I remember the day we first met. I arrived eight hours late for our date at Liverpool Street station. My ferry from Bremerhaven to Harwich had been delayed, bad weather dragging out a cold and sea-sickening passage. It was love at first sight when I finally got off the train and we took in the sights along the Thames, passing Tower Bridge and many others on our way to the other end of town.
You allowed me to be myself and made me feel welcome, valued and appreciated. I always envied your healthy dose of national pride and wondered what it might feel like to be British while I carried the unshakable burden of being born into cold-war Germany. The first years had their challenges, grandparents refused to talk to me and some pub visits were peppered with outright hostility. Even years later a friend’s dad would insist on watching war movies every time I came to visit. But you showed me that these were exceptions rather than the rule as you gladly received people from all backgrounds, nations and religions into your home, happily sampling their music, art and food.
My family tried to lure me back to Germany, but no amount of care packages could tempt me. Parcels still had to be declared at customs in those days and my grandmother cunningly marked her meaty gifts as books — she’d made it her mission to convert me back from England and from vegetarianism. I was very popular with your friends who fought over salamis and jars of liver sausage… I missed my healthy black bread and would fill my suitcase with food in either direction. It was exciting to introduce English delicacies to my German friends and in return stock up on everyday items I couldn’t find in your shops. My parents would load the boot of their car with cases of booze to prove that there’s more to German wine than Liebfraumilch. I made it my mission to try every single flavour of crisps and sample the many different types of cookies. I like the idea that there is only one factory in the world that makes Bourbon biscuits and rejoiced when this recently reopened after being closed by the floods last year. It is one of the few flavours left that you can only find in Britain while most supermarkets now stock the same brands and products wherever you are in the world.
I have never been homesick for Germany and instead find myself feeling nostalgic looking at old pictures of a London I never knew, wondering who lived in my flat before me, retracing the steps of the famous and the unknown up and down Portobello Road, marvelling at photos of Notting Dale before the Westway cut through it in the last wave of mass regeneration, and campaigning against the more extreme forms of social cleansing in the current.
Friends are surprised at how much I have become part of you and at my knowledge of tube maps and short cuts across town. Perhaps I should have become a cab driver. Instead, I worked my way through a succession of random jobs that barely paid the rent. I was glad to choose being hungry and happy and loved the freedom of choice, chances of a job on the strength of my abilities and personality without the need for certificates and diplomas. I felt liberated from the rules and regulations that seemed to dominate life in Germany — I was fined for cycling without lights on a pavement late at night on one of my early home visits, just weeks before being stopped by a London copper who was concerned for my wellbeing when he saw me wobbling back even later and under the obvious influence of something or other. No fine.
Eventually I found a proper job and our relationship became more solid. My life made sense, I worked for a German company and advised British clients on the best strategies for entering the German market. There was great reluctance as the EU expanded but soon you became the heart not just of European but of global trade, at least in the world of advertising. A lot of EU headquarters were set up in and around you and the budgets rocketed. Burberry and Barbour morphed from quaint British raincoat manufacturers into global lifestyle brands, Blackberry was first introduced by a small PR agency in Putney, and BBH sold Audi back to the Germans with “Vorsprung durch Technik”. While my cousin struggled to find employment in Barcelona — Spain had only recently joined the EU and would only employ foreign citizens if no Spaniard was able to do the job — entitlement to my particular job was only very occasionally challenged, usually over a pint.
For many years I tried to hide my accent as well as I could, no longer slipping up on that VW lisp and almost perfecting my TH, until I realised that it is part of who I am and people understand me perfectly well as it is — still love it when my accent is mistaken for Irish though, it’s the best compliment to be taken for a native speaker (even if it only ever happens inebriated in the back of a cab). Still, sometimes it would just be nice to have a conversation starting with a different question to “So, where are you from?” I am a master speller of names even more weird and wonderful than mine, having answered phones and handled guest lists for anyone from estate agents to underground bars.
I never wanted to get married as I hold the belief that relationships are stronger and more honest if they are based on positive choice rather than contracts. We did move in together though and I gave in to peer pressure to buy rather than rent, opted out of SERPS (State Earnings Related Pension Scheme) and was mis-sold an endowment policy like so many others. Not sure if my NI contributions would count for anything if you kicked me out now…
But that’s where we seem to be heading. As the effects of neo-liberalism and years of austerity became more extreme a sense of resentment crept into our relationship. Somewhere along the line you’ve stopped rebuking the racist, xenophobic and antisemitic comments and started following a modern-day pied piper, and overnight our previously diverse and multicultural home has been divided. We still live under one roof but I no longer feel I belong. Friends have tried to console me, not realising that their use of ‘we’ while addressing me in the second-person singular ‘you’ hurts in its sheer divisiveness. Overnight I have become one of the “… some of my best friends are European” and have become self-conscious about referring to myself as part of the ‘we’.
Yesterday I was shocked and tearful, today I woke up with that sense of sadness and anxiety which kept me awake most of last night. Everything around me looks the same, but nothing will ever be the same. After more than thirty happy years my heart is broken. Still, my love for you remains strong and our story continues…