On Europe

Riding bike on the Danube

I am pretty wild about Europe. I have been for as long as I can remember. I fell in love during those early family holidays consisting of days spent wandering through cornfields in southern Germany; gazing upwards to admire the twin spires of Europe’s most beautiful cathedrals; the sprawling, speckled-grey chateau our parents and friends rented for several weeks. Days shelling on the vast blonde beaches of Brittany; collecting rose petals to sieve into perfume from bushes running riot on Austrian roadsides; sitting down to supper at Breton restaurants, fingers soaked in the creamy sauce that is so often a vessel for mussels in that part of the world. Days spent queuing to see Van Gogh, and Monet, and the attic where Anne Frank penned her famous diary. I would spend my pocket money – francs, deutschmarks, peseta – on keychains and pocket knives, practising my s’il vous plaîts and auf wiedersehns as I passed shiny coins across the counter. Even then the thought was thrilling: this wealth of foreign cultures on our doorstop and the thought that we – as Britons – were part of a greater good, an umbrella culture. Europe. 

I was never more certain of the miracle of the European Union and all that it stands for than the long, hot summer I lived on the banks of Lake Neusiedl in Austria, a long spindly shallow of reeds that stretches, like fingers, across the border into Hungary. Living so close to a border gave me great admiration for what the founding fathers of the Union were aiming for when they decided a pact of nations, united by shared ideals, was something to strive for. On sweltering dusty noons, my friends and I would grab rusting bicycles from behind the old straw-thatched barn and cycle south towards Hungary, pausing en route to pluck plums from laden trees at the peak of their ripeness. We sampled grapes from the vineyards we would pass en route and filled our bicycle baskets with the sunflowers for which the region is known. We’d cycle on until, eventually, road signs would inform us that we were nearing the border with Hungary. The boundary itself was unremarkable, over-achieving sunflowers in place of the barbed wire you might expect in other parts of the world. A modest sign marked with the European flag announced our right to enter, unchecked, into another country. The blue of the flag represents the ambivalent sky of Europe and its dozen stars symbolise the peoples of Europe in a circle – a motif of unity. You are welcome here, the sign inferred. For what are borders, after all, if not man-made human constructs, cemented by history? We are all Europeans, the sign inferred. Ride right on through. And we did, exploring the borderlands of Hungary and her onion-domed spires, dirt roads and Kürtőskalács pastries for ourselves. We’d cycle home in the twilight, back across the border we had crossed in the midday heat, returned to Austria by the evening. Europe. I felt part of it.

Similarly, the year I lived in Germany aged twenty-one on the spine of the blue Danube, I was able to reap the benefits of the EU, receiving thousands of pounds in Erasmus grants and the opportunity to work in a secondary school without a visa by virtue of my European passport. I couldn’t quite believe that I – an Englishwoman born and bred – could so easily build a life in another country many hundreds of miles from my own, with few questions asked, purely for the fact that we were part not just of a shared continent, but a shared institution. Europe. I was welcomed and I repaid what I took, as the vast majority of economic migrants do. We all benefit from the easy ebb and flow of people across this diverse, storied continent. Freedom of movement has its flaws, true, but it works pretty well most of the time. The odd mishap is, surely, a small price to pay for such unparalleled liberties.

My experiences abroad, so easily garnered, with so few hoops to jump through, have shaped me as a person. They have made me a better citizen here in Britain. They have strengthened my professional contributions both as a translator, and more generally and given me the confidence to contribute to my society, wherever I am, and to accept other cultures with open arms. To embrace the foreign, to revel in difference, to learn from communities different from my own. Europe, and its union, unites cultures. We have so much to gain from it. We are so much better together than apart.

A lot has changed since I lived on the continent. In many ways, Europe is unrecognisable. Streams of desperate refugees fleeing unimaginable suffering in the Middle East have reshaped the fabric of European society, particularly in Germany. I have immense respect for Angela Merkel and her open-door policy, though it has been widely criticised elsewhere. Compassion and empathy are traits rarely seen in national leaders and her decision to fling open her country’s proverbial doors to people from wartorn regions is something to admire and emulate. Some have exploited free movement, of course, but that figure is miniscule. Leaving Europe will not stop would-be terrorists entering via the Balkans. Staying in, however, allows us access to the European arrest warrant and the cooperation that prospers in pan-continental institutions. Its benefits are manifold.

I realise that my perspective, my upbringing and my life’s experiences to date have been unusually Europhile. I feel as much a European as I feel English. But even if you don’t feel particularly European, what good would come of turning our backs on the very institution that has secured peace in Europe, after centuries of ignorant, violent, sorrowful war? To turn our backs on those fleeing conflict of a magnitude many of us can never know? To wave farewell to a single market that has allowed our economy to prosper? It is not my place to wade into the economic arguments for staying in here, they have already been examined in great detail by others far more qualified than I, but one need only glance at the list of economic experts and world leaders who have voiced their support for our continued membership of the EU to see the financial sense in voting to remain.

I do not want us to become the little island that we, literally, are – an afterthought, a racist hide-out, shut off from the rest of the world. An eccentric right-wing nightmare ruled by the kind of anti-immigrant fanatics that are not so different from those who helped the National Socialists ascend in Germany in the 1930s. (Just look at Nigel Farage’s poster, the similarities are as repulsive as they are unmistakeable.) When economies falter, there are always those who look to pinpoint a cause, a scapegoat, someone to blame. Behold, Europe! These dirty Europeans helping themselves to a slice of the economic cake – they’re after your jobs, buying your houses, filling your doctors’ waiting rooms, speaking their own cryptic languages in your tube carriage! They’ll bring their children and their whole families and their strange unknowable cultures and we’d rather not have it, if you please. Get gone and shut the door behind you, if you’d be so kind?

That isn’t Britain, at least not the Britain I know and love. I love British people – specifically, in my family and friends, and more broadly. At our best we have so much to offer: community, a sweet and baffling eccentricity, a reservedness countered by profound kindnesses, a sense of civic duty, a belief in traditions – baptised by our long and ancient history – juxtaposed with the innovation and forward-thinkingness that is easy to see in London’s skyline, streets and shopfronts. I love our strange, one-of-a-kind customs – street parties, scones bathed in cream and jam, Queen’s jubilees, the Olympics. Goodness, remember the Olympics? That spirit of openness, of pride in both our country’s unique place in the world and its liberalist, internationalist spirit seems a long time ago. I hope our countrymen remember that sense of goodwill and openness on Thursday.

The EU isn’t perfect, far from it. But at its heart, it is good. If a window shattered, would you burn your house to the ground? Of course not. You’d patch it up, install a new pane of glass, maybe even paint the window frame while you’re at it, ensuring the integrity of the whole. I hope we do not leave Europe simply because it has its cracks, its flaws, its faults. I hope we stay, work things out and commit to reform. I hope we take pride in our twin identities, as Britons and Europeans. We can be both; we don’t have to pick and choose. We live in a global society and it is ridiculous to think that shutting ourselves away, rolling up the drawbridge and reverting to a homogenous society would solve the problems modern Britain faces.

Please vote this Thursday and please, for your own sake, for Europe’s sake, for your children’s sake, vote to remain.

Further Reading

*Regular international readers, apologies if you’re from far-distant lands and this piece bears little significance for you. Back to regular scheduled programming shortly.

Bright Spots | The Singapore Edition

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Eastern streets lined by frowning jacaranda trees, the scent of frangipane blossoms on the breeze. The mindless hum of taxis roaring down the freeway juxtaposed by the air-conditioned bliss of the MRT. The buzz of a hawker centre, where delicious scents, the sizzle of industrial woks and chattering voices mingle. Crimson orchids sparkling, as if ablaze, in the sunlight. Children splashing in the outdoor pool, swimmers doing laps. The sweet sleepy cats at the rescue shelter, falling asleep on my knees just like an infant would. The wall of heat that hits as soon as you step outside. The tart tang of lime juice. The smiles and the stares. Falling into bed with tired feet, freckled cheeks and a smile on my face.

Poem For The Weekend #53

A poem dear to my heart (but anything worth doing is worth doing badly) for your weekend. Mine is just ending here, one degree north of the equator (hence my silence these past few weeks.) I’ve been travelling, and concurrently sick as a dog, taking in new sights and sounds and smells with the stuffiest nose and hurtiest head I’ve ever known. On the mend now, with lots to tell of Singapore, Saigon and surroundings – all in time. Say hello to England for me, won’t you? 🙂

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Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

– Jack Gilbert

Bright Spots | Week Twenty

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A belated bright spots, for the week that was: the night a storm threatened, the air crisp and crackling, clouds racing overhead like skaters on a pond. Dusk arrived early and there was a bite to the air so we stood by the stove and between us stirred risotto, rich with lemons and salty stock, the remnants of a courgette, a halved cauliflower and long lashings of spinach. Reading in bed, mostly this book, which was everything I hoped it would be. I enjoyed the crisp crackle of the pages as my eyes raced across its pages, full of stories so incredible you’d think they couldn’t possible be real but that they are – real as they come. A night of small plates, blood orange soda and girl talk (giggles), the pavements outside slick with rain. Feeling happier, more contented, in my choices —for what will be will be. My grandfather, dancing into the room with a cup of tea and my grandmother, always chuckling about something. The tomato plants, which grew several inches in a week! Anticipation for my first trip to the far, far east – see you soon, Singapore & Saigon! Wrapping up odds and ends at work, appreciating the grey and the gloom. A lunchtime walk with a favourite colleague, discovering a churchyard rampant with forget-me-nots, late spring blooms. Taking the long route home. The sandwich and carrot cake he brought home on Sunday, eaten in the southern light of our dining table, his eyes hazel and sparkling. My family, their health and happiness, and him – family now, too. I’m so grateful for it all, this week more than ever.

Poem For The Weekend #52

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In your next letter,
please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.
When I try to explain where I’m from,
people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,

cows drifting across grass. I interrupt
with barbed wire, wind, harvest air
that reeks of wheat and diesel.

I hope your sleep comes easy now
that you’ve surrendered the upstairs,
hope the sun still lets you drink

one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss
flannel shirts, radios with only
AM stations, but there’s a certain kind

of star I can’t see from where I am—
bright, clear, unconcerned. I need
your recipes for gravy, pie crust,

canned green beans. I’m sending you
the buttons I can’t sew back on.
Please put them in the jar beside your bed.

In your next letter, please send seeds
and feathers, a piece of bone or china
you plowed up last spring. Please

promise I’m missing the right things.

– Carrie Shipers