When I studied French at Queens University Belfast, we read as many people did Albert Camus ‘l’étranger’. The definition of ‘étranger’ in Collins French Dictionary is : ‘foreign, alien, strange, irrelevant’. It has been a month now since Brexit decision and as someone who has freely lived and worked around Europe and now has been running a small business in NI for last year , this is my take on Brexit.
My granny had a tapestry on her wall with a passage from the Bible that read ‘Never Forget to Entertain Strangers for Some have Entertained Angels unaware’ (Hebrews 13:12) and she lived her life by that proverb. I remember as a small child her giving cash to strangers in shops if they were short (although she had little herself) and of her walking with gifts to neighbours if they unwell (she never learnt to drive). What I didn’t witness but know to be true is that at the end of World War II she also welcomed a German Prisoner of War called Hans to help work on her farm (there was a Prisoner of War camp run by Allies close to her in Waringfield, Moira waringfield military hospital).
What is point of my story? Well on 24th June 2016 when Brexit decision was made, I was with friends from Luxembourg where I spent 9yrs of my adult life working. I was able to work there because 1) I belonged to a country that was a member of European Union 2) I had freedom to study what I wanted and where I wanted and chose modern languages 3) I had the travelling bug from my father who in 1950’s (as 1000’s other did from Northern Ireland) went to work in Canada. As I had spent almost half of my adult life living in a country that announces even when you arrive at the airport that you are in ‘Capital de l’Europe’ , I was devastated when I heard the Brexit decision.
Europe to me is about mingling of languages, cultures and ideas and my lasting impression of Luxembourg will always be of standing in the middle of a field in lush green landscape listening to my Irish and Canadian friends who run a non profit organisation called BeeTogether explaining to a Portugese lady married to a Welsh man, to Swedes, and a French/ English couple about their hive of bees and how it is diversification that keeps bees thriving. For me it that diversification that personifies Europe yet now here we are in Northern Ireland in a situation where already very excluded geographically from rest of Europe, we are a risk of further insularising ourselves.
I had a very interesting conversation with a Canadian at Digital DNA conference in Belfast back in May about the immigration policy Canadian government has. He recalled that back in the day when Canada first opened its doors that the Irish and the Norwegian (he was of Norwegian ancestry) were considered lower than low (mostly because of their fondness of alcohol and brawling). I’m glad that when my father went to Toronto he didn’t have that experience and in all the places I’ve travelled and worked in around the world that I’ve always been treated with respect. I hope in Northern Ireland, we continue as my granny did 60 yrs ago to ‘entertain strangers’ who have come to know Northern Ireland as their home and not taut them or terrorise them no matter what the uncertainity of Brexit brings. As the ominous closing words of video of BBC reporter said back in 1960 in his report about Waringfield -let’s hope we don’t have to build another Prisoner of War Camp -nor do we have live life with no regards to circumstances as Camus’ protagonist did.