Typically, as my audience knows, I blog about all things cultural, relocation, repatriation, communication and language. On 31 January at 11pm GMT Britain will leave the EU. So just for a change, I’d like to take this opportunity to share a more personal view on the topic.
Growing up in the home counties in Britain, I had a happy childhood – sometimes it was a little dull, but it was safe and life was carefree. I grew up with my siblings, my mum was a nurse and my Dad was a jet-setting electrical engineer, always taking off on some exciting assignment. He constructed electricity pylons in the Andes, camped out in the desert for weeks on end and sometimes we’d get a letter. On Saturdays my Mum would sit us all down around the dining room table to write a letter to Dad on blue flimsy airmail paper.
When Dad returned all sun-tanned and suave, on occasions with a case full of freshly-ironed shirts from a Hong Kong laundry, I would constantly bug him about going abroad on holiday, seeing something different. Sick of family holidays to Wales and Derbyshire and drooling enviously over Duran Duran’s Rio and Wham’s Club Tropicana videos on Top of the Pops, I too wanted to feel the sun on my skin and sample some Mediterranean cuisine. Eventually I took myself off to the travel agent’s on Tring High Street, grabbed a couple of brochures, worked out the cost and persuaded him to let us go to Menorca! I was fourteen.
That got me on the European bandwagon. Hoorah – off the island and into a new world. Later, after a couple of school exchange trips to Germany and a penfriend in Baden-Württemberg – with whom I am still in contact – my love of continental Europe had set in for the duration.
I ended up studying German and in 1989, I went to Vienna University for my year abroad. This was way before there were Erasmus programs and Austria wasn’t even in the EU back then, so this was slightly problematic. Having been refused entry to Vienna University as the Austrian Embassy in London didn’t have the correct apostille for my A-Level certificates, as well as countless letters going backwards and forwards to Vienna University, I went up to the Foreign Office in London and got them rubber-stamped just in time, packed my case to leave from Gatwick the next day.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the UK, I really do. I’d just like to see it as part of a bigger picture, part of the European Union. I’m British: I’m pragmatic, I like my personal space, I like politeness and I love banter. But I’m also very much a European: I like the Gemütlichkeit of Austrians, the “structure” of German meetings and the directness of the Dutch PLUS all of those British things.
On 31 January, I certainly won’t be celebrating Britain leaving the EU. Politics aside and purely from an interculturalist’s perspective, it just doesn’t feel right. It flies in the face of my cultural heritage and the system of cultural beliefs in which I was raised. In my day, all school children studied at least one foreign language (even my parents spoke French). We all had penfriends from France, Germany or Italy and we were the ones who finally got to go abroad on holiday and embrace all things cosmopolitan – as well as being proud to be British. Now, decades later, I am bilingual, I will have worked half my life in two countries and my pension will be drawn from two pots.
I also know what it is like to live in a country that is not in the EU, the constant toing and froing between government authorities trying to get residence permits that are dependent on work permits that are dependent on residence permits and so the loop continues. Yawn. It’s a humbling experience, as those of you who have been through anything similar may well know.
A deep sense of sadness prevails, amongst many of my non-UK clients too. Despite the differences between cultures in Europe (and indeed beyond), there is nothing more dynamic than the curiosity, creativity and synergy to be obtained if we work together, only then are we are best. I’ve seen such great collaborations between multicultural teams. Diversity is a dazzling diamond. Jean Monnet, founder of the EU once said:
“If I were again facing the challenge to integrate Europe, I would probably start with culture. Culture is the context in which things happen; out of context even legal matters lack significance.”
I think Jean Monnet banged the nail on the head here. We aren’t the same, the continent of Europe is so diverse – diverse in language, behaviour and norms. I’ve had this quote in my training slides since 2004 and I will keep it moving forward. It didn’t work out for the UK for many reasons but there was never enough focus on culture. I hope the remaining countries put more effort into celebrating difference.
So on 31 January I’ll not say my goodbyes to the EU, I’ll go for a good old Auf Wiedersehen (literally until we see each other again) and shed a tear into my Aperol Spritz (thanks, Italy).