Europe should be a dream | Brexit abroad

Bajardo 2016 | Brexit and Europe Blog

‘Europe should be a dream.’

He was a professor at the University of Padua. He had lived all over the world. He brewed his own prosecco, and it tasted delicious. He was Italian. He had the words ‘Will you marry me?’ tattooed onto his chest. That was how he proposed to his now-fiancé.

What I love about Italians is that they say exactly what they mean, they are passionate about what they believe in, and they never skirt around a topic. You can’t get more ‘take it or leave it’ than that.

And of course, as soon as he learned I was from the UK, the conversation inevitably turned to the recent Brexit result. We drank his homemade prosecco and discussed it over the dinner table together; Italian, British, European.

Brexit has been a constant companion on my trip to Italy this summer; like my terrible tan lines, except more annoying and more difficult to get rid of. As soon as I mention that I’m from the UK people immediately say, ‘I’m so sorry about the Brexit situation. What is going on with the UK at the moment?’

That’s the reaction that Brexit is having in Europe and the rest of the world. Pity and bewilderment.

My first week in Italy was tainted by the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Tainted because it wasn’t the result I wanted or needed. The confirmation came through one morning of my training week at work.

There was a big group of 60 of us from different corners of the globe, excited to work in Europe for the summer. You could tell who the Brits in the room were because we couldn’t bring ourselves to even muster up a smile. We were distraught. The Scottish talked about independence. The Londoners pondered whether London was really so different from the rest of England and Wales. The Irish and Northern Irish were freaking out about border controls. David Cameron resigned. The pound dropped so low that we were afraid to withdraw money in euros.

The Americans, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, Dutch and Trinidadians listened with sympathy:

‘Explain it to me,’ they said. ‘What does this mean for you now?’

We didn’t know. And we still don’t.

The next week and the weeks that followed, my Italian host families listened with sympathy:

‘Explain it to me,’ they said. ‘Why did people vote to leave?’

I can only answer that some people voted to leave because they thought it was best. They did their research. Some strongly believe that the EU doesn’t work for the UK. Some believe that the EU is undemocratic. Some believe that the money we put in to the EU could be better used elsewhere. They have their reasons, and although sometimes I don’t agree with them (and also sometimes they make very valid points that I do agree with), I can appreciate and respect their opinions.

However, many of those who voted to leave did not do their research. They didn’t consider the implications and consequences of their votes; the subtle changes as well as the huge changes it would bring; the domino effect of what this meant for the UK as a whole, for Scotland, for Northern Ireland, for those who rely on international business, or who live abroad or… the list is endless because it’s everyone.

The stories that followed the result made me so ashamed to be British. Stories of people yelling in the streets at each other, ‘Leave the country. We don’t want you here!’ Working immigrants being told to, ‘Pack your bags. You’re going home!’

Many interpreted the referendum as a vote about immigration. Those votes weren’t grounded in reason, or research, or thoughts for what was best of the people of the UK. Those votes were grounded in ignorance and hate. And therefore I can’t bring myself to respect those votes, or to respect the Brexit result itself because of them.

The issue of immigration really hits home for me because I am an immigrant. Sometimes people forget that. We like to think of an immigrant in terms of a stereotype that in reality doesn’t exist. In Hong Kong, we like to dress it up and say ‘expat’ because it sounds cooler, but at the end of the day I am an immigrant.

I left the UK in 2011 because I couldn’t get a job – any job, including unpaid internships and part-time work at McDonalds. That’s what migration is. The search for a better opportunity elsewhere. And many people congratulate me for living and working abroad, calling me brave or free-spirited or cultured, all while condemning those who come over to the UK for the same reasons.

Did you know that the UK has the highest number of citizens working abroad of any country in Europe? Therefore, Britain is the biggest producer of immigrants in Europe.

Today, I am an immigrant working in Hong Kong and I’m an immigrant working and travelling in Italy, a country in the EU. Will I still have the same freedom to work visa-free in an EU country in a couple of years’ time? Possibly. But it won’t be as easy. And this limbo period of uncertainty isn’t making it any easier.

I’ve been putting off writing a blog about Brexit partly because I still find it upsetting, partly because there are still no clear answers as to what this means for the UK, and partly because I’m sick of talking about it. But here I am writing about the dreaded B-word because the shadow it has cast on my summer here in Italy has been so vast and so dark that I can’t ignore it. It’s become a big part of my experience here.

And then an Italian man in my first host family this summer managed to sum up all of my feelings in one short sentence:

‘Europe should be a dream.’

Those words were so perfect.

Forget the politics, the backstabbing politicians, the migration issues, the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, the EU and the bloody money of it all, and consider that statement.

Britain likes to believe it is separate from Europe, like a big castle with a wide moat surrounding it. Britain refers to itself as the UK, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales… and Europe as somewhere else. A completely ‘other’ place. A place different in terms of economy, geography and values, among many other things. The UK is an island unto itself.

Except it isn’t. It’s in Europe.

Whether it’s a part of the EU or not, the UK is still in Europe. We can’t just raise anchor and move out. The British Isles aren’t going anywhere. Europe is not going anywhere.

Europe should be a dream.

It really should. Rather than thinking of Brexit as the problem, I now believe that Brexit may just be one symptom of a much larger problem. For a continent that is in reality so small, and made up of so many tiny jigsaw-piece countries, we focus more on what divides us rather than unites us.

And for a world so small, and made up of so many borders and limitations both visible and invisible, why can’t we at least attempt, hope and dream to come together, EU or no EU, to admit that we are all part of the same? That we have a responsibility to each other. We can’t let our fears of what is ‘different’ or ‘foreign’ get in the way of that.

So despite all the negativity, the uncertainty and the constant questions from others as well as myself as to what the future holds post-Brexit, this is what I’m choosing to focus on. This is what I am going to promote.

The dream of Europe.

A Europe with a proud and unified identity.

Because I am European.

Sometimes to go forward you have to go back | Italy 2016

Sometimes to go forward you have to go back - Italy 2016

What am I doing?

It was a question that had fluttered into my mind on the bus on the way to the airport, then on the plane to Doha, then on the second plane to Milan, upon landing at 6AM Italian time, and finally when I was ripped off at a currency conversion bureau at Milan Malpensa that left me more than a little out of pocket. Grazie mille.

As I walked through the airport to get the train into the city centre, I stepped on a message written in both Italian and English:

tutti i passi che ho fatto nella mia vita mi hanno portato qui, ora

every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now

When I rounded the corner of the street and walked up to the entrance of my hostel, trailing my case behind me, I saw a familiar yellow tram pull up outside. I remembered the quirky mismatched chairs before I saw them. The bookcases bursting with secondhand paperbacks in every language you could think of. Had there been a piano on the far wall before? Maybe. They still did the best scrambled eggs at the free breakfast bar.

What had led me here, now?

After checking in, I grabbed a plate of those eggs and chose the table nearest the window, looking around the same hostel I had stayed in four years ago. We had sat on that table, the long middle one, and drank mojitos with people we had never met before and would never see again. We had laughed. We had walked down to the canals for Nutella crepes at midnight. Well, who am I to say ‘we’? We were all strangers. I don’t remember any of their faces, let alone their names.

Milan 2012 and 2016 - Italy 2016
So the Duomo’s definitely still there…

 

I was inflicting a twisted déjà vu upon myself. I had returned to the same summer job, the same airport, the same city, even the same hostel that I had stayed in four years ago! So, why was I retracing my steps? None of this had happened by accident – I myself had written my resignation letter, booked my flights and packed my suitcases – but suddenly faced with the reality of being back I couldn’t understand why I had brought myself here. Why here, why now?

I surveyed the empty room. Just one guy, nibbling on some toast. It was too early for backpackers to be up yet, though I was full of energy and still on Asian time. I had done a bad job of my coffee at the self-service machine – all milk and sugar.

I opened my laptop. I started to write. And as I typed the words ‘What am I doing here?’ over and over again, allowing a stream of consciousness to fill the page, I started to realise the answer: so I could ask myself that very same question.

Sometimes people have ups and downs. Even people who look like they’re living the high life in Hong Kong. A few rough patches and bumps in the road. No more than anybody else, perhaps – that’s life – but I’d had a bumpy year… or two.

Maybe something in me remembered the summer of 2012 – dancing all night in Rome, playing drinking games in Bajardo, consuming obscene amounts of pizza, gelato and spritz aperol. And this same part of me thought, ‘Amy, you need a little more of that.’

Roma - Italy 2012
Rome 2012 – Throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, and you will return to Roma…
Camp Castelbelforte - Italy 2012
Castelbelforte 2012 – So glad I don’t keep in touch with this guy. What an asshole.
Venice - Italy 2012
Venice 2012 – Gondola ride
Verona - Italy 2012
Verona 2012 – Groping Juliet’s breast

So my feet led me back here, now. Not to chase the past, relive old memories, or repeat the same experience I had already had, but to spend a summer being… happy. A summer of ‘freedom’. A summer of drinking espresso and prosecco, of eating ripe Mediterranean tomatoes like apples, of speaking Italian badly, of seeing a side of Italy that you can’t find in guide books, of laughing, of tanning, of making lifelong friends out of strangers, of singing ridiculous songs about bananas and llamas and magenta flamingoes.

And I didn’t even know I wanted and needed all of those things until I was already in Milan, questioning the motives that had led me there. Sometimes, your instincts kick in and you make choices without knowing why. Some people are lead by their head, others their heart, and I am led by my feet. My head might have been confused, but my feet knew exactly what they were doing. They always do. They had led me back to my happy place.

And so I decided to have the best summer.

I left Milan for San Remo and I met the best bunch of people. I dug my feet into the sand on Taggia’s beach and watched the Mediterranean Sea lap at my ankles. I donned my red t-shirt and ACLE heart and got back into the routine of working with kids (how had I forgotten how hilarious children are?). I started serious work on my gelato gut. I stayed in an actual castle in Castelfranco. I cycled through fields of sunflowers. I danced Zumba at White Night in Montebelluna. I went to a Japanese art exhibition in Treviso. I repeatedly lost games of Uno to opponents under ten years old. I did the most tourist thing and took a photo of myself leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Camp Treville - Italy 2016
Camp Treville 2016 – Red Happy Lions #selfie
Castelfranco - Italy 2016
Castelfranco 2016 – Fields of sunflowers
Montebelluna - Italy 2016
The biggest gelato I have ever eaten.
Volpago - Italy 2016
Volpago 2016 – Favourite student. Not even in my class.
Zumba - White Night - Montebelluna - Italy 2016
Montebelluna 2016 – Impromptu Zumba session

I feel like I have laughed more in these past few weeks than I have in the last couple of years put together. And the best part is that I’m barely halfway through my time here yet. It’s still a work in progress but summer 2016 in Italy is definitely one of the best decisions I have made in a long time. Thank you, feet. You know me better than I know myself.

Sometimes to go forward you have to go back.

Scroll To Top