Migrations An Immigrant Londoner in Brexit Limbo
I wasn’t born here. But I have lived here for fourteen years, and London has made me what I am.
The “Life in the UK” citizenship test will quiz you on the monarchy and the national flowers, but I know how to spot the real deal: Bring up the Notting Hill Carnival, the Marathon, or the New Year’s Eve fireworks, and a genuine Londoner will immediately start talking about how to avoid getting caught up in the crowds.
I wasn’t born here, but I have lived here for fourteen years and London has made me what I am. I was twenty-three when I came to the Big Smoke, thoroughly unprepared. I grew up in a tiny village in Norway, where I was always hankering for the big city, the pinnacle of what I imagined life had to offer. I found London thoroughly exhausting at first; I’d return home every day and collapse on my sofa as if I’d run a marathon. Everything was so big, so busy, and so demanding.
Now I feel great affection for this city, with its two thousand years of history and the many and varied people who live here. After all this time, it’s not the grandiose monuments that get me—it’s those moments when I feel I understand this city a little better; when I find an inner-city garden few people know about, or grab a late-night steamed bun in Chinatown; when I peel back a layer of the onion and feel, with a little more certainty, that I belong here. For a country girl like me, this is still the stuff of big city dreams.
I know my way around central London without a map as well as anyone I’ve ever met, including many people who were born here. Is that enough, I wonder, to call myself a true Londoner? I’ve spent my whole adult life here in this city that constantly sharpens me and charms me, and constantly pushes me to be more. People ask me questions about where I’m from as if it’s meaningful and, depending on the day, I agree or disagree with the assumption. After a while, doesn’t where you are now matter more than where you came from?
In two years I’ll reach my doubling point, when I’ll have spent as many years in Britain as I did in the place where I grew up. I am one of the luckiest immigrants: I pass for English on the streets of London, and as a Western European I’m in that privileged category of people who get to call themselves “expats.” I arrived here as a student and stayed under the European Union’s rules of free movement, which meant I could work, pay taxes, and use the National Health Service without filling out a single immigration form. But as lucky as I am, I’m not unusual. My experience is universal among Europeans thanks to a deal made before I was born—to pool our resources and fuse our fate as a great, borderless family.
And then, on the twenty-third of June last year, everything changed. A slim majority voted for Britain to leave the EU and with that, the guarantees I’d staked my life on disappeared. Over three million Europeans in the UK and over one million Britons in Europe were thrown into Limbo overnight.
For eighteen months, we’ve been pawns in the Brexit negotiation talks. Reading the daily headlines from Brussels has been like watching a horror show unfold. It’s increasingly clear that no one knows what Brexit really means. We finally have some vague but official assurances that European immigrants are “valued,” whatever that means, and that those of us who fulfill the requirements will be allowed to stay. But final resolution is years out, and cynicism runs deep.
The practical consequences are serious enough, but it’s the emotional factor that’s sent me reeling. The place where I thought I belonged isn’t the open, generous country I thought it was. On the morning after the Brexit vote, dumbstruck by the news, I opened my door to a man delivering my groceries who wished me a “very good morning!” I wondered how he could possibly be so cheerful, until it hit me: He was probably happy about the news. After I closed the door, I sank to the floor beside the sagging grocery bags and sobbed.
I never saw this coming—that’s how privileged my immigrant experience has been. For many Brexit supporters, this was a protest vote: against cultural liberalism, against lack of investment in the National Health Service, against eight years of government-imposed austerity that’s made life harder for many. None of these problems have anything to do with the EU. In the end, it was anti-immigration sentiment that won it.
It’s of some comfort to know that the capital voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. After the vote, Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a campaign to a shellshocked city, declaring that “London is open,” and this has indeed been my experience here as a privileged Western European immigrant. But the assurance that there’s “no them, only us” felt limp as I read about Eastern European kids being told on the playground that they would have to go home.
I still can’t help but think of myself as a person who belongs to London, and to a country that’s threatened to throw me out. Before Brexit, I’d started thinking about maybe taking British citizenship as a commitment to this place that took me in. Now that cumbersome and expensive process, a potential solution to a problem, is something I’d be doing under duress. I’ve also considered leaving; I’ve thought long and hard about where I might go. But I keep returning to the fact that don’t want to leave—even though Britain can feel like a lonely little island now, with the Brexiters twitching at the curtains in fear of the changing world.
I was walking past Borough Market in South London the other day when I noticed that a favorite old breakfast caff had closed down. I knew this fact was of no interest to my companion, but I couldn’t help but mention it anyway. When you’ve been around long enough to see a place change around you, it can feel like an anchor in the timeline of your life. I felt an undeniable pull to explain that I was here before and it was different—and now I’m here again and I’m different, too.
London is the site of almost every single meaningful thing that’s ever happened to me. Thousands of my memories are stored throughout this city, creating a personal emotional map atop the physical one: Hoxton Square, where I fell in love on a first date; the pubs where friends and I would drink at seven a.m. after a night shift; that stretch of the Regent’s Canal where I walked home on so many Saturday mornings; the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line. Taken together, these experiences become a life. I got my first proper job in London. I broke up with the first person I loved in London. I learned to ride a bike in London city traffic. I spent a year being depressed in London. I met my best mate in London. I got married and divorced in London. I quit my job to go freelance in London. I met my partner in London, in a shitty pub in Shoreditch that we promised we’d never go back to.
After all these years, my favorite thing about London is crossing the River Thames on foot. Last time it was drizzling, one of those magical late-summer rain showers that never seems to get you damp. The sky and the water were grey, as was the architecture, the monotone broken up only by the bright red buses shooting across Waterloo Bridge. After all this time, London is still my constant, familiar and beautiful in its contradictions.
My love for this home of mine is hard-won, never more challenging than it’s been in the eighteen months since Brexit. To me, the place may never feel the same again. But in its best moments, like when I’m standing on a bridge in the rain, London seems to open up and mellow. And with it, for a moment, so do I.