Ah, Europe: what a lovely place. If only I could live there

Britain appears to be suffering from an inferiority complex. Articles on "Why Britain is the poor man of Europe" and "Why the French are superior to us in every way" have suddenly replaced pieces on "How those funny foreigners eat on the pavement and drink wine, not lager".

It was all so different a few years ago when I was touring Austria with Vienna's English Theatre. The term "Continentals" was still in use, I hazily remember. "That's your Continentals for you" was the cast's favourite phrase. At 6 o'clock every morning for ten months, we faced a selection of pungent cheeses and smoked meats for breakfast, instead of the longed-for bacon and eggs. Despite filling our plates and stomachs (and bags) with the glorious, fresh produce, we would feign surprise, shake our heads resignedly and mouth a single word: "Continentals."

The musical was specially written for language students. We performed the dreadful piece more than 450 times, in more than 90 towns, to approximately 1,000 different senior schools. During the interval, we would surprise (terrify) our audience by clambering off the stage to have an informal chat with them in English. Many of the kids I spoke to had been to London on school trips, so I would ask slowly: "And what was your favourite thing about London?" The answer - mostly in fluent, MTV English - would be something along the lines of: "Madame Tussaud's was cool and Oxford Street . . . wow, so many people, man."

Before long, a girl would shriek: "You are sooo lucky to be English, because you have Harrods. It is the best place on earth. You can go to Harrods every day." Looking across the mountain tops at the chocolate-box houses nestled in the lush green valleys, I felt a little less lucky every day.

One afternoon, early on in the ten-month tour, there were more than 500 pupils in the audience, so we conducted a Q & A session from the stage. A pupil with long hair, wearing a Nirvana T-shirt, asked: "What is the difference between Austria and England, do you think?"

"Well, in Europe," I began, not even recognising Austria as a separate nation state, "you speak more languages than we do and . . . " (a pause for effect, followed by a patronising chuckle) "you eat cheese and ham for breakfast, not bacon and eggs. Next question, please . . . "

The boy wasn't satisfied. His hand flapped wildly and he stammered: "But, but . . . ". I let him finish. "But, Miss, you say 'Europe' like it is somewhere else from you. Isn't the United Kingdom also a part of Europe?" Forty other arms shot up in the air, one or two teachers stood up and a light sweat broke out on the tour manager's top lip. All we were supposed to do was have a light chit-chat about shopping and food, and then restart the play before it either got too lively or petered out. Suddenly, we had become ambassadors for Englishness, responsible for potentially damaging a generation of Austro-Anglo relations. The teachers were nodding vigorously. Several crossed their arms and leant back in their seats.

David, the tour manager, stood amid the mutters and, putting on an authoritarian "I say you chaps" type of air, said: "Of course we are all European . . . in a way. What Lauren means is, in England, we just don't consider ourselves to be Europeans." He sat down, satisfied. The school erupted. For the next 15 minutes, the teachers, not the pupils, asked us to explain in detail our apparent "ambivalence" to other European cultures. The play ended 40 minutes late, while the debate raged on. Later, as we quietly packed up the set, the head teacher congratulated us for hosting such a "surprisingly vigorous" conversation.

My other enduring memory is of the school lunches. They were fantastic quality. There were starters, fresh bread, crisp salads, and the teachers were even served wine with theirs. Ah, Europe: what a lovely place. If only I could live there.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube