We emigrated to my mother’s birthplace in Europe in 1963. Even though the UK would forever remain close to our hearts, my parents were adamant that we start afresh and integrate as best we could into our new local community. Contacts with local expats were few and far between because I guess my Mother and Father didn’t relish the prospect of moving back to family and friends in England and admitting that turning our backs on Britain had all been a huge mistake. I was thrown in at the deep end but unsurprisingly at the age of 7, managed to pick up French in the space of 3 months. For ten years, we returned to the UK twice a year for Christmas and summer holidays and spoke English at home. This allowed me to flatter, deceive and pretend I was totally bilingual when in fact my mother tongue had shifted in no time from English to French. I think, write and swear in both languages but the process is that split second faster in French.
Culture-wise things are more complex. My Father had had to fend for himself from a very early age when he was shunted off to boarding school in the mid-1920’s and I’m not sure he ever had any sort of home to go back to at the week-ends or during the holidays. This may explain why he was so good at games and would probably have played Rugby Union for Scotland but for the war. He spent 6 years’ of his life in an Oflag prison camp and only got a decent job in his mid thirties. He had a very conservative outlook on life and schooled me in the subtleties of sticky wickets and rugby union, brown suits and polished shoes and, when in London, not living on the wrong side of the river. He thought one should stay clear of politics and religion and – most important of all – never trust the French! Growing up in Europe in the sixties and seventies, I got to grips with this deep ambivalence Europeans have towards the British who – like the French I suppose – could not be trusted (pace de Gaulle) and there was this kind of schadenfreude in European circles (certainly at my school) brought on by Britain’s demise overseas. The UK finally joined the European club in 1973 because their political and commercial position in world affairs required it to do so but, nevertheless, it was seen as win-win for the Community at large.
I was close to 18 and “choosing” a nationality was not at that time of paramount importance. Getting back to “culture”, I felt no split allegiances. George Best, Pink Floyd and the Welsh rugby team. How could I not feel a true citizen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Except that living in the UK has never been an option: no one there cared I spoke languages, indeed this sparked some sort of distrust: how could I be one of them? Whereas remaining British while living in Europe, made a lot of sense and was an asset in all kinds of circles: we had this self-deprecating sense of humour and there was still huge admiration, close to 30 years after the end of the war, of the manner in which Britain had stood alone. So this has been my cultural con trick, persuading my fellow Europeans that I’m not one of them while knowing all the time that even though Nelson, Churchill and Rule Britannia rock, deep down, I cannot buy into England’s “green and pleasant land”.
This has not stopped me from renewing my British passport 5 times and I never fail to tell my friends and family that they should read the fine print where the Foreign Secretary « … requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance etc … » and compare with my adopted country’s cheap stipulations that « the State will not bear repatriation costs of its citizens venturing abroad ». But all things must pass and having had the good fortune to travel abroad, I have noticed in the past 10 years that there is now more (expensive) hassle for those of us travelling on a British passport. I paid eleven times my wife’s visa fee when we visited India, elsewhere contrary to my wife and friends I was not allowed to travel, and further afield the questionnaires I had to answer were much more complicated. So well before Brexit, I somewhat reluctantly decided it was time to do the decent thing and apply for my host country’s citizenship, which was granted in due course. Would I have to write some sort of motivation letter I enquired from the Civil Servant, show you that I speak 2 of the 3 official languages, that I have come to terms with your extraordinarily complicated history and political structure, that I can sing your – I mean our – National Anthem? The guy looked up and told me I’d paid my (social security and fiscal) dues and, given our European dimension, while what I was talking about was not irrelevant it was certainly not paramount.
So there we are 2 nationalities and 2 cultures. Irrespective of passports, this duality has been a fact of life for quite a lot of us in the past 70 years. An article I read in the Guardian this morning fuelled my liberal desire to start ranting about Brexit, blue passports and the like but I now realize that this would have been rather futile. After all, this is the season of Goodwill and everyone’s entitled to an opinion. More importantly, tomorrow is Christmas Eve and it’s time to go and get some presents for my Grandchildren! Merry Christmas to all of you!