“A sad day”
“Today I’m ashamed to be British”
“Did Britain just vote out? :(”
Well, you can tell which side of the Brexit debate my facebook friends were on.
I’m half British. My mum’s family are from the north of England, although they migrated to Australia in the late 1960s. By coincidence, I was also born in the same town as Mum, when my parents — both Australian citizens — spent a couple of years there in the mid-80s.
We moved back to Australia before my sister was born and long before I was forming any long-term memories. A family holiday when I was 3 or 4 was the last I saw of Britian for many years.
When I was a kid, I clung onto my Britishness, with the idea it lent me some sort of sophistication that my purely-Australian friends lacked. (Yeah, I was that kid.) Australia’s been federated as a country since 1901, but even now the idea pervades that if you want ~history~ and ~culture~, you have to look to Britain and Europe. (40,000 years of Aboriginal history and culture don’t count, you see.)
In retrospect though, the biggest influence of Britishness on my life as a kid was that I’d had to replace a few of my Mum’s words with Australian ones when I started school (“Bandaid” for “sticking plaster”; “texta” for “felt pen”) and I called my grandparents “Grandma and Grandad” rather than “Nan and Pop”.
I applied for a British passport for the first time in 2009.
The forms were hard to understand and it cost me hundreds of dollars in application fees, but when it arrived I was elated. Not because of any great feelings of national pride — I’d mostly grown out of my “I’m British and that makes me special” phase, thank goodness — but because of the possibilities held in the words on the top of the cover.
This passport would give me free entry, for as long as I liked, no questions asked, into most of the European continent. By pure luck of birth, I was legally part of something huge, with all the ideals of peace between neighbours and free movement of citizens.
I almost immediately made use of my new passport, spending 3 months in Italy then 3 weeks travelling through Paris, Luxembourg, Belgium and then to Estonia via Riga. Going through the “EU Citizens” line without any form to fill in as I first arrived in Rome airport was a head-trip, and I loved that in all my travels after Italy I never had to pass through a border.
In that trip, I also visited England, for the first time since I was a small child.
I certainly didn’t expect a homecoming, but I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock. Everything was almost the same as in Australian culture, but never quite. People were friendly, but at different times to when I would be. Friends would joke with each other, but with a different tenor to what I was used to. The drinking culture was different.
The tiny differences were jarring, like that highschool physics demonstration where you simultaneously play two notes almost the same and the difference is heard as a throbbing beat. I remember sitting on the train back to Florence from Pisa airport after that trip, feeling relieved that I was coming back to a place where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the culture, but at least I knew to expect strangeness.
Since that trip, I’ve visited England a couple of times, Wales once, and lived in Scotland for a year. Scotland felt culturally more familiar than England, actually, but it was there that I really articulated the fact that in almost every meaningful way, I’m Australian, and my Britishness is a matter of heritage and legality. It was reassuring to be able to clarify that about myself.
That feeling of not being really British is what kept me mostly quiet during the Brexit debate. What right do I have to weigh in on the affairs of a country that’s not my own, even if I hold their passport?
I was pro-Remain, for selfish motives if nothing else. I’ve lived in Italy continuously for just over four years now, never needing a visa, never having to go to the questura to sort out my permesso di soggiorno. I’ve been so fortunate.
And I’m still fortunate, of course. I hold a PhD and work in a professional job, with an administration office that knows how to deal with Italian immigration bureaucracy. I may be eligible for an Estonian passport by virtue of descent, which would keep me in the EU. In the next 2 years as Britain and the EU assess their options, I’ll be assessing mine, and I’m confident I’ll find a way to make things work even if they’re less simple than they have been until now.
But I’m sad for those who are less fortunate. Depending on how negotiations go, there may be a lot of people whose lives will literally shift over the next few years, people who had counted on long-term freedom of movement being possible who will have to change plans. I’m sad for the cynicism and small-mindedness that a Leave vote represents. I know the EU has many problems, but I still love the ideal of a united Europe, and I wanted to be part of that.