Bitter geography of birth

Brexit looms on the horizon and I find myself in more and more disbelief. I have just about stopped listening to news bulletins which are longer than a few minutes, as I simply cannot cope with the news. When I started talking back to my television set, I decided I was losing it.

I said before that for me Brexit is personal. It is a way of telling me that I am unwelcome in the society in which I have lived for almost 30 years. Of course, in academia, I am (as a lot of us are) shielded from the ‘real world’, unfortunately, however, the it’s pushing itself in and imposing its sometimes very ugly face on us. Before I make my point in the post, I would like to offer 3 little examples of recent encroachment of Brexit reality onto my life.

First, my blood boiled when I heard about me and my fellow Europeans jumping the queue to get to the UK. How undermining of us can you get?! Sure, I understand that my contribution to the British society is infinitesimal, still, I have taught many kids who, I hope, benefited from university education. They are now in thousands. And so, when the British prime minister decided to tell me that the decades I have lived here are based on a sleight of hand, on breaking the rules, I do take exception to it. There was nothing dishonest about us coming here. There was no queue-jumping. And it is beyond crass to say otherwise. Incidentally, as it happens, in my case the Home Office gave me the right to come here.

When I hear of taking care of ‘our own’, I wonder how much time it takes to become ‘your own’. I have spent by far most of my adult life in the UK, so I start wondering whether I can at some point become ‘your own’, or will I always be an Other, a bloody foreigner, taking your jobs, marrying your women (I have been told that)? Granted, my surname is not Smith or Jones, but can at least my children not get the crap on account of their father being born in a ‘foreign country’? Is it really necessary to get rid of the name ending in ‘-ski’, or can it be naturalised at some point? Is it really the geography of birth that trumps it all?

Third, I do despair when a seemingly educated and intelligent person tweets that the UK has little historical connection with Europe:

I start wondering whether I share the same universe with him and other Brexit people. I’m not a historian, but isn’t the current monarch of German extraction, while being married to a man who was born in Greece? Weren’t you swapping the rule of England and France with the French for the most part of the last 1000 years or so? Moreover, the Vikings didn’t really come from Surrey, did they?

Needless to say, I do understand that Mr Montgomerie (whose name, ironically, is Norman) might not want to be associated with the likes of me. Not only do I not speak with RP, but I’m not even a proper European, as some people say that whatever is east of the Rhein doesn’t qualify as such. But perhaps intelligent people should not make fatuous claims about history, only to further a current political goal. Because other intelligent people, even if they’re from Eastern Europe, actually see such claims and wonder about how far you can go in making such idiotic claims.

The last two years have shaken the basis of my life and the lives of many Europeans I know. The referendum has taken away the security of where we are, also for those who became British citizens. I cannot count the number times I have been given ‘the look’ for speaking Polish publicly and I am fairly certain that I’ve not been told to speak English because of the breadth of my back. But I do see those rolling eyes and comments. Do I care? Yes, I do.

How do I see Brexit? Well, I see it as slowly taking my home away. As it’s othering me more and more daily, I feel more and more uncomfortable listening to the news, to politicians, or just people around who would like England to be for the English, measuring Englishness by geography (and a few other things perhaps not worth discussing now). I never thought it possible that leaving my home here would become a clear option. I just really don’t want to be told that somehow I don’t belong here. That geography cannot be talked away.

But my bitterest thought is different. I do believe it’s still possible to overturn Brexit. The problem is that things will not go back to normal. The damage is done. I have always been a foreigner, but Brexit has underlined it red ink, only to cast it in stone a bit later. Overturning Brexit will not change this. Yes, of course, I would like it to be overturned (for practical, economic, political and ideological reasons), but let’s not even start pretending that this will heal the hurt the referendum and its aftermath has done. And that’s why I am so bitter.  No matter what happens, I will know that being here can be taken away at a moment’s notice.

But before I end I want to tell a story about how I came here to work. After my post-doc, I was coming to work here in the UK, but because of some administrative cock-up (as ever), my work permit was issued late and I was told that I was allowed to work here by a fax. A few days later, I drove my car off a ferry in Dover, it was about 3 am or so, I was stopped by the immigration officer and asked to produce my work permit. I couldn’t, I showed the fax from my uni, but the officer was adamant he needed to see the original document. I didn’t have it, so he wanted me to park the car and wait till the Home Office opened. I didn’t fancy waiting for 5 hours or so in a layby in ‘no man’s land’, so I asked to speak to his superior. He looked at me with visible pain to which I said I had the right to speak to his superior officer. As he confirmed, I was thinking that the prospect of waking his boss up in the small hours of the morning would easily be much scarier than letting me in. Indeed, he looked at the fax again and said that ‘on this one occasion’ he would let me in. 10 minutes later I was in the United Kingdom. I’ve been here for over 27 years.

How about a moral of the story? I suggest: no hypocrisy is too great to achieve the current political goal.

 

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