I was in my mother’s womb on my first trip to Europe as my parents honeymooned in Paris in the summer of 1978. The UK had joined the European Community five years earlier celebrating with a fanfare of cultural events and, of course, football.
My mother often said she should have been French (usually when consuming copious glasses of red wine and eating French cheeses) much preferring their laidback lifestyle, their art and café culture…all such a contrast to uptight British ways.
When I was growing up, we would occasionally break from our annual summer holiday tradition of alternating Devon or Cornwall to get on a ferry to Brittany or Normandy, or best of all the Eurostar to Paris which was as far as holidaying ‘abroad’ went (my mother hated flying) but just crossing the channel immediately felt like we’d arrived in a far more exciting destination whenever we set foot on the continent.
As a teenager, I went on a school trip to Belgium and experienced the deep sorrow of the World War I memorials and vast battlefields at Ypres. It represented a shared history of what our families had fought for, sacrificed or lived through together as friends and allies…and all long before the ‘EU’ even existed.
As an adult, I got a much fuller view of Europe when I went inter-railing with a group of friends in our first year summer break. A month spent speed dating major cities in a circular route from Nice, Venice, Florence, Rome down to Athens, Istanbul and then back up and onto Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam. I loved them all. It was so liberating to freely travel in this way with just a trusty burgundy passport in our back pockets as the gateway to an abundance of sights and history.
It was also emotional, aged 19, my first real experience of travelling around without my family. Being with the same people 24/7 (no space from myself included) was intense and there were no mobile phones back then to distract or pacify. But taking in all those sights of Europe truly opened my eyes to the wonders of the world on our doorstep and over the years I’ve been back many more times, now with my own kids in tow.
I’ve never questioned being an EU citizen, in the same way I’ve never questioned other key facts of adult life like paying taxes or having a TV licence, things you just do because the collective benefit is so much greater than the individual elements, so I’m finding this break up tough.
In 2016, the UK marginally voted to go our own way, to Brexit and then we spent an inordinately long time going about it. I wish we hadn’t. As well as the bumpy road we’ve been told to expect in 2021, I think there will be lonely days ahead because although we’ve been assured the split is ‘amicable’ it is a split nonetheless — we’re no longer in the club after 47 years of membership and belonging.
Geographically of course nothing changes from 1 January, Europe the continent is exactly where it always was, but culturally and emotionally everything does.
Song credit: Fleetwood Mac.