“French girls are a bit stuck up, the Mediterraneans want to fiesta all the time, the Germans are uptight, the Scandinavians are hot, and nobody understands the British sense of humour”: the usual stereotypes are conformed to and defied in equal measure and this provides a convenient source of conversation in the first few awkward gatherings with my fellow trainees at the European Commission. The last of these stereotypes, however, it seems is more accurate than the others: we are in general too cynical and sarcastic for other Europeans and in a continental crowd our carefully delivered cynicism and self-deprecation is neither understood, nor funny.
On the general introduction day someone points out that my new found best friend (also called Susanna, but Swedish and therefore taller, blonder and skinnier than me) looks like Gwyneth Paltrow in her I.D. photo. She does. Conversation then dries up and unable to bare it I announce jokingly that the only celebrity I’ve ever been compared to is ET (by several separate people on different occasions). Rather than laughing – and therefore implying “of course you don’t look like ET”- the Continental Europeans encircling me critically assess my face and conclude there is “a slight resemblance.”
My alien credentials don’t stop there. On my first day ‘at work’ in my Directorate General, with all the new trainees gathered together we go round in circle and describe our academic and professional backgrounds. The Continentals (by which I mean everyone who isn’t British, by which I mean everyone who isn’t me) can barely speak quickly enough in their near perfect English to relay all the Europe-related and hugely-useful-in-the real-world studying from their undergraduate, first masters and second masters that they’ve done. They then move onto their highly impressive list of internships and jobs. Most have at least one qualification in ‘European Studies’ and have written lengthy dissertations on alarmingly specific topics such as a 15,000 word thesis on ‘the economic implications for Greek dairy farmers of the EU’s F7 Work Programme, section 455’. No one else in the room is lacking a Masters and no one else has studied anything even broaching on a humanities subject. “I studied history”, I say awkwardly, and then skip straight to “I worked for the Local Government Association”- leaving out my stint of working for the British Council in La Reunion, which seems horribly frivolous now (it wasn’t actually – I was frequently traumatised by French teenagers). I also neglect to mention my time working in a bank – banking seems a bit self-serving in the company of former UN aid workers – and I’d like the limelight to move on to the next person as quickly as possible.
My justification for my inadequacy is simple: “I’m British”. That is to say; so little did anyone around me know about, let alone talk about, the European Institutions in the eighteen years before I picked my degree subject I was blithely ignorant of the need to study something useful and in fact I’m part of a culture, which Continentals could never understand, that frowns upon the ‘****studies’ as degrees: ‘vocational’ is a dirty word in British English. Like many other Britons my age, I have not yet been able to afford to do a Masters because, again inconceivable to the Continentals, we have to pay for them, and not just a €200 yearly subscription fee.
After an interrogation about my ‘bizarre’ degree choice and lack of Masters the other trainees again look at me critically and ask, “so how did you even get a traineeship in the European Commission then?”
“I don’t know”, I shrug, starting to wonder myself, “I do speak French!”
“Ohhhh,” they chorus, “so you’re not a typical Britisher then”.
The first thing my traineeship in Brussels has taught me is that the British, according to European stereotypes, are not just unfunny. We are underqualified and undereducated too.
By Susannah Savage @