“I was in such a panic earlier!”
My new friend meets me in a pub just off from Nottingham’s Old Market Square, where a large ferris wheel lights up the cold February night. She appears to have a more nervous energy about her than normal, and I only know half the story from our conversation on Twitter the previous day.
“My boyfriend was reading something in the Guardian“, she explains, “that the UK is starting to refuse residency applications, and I don’t even have mine in yet! I was told that whatever happened, we’d still have two years until I needed to apply. If they’re already refusing Europeans, then what’s going to happen?”
My friend, half-Venezuelan, half-Spanish, was the first of my friends who were genuinely worried about their future in the UK because of Brexit. Others – mostly Irish people – had a less pressured reaction to it; Brexit was a cringeworthy moment that people tried to ignore, like a bad smell in a crowded room. The attitude of any Irish friends living in Britain was that they wanted to eventually leave the UK to return home, but that Brexit had become a reason to leave sooner rather than later. One Italian friend echoed the Irish sentiments, although his recent love affair with Dublin meant that he would consider moving back with the rest of us, while another Italian friend felt like she made a mistake by moving to England in the first place. It was a big talking point for all of us, and yet, we almost all had the same reaction; time to go.
At an event at work, I got chatting to a German woman, working as a teacher in Nottingham. Admitting that she wasn’t great at Irish accents, she asked whether I was from Northern Ireland or the Republic. Once I mentioned Dublin, her face changed to that of concern;
“Oh, so will Brexit affect you too, then?”
I smiled, wondering if or when the topic would come up. I told her that by the time Brexit actually happened, my plan was that I’d no longer be in the UK, and that I’d most likely be back in Ireland. Her expression changed yet again, only this time, it was as if she was a little girl, left alone in the playground.
“You’re lucky that you can go so easily; I have a son. He was born here in England, so I don’t feel like I can move back to Germany. My life has been here for years.”
We both agreed that the vote for Brexit – small as the winning margin was – felt like a middle finger to other Europeans. It made us both feel less welcome here in the UK. Less ‘at home’. Less secure. For me, feeling like a temporary resident is unnerving, but it suits my intentions. For the teacher, who recalled being called ‘Miss Nazi’ by some of her more troublesome pupils shortly after the Brexit result, feeling like an unwelcome guest in a country you’ve put down roots – well, I couldn’t imagine what that felt like.
She shortly snapped out of her lonely look, as a more curious expression revealed itself.
“What is Ireland like these days? I’ve never really thought of it, because I think it’s so remote and on the edge of Europe…”
Ever the amateur ambassador for Ireland, I explain how the European offices for Google, Facebook, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and many others, have made Dublin a vibrant, multi-cultural, and energised European capital. I mention the considerable Polish and Brazilian communities, a fact which surprises her a lot. It reminded me of that classic line we were thought in history class in primary school, the motto once used in 1914: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. The motto may well ring true once again, I thought, as European professionals want to work in an English-speaking country, yet no longer feel secure in the UK. Ireland may become a potential alternative to consider, as it seemed to be for my new German friend.
The following morning, an English colleague asked me if I considered Nottingham “home” by now, having lived here for 15 months. I hesitated at the question; not because I couldn’t say ‘no’, but because it’s more likely to be “home* (Terms & Conditions apply)”. My colleague noticed my hesitation, and suggested that it felt “like a home from home”. That I could get on board with; the apartment is a little bit of home, from the photos of Ireland on the walls to the ‘Conas atá tú?‘ fridge magnet. I had my favourite places to hang out in the city, from coffee houses to hidden-gem bars. I had friends.
And yet, even despite conflicting reports of Irish immigrants’ status in Britain post-Brexit, the security a home should provide can no longer be found here in England.