Paradise lost

Scary giant mutant radish
Study to find the effects of high-stress environments on the growth of domestic radishes

It is a well-known fact that German allotments are an intense environment of competitive gated-community style policing of each other’s plots, enforced with glee by the leathery pensioners who own half of the gardens in the space. Vladimir Kaminer even wrote an entire book of humourous anecdotes about his time as an allotment owner. Either your tree is too close to the fence, or not close enough to the fence, or the square meterage of lawn is insufficient, or the quantity or quality of your barbeque smoke is unacceptable – there is, reputedly, nothing one can do to avoid that moment when your neighbour pops their head up over the hedging to make their latest com(ment/plaint).

Community gardens are different. Over here, as in general, community gardens are open-minded, collaborative spaces, where people join for their love of getting their hands dirty and watching things grow, rather than a love of leylandii and uniform patio paving. The kind of people who join community gardens are warm-hearted, social, overproportionally vegetarian and accept the higgeldy-piggeldiness of a garden’s inherent nature, especially when it is open to the ideas and hands of so many diverse people.

This is what we tell ourselves and each other to avoid acknowledging the truth.

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Escape

A thin skin of neon green algae wrinkled on the surface of water
Neon green algae had formed an incredibly thin film on top of some stagnant water in a bucket, and it wrinkled with the motion of the water, and made something that looked like an image from an electron microscope.

I am not a fiction writer. Believe me, I have tried; I have sat in cafes on Sunday afternoons, filling notebooks with pages of dross which I have later looked on and cringed hard enough to call it an abs workout. This is very distressing, as I dream of being the kind of person with a head full of wonderful novels, bursting with quirky and original characters and surprising plotlines. I would even settle for having a knack for short stories – heck, even erotic fanfic – but alas, it is not my gift.

Which makes it especially hard to write at all right now. What a joy it must be to be a fiction writer right now, creating universes and situations far removed from reality, snuggling down into an idea of people and places unconcerned with wispy-haired politicians or horrific violence or the purloinment of loo roll and the amusing jokes one could make thereabout. Even dystopic, grim fiction is an escape; nightmarish cloning facilities or feral groups of teenagers led by some kind of ‘chosen one’ are an adventure, a painting, an imagining of darkness which cathartically lets us forget our own.

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Heavy Metal Stress Relief

A big giant cleaver
I shall name thee Mr Slicey
A 40-minute cycle northwards via Pankow, in the rain, and then a sharp right turn and a brief meander through a U-shaped courtyard. I stop outside a building which looks like a garage, with piles of scrap metal and a workbench with a huge vice attached outside. Also outside are a small clan of men, eyeing me with amused expressions on their faces. Two of them (I’m not joking) are wearing leather jackets and have greased-back hair, while the other two are (again, not joking) wearing lumberjack shirts and snapbacks while sporting solid beards.

One of them looks like the leader so I introduce myself to him and say that I am booked onto the course with my friend who is running late, and he and his mate laugh and say that they’re not in charge and reckoned I was looking for the painting course up the road rather than this one here. Because it is a blacksmithing course, which indeed is hilarious because I am a delicate lady. But before I am able to punch anyone in the giblets, the actual blacksmith arrives. In delightful juxtaposition with the Lads, he is a young stringy bloke with a soft, deer-like face, a baggy and very holey jumper, and a tentative, quiet voice. He meekly beckons us into the workshop with his long, sooty fingers.

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Luxury Schmucks

The forest in NEw Hampshire
The spiciest trees you ever did sees

The White Mountains; the shire-iest part of New Hampshire. As you begin to head north into the forest, the trees begin to glow brighter and brighter, improbable shades of lava orange and lemon yellow and neon pink. The road curves through the woods gracefully, like the stroke of a pen. Every so often you near a sign proclaiming “SCENIC VIEW” and you are forced to stop and marvel at yet another majestic natural diorama of exhaustingly intense colour. And after a while of rolling past the soft carpeted mounds of the presidential mountains, you turn a corner, and a vast white mass hefts itself into view. You blink, and your eyes focus onto a comically enormous chalk-white building festooned with turrets and towers and balustrades. Its enormous red roofs somehow manage simultaneously to blend into and clash with the blazing foliage behind them. The flagpoles on the top of the building are huge and fat and tapered like space rockets. This is the Mount Washington Hotel.

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Trash curtain

the art installation at the brandenburg gate commemorating 30 years since the fall of theberlin wall
They should have let the entire city use it as a huge communal hammock; such a wasted opportunity

This week the city has been devoted to commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 30 years ago. Every time there is a big milestone like this, Berlin is packed with events and celebrations and people go a bit nuts for it. For the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the city erected a line of eerie glowing white orbs along the entirety of the length of the wall from east to west. Every so often, as you travelled around the place, you would catch a glimpse of a stretch of this illuminated barrier; simply being there, not trying to say or mean anything explicity, but just shining peacefully in the blue darkness of the evening. The light of the orbs cast a whole new look into the most familiar corners of the city, and small mirrors hung from the trees sparkled and made the leafy parts feel like little pockets of magic.

On the last night of the celebrations, the orbs were to be let up into the sky like balloons. Duly we all gathered to watch, and there was a countdown, and then the countdown reached zero – and all the lights went off. The orbs became dark, dead plastic. They did then did indeed start levitating into the air but it was almost impossible to tell because it was the dead of night and THEY HAD TURNED OFF ALL THE LIGHTS. Thousands of people came out to stare into the night sky and imagine dozens of plastic balls floating up into the void. Just think how majestic it would have been to see a staggered sequence of thousands of glowing balloons rising to meet the darkness. But no; no one had thought that far ahead, and so we got what we got. Somehow, no one was surprised.

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What we have done to them

a dog wears a sign that says "I'm a dog and even I know this is fucked"

a dog wears a sign that says "I'm a dog and even I know this is fucked"

Thousands of people didn’t go to work or college or school that day just to be there. Not just in Berlin but worldwide. They were taking a stand – striking not to teach their employers or teachers a lesson but rather to make it clear to the most powerful people in the world that regular schmoes aren’t going to shut up until something is done about the climate crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people disrupting the rhythm of the city to drum the message out with the sound of their feet. And then also me, who doesn’t work Fridays and so just merrily popped over to the strike without disruping anything, like a snivelling little fraud.

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Never get sick. It’s the only option.

sunset behind tv tower

The healthcare system in Berlin is, I feel, a little like the Wild West. Just as in the Wild West, there are certainly social and bureaucratic structures in place; everyone has a set role to fulfil, everyone knows their place and the whole macrocosm has a consistent rhythm. But also as in the Wild West, everything is a bit disorganised, generally everyone is a bit lawless, people’s cattle occasionally go missing, and you can’t stop groups of people from spontaneously launching into a bar brawl or a hoedown. Walking into a doctor’s practice is identical to the ‘walking into the saloon’ moment: the receptionists’ fingers stop tippy-tapping their keyboards and they turn to glare at you with suspicious eyes, the other patients suss you out from the waiting room, and you stand wide-stanced in the doorway, silhouetted in the daytime glare, trying to get a sense for whether or not this will turn out to be a quiet drink or a huge drunken punch-up with the gold prospectors in the corner. Metaphorically speaking.

If you have recently seen me diagonally lurching down the stairs or wincing when I sit down, the reason for this is that I have been suffering from a persistent case of tendonitis in the knee since April. Perhaps it would have cleared up by now if I had had adequate medical care earlier, but let us not wonder over ifs and maybes. But it is how it is, and here are the lessons we can learn from my latest journey through German medical care.

1. Sometimes you don’t need a referral if you need a specific doctor for a specific ailment (yay!) but sometimes you do (oh…okay?) and it’s not entirely clear when which case applies

So first of all I go to my GP to ask her what the heck I should be doing, since this is standard practice in the UK. See your GP, get sent to a specialist, done. Most doctors in Germany are independent and start their own practice, meaning that they are always completely fully booked because THEY ARE THE ONLY DOCTOR IN THE PRACTICE. Sometimes, however, you will find a Gesundheitszentrum where multiple doctors occupy the same building and take up miscellaneous straggler-patients when another doctor of the same category is too busy. This is how I ended up not being able to see my proper GP but her colleague, who simply looked at my knee with his eyes (pro tip to medics: if someone says something hurts, maybe poke it a couple of times to see if you learn anything). He leaned back, shrugged and went “A sports injury? Well I mean, why don’t you just look for taping tutorials on YouTube.” and then sent me out after a solid 5 seconds of professional medical advice.

2. Ok good, so if you have a muscle/joint type thing, you need to go to an Orthopäde, and that doesn’t require a referral

Nice, now we’re getting somewhere. There are several Orthopäden (orthopedic doctors) in my neighbourhood but they all have terrible Google ratings, so I just go to one which says they have open consultations on Fridays. I arrive on Friday morning half an hour before opening time just to make sure I am first in the queue, since these open consultations tend to be extremely full and you often end up waiting over two hours to be seen.

3. Open consultation hours at doctors’ practices tend to be extremely full and you often end up waiting over two hours to be seen  – so be early

Get there early, sail through the door as soon as it is opened, and explain to the receptionist that you would like to see the doctor. In this case, the receptionist looks at me with a face of pure disgust and rants, “But today is appointments only!! Do you have an appointment???” I explain that I did not because I saw on the website that today was a ‘no appointments’ day. “Well that’s not correct, today is appointments only and YOU DON’T HAVE AN APPOINTMENT. You can’t just barge in here and expect to see the doctor!!” I apologise sincerely and say that I did not mean to cause any trouble but I had just acted according to the information I found on the website. “Well, you can’t expect everything that’s on the website to be a true fact, that’s not our responsibility.”

With this irrefutable conclusion, she turns to have a very serious whispered discussion with the other receptionists and they eventually agree to let me see the doctor anyway, for which of course I perform being undyingly grateful. After an hour the doc calls me in and makes me stand in front of him while he assesses me like a farmer sizing up a bull up for purchase. “You have terrible knock knees,” he announces. Then he gets me to lie on his ancient looking couch and wrenches my legs around before bashing them about with a reflex hammer until he is satisfied. He tells me he will prescribe me an MRI scan for my back (what?), orthopedic insoles for my knock-knees (cool, another physical flaw to be aesthetically ashamed of for the rest of my life, thanks) and physiotherapy for the injured knee. He then informs me that they have ‘run out’ of physiotherapy for this quarter so I have to come back at the beginning of July to pick up the prescription.

4. Apparently doctors get a limited number of ‘physio tokens’ that they’re allowed to hand out each quarter, so like, try to only get injured at the beginning of the quarter I guess.

I arrive at the practice at the beginning of July to pick up my prescription. On the front door of the surgery is an A4 printed sheet of paper:

“Practice closed for July due to holidays.”

5. It never hurts to get a second opinion

I show up for the open session at another Orthopäde and this time they don’t yell at me, which is a very positive start and I am feeling good about my chances. I am second in line when the practice opens and yet somehow I wait for over an hour and a half to be seen, while countless crumbling geriatrics shuffle in and out of the doctor’s room looking like no amount of physio would cure the fact that their skeleton has turned to granola.

This Orthopädin is nice! And helpul! And actually examines my knee, which (in case you forgot) was the one thing that was actually freakin hurting! She gives me a prescription for physio right away (I guess she had plenty of tokens). When I ask her if there is a particular physiotherapist she can recommend, she looks at me as if I had asked how many chickpeas she can fit in her earhole, so I wave the question away and leave on a high.

6. Physiotherapists are extremely in-demand and so you will have to work hard to get an appointment. Also, they never answer the phone.

So apparently all physiotherapists can’t afford a receptionist, which is why when you call any given practice around the city you will always get an answering machine message that says “Sorry, no one can come to the phone right now because we are currently administering treatment. Please call back later.” This is an extremely clever riddle because of course the physiotherapist is almost completely fully booked, so they will always be administering treatment when you call, so you will never get an appointment, EXCEPT IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE THEY ARE FULLY BOOKED:

Nonetheless, I managed to finally find a very highly-rated dude down the road from my flat and he ANSWERED THE PHONE PRAISE JESUS and with a heavy sigh he agreed to squeeze me in.

7. Because most physicians are independent, they can decorate and run their practice however they damn well please

My physiotherapist’s practice is one of the least medically professional looking spaces I have ever laid eyes on. When you open the door, a motion-activated garden gnome wolf-whistles to announce your arrival (good God I wish I were joking). Most of the walls are encrusted with layers of pictures and posters and inkjet-printed signs, many of which display the price for various physiotherapeutic services, each in enormous text in a different font to any of the others. The other posters are either ‘humourous’ images like a photo of a hamster wearing a baseball cap, or diagrams of anatomical systems. On the counter there is a printed sign that says “Save the environment – say no to plastic! Card payments not accepted”. My eyes refocus and I see that the entire counter is encrusted with shiny posters, stickers and signs, that all say some variation of “CASH ONLY”. Is this guy above board? Do I care at this point?

When I present myself to ‘reception’  the guy looks up my appointment in a huge, yellowed ledger. I note that he does not have a computer. He ushers me into the treatment room and makes me stand one-legged on a huge foam slab to assess the state of my leg. He asks me where I am from and I mention with dismay that I am British, at which point his eyes light up, he turns to grab a squishy fabric ball made to look like an American football, and hurls it at me, yelling “RUGBY!!”. So this is how we spend the first fifteen minutes of the session: he throws a Not-Rugby ball at me while cheerfully shouting ‘Rugby’, I have to catch it, and then I have to throw it back while trying not to fall over. He is very talkative and tells me all about how much he loves the UK and thinks in particular that Ireland and Bournemouth are two of the greatest places on earth. I wonder a little about his judgement criteria, but I cannot think much about anything other than how difficult it is to stand on one leg any longer than a few seconds.

Then he asks me to lie down and he begins massaging my knee. This is my first professional massage ever and I must look awkward because he smiles at me and says, “Just relax. Lay back and think of Boris Johnson’.

We chuckle together. Internally I weep, although I am not sure whether that is for the thought of Boris Johnson or simply because sports massages are absolute Nightmare Agony.

8. Just find yourself a doctor who acts like a person and who also treats you like a person. Ideally one who can make a good joke.

 

 

Endless Disappointment: Season 14 Episode 23

a market in wokingham uk
Just look at that sad bunting. That’s the mascot for the UK now: just a sad, thin little strand of anemic bunting.

Well we kindof saw it coming I suppose. We knew it could only get worse; the only point of uncertainty was knowing exactly in which way it would get worse. But then Teresa May stepped down and we saw the blond, feathery tussock of hair cresting over the horizon and suddenly we realised we knew this was the next thing to happen. We had known it from the start.

This man, who pushed fiercely for Brexit and then resigned like a cowardly little invertebrate when he got what he wanted. This man, a man who has repeatedly made racist, sexist and homophobic comments while actively in government. A bloke who thrashes about in violent arguments with his girlfriend and then ziplines to work in the morning looking like a bulging, trussed-up salami hung out to cure wearing a hard hat and formal attire. A dude who behaves like an American frat boy but talks like a beef wellington brought to life in a children’s movie. A fellow who, when simply asked to make a basic speech about the Olympics, referred to table tennis as WIFF-WAFF.

Literally NOBODY calls it that. Nobody apart from port-wine-and-cigar-stained tossers such as you, Bozzer.

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Ex Machina: Too many tits

I have a little note on my phone where I list noteworthy or recommended films I have been meaning to see, so that on a vegging-out evening I can go straight into Netflix and decisively click something from my list rather than scroll through thousands of Adam Sandler comedies not knowing what to cram into my tired eyes. This is how I ended up watching Ex Machina. It has incredible review scores, has won Oscars, has a very tasteful Netflix thumbnail and most importantly contains all the things I hope for from a film: robots, futuristic techy stuff, lush panoramas of natural landscapes, and British actors doing good American accents.

I guess Ex Machina deserves to be called a tour de force, or whatever. It’s a very slick, well-made film, with great acting and gorgeous cinematography and a bloody amazing futuristic house which may as well be credited as the main character in the film just in terms of sheer screen presence. The basic premise of the film, in case you haven’t seen it, is that some groovy Elon Musk type dude has invented a kind of super-advanced artificial intelligence which he now wants an ‘average Joe’ to try out to see if the AI makes a convincing human personality – a 3D Turing test, in essence. It’s a clever film about real versus simulated consciousness, human versus simulated social connection, and whether it is possible to be cruel to an artificial person. It’s clever and good. It is. It is. So why can’t I stop thinking about it with simmering annoyance?

If I had read that brief summary from the previous paragraph in any paper or on any website, I would have immediately assumed that the AI has been programmed to be a coy nubile woman personality. Because of course. Of course. In the future, films tell us, masculine robots are soldiers and assassins and occasionally hyperintelligent but completely sexless servants. But feminine robots are always coy; they always have a dinky little silicon skirt or a dominatrix kindof vibe or just cock their aluminium head to one side to ask the main character: ‘But Mr Spamberton – what is love?’ If a dude in a film is there to find out if he can get on with a super-intelligent robot, she has to be a lovely lady robot. Where would be the fun in him talking to a guy robot? Or an agender robot? Because then you wouldn’t be able to write in a hackneyed story about the man and the robot falling for each other BUT IS IT REALLY LOVE BECAUSE SHE IS ONLY PROGRAMMED TO BEHAVE THAT WAY. I guess we’re meant to find the whole thing intriguing and a bit Her but their interactions are so limp and joyless that their ‘attraction’ to each other feels awkwardly jammed into the story like a shitzu forced to wear a tiny little quilted dog-gilet. But that’s the story we got.

And then that of course means that you can fill your film chock-full of tits. Gorgeous naked women lounging around on couches or hanging up in electronics workshops or simply regarding their aureolas in a mirror with a blank expression as if their jugs are some kind of portal to human sentience. The robots don’t care that they’re naked; they’re just robots, and to them it’s the same as having a USB port or cooling fan vent on display. So it’s fine guys, it’s not voyeurism and actually it makes our film very arty and cool. But also, a little bit: phwoar.

To be fair, the film tries to absolve itself of this by making it clear that the robot maker man is a total douche who delberately makes his robots sexy women both to fulfil his own sexual fantasies but also because of some questionable existential theory that human consciousness is only convincing when shaped in some way by gender. We, the audience, are encouraged to see all these vignettes of gorgeous naked women presenting themselves to the camera as tasteful depictions of nudity brought about by the mild sexism of the film’s antagonist.

Still. Have you heard of ‘lampshading’? This is a term used to describe the pernicious way that writers get to have their cake and eat it too by including a discriminatory joke in their media and then make it clear that we are all meant to laugh at the character who made the joke for being such a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc. It is an ingenious tactic because you can still get a huge laugh for a joke that usually wouldn’t be acceptable in modern mainstream entertainment, and then you get a second laugh which also allows you and your audience to feel absolved of any guilt we might ought to feel for the first laugh because hey guys, we’re laughing at racism here. For example, character A might say ‘Honey, why do you need to buy a new pair of shoes when you only need to wear your slippers in the kitchen?!’ and character B might say ‘Oh foo, Stanley!’ and we all have a good chuckle twice. Watch this excellent video by Pop Culture Detective for a fascinating dive into lampshading in The Big Bang Theory.

You see, if you claim that all the robots are gorgeous naked women because their maker was a misogynistic perv, that may be the case in terms of the story – but the fact remains that it gives you, the filmmaker, a chance to show this stuff. To make the aesthetic of your film oscillate between sumptuous nature shots, beautiful static scenes of the fancy future house, and creepy, stalkerish footage of vulnerable-looking and/or naked women, often shown on CCTV to really amp up the voyeurism factor. However you choose to narratively excuse it, the eye sees what it sees and the viewer is given a visual treat. There are no gorgeous naked men in this film. No man is being objectified; but the women are posited as literal objects, so that’s totally fine.

It is such a demeaning, demoralising masterpiece. It is so disappointing to sit for two hours watching a woman’s physical desirability being leveraged as a plot point with the surface excuse being that it is a sharp analysis of the nature of artificial intelligence and the fragility of human uniqueness. It is so tiring to watch another film full of bland, beautiful women, the camera lovingly stroking up their thighs and neckline, while the men have discussions and fights and dinner.

And ultimately it is a huge wasted opportunity. The idea of a face-to-face human Turing test is nerd-movie GOLD and it could have been made awesomely – it could have been funny and clever and ingenious and really make people think about the new ethics we will need to consider when we start getting closer to creating simulated consciousness ourselves. But no one can make that film now, because the film that was made was this one, and it ends with a beautiful lady, now no longer a robot since she has put on a long wig and a gorgeous dress and – inexplicably – 8-inch heels, wandering outside and marvelling at the sights of the woodland and the blue sky, looking like a lady in a hayfever relief drug commercial.

I dunno guys, I guess I’m just tired. I’m aggravated that the films I watch are full of eye-candy for the men and no eye-candy for us. I’m baffled that this counts as Oscar-worthy, and my dork self is furious that we wasted a good robot film on this weak-ass plot.

Brexit Rep Training Manual: Gold Level

What an iconic symbol. Shame that they will all be destroyed when the pound crumbles and stamps become worthless and people are forced to eat envelopes to survive.

So Brexit Day came and went, and nothing concrete has occurred. Your country is still thrashing in the water, drowning in the most famous and most large-scale embarrassment in human history. Your colleagues occasionally mention it at the coffee machine, waggishly raising an eyebrow. You engage standard protocol: a dramatic and practised roll of the eyes, a sigh, and that eminently British chuckle that signals amusement, self-consciousness and resignation all at once. None of your European friends are able to make exactly this noise in quite the way you can; it is your birth right and one of the few remaining legacies you culturally retain from your homeland.

You will have lots of practice in answering a small selection of FAQs:

– how do you feel about May?

The grim satisfaction of having expected thundrous disappointment and those expectations being thoroughly met.


– did you vote remain?

Here it is acceptable to throw out a jokey “well what do you think” or a “no of course I voted leave” and then commence another session of eye rolls and chuckles. If you’re feeling jaunty you might also throw in a comedy face palm.

– what do your parents think about you being here?

The more pertinent question is, what do you think about your parents being there, but considering that thought makes your throat tighten. Best here to say something generic about bullets being dodged and everyone in your family being Very Proud that you are doing the Europe thing.


– are you worried about whether you can stay here?

Yes, you are, and you must answer this question calmly and as generically as possible. “Oh, for sure, but no one knows what’s going to happen – I doubt they will throw us all out without warning.” You ignore the fluttering heart palpitations and the ferocious itch of the Not Knowing What’s Going To Happen, which has been plaguing your waking moments as it becomes increasingly clear that the people in charge of this dumpster fire might well cock it up so much that everyone does get thrown out without warning.

If you are lucky enough to have got citizenship you must say so with the bashful grace of a distinguished actor winning a Bafta award, trying to convey with your face alone the joy and guilt of your luckiness, of all the times you sailed through the immigration office, ushered past rows of miserable non-Europeans hoping for Visas or residency permits or asylum, the cheerful Brit-loving burocrat waving you over the threshold of her office, her heart filled with pity reserved just for you despite the fact that there are literal refugees in the waiting room trying to escape literal war zones. You try not to think about all your friends who didn’t have the chance, all those people in the waiting room for whom the paperwork will be life-long.

—–

It is increasingly important to check the news but increasingly unbearable to do so, so you reluctantly read the headlines like unpleasant medical diagnoses, terrifying but essential. Occasionally Teresa May does something painful to watch and you must make sure to not make full eye contact with all the photos and videos that immediately appear on your internet feeds.

When you have to fly back to the UK for birthdays and funerals, people jokingly say ‘Hope they let you back into Germany!!’ with oddly consistent wording, as if there was a memo. You laugh with pinched eyes because you feel a bit sick.

In the end you are not there, in the UK, in the midst of the maelstrom, and so you should feel relieved. But instead you feel breathless about what is happening. It feels huge and blind and unknowable and impossible to understand, and it will change the face of global politics forever, and YOU made it happen. Of course you didn’t – you voted remain and literally had nothing to do with the failure of the government to Get A Grip. But you finally feel it, the connection to your country you never felt before. Except it is not patriotism but rather a grim sense of shared genetics – like being the mother of a serial killer. No matter what you do, you are British. Not only that but you are English, because people in Europe tend to think of the countries of the United Kingdom as discrete nationalities. And so you are English and you sound like a dead empire and you are the Brexit representative for your social circle and you can do nothing but cringe inwardly forever.

Maybe if you practise your accent enough you can convince people you are from the Netherlands.