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29 June 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 10:05am

Fudge, boarding schools and King’s Cross station: how Harry Potter introduced me to British culture

To an eight-year-old French child, Harry Potter’s magical society blurred lines between a fictional world and a foreign country.

By Pauline Bock

The first pub I ever visited was called The Leaky Cauldron.

I was an eight-year-old French child, and the pub in question was in a book, but it was the first one nonetheless. Long before my first “real” experiences of Britain – a school trip to Weston Super Mare followed by an Erasmus year in London – the wizarding world of Harry Potter introduced me to British customs, food and culture: a way of life that at the time was to me as new as it was magical.

My school, like most in France, did not require students to wear a uniform. Hogwarts robes seemed more like a Halloween costume (one I of course owned, and wore many times) than to the daily outfit of my British peers. Until recently, I was certain that JK Rowling invented prefects, school houses and point systems: when a friend told me they were a prefect at their school, I let out a fascinated gasp, my mind picturing Percy Weasley saying “Caput Draconis” to a woman in a portrait.

As boarding schools mostly aren’t part of the French education system anymore, and private education is not necessarily regarded as the best option, Harry’s school life had an added a level of eccentricity to me – not only as a place to learn magic, but also as one to live, study and go on adventures, away from the students’ family homes. Harry’s home itself, the perfectly normal (thank you very much) Privet Drive looked slightly odd to me, with its identical brick houses, a sight I did not witness in real life until the bus on our school trip drove through some south London suburbs years later.

Marie-Eléonore de Lambilly, a Frenchwoman who read Harry Potter as a child before studying at Oxford University, said she “re-discovered” many of the Hogwarts traditions there. “There were many more colleges at Oxford than houses at Hogwarts,” she told me, “but we, too, had to wear black gowns to attend formal dinners. It looked exactly like feasts in the Great Hall.”

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Any British person would find these facts obvious; but to children growing up abroad, Harry Potter’s magical society blurred lines between a fictional world and a foreign country. Small details of Britishness seemed like brilliant inventions from the author’s mind: A train trolley full of sweets! A scoring system with As and Es instead of marks from 1 to 10! The barbaric mottos of centuries-old ruling families! I didn’t question the oddity that was the Ford Anglia’s steering wheel, wrongly placed on the right side – wizards may very well have their reasons for that – and marvelled at the curious concept of Christmas crackers and carols.

The author, reading the French translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in the summer of 2001.

Some quirks of real British life only became clear much later: “Ron’s burning passion for the Chudley Cannons prepared me well for the love some Brits have for ‘their’ team”, Cécile Thai, a Frenchwoman who has been living in the UK for three years, told me.

The characters’ names posed a challenge, too. Before the first film, everyone at school used the French pronounciation: “Dum-bluh-door”, “Dud-lay Durs-lay” and “Ma-luh-foo-ah” (Malfoy becomes “Malefoy” in the French version). Hogwarts was “Poudlard” and everyone hoped not to be sorted in “Serpentard”. And of course, like Fleur Delacour, we all called the hero “Arry” (and still do). It’s alright, though, because we were the only ones to pronounce “Voldemort” properly (the T is silent).

But undeniably, the greatest delight, as well as the most puzzling, was the food. Not just the magical Chocolate Frogs and other Fizzing Whizzbees: mince pies, eggnog and flavoured jelly beans were to me exotic delicacies that definitely sounded made-up. Harry’s first feast in the Great Hall listed all sorts of food, some I knew and some I did not, but that all sounded fantastically delicious:

“He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.”

“Blocks of ice cream in every flavor you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate eclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, Jell-O, rice pudding — ”

For a decade, treacle tart remained a mystery to me, as “tarte à la mélasse” is completely unheard of in France. (When I finally tried it, I was just as confused: What’s wrong with you, Harry? Surely no one would ever pick treacle tart as their favourite dessert when carrot cake exists.) I judged Vernon’s choice of eggs and bacon at breakfast very peculiar. And “fudge” was to me the name of the Minister for Magic long before I realised it also comes vanilla or chocolate flavoured, and is sold at the off-license at the corner.

Moving to London as an exchange student felt a bit like going to Hogwarts.

My Eurostar arrived between the platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross station. (It is under these platforms, legend has it, that the Celtic Queen Boudicca is buried. I have no doubt Rowling knew that.) Walking through Borough and Leadenhall Market, where Philosopher’s Stone and Prisoner of Azbakan have been filmed, was like stepping on set: a concrete passage to Diagon Alley. The day I went to see the snakes at the Reptile House, Aunt Petunia herself (the actress Fiona Shaw) cycled by my friend and I as we exited London Zoo. When I first crossed the river on the Millennium Bridge, I spare a thought for the fictional victims of the Half-Blood Prince’s Death Eater attack. And I finally understood the origin of Fawkes the phoenix’s name while attending fireworks on November 5.

Anywhere and at any time, it only took some HP knowledge for the whole of London to turn into the Marauder’s Map.

I am now accustomed to crumpets and the violent driving of (k)night buses, but Harry Potter keeps instilling magic into my vision of Britain. There’s my brain instinctively connecting Labour’s red-and-yellow posters with Gryffindor’s emblem. There’s my smile when I spot sherbet lemon or corned beef at Tesco.

And there’s the fact that I live here, now, after all this time.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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