And now for something different…

I’m not normally a football fan, but I’ve been watching some of the Euros matches with my older son, who has been getting excited about major international football tournaments since 2010. He keeps asking me whom I support in games such as Netherlands vs. Austria (he assumed I’d support Austria, having spent most of my childhood there, but to my own surprise, I found myself in the Dutch camp, and I told him that was because my Dad and I would dress up in orange and cheer them on, way back in their glory days of Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten). I was very torn indeed when France played Germany, as I love both countries very much, having many friends there and having lived in both. [In the end, I sided with the Les Bleus, partly because Zoe the French cat was giving me very long, hard stares – and because I still knew most of the team from 2016, when we were still living in France.]

But – and I realise this might make me very unpopular, except I have the feeling the readers of my blog are not rabid football fans – I do not support the England team. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want them to do badly, but it’s not a matter of life and death and me automatically cheering for them against whoever they might play. Maybe if it had been a united British team, I could have got behind them, but I’m very fond of the Welsh team, and I care about the Scots as well. And if England plays against France, well…

So that got me wondering about my current conflicted feelings about Britain and living here.

It’s been almost exactly five years since I woke up, on my birthday of all days, to the news that the UK had voted for Brexit. Shortly before the referendum, I wrote about my disbelief that anyone would vote for more borders and barriers, and fall for meaningless jingoistic tubthumping, even when it goes against their own interests.

Unfortunately, that coincided with my reluctant but unavoidable return to the UK – a country that I had previously considered the closest thing to home, but one that I now struggled to recognise. Social media and a government bereft of any ideas other than blaming others (particularly foreigners) for their own incompetence has amplified the feeling of being a second-class citizen here.

To those who say: ‘Why are you still here, if you don’t like it?’, I could go into self-justification mode and list all the practical reasons.

  • When you get divorced, you don’t have as much choice of location as you might think, because if you have a joint custody of whatever percentage, you need to stay in the same country as your ex-husband.
  • Your children thought of themselves as English and wanted to do A Levels and go to British universities, in spite of living for many years abroad. (Interestingly enough, they have started being more proud of their diverse heritage and appreciate the rich culture of their ‘third’ country, France, much more in the last year or so)
  • The divorce court would be kinder to me about the financial settlement in the UK, or so I thought (that was not quite true).
  • It would be difficult to find a job in the Geneva region that paid well enough for me to raise the boys as a single mother, and if I had to move anyway, I might as well move back to the country where I had been paying into my pension for far longer and where the children spoke the language.

I could say all that and then smirk and add: ‘Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be here for much longer…’

I could describe my well-meaning but far wealthier neighbours, several of them second-generation immigrants, who are devoted Tory voters and care immensely about the Royal Family down the road in Windsor Castle. How back in the days when we could go out, I had to turn down a number of Mums’ outings, birthday parties, posh taster suppers and spa days because I could not afford them (or because I prefer paying for theatre tickets or books instead). How my boys have stopped inviting their friends to our house, because they are embarrassed that my love for interior design does not match our actual interior design (at the very least, that sofa badly needs replacing). I whisper to myself at least once a week: ‘How many more years before the youngest goes off to university and I can sell the house and move out of Theresa May’s constituency?’

So I could play the victim, blow cold and sarcastic, or simply be all practical and clinical about things… but the truth is that British culture still feels like home, even if the country no longer does.

I wonder if this is the case for those who grew up in the former British colonies and went to school learning all about the Tudors, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Despite our very diverse backgrounds and nationalities, at the Vienna International School what we all had in common were Enid Blyton’s cream teas with lashings of ginger beer, Wordsworth’s daffodils and the music of Greensleeves. We ended up knowing more about the Victorians than we did about the history of our own countries – not necessarily a good thing – and the history that we learnt was of course schewed to the British interpretation of events.

Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to live, study and work in other countries as well, so I’ve been exposed to other histories, cultures and interpretations. (An opportunity that is now becoming more and more difficult for the next generation, sadly.) I can see the best and worst that each country has to offer and still love those that are close to my heart, while acknowledging their faults. But when my son scolds me for not supporting Austria more, I suppose what happens is that I remember the xenophobia I encountered there as a child. This is not done consciously: it’s taken me a lot of thought and analysis to come to this conclusion. It is a sudden involuntary tightening round my heart based on tiny past traumas that I didn’t even perceive as traumas at the time (I was a blithely unaware child). Can you imagine how much more this is the case with England, now that I am fully grown and aware?

I love Britain, but, like a loud-mouthed, self-absorbed, drunk and loutish teenager, it does make it very hard for me to hold onto my love at times.

This is the cliche image that instantly springs to mind when I think of England…

P.S. To return to football, I do like Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips from the England squad though, both thoughtful and modest young footballers, who come from deprived backgrounds, raised by single mothers whom they visibly adore and respect.

25 thoughts on “And now for something different…”

  1. I have every sympathy with your feelings, Marina. I’ve been politically conscious since my early teenage years but since the referendum I’ve had to try to disengage from that. In the last five years I’ve become angry, bitter and vengeful, not towards the people who voted for Brexit who were lied to and already woefully misinformed but because politicians on all sides have failed to act in their country’s interests. I hope you manage to hang on until the inevitable swing of the pendulum.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this. The class/finance stuff that you mention really does remain an ugly aspect of our culture – I don’t think I would do very well in Theresa May’s constituency either and have found my local community friendlier since I moved to an ex-council flat (much more like the environment where I grew up).

    I’ve been watching the Euros this year because I have a friend who loves all sports and it’s an easy way to hang out with her. Unexpectedly, I have actually found myself quite fond of this England squad because they seem to be taking the role model thing seriously. My mum teaches eight and nine year olds who idolise footballers, and back when the England squad was mostly known for having tantrums and throwing things, that behaviour was emulated in her classroom – kids growing up admiring men like Marcus Rashford is a significant improvement!

    1. That is indeed an improvement – and my son pointed out that most of the England squad are from working class and diverse heritage backgrounds (like the French team too, incidentally) and football might have been one of the few ways in which they could improve their life chances. Yes, I am still surprised how classist British society still is… after more than twenty years of living here.

  3. Marina I’m Irish living in Cork in the South. Brexit shocked me and as you can imagine it has created huge issues over here. Will it ever be resolved? Who knows… Marina your honesty throughout this post is to be so admired. Your children are very lucky indeed to have you there for them. I hope you find peace and your roots can settle peacefully soon. x

    1. More and more I am looking at Cork as a place to potentially retire to… although if my children remain in the UK, I suppose I will have to find a way to maintain a small foothold over here too. I try to tell myself that I am not rootless, but that my roots draw their strength from several different kinds of soil…

  4. Having lived in France for six years, I always support them when they play – it made me unpopular in a pub when they played Mexico, I believe, in a final many moons ago. I support England – especially now they are a young, dynamic team, when they play and The Netherlands. I do hope that one day you feel totally at home in whichever country you choose. Brexit has left many of us very unhappy and embarrassed at how the world now perceives us. I’m hoping the youth of the future will sort it out.

    1. I realise more and more that I cannot just blindly support any country – I have too many loyalties all across Europe (and even further afield). And yes, I’m impressed with the young generation, I just hope they don’t get ‘corrupted’ by the nonsense of the older ones, like the 1968ers did.

  5. A thoughtful piece, Marina. I’m still in despair about Brexit. It doesn’t alleviate it when the fishermen here in Cornwall complain that the ‘control’ they were promised over their own waters hasn’t appeared – surprise surprise: they were lied to, as we all were, and are still about the handling of Covid. I used to be a keen football (and cricket – very English!) supporter, but lost interest some years ago when it all became too corporate and oligarchy-controlled. I agree though that it’s good to see more diverse teams emerge, like England and France, as you say, but also Netherlands, Switzerland and others. How sad that you feel conflicted about England; our xenophobia has been whipped up by this Tory govt for its own shabby reasons. They are shameless. Sorry about the rant, and thanks for your heartfelt post.

    1. I don’t like to talk about personal stuff very often, and I always feel somewhat disloyal when I say that I don’t feel at home anymore in the country I deliberately chose to make my home. I sincerely hope it’s just a temporary glitch…

  6. Funnily enough, I was never really an England fan, mainly beacuae of my family’s Irish roots, and I distinctly remember that at Euro 1996, when England played Germany in the semis, I actually knew more about the German side than the English players, having spent a semester in Germany, and then a year in France, watching German football on telly 😉

    1. My son used to support the German team from the age of about 7 until a couple of years ago, which led to complications at his school in England, as you can imagine! Of course now, as a teen, he is keener to ‘fit in with his mates’ and cheer on the England squad – this is the tribalism (albeit in a very mild, amusing form) that can lead to that World War rhetoric which I really despise…

  7. I am not interested in football! It is heartbreaking the effects of Brexit and your personal experience perfectly illustrates how many people were happily living as Europeans and that has been taken away, or certainly made more complicated. We used to live ‘down the road’ from you, near Heathrow and loved visiting Windsor but could never have afforded to live there! I hope things work out okay for you.

    1. As an anthropologist, I suppose I look at major international football competitions (or Olympics, or other such events) with an eye on the construction, destruction and reinterpretation of national identity and loyalty. I don’t know why patriotism has to morph into nationalism in so many cases, as FictionFan points out below in her comment.

      1. Yes it is a pity. My late husband was Scottish and his father was Ukrainian . I have lived in Australia and most of my family are there. I am happy being English,British, European and a member of the Commonwealth and human! There is no need to become divisive.

  8. Lifelong football fan (Liverpool!) and I never support England. My main priority for any tournament is none of our players getting injured before the season starts up again!
    It’s partly because I have Irish and Welsh roots perhaps, or just that I don’t like the way they play. I usually end up choosing the team with the most or prominent Liverpool players in the team, so for the Rafael Benitez years I supported Spain as we had so many Spanish players. Now if Van Dyke had been playing I probably would have chosen the Dutch like you did, but Scotland and Andy Robertson earned my tenuous loyalty this time around!
    And as for the political situation, coming from a leftwing, remain-voting city, I know a lot of us feel totally out of step with the rest of England. ‘Scouse not English’ is a banner that’s often seen at our matches and while I don’t think that kind of separatism ever leads anywhere good, there is a feeling that we’ll go our own way and look after our own, as we often had to because we’ll get nothing from London-centric politicians.
    I definitely feel different when I’m in the South of England, it’s full of lovely people and I have friends there from when I lived there, but they live a very different life to the former industrial areas.
    England isn’t all leafy shires is I guess what I’m trying to say in a very long-winded way!

    1. I have been thinking of moving to Liverpool once my children leave home for that very reason… Although, to be honest, my experience in the north [Sheffield for example, which I really liked as a town and landscape] was very mixed: people were absolutely lovely and helpful on the street, but when I actively told them I was of Romanian origin, I did encounter discrimination. That was back in 2012/13, when animosity against Bulgarians and Romanians was being whipped up by the likes of Farage, but still…

      1. Yes and the image is that we’re a port city and cosmopolitan and open to all, but that’s not always the reality.
        I’m sorry you had to endure that at the hands of the tabloids, it’s disgusting. One bright side is that you’ll hardly ever see a copy of The S** in Liverpool! (And I think there was a survey that said Scousers are less Islamophobic and less anti-Europe than the rest of the country because most of us don’t read the Murdoch hate rag).

  9. Not unlike why I can’t get too wrapped up in the Scotland team these days, because it has become another excuse for hating the English among too large a proportion of Scots. It always was, but there used to be an element of humour in the rivalry for most people (I think) whereas now it’s simply bitter. Too many people seem to have lost the ability to differentiate between patriotism and nationalism again – you’d think that might have been a lesson we could have learned from the 20th century. It’s a pity we don’t have a British team – for a start, Scots might occasionally get to celebrate a win! But also it tends to bring us together rather than exacerbating old wounds. We have a British Olympic team and it seems to work.

    1. I was saying the same thing about a united British team – and my son pointed out that very few Welsh or Scottish or Northern Ireland players would make it to the squad most likely (with the exception of Gareth Bale). So most people wouldn’t want that…

  10. Thanks for this thoughtful, eloquent post, Marina Sofia. I have (wonderfully) mixed English-European heritage myself and despair of the direction that Brexit is taking us. I’m currently reading Ece Temelkuran’s How to Lose a Country, which is helping me to see how Brexit fits into the bigger picture (sobering but brilliantly illuminating). As for the football – it has to be Wales of course – my home for many a year now 🙂

  11. I’m not a football fan at all, I confess, though if I followed any team it would be Scotland the country of my birth. I feel an allegiance to the place, perhaps more so having been in exile for decades… Culturally I do feel very attached to British culture, but there’s so much about England that I don’t like – the current insular, negative xenophobia and ignorant loutish behaviour of some. I sometimes feel it might be time to move North again… 😦

  12. Such a heartfelt and well-reasoned post. I must admit that the lure of gaining an Irish passport is attractive. My mother was from Belfast in the North, but as long as a parent/grandparent was born on the island of Ireland, you can claim Irish nationality. Although a Sarf Londoner, I’ve ended up living in Middle England – not far from you – and in a yo-yo Conservative/Lib Dem seat – currently Lib Dem – and I see all the same criticisms levelled at Layla as at our previous Tory MP – when it’s the Tory County Council making so many of the poor decisions and stopping things from getting done. My daughter chose to go to uni at Leeds mainly because people were nice there compared with the other places she visited (although the Art Uni there does have a good rep too). I fantasise about retiring to the Yorkshire coast perhaps, as sleepy Dorset is getting too trendy and expensive. Still a staunch remainer, I much prefer being British over English, and dread the possibility of the SNP pushing their agenda through. The England v Scotland football match was just dull, dull, dull – I’m not a footie fan, but watched half of it. I’m rambling now, so will shut up!

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