Quite often, as one of the few British people in the office, I’m called upon to explain the all manner of cultural points for my German colleagues. The questions can range from “why all the mint sauce?” to “is it true that you all stop at 15.00 for tea?”. In the past I enjoyed these discussions. It was a chance to bond with colleagues, to have a laugh at ourselves and also to hopefully educate people that we really aren’t the “Inselaffe” or monkey island that many Germans joke about. Then came Friday and the news that my homeland had decided to reject the EU.
I was already fairly fragile that morning. I had been cooped up in the house following a leg operation, I’d hobbled around for two weeks and probably eaten far too many sweets during my forced absence. None of these points were so terrible, but I wasn’t exactly in the perfect mental state to accept the awful news that Brexit was a reality. I believed it could happen, but there was a large part of me that staunchly believed it wouldn’t. And yet, as I listened to the BBC declare victory for the leave campaign and then David Cameron deliver a whimpering resignation, I truly felt for the first time that I didn’t know my homeland.
I’ve built my life on my European identity, by accident at first, but later deliberately. It was dumb luck that I happened to select halls of residents that included ERASMUS students, it was fortune that I was housed with a mad Portuguese pirate and it was serendipity that my now German wife lived upstairs. From there I met people that flipped my shallow, poorly educated view of Europe; my baseless stereotypes of boring Belgians, humourless Germans and ignorant Frenchman were quickly superseded by some of the most genuine and lovely people I have ever met. When it finally came to leaving university, I followed the best piece of advice I have ever been given “why not just move to Germany?”.
Since Friday, I have been asked one question: Why? To be honest, I really don’t have an answer. I could point to the racist xenophobes who have apparently skulked out to pick over the remains. I could direct my friends and colleagues to look at UKIP’s racist bleating and obvious lies. I could discuss the nature of a class system that creates politicians who are still trying to one up each other, even at the cost of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. I could show them a feckless opposition leader who milled around and eschewed his responsibilities. I might play the video of a leading politician saying “Britain has had enough of experts” as if that was a totally reasonable position. I might just give them this article.
Perhaps it’s not that I don’t have the answers, it’s that those answers make me deeply sad. Sad in a way I don’t think I’ve ever felt. I have experienced bereavement before, but this doesn’t feel quite the same. This is a sadness for everyone on both sides. It’s a sadness that there are many people who think that foreigners are somehow below them and are rightful targets for abuse. It’s the feeling that politicians are so far removed from reality that they can allow this to happen. It’s the realisation that the history of my country is being rewritten to suit the agendas of racists. It’s the celebration of ignorance, the promotion of lies and the avoidance of reality.
Really though, it’s the sadness that for generations, young people might not have the chance to enjoy the experiences I had or to have their poorly educated assumptions of the world tested in the most positive of ways.