METERutant-Covid, the pre-Brexit Christmas seems like a cruel but fitting end to a year that has seen a reckoning with mortality and extreme limitations on travel. This year has forced many of the EU countries that live in Britain to consider what it means to “belong”. After news of the border closures aired over the weekend, my friend Rob was considering returning to Ireland for Christmas via Northern Ireland, then reconsidered. Another friend had returned from Berlin to quarantine before seeing her father, who had been ill last year. After the announcement of level 4, he booked his flights back to Berlin and left six hours later without seeing his dad.
Of course, some fled to their home countries during the early stages of the pandemic, or had already left for Christmas, or were quick to get ahead of the mutant virus. But for those of us who are staying, and are now receiving messages of concern and pity from our friends and family in Europe, there remains a strong determination to redouble our commitment to the place we have chosen as home in the UK: in my London case.
Britain’s recent pandemic months have inspired an unexpected sense of loyalty to the place and the people that formed the backdrop to a painful year. A friend, Nik, managed to get to Vienna before the ban on flights to the UK, but with a return booked for December 27. “I surprised myself, as a continental European,” he says. “I am convinced that I had to be back in the UK before the real fallout from Brexit began. This is where my greatest sense of solidarity lies: with real people, whatever they voted for, about to get screwed up in a momentous way. I’m one of them. “But border closures suddenly make the prospect of going back very difficult.
It seemed that many had gotten used to the bad news, but this past weekend, with updates on a new variant of Covid-19, increased blockades and closed borders, offered an opportunity to show that we are still capable of being surprised and depressed by headlines. I recently read an article proclaiming a new golden age of horror movies: he described a “slow horror” that induces “a hallucinatory, trance-like state”, with “human beings as a single component in the larger world, and not even the most important”. This seemed like a fitting summary of these weeks and months of rule playing with Britain becoming an Isle of Plague and Kent becoming a urine soaked, endless parking. Becoming an international pariah in a symbolic moment of “togetherness” feels like a dress rehearsal of terror for the realities of Brexit.
The default way of illustrating the personal repercussions of both the coronavirus and Brexit for Europeans living in Britain, and vice versa, has been to invoke stories of nuclear families separated by respective sets of circumstances. But there are also the stories of those of us without families whose sense of belonging in Britain has intensified during the period of the pandemic, culminating in this restricted Christmas. The usual rituals and preparations to go home (to Rome, in my case) have been replaced by clumsy attempts to play family with our friends and stay away from vulnerable people. “Distance is careful”, as a friend tells me.
I am spending Christmas in London for the first time, and with the so-called “family of your choice”. London felt like home as soon as I moved here, three years ago, but last year forced me to re-evaluate what I value about the city. I like being on a train at rush hour, no matter how uncomfortable it is; I look at every ad on the escalators of the subway; I miss the breadth and speed of a fast-moving crowd; I hate to see the Parasite poster still outside closed cinemas; I miss talking late at night with a potentially tedious stranger I’ll never meet again; I don’t like how dark the city is when businesses are closed. Being here for Christmas in such dire circumstances feels like an acknowledgment, a gesture of solidarity to the place that did not allow himself to be himself for most of the year, to the place where he was and am still afraid, and to the community from which I receive comfort. It has forced me to have a stronger bond with London and with the people in my life here.
Almost a year of this virus and its mutations has influenced the sense of belonging that many of us feel towards London and the United Kingdom. What happens to Brexit on January 1 will not change that. In part, this is because the real character of a place does not exist in top-down ideas of citizenship – or commerce – but on the margins of society, where exile and rejection allow perspective, critical distance, and support. . Between Europeans and British, the margins are likely to become an overcrowded space in the new year.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.