The London Years: Grexit/ Brexit (1 of 20)

It might seem peculiar to start my 20 London stories with the rather traumatic story of Brexit but I think it’s been the most monumental event I’ve lived through to date. As the cliché goes, history was being made. I wish I could say I was there but actually, on 24 June 2016, when the result of the vote was announced, I was literally at the other end of the world.

Don’t know what’s going on? I’m leaving London soon so this is one of my 20 London stories – a celebration of 20 years of my life here.

On paper, I was sorted. Back in 2012, terrified that Greece would crush out of the Eurozone, putting my life in the UK in jeopardy, I had applied for British citizenship. I dutifully read the books, I found ways to declare all my trips in and out of the country (hint: use your digital photos to jog your memory) and paid the (high) application fee.

The day I went to swear fealty to the Queen and all her offspring, one of the Council employees checked my name off the list and asked if I was “getting sorted while you still have time?” – I didn’t have enough time to get offended before she added conspiratorially “I get it, I’m Cypriot”.

I mean… she wasn’t wrong.

That’s not to discount a certain feeling of pride when I got the little stamp as it were. At that time I had been 10 years in the UK, working almost from day 1, studying, contributing. I had even worked in the UK civil service for fuck’s sake! My citizenship is part of my identity now. I like that I’m British, I enjoy that my child is British.

The point is that I had made a specific choice. I was a relatively privileged, educated and white European who could have chosen a number of other countries to make a life for herself. I chose the UK and on that day when “God Save the Queen” blasted through the speakers (sadly not the cool version) I felt validated.

Is that important? I think so, up to a point. Most communities in the world have myths about their identity. “We are travellers, explorers” – I imagine the British saying before they went on to enslave half the world. So yes, the story is important and this was my story. A woman who took full advantage of her rights and built a life in a place she chose. Tinged with nostalgia here and there but ultimately her own.

On 24 June 2016, believe it or not, I was on the same time zone as the UK but at the other end. I woke up in Paternoster in South Africa and the first thing I did was to check the news. I had a meeting the previous day and I remember my intelligent counterpart dismissing any Brexit fears. “They will never do iiiiiiiit“, he told me, dragging the i of the “it” to show his utmost boredom with the subject. It had after all dominated the conversations of politicos for months. “The Brits are too smart to vote for Brexit“, he finished.

With the benefit of hindsight I know we all see countries as what we imagine them to be rather than what they are actually like. I still find it interesting – a result of painful history perhaps – for a South African to consider the voting British public “smarter” than that.

So there I was, cold room (they don’t believe in heating in South Africa), cold news. Brexit had actually come to pass. Play a very small violin for the woman that found herself alone in an amazing destination with her ticket and accommodation paid for. And yet, I found myself feeling abandoned. Home (i.e. London) felt very far away and a place I could not recognise. Can we really help how we feel when a lover, a friend, a home abandons us?

A few days before leaving London for South Africa, wearing my Europe in the UK pin, I went to the corner shop to get some milk. The shop assistant asked me, in the kindest possible way, why I wanted the UK to remain in the EU. I gave him something generic and asked him for his views. He was from Afghanistan, he had arrived in the UK hidden in the undercarriage of a truck – after months of danger. He had claimed asylum, was successful and made a life for himself in the UK. He was young – oh so young – and had managed to bring his sisters over too. He was convinced that the country could not take any more immigrants – and he said it very reasonably, in a corner shop in Turnpike Lane to a Greek, with a Polish girl waiting behind me in line and a Turkish boy waiting behind her to get some cigarettes for his dad.

It’s been 6 years from the Brexit vote, 10 from my citizenship ceremony and 20 from my move to the UK. I’ve learned that the older I get the more insulated I am in my little bubble. Working in tech has made it a bit worse. Relatively privileged and highly educated people from all corners of the world working for international companies. It’s not exactly… middle of the road.

And I have to admit, joining tech was when I found my tribe. Before that there was always some discomfort, a sense that I was a little bit out of place. There’s a price to be paid for any comfortable little bubble – insulating me from the reality of the United Kingdom; the under-investment, the frustration, the very real struggle. On the morning after the Brexit vote, I was blind.

I’m not bitter. I love this place. I’ve reluctantly accepted that I lack the discipline and resilience to be aware of social reality at all times. I’ve grown older, softer. I wrap myself in my family and my life and do the best I can.

The older I get, the more fascinated I am by the lives of my grandparents and great grandparents. Born in Kars and Izmir, forced to migrate, losing people along the way and yet here we are. Living, moving, loving, thriving. Are countries really ever ours?

See? I told you we all invent our own story…


My #20LondonStories

  1. Grexit/ Brexit 
  2. The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
  3. The night bus 
  4. Words save our lives… sometimes 
  5. The rest is noise 
  6. How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box 
  7. Always have a sister 
  8. Greek London 
  9. This green and pleasant land 
  10. The bridge of aspiration 
  11. The knight in well travelled armor 
  12. Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
  13. Moments in Art 
  14. The NHS hunger games 
  15. In nocte consilium
  16. The friends we found, the friends we lost
  17. Blogging tips for beginners 
  18. Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
  19. γνῶθι σεαυτόν
  20. How to leave London

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