The day we moved into our new English home in 1997, my father walked up to the living-room window and very slowly pushed open the lower ledge. ‘Ein Sash Window – hast du so was schon mal gesehen?’ Had I ever seen anything like that? He let go of the brass handle. The ledge stayed in position, drawing an involuntary whistle from my father, followed by a grunt and a nod of the head. This acoustic code was well known in the family, a telltale sign that my father was admiring the robustness of a piece of furniture or machinery. The hung-sash window, my father explained, was a masterpiece of British craftsmanship: a complex pulley system of weights and counterweights elegantly hidden in the window frame, centuries old yet still state of the art. To him, the oblique charm of the sash window typified the appeal of our new home. It might have been small – smaller than the house my parents had been able to afford in Germany – but it made ingenious use of the little space it had, creating a Through-the-Looking-Glass effect, whereby the internal space was larger than what you expected from outside. We were charmed by our new English home, its nooks and crannies, its eccentric use of stairs and its damp bathroom carpets.
Like most northern Europeans, we were dedicated Anglophiles. Which is to say that we were practically half-English before we made the move: tea drinkers, shortbread nibblers, watchers of non-subtitled BBC comedies. When my father was offered a position at the London office of his company, it was a chance to complete the metamorphosis. My parents were ambitious: within weeks of our arrival, my father started demanding fried bacon and beans on toast for breakfast. My mother tried her hand at a Sunday roast. I was encouraged to take up cricket. But the road to Englishness wasn’t always smooth. We soon discovered that the sash window had an irritating habit of rattling in the frame each time an aeroplane passed overhead (which was frequent – we lived on the Heathrow flight path). One or two of the windows didn’t rattle – they had been painted shut, which was just as irritating. Cleaning a sash window proved to be difficult, if not impossible, because you couldn’t reach the area where the two sheets of glass overlapped. After the summer, a neat rectangle of filth had crystallized in the middle of the two panes. When winter came, we had to move the sofas away from the windows to avoid the draught that sneaked through the gaps.
Other features we had originally admired began to grate. My mother’s key snapped in the lock of our front door and several days were spent wondering why no one had thought of equipping the door with a handlebar, thus taking the pressure off the key on opening. There was an awkward encounter with a plumber who spent a week trying to fix a burst pipe before breaking down in tears and admitting that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.