Why Brexit Hurt Me

I’ve read plenty about Brexit. I’ve heard why it’s a good idea, how it allows Britain more financial and political independence. I’ve heard why it’s a bad idea, how it maroons us and leaves us weaker. I have my own opinions about this, but that’s not why I’m writing today. I’m writing about the emotional impact Brexit had on me personally. I’m writing about why Brexit hurt me so much.

On Thursday 23rd June 2016 I went to bed feeling confident. Surely at the last minute people would come to their senses and see that we are better together? I thought. I felt certain that in the end we would remain in Europe. How could it be any other way?

I woke up early the next morning. Somehow the vote had slipped my mind. I switched on my phone and saw a message from a friend. It said simply: “Big hugs to you.” Somehow this jogged my memory, reminding me that Brexit would be decided by now. I googled. In disbelief I saw the result: by a slim majority, Britain had voted to leave the EU.

I burst into tears. I was staying in an Air BnB with two friends, one English, the other Dutch. They were in the kitchen making breakfast when I came in, my eyes moist, my face puffy. They came over and hugged me deeply. My English friend said “Why are you crying?”

“Because we just voted to leave Europe,” I replied, “and I’m a European.”

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve felt European. This is partly to do with my heritage: my father comes from Polish and Russian parents who fled to England during the pogroms against Jews in the 1920s. My mother was born in Turkey and moved to Israel when it was ‘founded’ in 1948. When she was 28 she took a boat to Italy and on to England, where she’s lived the rest of her life.

My stepmother, my dad’s second wife, is a Sudaten German born in Czechoslovakia during WWII. Her family were lucky to escape alive, as the Czechs where they lived were particularly brutal to Germans after the war. But somehow they got away and settled near Frankfurt. My stepmother left in her early 20s to start a new life in London, where she’s lived ever since.

I come from a European family: none of us are really English and I don’t feel English myself. Yet London has been my home since birth and I’ve appreciated its open-mindedness, its racial tolerance, its diversity, its cultural offerings and the feeling of potentials and possibilities. Of course London didn’t vote Brexit. London voted strongly in favour of remaining, because London is a European city.

There’s more to this than just my heritage though. When I was 17 I went to a youth conference in Alden Bisen, Belgium. For a week a group of 40 young people lived together in a little castle and discussed politics and society. The theme of the conference was the EuroTunnel, which at the time was under construction. There were 10 students each from four European schools: England, Germany, France and Belgium were represented. The working languages were English and French, both of which I spoke well at the time.

For a week we mingled, hung out, flirted, chatted and talked about the future of Europe. People would start a sentence in English and end it in French. I drank Belgian cherry beer for the first time. We played pool and babyfoot. It was a pretty exciting adventure for a 17-year-old. I loved it.

I was in my element among my Northern European peers. I didn’t feel antipathy towards the French as some English people do. I’ve always got along well with French people: I enjoy their bof, the fact that they don’t care what others think of them as much as we do. I’d not met many Germans or Belgians at that stage in my life and I really enjoyed getting to know them. I belonged here, among smart eloquent young people from around Europe.

This was the early 90s and the mood was upbeat. Jobs were readily available and young Europeans like me felt we could go anywhere, do anything. Of course this was largely the result of white middle-class privilege, as I came to understand later. But there was also something about the trans-national quality of this era, the freshness of being free to live, work and travel anywhere in the EU, that felt compelling.

More than that, though, I experienced a feeling I hadn’t had before: belonging. Compared to the kids in my school, these young Europeans were progressive, curious, intellectual and open-minded. It’s not surprising, as they were the smartest kids in their schools, chosen specifically to represent them (and in a way, their countries) at this youth conference. These were my peers, folks I felt a connection with, the first group to which I’d ever belonged. As someone who’d always felt like an outsider, it was an unfamiliar and welcomed feeling for me. My sense of being a European citizen was born here at Alden Bisen. I never forgot it.

On Friday 24th June 2016 I was disenfranchised from Europe. Because of a decision made by a slim majority, for dubious reasons, I was forced to become British: an identity I have never and will never fully resonate with. I was told that in two years’ time I will be separated from Europe, the place to which I belong.

It’s hard to put into words how much this hurt me. It felt like a blow to the tenderest part of the heart. It felt like being smacked in a vulnerable part of myself: my identity. It wasn’t abstract, it wasn’t political or economic. It was deeply personal. It sounded the death-knell for my relationship with England, a country I’ve always felt ambivalent about.

Since then I’ve not felt comfortable living in London. I watch with horror as nationalism rises up across the UK; along with homophobia and hatred of other difference. Suddenly all those Little Englanders feel free to shout their bigotry from the rooftops. They hated us weirdos, queerdos, people of colour and foreigners all along; they were just keeping quiet because they knew their attitudes were anachronistic. Now they think they’re back in fashion. They think they’re the majority, even though they probably aren’t. Brexit has given them permission to be proud little haters.

I’ve spoken to many European friends about Brexit. They don’t understand it but they feel it, just as I do. They feel a bit less welcomed in England now, wary to come here (or to stay here), less keen to be involved with a country that doesn’t seem to want them.

This is an emotional thing. Plenty has been written about the (as yet unknown) implications of Brexit for business and the pound. Plenty has been written about the mess Theresa May’s government is making of the negotiations. But beneath this I feel the shock, hurt, anger and alienation that Brexit is for me. Put simply, I no longer feel at home in England.

In 2018 I will live as a nomad in Europe, while I can still do so easily. I’m probably looking for a new home, since London no longer feels like it. I’m taking the chance to find out what life in other European cities feels like. My friends in Berlin, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Utrecht seem more chilled than my friends in London. I would probably just have stuck it out in my home town if Brexit hadn’t happened. Even though it seems to get tougher each year being part of Generation Rent, I would’ve stuck with it. But now I’ve been flipped the bird, told I’m not welcomed, sent away, kicked out. Some things, once said, can’t be unsaid.

I don’t know yet what this means for me and for my business. Probably it means expanding Sacred Pleasures into a pan-European operation, a direction in which it was already starting to move. Probably it means finding a way to live somewhere that isn’t England. Much remains unknown: I have to wait and see what I learn while I’m on the road.

This much I know: Brexit has hurt me in ways I can’t fully explain and which will never fully heal. It has struck a blow to a very tender part of me. It has left me reeling. I never recovered from the impact of this referendum and I probably never will. Even if I come back to live in England after my roamings, I’ll never feel completely safe and welcomed here anymore. Something got released that day, something dark and ugly, and I’m afraid of it. It slapped me good and proper, along with many other European citizens who happen to live in Britain.

So fuck you, Not-So-Great Britain! Enjoy the illusion that you’re going to make it on your own. Enjoy the distance, until you realise what a stupid thing you’ve done. Enjoy being British. It’s going to be all you have left soon, so I hope it feels good when you lose everything else.

Me, I’m off. I’m off to find out where I belong and see if I can settle there. I’m off to find home now London isn’t it anymore.


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