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.

My (anti)Brexit List or Why I’m Vote #RemaIN

Culture, emigration, future, Germany, Life, politics, voting

 

I didn’t really want my first post back after a few months hiatus to be about Politics, but the thing is; I’m not sure I can stay quiet. Not that I’ve exactly been silent about the upcoming UK referendum, but, as more and more people tell me why they are voting #Leave, I feel it’s time I share why I’ve voted to #Remain. I’m going to try and keep it short but I’m not making promises. I could write entire 4,000-word essays on this topic ten years ago.

So while I’m praying my little ballot paper has already made it’s way back to the electoral commission HQ place to wait to be counted, here’s some reasons why I put an “X” next to “Remain”.

    • As an ex-politics student who studied the EU in depth for a good few years, I’ll be the first to tell you the EU is flawed. There’s a plethora of institutions and, honestly, even when studying it, it’s not always exactly clear what they all do. In fact, I’m pretty sure I once joked with someone about how complicated it was and that they just seemed to keep adding countries to avoid anyone ever really getting it.ANYWAY, I say all that to say, yes, the EU has it flaws. Yes, it needs reform. Yes, it’s needed reform for a while and yes, it’s been slow at that reforming process, but what do you expect? There’s a bunch of different countries, agendas and beliefs all bundled together, it’s going to take a while. But I still think we have a better chance to see change happen by staying IN it and being part of the change. The UK isn’t the only nation that wants to change the EU (whatever the media might tell you). As a Brit in Germany, it certainly seems like the Germans want to change it too and they’re watching our referendum with interest.

 

    • I’m a Brit living and working in another EU country and frankly, I massively appreciate the freedom of movement/immigration/emigration thing we have going on because of our EU membership. No one has yet, in my opinion, presented a viable option of how things would/could change if we left, so why would I vote to change things that could potentially make my life more difficult and less rich? Also, from living in Germany for four years and chatting with Germans, I have discovered the Germans have pretty much the same fears and concerns about EU immigration/immigration in general as the UK, so any argument based on anti-immigration won’t change my mind. The tactics employed by the #Leave Campaign concerning EU immigration is just terrifying, and that’s not the England I love.

 

    • I have a lot of friends who are EU nationals living and working in the UK right now and paying into the British economy. They have no voice to say what happens to the taxes they are paying. But my EU national friends in the UK can vote for MEPs to represent them either in the UK OR in their home country (but only in ONE of those places) and that, even if there’s not much achieved by MEPs right now, is a small step in a democratic direction.

 

    • On the topic of democracy/democratic deficit (I once wrote a lengthy essay years ago about that by the way), I know the EU gets a lot of flack for not being truly democratic but think about this:
      The EU has evolved to become what it is today, but because it’s politics and it’s multi-national and it’s bureaucratic, it hasn’t necessarily developed in the most streamlined of ways, meaning democracy isn’t necessarily there in the ideal way it should be. It’s perhaps a bit more diplomatic than democratic to be honest. But, like I said, it does give all EU nationals wherever they live in the EU (even if they’re not living in their home nation and can’t vote in state elections in their resident EU nation), the right to vote for someone who will (hopefully) represent their views at some level. I know it’s not the most ideal situation but speaking as someone who’s well on their way to loosing the right to vote in their home nation (unless I move back there), being able to have a say in the EU no matter where I live in it, is actually pretty awesome.Also, if you’re going to complain about the lack of elected representatives making decisions for us, have you looked at how the UK elects Members of Parliament recently? Our First Past The Post system means that you don’t need to win more than 50% of the vote to get a seat. You just need to win enough votes to be the party with the highest number of single votes in your area. Basically, if you manage to choose the biggest piece of pie, you win. At least the EU uses Proportional Representation which means pretty much everyone’s political views are represented no matter how much pie they got.

 

    • I don’t believe either side has been responsible in communicating the true predicted impact of what leaving or staying will really have. It’s been a lot of scaremongering, misleadingly represented facts and figures, and an absolute avalanche of opinions spun with emotions. In this situation I favour one of two options. Sticking with what I know (ie remaining in the EU) or making the government do what we elected them to do which is make decisions on our behalf, representative of our beliefs. But then, I don’t really trust the current UK
      government
      (see: Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt) so I’d rather vote to #Remain

 

  • And finally, I was going to write something here about the economics of it but if I’m honest, I don’t understand enough about the economic implications of staying or leaving to offer that as a reason why I decided to vote #Remain. What I do know is that, what I have read so far and tried to understand, to me, just doesn’t actually add up. Kinda in the same way that EU nationals can’t all be taking UK jobs and stealing all our benefits.

 

OK. I’m done now. Maybe you understand where I’m coming from. Maybe I’ve inspired you to go find out for yourself and make your own decision. And so, with that all said, however you decide to vote on Thursday, please do three things.

      1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK (to get you started, spend 20 minutes listening to this uni professor explain some things about the EU.)
      2. GO VOTE
      3. REMEMBER the history Europe had before the EU was born. The EU rose out of decades of unrest, where hate had bred hate, where extreme-wing politics (both left and right) had prevailed, and where people and nations had been torn apart. The EU wasn’t a first attempt at unification – there were previous iterations that had failed – but it has been the one that has survived the longest. To me, that indicates that there is something good in it. We need to work together to find that and improve the rest of it.

 

 

Stop Saying We Need To Address The Gender Imbalance

Career, future, Life, politics

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen posts like this one on HuffPost and J Law’s rant on Lenny talking about women in our society, whether we’re represented at the top and what we’re being paid compared to our male colleagues.

Everyone’s clamouring that we’re not doing enough and there should be more women in high/authoritive positions, and I don’t disagree, I really don’t, there should be more women in top roles. However, I feel like half the reason that it “hasn’t happened yet”, as so many people bemoan, is because this only started being a real REAL focus in the last 5 -10 years. Probably closer to 5. It hasn’t happened yet because it takes TIME TO WORK to those positions. Merkel is 60 or so right? Most leading politicians are in their 40s or 50s, that means they were born in the 1960s or 1970s when the roles and views of women were starting to change but only in certain circles. These people were born into a world with a very different mindset about the role of women compared to the mindset of the world today on this same issue.

We live in an age where people expect to get things instantly, and we don’t see why we can’t have gender equality instantly. But changing mindsets isn’t an instantaneous thing. Changing mindsets is a long process. It takes decades. Centuries even. How many years did women fight for the right to vote in the way we so often take for granted now? It wasn’t an overnight movement. It took years of protesting and petitioning. It took people, mostly women, making huge, bold moves in the hope something might change this time. Votes for women wasn’t something that was a success within a few years.

To take the UK as an example, modern campaigning for women’s right to vote started in the 19th century. The movement that would become the Suffragettes was born in 1903 but it took 15 years and a World War before Britain let women have the vote. And that was on the condition they owned property and were over 30. It was another 10 years after that before British women could enjoy the same voting rights as British men. Some countries, like Finland, were decades ahead. Others took much longer to adopt gender equal voting rights.

Will It Ever Happen?

As a generation who expects to get things straight away, if something doesn’t happen in the next five minutes we wonder if it could ever happen. We forget that sometimes things don’t happen in the blink of an eye but more in the gestation of an embryo. If something doesn’t happen now, our generation questions whether it’s going to happen at all. This morning’s newspaper is the lunchtime chip paper before it makes it out of the newsstand. Only, no one eats chips in paper anymore. A better analogy would be this morning’s newspaper is lining the cat litter tray by noon.

So yes, we need more high profile powerful women. Women like Hiliary Clinton and Angela Merkel. Women like Tina Fey and Jennifer Lawrence who call companies out on the gender pay gap. But remember 20something and 30something feminist supporters (women AND men) – we have grown up listening to people telling girls we can be whoever we want. We can be a president, we can be a CEO, we can earn the same wage as our male counterparts. But yet, as Always so wonderfully pointed out last year in their ad campaign, “like a girl” is a phrase we’ve all grown up with being used as an insult too.

I don’t want to gain a “top position” in a company tomorrow because I am a woman. I want to gain that top position because I worked my way there. Sure, maybe I still have to work harder and longer to get there than my male counterparts. Sure, maybe I still have to face more prejudices on the way there. But I don’t have to work as long or as hard or face as many of the challenges as a woman in my position would have done 40 years ago. That’s progress.

The Gender Imbalance

Stop saying we need to start addressing the gender imbalance. We don’t need to start addressing the gender imbalance because we already ARE addressing the gender imbalance. Things like this take time for it to show out at the very top. It’s not ideal, but that how things go. When my generation are sat there, drawing our pensions, and the gender imbalance/gender pay gap is still like today’s, THEN we have a problem. But I hope and believe, 30 years from now, the girls born today will be confident in their roles and goals and be on the kind of equal standing with their male colleagues that is our dream ideal.

Sure, make a point. Photoshop the men out of photos of political leaders, business leaders and other male dominated professions but stop whining that we’re not doing enough, fast enough. What we’re not doing enough, fast enough right now is making sure people have basic provisions to live. That people in war torn countries can seek refuge in other nations.

And to get back to Feminism or whatever we call this, we’re not doing enough to change attitudes in places where women are still second class citizens. There are countries in the world where women don’t have the same rights to life and freedom as you and I. Where they can’t drive a car, or wear what they like, or choose their husbands or enjoy the same access to education. It’s all very well us Western Europeans or Americans or Australians crying that there aren’t enough women at the top. What about the places where there aren’t enough women at the middle, or even at the bottom? How about we also shout about that too? How about we stand together to raise future generations ACROSS THE GLOBE who value women AND men and embrace the different things men and women can bring to the table precisely because they have different genders?

We don’t need to address the gender imbalance. Rather we need to keep working to change gender mindsets.

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.

 

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!