My partner Jackie pointed out to me yesterday that I’m a bigot. That is, that I judge people from a few simple criteria and will avoid their company because of it. I realised that she’s right, and I’ve changed. I would never have done this before Brexit.
For me, Brexit was a terrible revelation. Up to the referendum vote, I had a “live and let live” attitude. Other people might have different values to me, but we all rubbed along following our own goals and agendas, living lives we were pretty much happy with alongside like-minded friends, and despite those we disagreed with.
I was respectful and kind to those I thought could have made better choices in life. I had no idea how they might change, and no idea how to make that happen even if I wanted them to change. After all, how could I reason with them when many of their decisions were shaped by their world experience and the weight of the media. One man can’t go up against that. I supposed these people I considered poorly educated and ignorant didn’t really affect me. So, fine. Live and let live. I was optimistic that people generally were reasonable and kind, and we had enough of a shared view of the world to say we were from the same country and we could all just get by, living our own lives and pursuing our own dreams.
And then came the vote for Brexit.
Suddenly the things I really cherished and valued were being taken away from me.
The truth is, I love otherness. I love the “exotic”, the strange and unusual. I love the foreign, because it tells me about a whole new form of life, a lived experience I have never had. I have so many happy memories of new things and new cultures.
Like, for example, travelling through Germany and trying out my rudimentary German by haggling in the Schwarzwald, and making bad jokes in German in a sauna in Bremen (much to the other users’ disapproval). I’ve argued the bill in a cafe in Alsace and I’ve joined in German folk dances in a mediaeval castle taking direction through sign and speech. I’ve stood and looked out at the countryside from a model of the world’s largest toilet and I’ve seen the world’s craziest cuckoo clock, and also heard the deep lowing of the world’s most gigantic wooden cuckoo. Basically, in Germany I’ve enjoyed the country’s freedom and general eccentric weirdness.
In France, I’ve walked on glaciers and discussed history and politics with young people. I’ve been to a massive Buddhist monastery in Burgundy and laughed with waiters and customers in the French language in Brittany. I’ve discussed art with a French artist and walked through the Tuilleries with a friend whom I later discovered to be a high class prostitute, having a crisis because she had discovered she was carrying a client’s baby. I’ve discussed politics in a French market and I’ve been to Alsacean cultural events where sentences started in French and ended in German.
In Spain, I’ve sailed through fog from port to port and seen the rock of Gibraltar appear far too close to our yacht out of thick fog, I’ve explored the Sierra Nevada, speaking broken Spanish and staying at pensions high in the mountains and looked out across desert landscapes and plasticultura. I’ve cried at the beauty of a flamenco dancer in a Spanish bar, and met strangers who became friends while wandering alone the streets of Barcelona.
In Luxembourg I’ve been to an extraordinary festival of young classical musicians and heard Luembourgish on the radio. In Switzerland I’ve been giddy at the sight of the massive perspective of the Alps and had heart arrhythmia on a mountain overlooking the Matterhorn (suffering from a very slight touch of mountain sickness). At one point in my life, I learned how to read Arabic script (badly), and Greek (now forgotten) and Russian Cyrillic (scratching the surface) – just enough to remind me how different every part of the world is, and how that is a joy to experience. Europe, especially, has been like a massive wellspring of learning and joy for me. I would say Europe is my identity, although of course I was born in Portsmouth.
I’ve asked taxi-drivers to teach me Czech while driving from the airport, then ordered beers and bought tickets with the faltering Czech I learned that day. I’ve talked with bakers in their shop in Prague to discuss the merits of different sweet cakes. I’ve loved it all, tbh.
Europe is an adventure.
My outward-looking curiosity and joy at “the other” – at what is not me, and outside my normal experience has driven me forward. It is who I am.
And now, although it is true that with the right paperwork I will be able to travel through my beloved Europe again, it will be with the knowledge that I can not just up sticks and stay wherever I want on a whim as I could have done in the past. I can’t just walk into a bar and get a job without the prospect of horrendous paperwork and visas, and with no guarantee that I will be allowed to stay. That hurts who I am. It limits my freedom in a way I never imagined anyone would wish to do.
These days, I don’t regard England as one country. It is two. One country has Brexiteers running it. Though there are some who may generally believe in the outward-looking “global Britain” those in power sold to them, most of the Brexiteers I have encountered have a different motive. Fear. Fear of the other. Fear of change. Fear of “foreigners coming over here” and in some indefinable way, making life worse, when really they just mean different, and richer and more interesting.
On the other side is the England of the Europhiles – most of the ones I’ve met being interested by the world outside English dominance and English language, fascinated by the world and at home in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Riga or Athens.
And so, I am no longer the naive, optimistic traveller I once was. After the deep psychological shock of realising that ignorant people can change my life and limit my choices, I carry a genuine sense of grief inside me all the time. A deep sense of injustice and stinging pain at having the freedoms I once enjoyed taken away from me for reasons I have tried and tried to understand, but that make no sense to me. Why don’t they make sense? Because the priorities of those people are directly opposed to mine, and because of this starting point, their reasoning is something I find utterly wrong and hence unintelligible. I simply cannot understand my fellow English who are Brexiteers. I experience with them a more profound lack of comprehension than I have encountered meeting countless Europeans around Europe.
I suppose Jackie is right. I have become what I always disliked. Nowadays I make my judgement about Brexiteers before I meet them. How strange and sad it is to think how badly Brexit has changed both me and Britain. Whereas before I was open and accepting of my fellow Englishman, now I am suspicious. I have become, I suppose, one of the very bigots I despised in this now hopelessly divided nation.