The day I have dreaded is here.
There has always been a bit of Europe in my life. For part of my childhood I grew up in North Berwick which was home to a few Italian families. Scozzese Italiani. They ran restaurants and a gelateria in town. They enriched our town and enriched Scotland. And a big part of that bit of Europe for me is learning languages. Communicating with you guys.
My aunt married an Italian man and I was used to hearing their language spoken. She seemed to be pretty fluent as she spoke to her in-laws. My mum too could manage French and Italian. They told me how the hitch-hiked around Europe, my quick-talking aunt’s Italian getting them out of all kinds of capers. And I wanted to do that too one day, even though they advised against it.
Years later I learnt French and German in school in London. We went on a German exchange trip to Nürnberg where we went to see Cristiane F. at the cinema (I still marvel at how Cristiane managed to get from the back of the hall to bang in front of the stage at the Bowie gig in Berlin). We went to school with our exchange partners as they patiently listened to our nervous attempts to speak and extolled the environmental problems with dishwashers (1981!). One day my school friend Marina and I wanted to sit in the same car on a visit to the Black Forest with our respective exchange families. Only to be cheerfully separated by the mothers who reminded us that we were there to learn German not nicht Englisch zu sprechen.
A French trip followed at sixth-form college. I didn’t stay friends with my partner, but I made friends with a group of Parisian hippies who many years later totally swamped my house for three days (I said three could crash and they decided I’d said douze 12! ?). Ah, but you did treat me to a Grateful Dead gig and I fell asleep during a drum solo!
The following year I made a resolution to learn a new language. And since I knew a wee bit through my aunt, I chose Italian. I learnt it very quickly having found a group of Tallies to practise with. I even invited myself on holiday with them. And while a group of English acquaintances would probably think that a damned cheek, you replied “Si, certo. When do you want to go?” I road-tested my French and Italian while hitch-hiking with an English girl, who wanted . But that’s another story and one not a million miles removed from my mum and aunt’s one.
The picture above is not that particular bunch of Italians, but another friendly group I met at an art exhibition. And thanks those first Tally pals, I was able to communicate.
Meanwhile, I hitched between the Netherlands and Belgium with my friend Tina, following L7 on tour. The place we were supposed to stay turned out to be a houseful of rubble, literally, so we landed on some friendly Dutch pals’ doorstep (it has to be said we hardly knew them). And you were totally nonplussed when we did, inviting ourselves to stay. I communicated in French and German while out and about. But honestly you Dutch are excellent English speakers. I only heard of one person who didn’t speak our language, and she was someone’s eighty year-old granny.
A visit to Spain followed. And I acquired some of the language pretty quickly, reactivating what I’d learnt at college. I made friends with the neighbours, Antonio, Lourdes and Garth (American). Lourdes went to Madrid for Christmas and lent me her left-hand drive car for the holidays. On the condition I picked you all up from the airport. Driving it around was certainly an adventure. Meanwhile, Antonio told me the Spanish for geese was Emilys!
In fact, there were some cracking language mistakes when I visited UK friends who’d moved to Southern Europe (Menorca, Puglia and Corfu). “Would you tell me when we get to the door at Cuitadella please, driver? You know, where the big yellow cows sail to Majorca.” “My friend did this painting and it’s inspired by a Roman man.” Though maybe the best was explaining to my friend Bartolo’s elderly mother (the lady above) that I was feeling “very horny to be back in Italy” (“Eh Emsk, emozionale non eccitata!”).
Returning to London after eighteen months in Japan, I taught English at business language schools and made lifelong friends at our Stratford-on-avon branch: English retainers – and yes, a couple of leavers – plus Europeans who’ve settled. And met all manner of students, professional people who’d come to improve their language skills for the workplace. It was hilarious when you French, Germans and Czech lot laughed at us for teaching indirect and diplomatic English phrases: Why do you waste so many words getting to the point, you’d ask. Though the Japanese would get it immediately. ?
And all the while I was living in London. Going to squat parties with Anglo-European friend groups. Babysitting for French pals. Having daily coffees at the same French friends’ cafe which was staffed by Polish girls (with whom I spoke Italian until their English blossomed). Meeting other TEFL teachers who’d experienced the highs and lows – and oh, the many lows! – of teaching the English language throughout the EU. More recently I’ve met Anglo-Danes. And like many others I have developed an enjoyment of Scandi noir drama – can you Norwegians, Swedes and Danes really all understand each other? And why do Brits speak so few foreign languages? Seriously, why??
But at least some family members are managing some Spanish since they’ve settled near Malaga. I hope they find it easy to stay there. Because throughout our time in the EU, travelling around has been made easier by free movement. I plus many others have enjoyed reaching out, learning about your cultures as we enjoy your cities and beaches, as we tuck into your food, guzzle your coffee and splutter your languages. Or perchance settling in your countries as we start businesses, falling in love with you and starting families.
I was only nine when there was a referendum on staying in Europe and there was a decisive 65% victory to remain. Clearly things had gone awry by the time it got to 2016. But I like to think that the Common Market as it once was known was one solution to the life-destroying wars and genocide we in Europe have all gone through. And not just in the twentieth century. A chance to move forward.
I loved being part of Europe. Yes, I know we still are geographically. But despite its shortcomings, remaining part of the EU was always the better option for me. I don’t blame leave voters since many had genuine reasons for their vote. But I will never ever understand this Make Britain Great Again business. I think we were getting pretty great, even though that’s not what the great actually refers to in Great Britain. And I can’t but still feel angry at the position you’ve been put in, much of it hostile. Not to mention UK friends around the EU.
So although I must accept that the UK out, I will continue to enjoy Europe. I’ll visit old and new places, learn your languages, watch subtitled films and slurp Italian coffee – keep it coming’! ☕️ And make you feel welcome here on our island, your home too if you choose it, and learn from you.
I want to hear you speak your languages (or ours) wherever and whenever you wish and feel safe to do so. I’ll give you directions to the shops and I’ll help you find the right train platform.
And you can expect wee nosey me to join in if I can follow any of what you’re saying on a noisy night bus!
Thank you Europe. ?? ? ??
PS: I gained a number of half-European siblings in the 70s and 80s. Since Cyprus joined the EU, they’ve been citizens of Europe too. I’m also fortunate to have had Irish grandparents.