I wake early again and climb out of the tent to practice yoga and finish waking up. As I finish, calm and whole again Mickey returns with the news. It slowly sinks in. Britain has voted to leave Europe. As we travel to come closer to, engage with and learn more about the world we live in, a majority of my countrymen are voting to isolate themselves further. I’m so disappointed, this action has far reaching implications for me. But I won’t be posting outraged rants on social media, I’ll vote with my feet instead. Britain’s vote has confirmed for me what I already knew but wasn’t yet ready to admit to myself.
There’s no anger, I’m prepared for the result although I didn’t quite believe it would happen, hoped it wouldn’t. But now, I’m resigned. What will be will be and now I can only watch it play out. I’d thought – no hoped, fervently – that my disappointment in my country was self-fabricated, imagined because of my unhappiness there rather than based in reality. Now there is no questioning it though. A close result yes, but still a result. The vindication is small comfort though.
To state my position from the off, I don’t think this decision should ever have been put to a vote. We live in a representative, rather than a direct democracy. As flawed as I find our politicians to be I’m pretty sure they’re better positioned, being privy to more information, than your average person on the street to decide what is best for Britain’s economy. Whether or not they act in the best interests of the people or themselves is another matter and one that should, logically, be resolved separately to our membership of the EU.
But now that it has been allowed to be decided by the people we have little choice as to whether we accept the decision. A part of me is fearfully curious. I’m tired. So tired. I’m tired of seeing casual racism and xenophobia. And I’m tired of seeing the intellectually superior armchair experts and keyboard warriors who always think they know best. And most of all, I’m tired of the general complaining about how hard life is (from the security of a stable job in which they have rights, using their high speed internet, iphone and personal computer) but not being willing to do anything but be angry and vengeful about it. All of these things combine into a toxic mess of what I now consider to be Britain’s defining national traits. And I’d like to see it dragged out into the open and beat down. I’d like to see a return of the grace, humility, gratitude and stoicism that I know people are capable of. There’s so much toxic anger in Britain right now I can do nothing but thank my lucky stars I’m not there. Maybe we need to lance the boil, and maybe things will get better only by getting worse first. Maybe to get there we collectively need to go through some hard times.
We have a tendency to want to avoid the conflict, avoid the bad times, to micromanage and shush the feelings and brush it under the carpet. But past a point this isn’t healthy. Things fester instead and turn in on themselves destructively, instead of the energy being used constructively. And I feel that this is where the country is right now. And so I feel that perhaps Britain needs its chance to isolate itself. I’m tired of watching my country blame everyone but itself for the flaws within it. Time to take responsibility and grow up. Pretty soon, there’ll be no-one else left to blame but ourselves…maybe then we can start to get somewhere.
All of this set against a back-drop of World War memorials, museums and battlegrounds. A backdrop of world travel to countries that know the real impact of mass prejudice, and of revolution and true hardship and oppression. Ah the irony. It beings me no amusement though.
We collected our Iranian visas in the morning. I was beside myself with joy, we’ve waited so long and been so unsure of the whole process and Iran was one of the countries that I really, really wanted to see. The man on the desk remembered us without needing to be told our names. Whether our nationalities marked us out as memorable to him or whether it was because we’d had a bit of a laugh and joke with him when we dropped our passports off a few days earlier I don’t know, possibly it was due to both. In any event, as he passed us our visas and explained the stipulations of them and finally wished us a good day, he returned my now beaming smile momentarily with a sparkle in his eye. I like to think he was pleased at my evident, almost uncontainable excitement about visiting his country.
Afterwards we visited Checkpoint Charlie museum. This area of Berlin was crowded with tourists and the weather was so hot, 37 degrees we were later told, most likely more in the city. One of the first things I saw on entering the stifling museum was a video of Churchill giving a speech on how peace would only be achieved by the solidarity and combined will of a united Europe. I’m in a pensive mood…I wonder to myself are we losing the lessons so hard and painfully won from history? This museum lays out in stark text the inhuman measures that man is capable of when prejudices and a lust for power are actively stoked. Later I reach a point in the museum that documents the exploits of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other, less well known freedom fighters, like Nadiya Savchenko from the Ukraine. Always where oppression is to be found, a few individuals have courage enough to make a sacrifice to catalyse change. At least I leave the museum with that message. Much of the rest of it made for painful and ironic reading on this day.
Much of the history in the museum is unknown to me. I wonder why and resolve to bring some of it into the lives of my young nieces. It occurs to me as I learn about the 1953 uprising in Germany that national identity, as with personal identity, comes most readily from adversity and struggle. The upheaval and hardship that Germans faced in the years following the war, coming to terms with the war and the imposed consequences, have forged the identity I see today. This laid-back, calm, self-assured nature that can be mistaken for aloof. There is a maturity and a sense of responsibility I feel here. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of others who have developed this idea: “It seemed, wrote Machiavelli, that in the midst of murders and civil wars, our republic became stronger and its citizens infused with virtues…A Little bit of agitation gives resources to souls and what makes the species prosper isn’t peace, but freedom.
By contrast, I often feel that Britain is a petulant teenager. Not wanting to be told what to do. Always complaining, always making excuses. Knee jerk reactions, gossip and retaliation abound, in the street, in our media, in our Prime Minister’s Question Time alike. And I realise today, standing in this museum that Britain has never had such suffering to galvanise an identity. Her people have never had to fight for their freedom, they have only had to fight to keep what they believe is theirs – often land they have taken from others – giving them a feeling of injustice and entitlement that permeates daily life. We have always been the invaders, the oppressors, the conquerors, never the invaded, oppressed or conquered. The Leave campaign pushed forth the idea that we need to make Britain great again. But if we learn our history, not many of our ‘achievements’ of the past are worth celebrating. A German we meet touches on this topic also: “I was in the UK last year, you have statues of war criminals everywhere, you still celebrate them. You will never see this here”. I don’t ask which statues he refers to but his point resonates with some of my feelings. I have carried a great burden of guilt for the historical actions of my nation which I have only recently made peace with, ever since I was old enough to understand the morality of oppression. The only thing I have ever been proud of my homeland for is its equality, its integrative, welcoming, multi-cultural nature. Something which now seems to be on very shaky ground indeed.
We enter a shop to buy stamps for the postcards we’ve bought in the museum. The man behind the till asks me where they are for…”Europa?” he enquires…”UK” I respond. He shrugs as if to say that it’s the same thing, then he catches himself as he realises that today is different. A lady next to me snorts back laughter “maybe, maybe not…still too soon to say eh?” she gives me a conspiratorial grin. “Sad day” I say, shrugging apologetically. I feel even more an outsider here today than I did before, the impersonal city life only serves to increase my isolation. At least these are strangers to me though, they care little about the result past a feeling of bemusement that Britain is at it again as far as I can tell. A Dutch man staying at the campsite can’t understand why when I tell him I’m not proud to be British. “Why?” he asks with genuine curiosity. Then he goes on to tell me that it is the same everywhere, immigrants come in and take jobs. I suggest to him that it is the politicians’ mismanagement that creates problems, not people trying to earn an honest living and then I shut down before I start an argument with this stranger that I have to lodge next to for the next few days. I’ve heard his argument before and it carries no weight with me, I’ve battled it before and it gets me nothing but frustration. In another situation I might find it amusing that the British and the Dutch, well known for aggressive colonisation in history are so profoundly scared of foreigners coming in and displacing them. Could it be we judge people on our own behaviour I wonder? I’m grateful that at least I don’t have to face my European colleagues back home on this day. People who have invested in the outcome and the country, they have put their money into the system, their energy and their time but were excluded from the vote. The country is content with taking their taxes but their voice doesn’t count. They no doubt feel betrayed by the result, rightly so. At least I don’t have to face them, shamed by association.
We arrive back to the campsite in the blistering heat. I cool off in the shower block and come out to find Mickey chatting to a man. A fellow camper who tells me he’s just come from the German parliament where they’ve been discussing how to move forward. He says he hopes it will be a wake-up call for both sides and that Britain will soon realise that Farage has nothing to offer. His hopes ring true now a week or more after Farage’s resignation but I think he overlooks the depth of the motivation behind Britain’s vote. He thinks this is a flash in the pan, wooing of the public by the Leave campaign. I think instead the Leave campaign merely gave voice to the very nasty shadow lurking in our society right now.
Either way, my vote was cast with my feet one month prior to the referendum when I left because I could no longer tolerate my life under this shadow of growing right-wing, dog-eat-dog mentality and growing left-wing indignation. And I could no longer pay into a government and system in which I had a totally lost faith. Having seen what I’d hoped was an imagined bias borne out in the referendum result the camel’s back has finally given way. I’m currently making my peace with saying goodbye to my nationality, either metaphorically or literally, at this stage I don’t know which. The only control we have in this life is the choices we make. I’m at peace with this now, and I take full responsibility for my own happiness and preventing my descent into a ranting member of the twitterati.
I wish you luck Britain in your pursuit of ‘greatness’ but I choose to live a healthier life. I choose to settle for what makes me happy, not what makes me great, particularly if that greatness is gained by selling out my values. I choose standing up for the weak and vulnerable over protecting the rich and I choose community and responsibility to my neighbours over isolating self-protectionism. I choose a healthier life and right now, for me, that’s not in Britain.