Pub in the English countryside

In Search of Home

Britain, Britishness, emigration, Germany, Life, politics

Earlier this year, on a rainy July day, I submitted a non-fiction piece based on the theme “Home Is Elsewhere” into a competition. Unfortunately it didn’t pick up anything, but that means I can give it the light of day here! It’s a poignant, reflective piece about what it feels like living in another European country as a British expat since the UK voted for Brexit.

It’s also a bit of an ode to Germany, the country I now call home – and as they’re holding a rather important national election this weekend perhaps the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

 

In Search Of Home

Home.

We all have somewhere we call home. Right?

It’s somewhere to belong, to live and grow; somewhere to hide when the world is too much. Somewhere to go back to.

But when home isn’t home anymore, where is home?

Having lived the expat life for the past five years, it’s a question I’ve found myself asking more and more the longer and further I’ve lived away from “home”. Home used to be somewhere safe to return to, a place of comfort and memories. Now my sense of home is falling apart. A derelict notion.

Home was a place my parents lived. A house I grew up in. A village of friends and enemies. Wide open fields in the heart of the English countryside, splattered with houses of all shapes and sizes.

Now, I don’t know how to drive home. Home is misplaced. It is a shadow, an echo of what it once was. A memory bundled with many others. Home has many faces now.

As a thirtysomething expat, it is my apartment in the heart of a growing city. It is where my Wi-Fi connects as I enter and my Netflix is already logged in. Home is where I sleep at night after long days at the office. But home is also that place I grew up. A country, a county, a village far away. A place someone else calls home now. That home is now boxes full of memories – forgotten in my parents’ new garage – that my past self once believed I would still care about 20 years later.

That home is a place I belong. But it is also a place I don’t belong anymore. It’s a place I’ve outgrown. It’s a place that’s changed. It’s a place that no longer exists.

The Home I Once Knew

I’ve heard people say that there comes a time when home no longer exists in the form you once knew it to. I’d always expected this to be a gradual change. That, as the years passed, slowly “home” in its first form would evaporate, replaced by the home I would create with my lover, my significant other, my own family. I never imagined that I would be able to pinpoint the moment home, as I knew it, would stop being home.

The day it happened, I woke up early with a taxi to order and a flight to catch. My phone’s alarm trilled into action. Subconsciously I reached for it from my bed. Alarm disarmed, I checked the news. The previous day had been an important one in my homeland and I was equally eager and full of dread to find out the outcome. That morning, June 24th 2016, was the day the home I had once loved, once fiercely identified with, ceased to exist.

It was the day the world discovered that 52% of the UK’s voting population wanted out of the European Union. Within 24 hours my homeland had gone from being kingdoms united to lands falling apart at the seams. But to be honest, the irrevocable changes had been well on their way for months, maybe even years. Thinly veiled xenophobia had littered the front pages of major tabloids and political campaigns had been bolstered on half-truths and vaguities that could be all too easily misinterpreted.

Picking up my passport emblazoned with the words “European Union United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” that morning carried an unexpected smack of sadness and regret. I thought that would be the worst of it. It wasn’t. As the consequences of the previous day’s events unfolded and the lurid abuse set in, the England I had so lovingly left behind in March 2012 no longer existed. I watched from afar, my heart breaking, as my homeland imploded on itself. I hoped it would be short lived. That we would pick ourselves up and recover, figure out how to make the best of a bad situation and shoulder on as we Brits do. But now, a little over a year on, I know that, should I ever return to the country of my birth, going “home” to live there again will never be the same.

In the 12 months that have passed since that day I’ve experienced emotions that I can only compare to bereavement. I know that sounds dramatic. But in truth I’ve felt so lost and displaced since that day. The country I had once spilled over in patriotism for is not there anymore. Long gone are the days of bursting with national pride – days like my very first expat summer, watching as the country of my birth hosted the world’s greatest sporting event and homegrown athletes won gold and silver and bronze.

Five years later, in its place stands a divided, hostile territory. England has become a land where people are yelled at in the street and told to go “home” – nevermind that they hold British citizenship and have spent their entire lives living on those shores. Brexit opened the gates to a wave of hatred no one really wanted to believe was there before.

As a removed Brit all I can do is watch and listen in horror as news reports and friends back “home” – British nationals and foreign expats alike – share stories that break my heart. Our government in a mess, our economy nose-diving, our people turning on each other. My friends facing uncertain futures where once everything seemed so clear. My own future hinging on my ability to master a foreign language and the generosity of another nation. And there’s nothing I can do. I’m powerless to prevent it. To protect the home I had once loved. To protect my friends and family. I can no longer feel proud of that place I once called home.

And as I lost my sense of home, I found myself displaced – lost; confused; my identity as a Brit thrown into question. I no longer want to be associated with a nation so full of hatred and xenophobia; a nation that has let such venom towards people rise to the surface. I cannot tolerate it.

Somewhere I Never Imagined

In just 24 hours home came to be not home anymore.

Over a year on, I still find myself occasionally apologising to European friends – both in the UK and Germany, where I live now – for the way in which the people of my homeland acted and continue to scapegoat EU immigrants as if it was all their fault. I apologise because in the five years I’ve lived in Germany, the country has offered me so much.

Germany has truly made me feel at home – after decades of muddling through life, school, university, and early adulthood not sure about my fit in the world, my first year in Germany was one that was full of feeling like this was it, I had finally found my place, finally found the right hole for this odd-shaped peg. Here, at last, was somewhere to belong. Here was my home. And to think, I might never have found it!

But now with Brexit negotiations in full swing, I face the possibility I could lose the country that has offered me a home seemingly unconditionally. Brexit means I could lose the home I’ve found – the home that, somehow, chose me. With arguments raging about the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in EU nations, no one really knows how this will end. No one knows what will happen to any of us European expats, regardless of the passports we hold and the countries we call home right now. The next two years hold questions no one can answer.

Add this uncertainty to the distress of seeing your homeland reveal its true colours of animosity and it’s no wonder I’ve spent much of the last year grieving the loss of home and national pride, and feeling displaced. Things that were once sure, that once made me proud, that would always be there, have been erased.

Home is no longer a place, no longer something tangible. It’s no longer somewhere from my past I can return to for comfort and security. Home is a sense. A notion I once created for myself, and am now forced to recreate and re-find.

Home is something else, somewhere else.

I hope I find it soon.

Hamletbatch. AKA Hamlet at the Barbican

benedict cumberbatch, Britain, Britishness, Reviews, shakespeare

On the day Cumberbatch and Shakespeare fans head to cinemas around the world to watch a live-streamed performance courtesy of the National Theatre, I thought it was high time I actually got round to posting my review of the much talked about Hamlet.

A few Saturdays ago (shockingly, over a month ago now) I had the pleasure of catching the matinee performance of Hamlet at the Barbican, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. (Aka that bloke off the telly what plays Sherlock, does wonderful impressions of Alan Rickman and is so hot right now you wouldn’t believe).

seeing_hamlet_at_barbicanThe long-awaited performance was actually the first time I’d see Hamlet live. I’ve watched a couple of film productions, and (skim)read the actual play while studying for my BA, but I’ve never seen it performed on stage. As I am a sucker for Shakespearean tragedies (and a Cumberbatch fangirl) I was excited to see how Lyndsey Turner had executed her production. I’d deliberately avoided reviews after an early Internet browse one morning left me so excited about my forthcoming theatre trip I had to go and calm down with a nice cup of tea. I was a smidgen overexcited.

Armed only with the knowledge that there’d been some huge kerfuffle about the reordering of key scenes in the play (To be at the beginning or not to be, that is the question), I eagerly made my way to the Barbican with my just as eager friend. We nervously took our seats, unsure how things would turn out. Would we hate Benedict’s performance? Would a Cumberbitch do something markedly uncouth? How good really was the view from our seats? And after all the waiting, was this really happening now, in this very room? (The answers: Nope. Thankfully no, otherwise I’d probably be writing this at the pleasure of Her Majesty. Not bad. And, apparently, yes).

From the opening line (no longer that controversial question), I was welcomed back into the world of Shakespeare. What timeframe this Hamlet’s world actually abided in I’m not sure. Not Elizabethan, but not 100% contemporary either. But as I like adaptations of Shakespeare that are set in the “present” but keep the old Shakespearean language, that isn’t a criticism. I just wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know. Was I missing some clever reference to modern day Europe? Had I studied Hamlet in depth, I would have spent more time contemplating the changes Turner had made to the structure and setting rather than simply enjoying the performance.

And what a performance it was. My top three highlights were:

(HENCEFORTH SPOILERS)

benedict-cumberbatch-hamlet-in-hamlet-at-the-barbican-theatre-photo-credit-johan-persson1. I will never look at toy soldiers in the same way again after Cumberbatch’s madness scenes. Dressed as a glorious Nutcracker-like (or at least how my mind reimagines the animation of my childhood) toy soldier, Hamlet prances along a table top with a drum. Later, when Goldstein and co appears, Hamlet hides out in a rather wonderful adult-sized fort. Still dressed like a toy soldier.

2. The actors in slow-mo. A wonderfully executed device that often serruptiously changed the onstage mood while another character absorbed the audience in their soliloquy. We’re first introduced to it towards the end of the wedding scene between Claudius and Hamlet’s mother. I was fascinated – and suitably impressed – by the cast as they captured something that a modern audience is so used to seeing cameras achieve in a film production. To my delight, they didn’t just do it once either. On several occasions you’d catch just a foot slowly moving or someone standing where someone else had been sat. Seriously, if you’re going to watch the live broadcast tonight, keep an eye out for it. And remember this is LIVE and no camera trick.

3. The set design. This too has come under fire from reviewers but frankly I loved it. It takes skill to create a set that works for all scenes with minimal changes. And oh my goodness, I want that castle interior! I’m also intrigued as to how long it takes to clear all the bloody leaves (or whatever it is) at the end of each performance.

So after six weeks or more, those were my three big highlights; toy soldier, slow-mo and set design. Oh and I want Ophelia’s yellow top.

I do have one question though: Why does Horatio insist on going everywhere with his damned rucksack?! Honestly, the guy never takes it off. And as far as I can recall, hardly ever takes anything out of it.

If I could, I would go and watch the live stream in theatres tonight. Not least because I want to be able to be close enough to see the actors’ faces as they live out their emotions. A telltale sign, perhaps, that movies and TV dramas have captured me. But the real reason I want to see it again? Because I would love to relive those three hours of my life once more. I desperately tried to take in every second of this performance and commit it to memory to treasure forever. It’s Shakespeare, it’s real and it’s one of the most sought-after British actors of my generation performing on stage in front of a live audience. And that is worth watching more than once.

The Trials of an Expat Voter #GE2015

Britain, Culture, emigration, general election, Life, politics, voting

In a few short hours, millions of people in the United Kingdom will be taking to the polls to (hopefully) decide who will be in charge of their country for the next five years. Except for perhaps some of the most astute political analysts, no one really knows what to expect tomorrow. Will Cameron be out? Will Clegg collapse? Will Ed form a coalition with Russell Brand?

But while various pundits will be focussed on voter turnouts and the overall result, thousands of eligible voters won’t be putting that all important X where it matters at all. Not because they don’t want to. Not because they forgot to turn up.  And not even because they’re disenfranchised, don’t care and think their voice won’t count.

No, on May 7th potentially thousands will be left without the chance or choice to make their voice heard simply because they’re expats. Citizens of the United Kingdom, with UK passports, but not currently residing in the UK. And it’s that which will cost them their democratic voice come polling day. But not for the reasons you might think.

 

Computer Says No

The UK Government barraged me with endless targeted Facebook ads during the months of March and April 2015 with the cheery promise that it takes less than 5 minutes to register to vote. It actually took me almost SIX MONTHS of correspondence, phone calls and three separate attempts to register online before my name was successfully added to the electoral register. The cause of this problem? Apparently “I don’t know where I was last registered to vote” was not a valid option on the online registration, especially when trying to procure a postal vote as an expat.

The simple truth was, due to having been a student for a rather large chunk of the last decade and having moved house every 9 months or so during that time, I couldn’t actually remember where I had last been listed on the electoral register. Add the fact that my parents, who kindly provide me with a fixed UK address and a bed to stay in when I pop back, moved house last year and subsequently moved constituency. Together, these problems somewhat hindered my application. Eventually, with mere weeks until the last possible chance to register, my only option was a sudden “return” to the UK from being abroad before promptly “leaving” once again and applying for a postal vote registered to the address my parents now call home.

But I wasn’t alone in my struggle. British expats experience an array of challenges to be able to claim what is legally still their right up to 15 years of living outside of the UK. Some simply can’t register because they were never registered when they lived in the UK. Now I understand that if a person in their 40s suddenly decides that, despite never voting when living in the UK, they now want to do so, it could create a bit of an ethical dilemma. But what about the young 19 year old who wants to exercise his right to vote but whose family left the UK when he was 15 and thus he had not been on the electoral register before he left? Is he simply not allowed to vote? The chances are he can’t vote in the country he lives in either and so we create another disenfranchised youth who now may never vote.

Oh Where Is My Ballot Paper? 

If you think that once registered all your problems as an expat attempting to vote in a General Election at home are over, think again. Once you’ve jumped the registration hurdle, you fall straight into the mercy of the postal service.

In the last seven days my Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with posts from British friends and acquaintances who, for various reasons, find themselves currently living outside of UK shores. Being, mostly, young, active, politically aware types, they were actually organised. They’ve registered their desire to vote and secured their postal vote application. It’s at this point they hit a problem. A problem I call “Oh Where Is My Ballot Paper?”.

Due to the rule of not sending out postal ballots until 20 days before the Election and the fact that they have to be returned by 10pm on polling day, friends in various locations around the globe didn’t receive their postal ballots until the chance to post it back to the UK in time had long since passed. Several friends in the States reportedly didn’t receive their ballots until the possibility of returning it in time was long gone. But it’s not limited to those facing a long haul flight to return home. Another acquaintance, this time in the Czech Republic, is still to receive her postal ballot. In fact, her outburst on social media to this affect a few short days ago bought forward several others, also living in Europe, also without their ballots.

Surely, when we’re considering something as important as the voting right of citizens, creating such a tight turnaround is placing rather too much faith in the world’s postal services? I mean I have friends who still haven’t received Christmas gifts I posted months ago.* And don’t even get me started on the wondering whether my postal vote will actually arrive back in the UK in time.

*that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Polling Day

So now, as Polling Day dawns, anyone who knows even the tiniest bit about British Politics right now, knows that 2015 is going to be close.

But one thing’s for sure, thousands of expats will anxiously watch the results, frustrated, angry or just despondent that, despite their best efforts, this time their voice won’t be heard. And the money the UK Government/electoral office spent on targeted Facebook ads to encourage British Expats to register was, it would seem, a little bit redundant.

 

Life in Germany: All patriotic

Britain, Britishness, Culture, Frankfurt, Germany, Olympics

Perhaps it’s because I decided to leave England in the year the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee (although I do keep accidentally referring to it as her Golden, sorry Ma’am) and the year London hosts the Olympic Games, but since I landed in Deutschland I feel as though I have become more patriotic. I will fiercely defend my homeland against anyone who has a bad word to say about it. In fact, I recently virtually slammed my own brother (via social media) for being “typically British” and ergo negative about our Olympic preparation efforts to give one example.

This isn’t to say that I wasn’t patriotic before I left the UK. It just seems to have come through all the stronger now I’m no longer a permanent resident of the motherland. And, although I have always been a champion of the Royal Family, now, they are the iconic symbol readily available for me wherever I am in need of a Great British fix. If we were ever to loose our monarchy I would be distraught. Yes, I know they cost us money. Yes, I know they are archaic. Yes, I know they don’t really carry much political clout, but to do away with our Royalty is to remove one of the few synonyms of Britishness.

Sure, there are events in British history that some people would rather forget; things that even make me balk at the idea of being associated with Great Britain. (The way we treated the people of the countries we took to be part of our Empire for example.) But I’m 99% sure that there are things in any country’s history that the people of that nation would rather were buried and forgotten. Some of these events are more recent than others.

The iconic “Broom Army” photo tweeted after 2011’s
riots as people took to the streets to clean up.

Watching the Olympic opening ceremony my heart swelled with pride at the fact that my home country had pulled off something that amazing. (In fact watching the opening ceremony is what has encouraged the thoughts for this post). Alright, some of it was typically British in humour and style and probably fell by unnoticed by those watching who weren’t British. But the Queen jumped out of a helicopter with Daniel Craig as 007 – that was a stroke of British genius! Aside from the quirks, what the ceremony did was unite the UK. The current scenes of the Olympics in London is a far cry from the scenes on the streets of Britain last summer. Both, however, have united a nation.

Certainly for me, living in another country has served to make me feel even more staunchly patriotic than I was in the UK. Although I hope never to the extent that I will refuse to learn and adapt and accept that other nation’s culture and language. Perhaps it is strange that it has taken uprooting myself and living in a foreign clime to realise how British I really am, but then again, perhaps what I needed to fully identify my sense of being a Briton was to emerge myself in a culture vastly different to what I knew and was familiar with.

Rioting, Looting and the Broom Army: A Social Networked Response

Britain, politics

There was a day this summer where I was simultaneously proud and ashamed of my country and the people in it. In August 2011 the British newspapers suddenly had something to talk about on what would have otherwise been a slow news day. What’s more, they could speculate on the impact of social media on our society.

It was one of those weeks where you’ll remember where you were as you watched the surreal, movie-esque news coverage of London burning. Watching BBC News late on the Monday night I was waiting, almost willing, the credits to roll; as if this was all some terribly realistic film that would soon be over leaving us all thinking how wonderfully lucky we are that this was a clever cinematic creation.

But the credits didn’t roll and London continued to burn.

It burned in Tottenham, it burned in Enfield, it burned in Clapham. Five generations of family business lit up the London skyline in Croyden.

Twitter was all a-flap with news of the latest developments, as unbelieving eyes and ears took on board what they were living through. Facebook was littered with messages of love and concern, disbelief and fear of the events unravelling across the capital. As time wore on, these messages were added to with photos and videos hastily put together by Joe public. It became apparent that the riots of 2011 had taken hold of social media and they weren’t about to let go.

In the breakfast news of Tuesday morning the London Eye was set against a backdrop of smoke, a stark reminder that the previous night’s events weren’t merely a War of the Worlds remake.

While the daylight allowed the nation to take in the true horror of the night before there was still hope for humanity. Amid the claims social media sites had been used to encouraged the riots; Twitter, Facebook and a heap of other social networks were loud with information on clean up jobs happening across the country and the encouragement to join in if you could.

While the newspapers clattered about with reports of people inciting violence through using Blackberry Messenger to bring together what would have otherwise been an unorganised riffraff; the general public used the same social media networks to mobilise an army of defiant retaliation.

Epitomised by one iPhone captured image on the streets of London of the so-called Broom Army, Twitter, Facebook and the rest, empowered individuals to come together in a comradery arguably not dis-similar to the “keep calm and carry on” attitude we British like to believe prevailed through wartime in the early twentieth century.

The British Riots of the summer of 2011 showed the good and the ugly side of social media. If we learnt one thing, it’s that social networks hold the power to motivate a people into action – be it for good or for destruction. After the initial start in London, riots elsewhere in the country appeared to be a bunch of individuals coming together to jump on a bandwagon and join in for whatever they could get – all supposedly inspired by tweets and facebook posts.

Social media, while perhaps a vital tool in aiding groups of hapless individuals to reek havoc in their cities, also provided the antidote to the mindless destruction. Even the Police forces were in on the social media. South Yorkshire Police used Twitter to inform those in the area of the lack of riots happening in the region. (As a Sheffield resident I just want to say here how proud I am of the youth, teenagers and young adults of South Yorkshire for not rioting.) Videos captured on mobile phones and posted on internet sites aided the naming and shaming of people involved. People rallied together in the post-riot shambles, inspired by the support coming from Twitter and Facebook.

Without social media networks the events of August 2011 could have been very different. The riots might not have spread beyond the localised attacks in Brixton, but the unity and sense of community as people rose up against the rioters and looters was enhanced by social media networks. And in these times of uncertainty, community and unity is exactly what Britain needs. Long live social media!