I just spent the week in Scotland hanging out with Europeans living abroad, British people living across the whole of the UK, Americans living across Europe. Those are ‘my people’ in a life I’ve been priviledged to live since I moved to London for love in 2007.
Even when the love ended, I fell in love with the UK. Or I thought I had. It turns out I fell in love with the people who had decided to leave their suffocating country towns to live in London, the greatest city in the world if you want to get things done no matter in what industry. Want to start your own cafe? London! Want to start making spoons for a living? London! Want to start your own brewery? London! Want to start a line of jewellery? London! But London wasn’t about only work, it was about sunday roasts, walks in the V&A. It was about taking trains (or replacement buses) and going to Cornwall, Liverpool, Newcastle, spend a few days, admire the old Empire, and go back to London. It was smug, it was elitist, but it was the life I was happy to pay for (more than 60% of my income goes to pay for rent). I grew up in Paris I am a city girl through and through. People in small cities did not interest me because I did not meet them. They were not my friends. Unless they worked in London.
I did not then see the rage build up. The resentment. The xenophobia. The feeling of isolation. The pain. Maybe others did. English friends who would go back home for Christmas while I went back to Canada. Maybe they could feel the difference when they moved back closer to home to help an ailing family member. Maybe they could feel the rage when they moved back closer to home to have their first child. But I didn’t.
And I’m sorry.
Yesterday was the loudest call for help I’ve ever heard. The cry to be heard, to be helped, for someone’s problems to be understood. From people who are not ‘my people’ but help grow the food I eat, make the things I buy, sell me coffee when I go on those weekends away.
I could say I had nothing to do with it. As an italian who never bothered applying for citizenship I couldn’t vote on thursday so I could say it was the fault of ‘stupid people’. But I could have heard that cry for help. I could have built relationships with people who weren’t ‘my people’. I could have, over the past 10 years, built relationships with people who would not grow to resent me as an ‘economic migrant’.
I could have tried. But I didn’t because even with all the talks of the reality distortion field of social media, there is also the time-old distortion of city vs countryside. And we were always outnumbered, we just forgot we were. We were arrogant.
I spent much of the week glued to the news and yesterday felt completely surreal as the economy took a hit and people started to panic. I wonder what it felt like for people in Detroit when the car industry failed. Maybe it was a little like that. I’m on a train coming back to London and I half expect it to be on fire. It doesn’t feel real. I am collecting newspapers for a friend in New Zealand and even that small gesture is bringing my mind and heart to face reality, to believe it and think about my future here.
Many friends will decide to leave and follow the money. Friends in academia, friends in the creative sector. I am an italian & canadian passport holder and my lovely boyfriend lives in the US so I have plenty of options but the one I will invest in most immediately is to stay and face ‘the noise of time’ as Julian Barnes would put it.
I will try to apply for citizenship to a country which may not be united when my application goes through but it’s a way for me to say that I hope that this country, the whole of it, will stay welcoming, creative, funny, generous and ambitous place for everyone. And I’d rather be helping from the inside. To the people who voted to Leave, you have been heard.
Now let’s roll up our sleeves and work this out together.
If you’re an European citizen who has lived in the UK for more than 5 years and has spent over half of that time physically in the country (tally up those travel days) you may wish to join me in applying too.
- You may need to pass an English Proficiency test (£120)
- You will need to pass the Life in the UK test (£50)
- You will need to apply for a permanent residency card (EEA QP) (£65) which requires you to apply on paper (the premium service is sure to be completely overbooked in the next weeks/months)and send in your passport which you can request back two months after application.
- Then you get to apply for naturalisation (AN form) (£1 100)