Despite being born and raised in England, I no longer identify as British. It feels unsettling to say so, and I should add that I still hold a UK passport and have a deep affection for my country of origin. However, having having spent almost a third of my life living in France and Belgium, and learned a second language, I now see myself as European.
Maybe one day, if I get the chance to live in more far-flung locations, I will come to consider myself simply global, like George Dibbern, the German author who devised his own passport declaring himself a ‘citizen of the world’, and set sail for New Zealand on a boat flying its very own flag.
For now, I cannot imagine returning to the monolingual island mentality with which I grew up. I left my home town at 19 because I was desperate for wider horizons, and at 21, my degree took me to work in France. I have kept on travelling and living abroad ever since. But what if freedom of movement had not been an option? My life would have been completely different, and infinitely less rich.
I once met a British woman at a party in Brussels who had worked for the EU for 25 years, but had decided to return to the village where she grew up. She told me that the happiest people she had ever met were those who never left their home towns, remaining ensconced in family life and the familiar. She may well have been right, and I’m certainly not knocking those who choose this path – I’m sometimes slightly jealous of them – but for me that just wasn’t an option.
My restlessness has brought me a lot of loneliness and insecurity, but at risk of sounding like an overgrown gap year student, I have also grown a huge amount through those experiences. I’ve come to believe that true freedom is the ability to cope with uncertainty and being alone – which, in turn, frees us from fear. Frees us to leave jobs and relationships that aren’t working for us, and to try new things – such as moving abroad, and in that great, terrifying void of finding ourselves alone and friendless in an unfamiliar city, to make things happen.
Those are the times when we suddenly take a turning down a random street in case that un-nameable thing our lost soul yearns for might be there. When we talk to people to whom we might not normally give the time of day. Becoming strangers, we suddenly identify with other strangers; other people who have found themselves on the margins of society because they are different in some way, whether through nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender. Our minds creak open, and new things are permitted to enter.
I am not able to enter into economic or political arguments for or against the UK leaving the EU. Broadly speaking, I realise that the institutions are corrupt – full as they are of ex-financiers serving their own interests – and that, not unrelatedly, the EU is responsible for some devastating austerity policies, which have led to widespread resentment and a worrying resurgence of extreme right-wing political movements.
But it is the idea of closing down borders that really frightens me. Living in the country that is now being portrayed by the media as the epicentre of European homegrown terrorism, it seems to me that it is now more important than ever to remain – both literally and metaphorically – open.
My first reaction to the Paris attacks, the subsequent Brussels ‘lockdown’, and the bombs on the Brussels metro and at Zaventem airport, was to hide; I was too afraid to go to my Dutch class at the university, and avoided travelling to Brussels for a couple of weeks.
Yet at the same time as having this very human reaction, I also had a powerful instinct to go out into my community and embrace the togetherness that, deep down, I believe is the true reality. I held long discussions about those events with my Muslim neighbour, and went to my local church to pray with others from many different cultures, religious and ethnic backgrounds. That, I think, is the right instinct, and the one we should try to follow – no matter how frightening it may be in a world where terrorists mow down Friday night concert-goers with assault rifles, and politicians like Jo Cox are murdered in broad daylight.
The answer to these troubling times is not to shut down and scuttle back into our ‘safe’ little pods – whether that’s behind our computers, or back into our ‘national identities’. It is to continue to stand together and demand change. A more democratic EU. Financial regulation which addresses the real root causes of the 2008 crisis. An end to austerity policies which target the very people most in need of help, create festering social resentment, and feed racism and xenophobia.
Today’s Britain is multicultural, and that is a great thing. Of course, there are problems, but in all the places I have lived – Norfolk, Coventry, Whitechapel, Nice, Brussels and Ghent – it has been my experience that most of the time, most people just rub along. As Rabbi Sacks points out in his book ‘Celebrating Life’, the media zooms in on the little black dot in the middle of the white sheet of paper – and anyway, we cannot go back. We cannot undo immigration and before it, colonialism.
When I was at (state) school in Norwich in the 1980s and 90s, I had only a handful of black and Asian classmates – everyone else was white. At secondary school, an Asian friend was called ‘Chinky’ (she was half-Thai). I for one do not want to go back to a world where that is considered acceptable. A world where my children might never even meet an Asian, or a French person, or an Italian, and have a fascinating conversation with them about their culture, be inspired to travel, and along the way discover parts of themselves they never even knew were there; might realise, when a person who barely speaks a word of their language helps them out when their car breaks down on a foreign road at 2am, that people are people – whether British, Italian or Burmese, and decide in return to help out a foreigner they might once have been afraid of when they see them struggling to lug a pram up the escalator the next day.
A moment in my life I will never forget is trying to sing a song on a beach in Baja California with a Mexican called Jésus who worked at the campsite where I was staying. He spoke virtually no English, while I had about ten words of Spanish, but somehow with that wobbly foundation plus a lot of good humour and the international language of music, we came up with a beautiful song. Experiences like these have proved to me that separateness is an illusion, and as Henry Miller wrote in 1962, the very ‘least we can say about ourselves is that we are American, or French, or whatever the case may be.’