When the Brexit result came in I was stuck in an airport. I was sleep deprived. All the shops looked the same as in any other airport and I was surrounded by international travellers speaking dozens of languages. I could have been anywhere.
I had recently finished grad school and wanted to get away. I booked one of those cheap, long, multi-legged trips, off to Colombia in just three flights and 18 hours of travel. But the first plane didn’t take off for three hours and my connecting flight left without me so I ended up in a complimentary hotel in a car park near O’Hare International. From my room I could see a deserted pool, an International House of Pancakes, a Target, some Western themed steakhouse and a busy freeway. Nobody was out walking. I turned on the television and watched a commercial for antidepressants – how American – then flicked over to CNN, “How will Britain vote?” I tried to stay awake for the results.
I was born with two passports, British and American, but grew up in London. For university I wanted to get away from home, as most people do, but found other bits of Britain felt too similar: the same shops, the same clothes, and half the time the same people I grew up with. So I went to Uganda then Kenya for work and then moved to Germany for grad school.
I found that living overseas wasn’t particularly difficult. When I first got to Berlin I discovered that two kids I had gone to school with were already living here. I chose Colombia for my getaway because another school friend had recently moved there. We are a generation of children who spent most of our holidays abroad thanks to the boom in budget airlines and aspirational holiday shows. Now we have Uber and Google Translate and group Whatsapp chats – nowhere seems too remote, nowhere really all that far away.
When I woke up I stared at the news despondently, checked out and went back to O’Hare for my replacement flight to Miami. How long would I be able to go on living in Germany? I would need a new passport, I realised as I went through security, because my one has ‘European Union’ printed on the cover. Is that still allowed? The departure board told me my flight was delayed, again, and CNN kept showing Donald Trump declaring Brexit a ‘great victory’ over and over on that loop of news made for people stranded in airports.
Watching an election cycle from overseas is a curious experience. You miss a lot of the day-to-day mundanity of it, thankfully, but you have no way of directly gauging public opinion: all you have are polls, op-eds, your feeds filled with people you know and keep in touch with. You can’t get any feeling for mood, except the mood of where you happen to be.
With Brexit, Germany was oddly becalmed. It felt easy not to take it seriously – the Germans I knew couldn’t imagine that people would be so foolish, or that they could seriously hate the EU so much. In a way, neither did I. After two years there, in the EU’s heartland, I found it easier and easier to dismiss the rhetoric against it. It’s all so ignorant, so easy to disprove! Nobody actually believes this stuff, surely? I walked around feeling I was a European, not merely British. (Certainly not plain old English, as now seems likely). All those headlines and urban myths that demonised the EU, all those conversations and anger that I grew up with, faded away. It’s easy to live in an expat bubble, talking about politics in English with other people who live abroad, reading The Guardian and the BBC online, feeling like you’re still in tune with the country you left behind.
We finally got on a plane and taxied to the runway but then, inevitably, the captain reported a mechanical fault. We sat there hoping it would get fixed for another few hours. The people next to me told me they had missed the start of their cruise. An older couple chimed in, “we’re late for our own 50th Anniversary party!” and soon we all began sharing our stories. Weekend plans ruined, business trips happily avoided, holidays delayed.
When they heard my accent they asked me what I thought about the news. I said that it didn’t feel real. I joked about my passport being rejected when I tried to fly back to Germany. A woman from Chicago said, “that sounds so adventurous, coming from the UK but living in Berlin.” But moving around Europe isn’t adventurous. It’s convenient. More than a million Brits currently live in other EU countries, most of them pensioners. After Brexit, Neal Ascherson predicted more young people will start to move away “in search of fresh air and light“, away from our newly isolationist and parochial motherland.
Our plane taxied back to the terminal and the cabin crew handed out lunch vouchers. “Wait by the gate,” they told us, “we’ll update you when we know more.” On CNN, people started analysing the numbers and showing patterns: about 27% of the population voted to leave, most of them living in rural areas.
I was born with an extra nationality but I was also born European. All of my friends and siblings and cousins were born European. Populists talk about the ‘real’ people, about true citizens ‘taking back their country’ from Europe or immigrants or whoever. But there is an entire generation of people who have never known anything else. What stake are we, Europeans by birth, supposed to have in this half remembered country?Is it the country I have watched it become, the one I thought I understood when I left or somewhere else entirely?
The plane sat on the runway for the rest of the day, unrepairable. Another connecting flight missed, another night in an airport hotel.
Months later I went to vote at the US Embassy in Berlin, right by the Brandenburg Gate and where the Wall used to be. I had been trying to vote via fax for days but the machine in the election office at the other end was eternally busy, ringing and ringing with no transmission. I went down to the Embassy in desperation and finally voted but still Trump became President through 27% of the population. Blue cities and red countryside; the same divisions repeating and strengthening on the other side of the Atlantic; another identity confused. Theresa May and Donald Trump fighting for a better yesterday.
The marines stopped me at the door, helped me get an envelope and send off my ballot. I copied out the voting registry office address in the rain as tourists posed behind me. One of the marines asked me where I was from, “it’s just that your accent doesn’t seem home-grown-American.”