Apologies, the pictures below are not fun or escapist by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt compelled to include them as a reminder of how far we have come and that one of the key missions of the EU was to prevent future wars in Europe (which it has not always succeeded in). This week Ireland and Denmark are celebrating 50 years since joining the EC (now EU). The UK also acceded to the EC on the same date, but, of course, has nothing to celebrate anymore.
The frustration of EU citizens living in the UK is easy to understand. Many of them have made their lives here, have contributed with work and taxes for many decades, have raised families here and now feel pushed out. However, as Helen de Cruz points out in this article, it is part of a widespread (and now officially endorsed) xenophobia
Unless, of course, you are very rich, in which case you can arrange a visa or naturalisation deal, not many questions asked about where your money comes from. But for those of us who are neither wealthy nor (some of us until quite recently) EU citizens, it will sound very familiar indeed. We have always been second-class citizens, even in the eyes of EU citizens living here. The Greeks and Spanish looked down with disdain on the newer EU countries, forgetting that when they joined the EU in the 1980s, the French and Germans looked down on them. And that’s just those of us who have the same colour skin and a shared European history. Can you imagine how they felt about those from different continents and with darker skins? As writer and academic Sunny Singh explains in this Twitter thread, it is disingenuous and requires some intellectual acrobatics to pretend that Brexit is not ‘really’ about hatred of pesky immigrants and foreigners. EU citizens are now experiencing this prejudice for themselves and it’s something that they are not used to – or at least, not since the 1950s/60s. But I cannot feel Schadenfreude. I was the second-class citizen who strove to give my children the opportunity to never have to feel inferior, so it makes me sad. And I also believe it’s a dangerous time to allow hateful rhetoric to create divisions between ‘desirable’ and ‘less desirable’ immigrants.
It’s not that English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) people are not welcoming individually or in batches, but the UK administration as a whole has not made our lives easy at any step of the way. Think about the humiliations, queues, lack of understanding and incompetence you have sometimes encountered at the Job Centre and multiply it five-fold to get an approximate idea of the frustrations of getting your visa renewed at Lunar House in Croydon (a name that strikes fear in the heart of most of us immigrants or students). The amount of paperwork and official invitations and payments required to get your elderly parents to visit you (and no, they do not want free NHS treatment, as they think that Romanian doctors are vastly superior – or at least those of them still living in Romania, as many of them are working for the NHS). Same applies for other countries: I know many Greeks or Polish friends who go back ‘home’ to get their teeth fixed. Out of the 7 dentists at my local practice, 6 are from an immigrant background (India, South Africa, Vietnam and Greece, in case you are wondering). But you’d better be careful and not stay for too long outside the UK with your medical problems, otherwise you will not qualify for your indefinite leave to remain… Then, because the UK is not in Schengen, even if you have a one-year student visa here, you will still need visas to visit the rest of Europe, often having to prove that you are covered for travel and health insurance, that you have a certain amount per day of spending money, that you have an address where you intend to stay while visiting that country or maybe a letter from a company or conference organiser if you are there on business.
And of course there are some people (including politicians, who really should know better but cannot resist pandering to the voters) who are blaming immigrants for all of the things which don’t work in their society. There are quite blatant personal attacks in the media and on the street, but even if you haven’t experienced them personally, there is plenty to give you pause for thought. I conducted a sociological experiment during my training courses with a large UK company: in half of the (completely identical) courses I stated I was Romanian, in the other half I emphasised my Britishness. Guess which courses got higher scores in the feedback forms? Then there are the ever-so-subtle, sometimes unintentional questions which give you an insight into a deeply entrenched way of thinking:
‘What a pretty name? What does it mean?’ – why, does Jane or Sheryl mean anything
‘But where are you really from?’ – just because you were born in Watford doesn’t mean you really belong there
‘I thought I detected a trace of an accent there…’ – although they didn’t at all, not until you told them that you were an immigrant
‘What was that language you were speaking with your child?’ – and how dare you speak it in front of us
‘I’d never have thought you were ___, you don’t look/sound/behave like your other compatriots’ – how many of them have you met and got to know
‘No, of course we were not referring to you, you are all right, but all those other ___ should go off home’ – you’re the exception which confirms the rule. but woe betide if you don’t behave!
‘So are you thinking of leaving the country now after Brexit, don’t you feel you are too cosmopolitan for life here?’ – perhaps you should be, you are too exotic and don’t belong
Soon it will be the turn of the British citizens to feel second-class in Europe. My father was a negotiator during the accession of Romania to the EU and he would tell you how hard it is to fight against the combined interests of so many countries. After protecting the interests of Spanish textile industry, Greek fruit farmers, French and British farmers, Swedish and Finnish timber industry, steelworkers everywhere in the EU, there was not much left for Romania to trade. Most of its industries and businesses have been acquired by international owners and so most of the earnings go out of the country. And yet Romanians are still in favour of the EU – because they recognise that the alternative would be worse.
There is a strong likelihood that Ireland or Malta will mop up any of the English-speaking, low-taxation-loving US companies for their European headquarters. If the British negotiators don’t get their act together soon, they will be severely depleted by the EU team – and so a vicious circle of blaming and hatred will start up again. I’m not sure that the UK can compete with labour in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, which is still cheaper (and more productive), although giving up on any laws to protect workers’ rights might help.
I’ve become used to being a second-class citizen everywhere I go, even in Romania (because I have spent too much time abroad and speak with a slight foreign accent). I am less happy that my children might be viewed as second-class citizens too (their Greek name over here, their British passport over in France or Germany). My sons prefer the English language but can speak three others, they support the German and French football teams, love the Greek sea and the Romanian mountains, want to study in France or Switzerland maybe… What we feel is European and we had been hoping that these meaningless nationalistic affiliations would disappear and we could feel loyalty to our local communities and the larger Europe instead.
All of last week I’ve been catching up with reviews of books that I read in December and over the holidays, but what are my reading plans going forward?
Initially, I was going to take it easy in 2017. I dropped my Goodreads challenge to 120. [Yes, it sounds like a lot, but I’ve been reading between 155-180 for the last few years.]
The physical and electronic TBR piles are intimidating – almost a health hazard! So I’ve joined the TBR Double Dare Challenge of reading only from the books I already own for the first 3 months of the year. After single-handedly subsidising the publishing industry for the past 4 years, I resolve to buy no new ones for several months. Of course, that doesn’t include books I receive for review on Crime Fiction Lover and other sites, but no more novelties or even ARCs on my own blog.
I’ve already cheated slightly, following the death of John Berger. I remembered how much I enjoyed his Pig Earth when it was on my reading list for anthropology, but I didn’t own it, so… Well, it’s not my fault that he died just after the 1st of January, is it?
So those were my only plans, on the vague side of the spectrum. But then some ambition woke up in me. The year that Britain triggers Article 51 would be a good year to read a book from every member country of the EU, I decided. Especially following the resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the EU amidst the frankly frightening cries of ‘traitor! pessimist! how dare you tell us that it might be complicated?’ (I’ve heard it all before in another country, but I never thought I would hear it here.)
27 sounds manageable, right? I’m excluding the UK, because obviously I’ll be reading plenty of home-grown authors anyway. A few of these books are sitting on my bookshelves already, while others will require a bit of research. Here is what I have to date, with gaps where I have nought. Also, some suggestions in italics and with question marks, in the hope I might be able to track them down in libraries and keep costs down.
Austria Arthur Schnitzler: Später Ruhm
Belgium Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent
Bulgaria Ilija Trojanow: Macht und Widerstand
Croatia Miljenko Jergovic: The Walnut Mansion
Czechia [sic?] Ivan Klima: Lovers for a Day
Denmark Inger Christensen: Poetry?
Estonia Sofi Oksanen – she is officially Finnish, but has an Estonian mother and writes about Estonian history?
Finland Kati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled
France Romain Gary: La vie devant soi – or can I get away with claiming that he is Lithuanian (born in Vilnius)?
Germany Sascha Arango: The Truth and Other Lies
Greece Nikos Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation (reread, unless I find something new)
Hungary Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted
Ireland Davy Byrnes Story Awards 2009
Italy Andrea Camilleri: Rounding the Mark
Latvia Inga Abele sounds interesting, not sure if she’s been translated?
Luxembourg Jean Portante?
The Netherlands Gerard Reve: The Evenings?
Poland Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag
Portugal Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet
Romania Ileana Vulpescu: Arta compromisului
Slovenia Goran Vojnovic: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland
Spain Javier Marias: Dance and Dream (Your Face Tomorrow Vol. 2)
Sweden Liza Marklund: Last Will
Any suggestions would be gratefully received! And if you want to join in (with your own selection of books, of course, these are just the ones I happen to have to hand), please let me know in the comments below. If there are enough of us who want to do it, I might set up a separate linky. We have all year to do it, so that’s a leisurely book a fortnight. Or, even better: I see no reason why we might not meander over into 2018, very much like the EU disentanglement process itself.
Can we even call it a debate? The level of discussion in the media of the EU Referendum has been more of the ‘boo!…hah!’ playground fighting variety, or else number-crunching speculative economic prediction. In other words, appealing either to the gut or the mind. But perhaps there is a third area in the human body we need to target: the heart. Cruelty in humans is caused by lack of heart and imagination, the inability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
This is why I have finally decided to join in this debate, despite my initial reluctance to voice my opinions. I’d been pained to see a few of my most cosmopolitan friends join the Brexit side. I was not wowed by the half-hearted arguments of the Remain campaign. I hadn’t even registered for the postal vote, which goes against my principle of ‘vote rather than grumble’. As a British citizen for only eleven years (five of which I have spent abroad), I felt it would be presumptuous for me to tell British people how they should feel about the EU. At the same time, I am going back to Britain soon and I shall have to live with the consequences of the vote, whether I like it or not. I hardly have the name recognition and persuasive power of the Nobel Prize winners such Herta Muller, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Sudhof, Gerard’t Hooft, Mario Vargas Llosa and so many others, who recently signed a love letter to the British people or the writers who wrote individual letters, but I can share with you my personal experience of living in a Europe with ideological frictions and borders.
N.B. and Warning: Long read to follow.
I was born an undesirable. I am Romanian and for a long time that caused some confusion abroad, as people mistook me for a gypsy (Roma) or Gastarbeiter (literal translation: guest workers, but usually viewed as second-class citizens in Germany and Austria). As a child, I was not aware of the disadvantages and dangers of being born on the outskirts of Europe. I was fortunate enough to spend part of my childhood in a city that believes itself to be very much at the centre of Europe. At my English school in Vienna, I was treated as an individual, regardless of my looks, my native language or my country of origin. I had friends from all over the world and developed a rather magnificent ‘failing’: I could never again stereotype people again based on their nationality, faith or skin colour. Nigerian Niyi was our most trustworthy and mature classmate, who became the class representative. Farzana was the gentlest Muslim girl from Pakistan, Eyal was the most thoughtful and peace-loving Israeli. Samya was half-Egyptian, half-Austrian, 100% my best friend and deskmate.
Then I went back to Romania during the final (and worst) years of Communist dictatorship and discovered just how brutal and painful a world with ‘no free movement’ is. Our passports were the property of the state, so they were taken away from us and kept under lock and key. You had to apply months in advance to get them temporarily returned to you if you wanted to go abroad for holidays or work. Permission was very often not granted, not even for a conference or to visit friends. Especially not to visit friends. Having friends abroad could lead to dangerous, seditious ideas… So I had to stop corresponding with all of my classmates from Vienna. I lost touch with them for over a decade, found some of them again thanks to Facebook, but others were lost forever.
We were not even allowed the freedom of ideas: movies were censored, books were banned, foreign magazines (or music tapes) were forbidden for import. Ordinary citizens, who had not resided abroad and were therefore not treated with quite as much suspicion as we were, could join the British Council library at the British Embassy and borrow books from there (or the American Embassy or French Embassy or German). However, when I tried to sign up, my mother was stopped by an acquaintance in the street, who told her I should exercise caution.
I wilted like a flower in the desert. I learnt not to ask ‘uncomfortable’ questions (which usually meant, simple ‘why’ questions) at school, so that my relatives would not be taken in by the police for questioning. I learnt to dream small, to not dare to hope for any future for myself that might require studying or living or working abroad. Could we, should we have foreseen the end of Communism? Perhaps! But it had lasted for the whole of my parents’ lives; what guarantee did I have that it wouldn’t collapse until I was nearing the end of mine? Too late for me.
Luckily, that was not the case. Revolution swept across the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and I was part of the fortunate 1989 generation, the ones who had scholarships showered upon us, so that we could go abroad and learn about democracy and free markets. Perhaps the Western world felt sorry for us – or perhaps they just needed to make sure there would be stability and a hunger for consumption in our region. Anyway, in the early 1990s, we were still the exception rather than the rule, so we were welcomed abroad.
In a manner of speaking. I looked and sounded English thanks to my primary school education, but I soon discovered I was still somewhat undesirable in the UK. I had problems opening a bank account (Americans experience that too). I had some landlords turning me down when they heard my name. I had to renew my student visa every year at the notoriously long queues at Lunar House in Croydon. I was not allowed to work to supplement my meagre scholarship. Not even the university was entirely sure of the legislation regarding student work: they had me invigilating a couple of exams and marking some student essays, before they realised it was illegal to employ a non-EU citizen even for 6 hours or less per week, so I never got paid.
Worst of all, since my student visa only covered Britain, and the UK was not part of the Schengen agreement, I had trouble going to the rest of the EU. I missed friends’ weddings in Italy and Germany. I even had trouble spending holidays with my parents (who were working at the time in Sweden).
Nevertheless, I fell in love with Britain. I was predisposed to, of course, having gone to an English primary school. I knew all of the kings and queens from Henry IV onwards (I confess it all gets a little muddy for me prior to that). I knew all the nursery rhymes, the children’s literature, even long quotes from Shakespeare. My favourite writers were predominantly English-speaking and I was often asked to edit and proofread essays written by native speakers.
There were other things in England to love, quite apart from my biased upbringing. I liked the calm speech patterns, self-deprecating humour and humility of the English, which I found reflected in its green and pleasant landscape. No extremes of weather or temperament, no sudden storms and disasters, no jagged mountain dangers lurking here. It was civilised, fair, always willing to listen to both sides of a problem – the society which had made an art form of debating, after all!
I met my Greek husband-to-be in England but, as graduation day approached, we knew things would get complicated. We wanted to stay together, but he was not willing to return with me to Romania, nor was there any future for us (both academics in highly specialized fields) in Greece. I was offered academic positions in Brazil, Hong Kong, perhaps even the US, but I wanted to stay in Europe, close to my family and my boyfriend. When I say to my Brexit friends that they would never have known me if it weren’t for the EU, I am not joking. I may have felt more at home in the UK than in Romania (where I was always viewed as ‘the outsider with a bit of an English accent’), but I was not allowed to stay there unless I married. So we decided to get married sooner than we might have planned: it was the only way we could stay together without having to fight with visas and bureaucracy every time we wanted to visit each other.
This is the point at which I start to laugh when people say what a ‘soft spot’ the UK is for immigrants. For us, it proved anything but soft. Not only did we not gain any advantages from the state, but my husband lost all of his rights as an EU citizen (legally resident in the UK). We had to fill out endless forms, leave our passports for months at Lunar House, be subjected to all sorts of random spot-checks to see if our marriage was fake, plus my husband had to prove that he could support me as well as himself and neither of us would be allowed to access any state benefits for the next 5 years or so. We didn’t want benefits, we just wanted to be able to apply for jobs once we graduated.
He put up with the madness of bureaucracy at the time, but it put our relationship on an uneven keel from the outset. This set some things in motion which cost me dearly (I ended up being the apologetic underdog, forever trying to make up for things), but I can imagine far worse situations in other families: reproaches of ‘I rescued you’, assaults, sense of entitlement and cover-ups.
Years passed. I worked hard, paid taxes, consumed, volunteered, gave birth to British citizens and generally was the most law-abiding and happy freshly-baked citizen you could imagine. Romania joined the ranks of the EU, although I could still feel the reluctance of others to let us ‘into the club’. I had to follow my husband when he was transferred abroad to the Geneva area for work. Of course, here I am an ‘expat’ rather than an ‘immigrant’, so it was much easier to find joy and build a temporary nest, all the while knowing that I would return to the country that most closely resembles ‘home’ to me.
What is it like to live without borders? I still can’t describe to you the thrill I get from being able to travel where I want whenever I want, attending significant events in my friends’ lives, being able to visit sick parents or go on business trips and conferences without being questioned about the people I met and where exactly I stayed. I run every day along the Franco-Swiss border, with one foot in France and the other in Switzerland, and it still brings tears to my eyes that it’s possible to do that without being shot or imprisoned.
I’m old enough to remember daily life in the dark, dread shadow of the Cold War, icing your blood and making you suspicious of your neighbours, friends, family and even your own motives. I’ve been fed nationalistic ideology to the point where I’m deeply suspicious of all forms of jingoism, from tub-thumping atavistic cries at sporting events, to brainwashing schoolchildren with ‘national values’, as if they are clearly set in stone and the same for everyone. I’m old enough to know that an ‘us vs. them’ mentality is easy in the short term but never works in the long term. I know the EU has not lived up to all of its idealistic goals, that many countries and leaders have been selfishly and aggressively pursuing their own agendas instead of thinking and finding solutions collectively.
But I cannot bear the alternative.
When I wake up on the morning after the Referendum (which falls, incidentally, on my birthday), I fear stepping into a world where fragmentation and ever narrower interest groups are the norm. Idealism suffers when the practicalities of implementation take over, but surely we can do better than declare EU idealism a cadaver and run away.