beautiful before. For a long time I just looked at this living painting of heaven.
By the time I got back, the Kyles were quite worried that I’d lost my way.
I couldn’t tell them why I was late, they would take the beauty of their country for granted whereas I was simply stunned. I earned £ 4,00 a week. From Thursday morning to Friday afternoon Mrs. Kyle would stay in London and she’d give me 6 pence to buy food for myself during this time. Even then you couldn’t even buy an egg with it.
Once I was ill with ‘flu and stayed in bed. Mrs. Kyle told me that I couldn’t expect to be fed on my day off. Her meanness was astounding, she wasn’t an ideal employer by any standard, but still an improvement on my mother who had made me quite impervious to such behaviour.
I used to compensate by going to the village shop and buying the exotic sweets and cakes on offer. Exotic for me that is, Swiss rolls, Kipling cakes and biscuits. That didn’t do my figure any good, I had hoped to lose weight.
Instead I was putting it on at an alarming rate. Other au pairs told me later that this happened to all the girls, the mystery was how so many British girls stayed slim on four large meals a day. Once a week I had a day off. This was to go to English lessons in Reading and to have an outing of sorts by going to a cinema. English lessons were fun.
We had to read ‘Arms and the man’, a play by George Bernard Shaw.
I thought it was great, but most of the pupils didn’t understand it.
I met another Dutch girl in the class, Cecile, a nice but rather dull girl who took me to visit the family where she worked, a world away from my employers. A friendly, less well to do family who paid her twice as much for less work than I did. After that day we met fairly regularly. I usually caught the last bus back on my day off. I was firmly convinced that the upper decks, as well as pubs, were exclusively for men.
It took a few months for me to realise that at least as far as buses went, it wouldn’t stain my reputation forever to use it.
Once up there, I was hooked, the view was great and there is something magical about the upper deck as if the high viewpoint was part of a different world. In some buses the seats were in staggered rows of four with a narrow corridor on one side, so that the passenger nearest to the corridor had most legroom.
These were the oldest type of buses, probably pre-war. If the driver didn’t take a good run at the steep hill just outside Reading, all the passengers had to get off and walk up the hill to re-board the bus at the top. Noone thought this peculiar and no-one complained.
The newer models usually managed to get to the top in one go.
After getting off the bus at the pub, it was about a 10 minute walk down a dark country lane to get to the house. On one occasion I’d just been to the cinema and seen half of a horror film in which castles, vampires and particularly wolves had featured.
That night I heard an owl for the first time in my life. My fertile imagination conjured up packs of wolves hiding in the shrubbery, amongst the ferns on the common and surely out for my blood. I ran all the way home, setting a new personal record. One evening, on my way to the bus station, a car stopped and a goodlooking young man asked me the way to Pepper Lane. I had no idea but told him unhelpfully that I did know where Broad Street was.(being uselessly informative has been one of my failings all of my life).
When he asked me for my telephone number, I gave it happily, not least because reciting the number was like being in one of the many films I’d seen.
In Holland we had always had numbers. Here letters and numbers were far more mysterious - ‘Knightsbridge 4563’ sounds miles better than just rattling off 9 or 10 numbers. I had a fantastically romantic telephone number at my disposal: Rotherfield Greys 234. I could imagine saying this in a husky voice, wearing a floaty dress and with an anguished expression on my face.
He phoned a few days later and we went out to Maidenhead to have supper. The whole evening I think he talked about his ex -girlfriend and then took me home. He was nice but I had no idea what he’d been talking about. Perhaps that was the object of the exercise, in any case, I never heard from him again although for a long time I hoped he’d call - for I was absolutely ready with the husky, anguished voice.
On Sundays I was occasionally allowed to eat with the family. Mrs. Kyle had probably hoped that I would be able to cook all meals, but I was unfamiliar with the Aga and had no idea how to use it. It seemed to have quite a few ovens, snowshoes to toast the bread on and a mysterious source of energy.
Cooking was going to be a challenge. Dutch cuisine tends to be stodgy and overcooked but my mother took it to new depths. She would put a chicken in a large cast iron pan, add a packet of margerine and half a pound of salt. Once it simmered, she added six pints of water, turned up the gas and a couple of hours later you had something that wasn’t exactly tasty or healthy, but certainly safe to eat.
That method didn’t go down well, so I learned about roasting, not throwing out all the dirty leaves of vegetables, work out when the sausages were done inside as well as outside and fry eggs the British way.
I must be one of the few au pairs who learned to cook in the UK. Mrs. K was somewhat disappointed that I knew no exotic Dutch dishes, or even puddings. We used to have bottled yoghurt or vanilla custard for pudding at home. However, I remembered that my mother had once made a marcaroni custard pudding with raisins and volunteered to make this Dutch pudding for them.
It did have the positive result that I was never asked to make puddings again.
But then I hadn’t known that marcaroni has to be rinsed after cooking and that this omission would result in a dish which was solid enough to feed an entire orphanage for a day.
I was surprised at the result myself, but maintained that this was a great staple of Dutch cooking and had a second helping to prove it. It was quite disgusting. In the first few weeks after my arrival Mrs. Kyle drove me to a few addresses where other Dutch au pairs lived with their respective families. It was a waste of time as the girls were very boring and I couldn’t see the point of meeting compatriots as that was easy enough at home.
The point of being in Britain was surely to meet and talk with British people. But this is not how it works. Unlike the Dutch, who were positively xenophiles, foreigners were expected to keep to themselves. Hence the amazing presence in Reading of the International Club.
It might have been international, but it was mainly a commonwealth club of various African countries.
A sprinkling of European au pair girls didn’t make it a comfortable place to be as the general idea of the men was that we should comply with all their wishes in return for an evening out.
Cecile and I only went twice. Sweaty dancing, bad coffee and continual proposals of marriage to get you into bed with them didn’t make for a pleasant evening. Besides, they might have had any number of wives at home.
We started going to the cinema instead. Cinemas! The Gaumont, the Odeon and other fantastic names. It was quite cheap to go to a cinema and there were always two films. Not only that, you could just buy a ticket and stay there all day if you wanted to. I hardly ever went to the cinema after my years as au pair when I must have seen hundreds of A and B movies.
One would almost always arrive in the middle of one film or other. We started to make up the plot to explain the meaningful looks actors were giving each other.
A favourite one was that one of the protagonists had buried grandmother in the cellar. At least it made the films more interesting. Even now, somewhere in the world, shelves must be groaning under the weight of bad films of that period. Because the last bus home left around 10.00 p.m. I never saw the end of an awful lot of films. Usually the B movie ended for me with the heroine being stalked by vampires or simply ordinary murderers.
I had to leave one film where a terrified woman in a wheelchair tried to kill a fly for some reason and then attempted suicide by strangling herself with her bare hands. They made some serious rubbish back then. The long dark walk waiting for me was always a trial with the recent horrors replaying in my imagination. Once it was very misty and I could barely make out de road with my small torch.
Suddenly I saw a white shape in front of me and backing away with a scream, my torch picked out a surprised white Scottie. Embarrassed, I hurried on. Owls hooted, but by now I was wise to them. Something you could do everywhere was smoking. In the Netherlands, if a woman smoked in the street she would almost certainly be a ‘loose one’.
In cinemas it wasn’t allowed either. But here, a land of freedom, women walking and smoking outside were not regarded as prostitutes. As I learned much later, prostitution didn’t officially exist in Britain. I smoked a lot, hoping it made me look interesting, especially when I cultivated yellow patches on my nails.
I would be seen as a tortured soul, reading and writing poetry, trying to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, smoking didn’t do any of these things for me, but it was useful if you needed to get rid of a groper in the cinema by dropping hot ash on his hands, failing that, I would jab a sharp heel into his foot.
English lessons were in the early evening and this gave Cecile and I time on our days off to explore the area.
I still hadn’t found Oxon but we went to Henley on Thames one day, to Ye Olde Ropewalk, where we had been told to have a proper ‘cream tea’. It sounded revolting.
It was quite weird to have milk in tea in the first place, but cream?
The Ropewalk was a lovely old teashop and we ordered as we’d been told by Cecile’s family. When it arrived neither of us knew how to organise it. Tea in a pot, hot water in another. Plate with flattish round buns, dish with whipped cream, another dish with strawberry jam, sugar, milk, butter. We had no idea how to combine this lot.
We carefully poured out tea and looked around to see if anyone else had ordered cream tea. After a while we were hugely relieved to see a couple nearby start on their scones. Horizontal cut, butter, jam - then cream. On the scones, not in the tea. Thank God! Heavenly taste of fresh scones, real butter - a great luxury in Holland at the time. We absolutely loved it.
Classic British dishes are great. Steak and kidney pudding (not a pudding but a main course - the language is definitely there to confuse foreigners), Cumberland sausages, roast beef and Christmas Pudding (real pudding, although more like warm cake) were yet to come.
But that the same people who make fresh scones eat Mother’s Pride bread and make undrinkable coffee is incomprehensible. Many an alien must have wondered why most bread tasted like putty and could be more humanely used to secure windowpanes.
Equally mysterious was the process that started with coffee beans but produced a brown liquid tasting of drainage.
Some of these mysteries are still with us, but mostly in the outlying regions where Starbucks haven’t yet penetrated.
Some years ago, I attended an international conference run by Cardiff university. When we were collecting our evening meal a Swedish delegate asked: ‘How do dey make deir coffee so bad?’ She wasn’t being sarcastic, few Swedes have the knack. It was clear that catering had hit a new low for her and the resulting quality of the coffee could only be explained if it was the actual intention of the brewer.
‘They’ve perfected a recipe which doesn’t use any coffee beans at all’, I told her. ‘It’s fine as long as you don’t drink it.’