Am I a stranger in my own home?
This is a question which I, and many other European citizens in the UK, have faced over the past year. For most who share these thoughts, it is often in response to a particular experience they've been dealing with - difficulty applying for permanent residency, for example, or a feeling of marginalisation. In my case, however, it is for an entirely different set of reasons.
Like many other Europeans here, Britain has been my home for a long time. After moving from Milan to Cork, Ireland, aged three, I finally came to settle in England's pleasant pastures in 2005. I found myself absorbing the local culture as quickly as I ended up losing my Douglas twang, and after winning a scholarship at secondary school I'm now reading Theology at Oxford University. What is clearest of all is that my upbringing has been as thoroughly British as it can be. My forma mentis is imbued with the Union Jack.
Today, I'm often asked 'what part of England' I'm from, without people ever thinking I was from overseas. I've had people express shock when they discover I'm foreign-born, because my fluent accent would seemingly suggest otherwise; I have friends who often quip that I "must be at least half-English"; I've even had acquaintances denounce all these "immigrants coming over and stealing our jobs" openly in my face, expecting my approval of course. Not only is my Britishness something I feel inside, but it is also something people automatically assume.
The referendum result of last year, however, has put things into a different perspective. The 3 million EU nationals in the UK, widely called 'migrants' in the public opinion (even though, due to freedom of movement, the more correct term would be 'citizens' abroad), suddenly became 'bargaining chips' for the Brexit process. Some, especially of the Polish community, have faced a rise in xenophobic attacks. In my cosmopolitan city of residence, Oxford, the atmosphere is largely the opposite - diversity of background, opinion and thought are largely welcome. Yet the moment one appears online, you see that these places are just a bubble within a wider context, as you face the wrath of certain people claiming that they're 'true' Brits because their ancestors have been here for millennia, while I'm not because I've been here "10 minutes". All of this, and concerns for my future, have prompted me and the rest of my family to undertake the relatively arduous process of citizenship, which even resulted in my having to take a costly test to prove I could speak basic English, despite having an A* in my GCSE language exam. Within months, my Britishness will be something on paper.
The reality is, the whole of this last year has made me concerned not so much for myself, but for the future of our nation. What had always attracted me and so many others to the UK is the true freedom that one feels upon arriving here. My home country may have been the birthplace of the Renaissance, while the rest of the continent was the cradle of the Enlightenment era, hushing in what we would now consider to be the modern age - yet, these places maintain a stifling air of traditionalism that permeates everyday life. My mother recounts how, upon visiting Brighton in the early-1980s, she can distinctly remember the ecstatic sense of 'everything-goes' - from neon-sprayed Mohawks, to tartan trousers and garish tattoos, all adorning the countless youths lining the city streets. Today, the hairstyles may have become more groomed, the colours may have toned down, but the atmosphere is still the same. British people have developed the greatest tradition of liberty in Europe, something which is not to be taken for granted. In the UK, you can be whoever you want to be. As much as I love my hometown of Milan, and all the beautiful cities on the continent, there's something so much more bourgeois and conventional.
My ultimate fear is that this will change - that, in its process of leaving the European Union, the UK will ironically end up more similar to its continental neighbours, and lose what makes it so special. I hope that the country, in having made the decision to detach itself from the continent, does not compromise its identity in order to fit a cliché mould of nationalism.
To conclude, I repeat the same question with which I began this post - am I a stranger in my own home? I ask myself not because I think I have been made to feel this way, but rather because I worry that this home of mine is looking different to how it looked when I first moved in. What answer I will be able to give largely depends on the future. This election result, where Theresa May (my parents' MP in Maidenhead, no less) lost her majority and effectively her mandate to do whatever she pleases, gives me hope that this country does not share in her myopic vision. That, perhaps, the country I truly love to call mine and to call my home is indeed the same as it's always been.