Ever since my teenage years, I have had a particular interest in the UK and its affairs. It might have, I have to truthfully admit, started with a seemingly unhealthy but actually average One Direction obsession, leading to a more passionate attitude towards learning the language, but hey, everyone makes their own way to new horizons.
I soon began to dive deeper into British culture and started appreciating it for its history, humour and all the amazing stories I grew up with that so very often were set in British lands. Those stories told in books, movies and plays, were my window to the British culture and I developed an amour and fascination for the sound and meaning of British accents. Going abroad to the UK after finishing school soon became a dream of mine, a logical step to take according to my interests. I was hoping to find a way that would enable me to tie my future career together with the British nation after getting to know them from a closer perspective.
When it became clear that many British people were not as eager to work closer together with me as I was to do with them (though I am aware that this is a very subjective and one-sided point of view…it is, however, how I felt) I started reconsidering my unswerving worship of the UK. When the actual day came around where they officially decided to leave the EU behind, my beliefs and future plans got shattered. I was surprised, to say the least. “Shocked´´ might be the more appropriate term. It was beyond me how I could have missed the underlying aversion of so many British people while feeling such a strong bond to that foreign nation.
Now, of course, after getting more into foreign politics and carrying out some research on ressentiments, the British Empire and the financial crisis of 2008, instead of Shakespeare, the Beatles and Harry Potter, I am starting to see things a little more clearly. While watching documentaries or listening to news reports it struck me that the British talked about Europe as if it was a foreign country, one you´d like to visit and with whom you wished to establish trade relations for sure, but nothing that you felt in fact to be a part of. In many cases it seemed as if they had left Europe in their minds a long time before they actively decided to leave the EU.
For a time I felt so opposed, I lost all my interest in British matters. Well, if you want nothing to do with us, I thought, fine by me, I want nothing to do with you anymore.
But after living through my anger and disappointment, I reconsidered this conclusive and fruitless approach to things. After all, it appeared to me that turning my back on the UK would primarily punish those who already suffered the greatest deal from the decision their people and government had taken – the youth, the open-minded, the forward-looking – while actual ‘leave’ voters probably wouldn’t care a fat lot whether I did or did not show any interest in their country.
Moreover, the UK now held a new appeal to me as a prime example of a nation who turns their back on supranational cooperation to return to a national approach to problem-solving instead. They are not the only European nation to consider that step by far.
By getting to the bottom of what led the British people into believing that they would be better off alone, I hoped and am still hoping to figure out what creates these feelings of distance, mistrust and exploitation towards the EU and many European countries while the idea of working together in order to being able to tackle international problems adequately strikes me as being such an obvious and indisputably good one.
When I came across the offer on the European Youth Portal while browsing the site for volunteering opportunities in the EU to spend one whole year in central London, starting in September 2020, I was sure that someone must have made a mistake. I had already given up on the opportunity to make my dream to volunteer in the UK after school become reality. The outcome of the referendum and the following years of endless unsympathetic debates in Brussels had washed away all my hopes for past plans for a UK-based start of career.
But I got disabused. Many projects had already been granted for the coming years and were allowed to take place before finally ebbing away. Without any hesitation, I sat down and began writing my application.
Arriving here in London in December 2020 against all odds after facing more obstacles than I or anyone could have ever possibly imagined, even after considering Brexit and all the difficulties coming with it did feel brilliant and most importantly it felt like the right thing to do after feeling so very aimless for a long time during lockdown.
Slowly but surely, my voluntary service gave me a schedule, an aim and a purpose again. Next to the relief of regaining some sort of structure, I remembered my primary intention to try to develop an understanding for the country’s culture and depths to the best of my ability.
I started indoors, watching the news, eating custard and reading Jane Eyre. Contrary to the worries that many of my friends and family members had expressed when I announced that I was going to leave for London in the middle of the corona pandemic, the UK introduced their reopening plans rather soon which their early investment in vaccines enabled them to do.
This eventually allowed me to get myself the latest version of the Evening Standard while strolling through Westminster and enjoying a soft serve.
My tasks and leisure activities now keep emerging. From helping elderly British people who all encountered Germany throughout their lives in one way or another to improve or simply keep alive their German language skills, to volunteering for the NHS and getting an insight into the British health care system and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, or simply watching `This Country´ while treating myself with an unhealthy amount of Ginger Nuts, everything presents different advantages. I soon noticed that if you open your eyes, you can find a country’s culture, politics and emotion in pretty much everything around you.
I found it in my local food bank fellow volunteer´s confession that she never brings up Brexit when with her brother because she cannot do so without starting a fight. I found it in the passing remark of a work mate wondering how refugees would be able to end up in such fine houses. I found it in the understanding laugh sent my way by a construction worker after buying a Colin the Caterpillar cake with some au pairs, because we understood that it was a very British thing to do. I found it in me when I began starting conversations commenting on the weather forecast and saying cheers pretty much all the time and I keep finding it literally every day in the smallest, most insignificant appearing things and situations. The more I learn, the more I understand my lack of knowledge when it comes to the depths of this nation, but maybe understanding this is the most important lesson of all.
My ESC is giving me a chance to reconcile with the British, to see behind the curtains and judge their politics as a whole instead of being limited to the observation of their foreign affairs. This seems ironic in many ways, because I only get the chance to grow a deeper understanding of the British people and to rediscover them in many ways, exploring their reasons and learning the great variety of opinions, because of a programme that they are going to no longer be a part of in a very short time of their own free will.
For this reason, I was as thrilled as I was surprised to find out that there were in fact many young people in the UK who found this paradox just as saddening as I did.
Realising that organisations like Europeers and the Young European Movement were far from giving up on European youth exchange in the UK resettled my perspective and allowed me to draw new hope.
A certain number of people have brought about a decision for numerous reasons causing numerous consequences. How many of these will prove to actually be corresponding remains to be seen. This does, however, not mean that good ideas have to be wiped out, despite there often being a huge lack of information when it comes to the EU and the opportunities it offers.
This surely is a two-ways street: You can not educate people who have made a decision deep within themselves to remain oblivious to certain facts. However, this does not give you any excuse not to do everything in your power until you reach that point. The way I see it, the EU failed to do so, not only in the UK but in various if not to say the majority of member countries. The importance of the EU is not self-explanatory. It does not have to be. There are enough valid arguments in favour of it if only you make the effort to bring them home to us.
Considering my experiences in the UK so far with all the different people I encountered, this is what I am now planning to do. It is all the more fun with inspirational people in a city as colourful and vibrant as London.
My ESC is teaching me to rediscover my love for the British after getting to know them a little better while helping me to get an understanding for the power of felt neglect and missed opportunities.
By Vera Martin