A stateless state of mind

It has been four years since my initial testimony that back then started as a rather random collection of anxious thoughts coursing through my mind. Four mentally very taxing years on, I still clearly see 2016 as a major watershed moment for my mental map of key core-value concepts like “belonging”, “identity”, “home” and “future”.

In 2016 I couldn’t believe the news – Brexit in June, Trump in November. Surely, people wouldn’t do this to themselves, especially if those voting for each of these phenomena were bound to lose out after they vague ideas they were meant to represent, materialised. But it only made me realise my world view bubble, biases and presence of multi-level inequalities driving these choices. I am not a sociologist, so I will stop my amateur analyses here and instead focus on my reflections and decision trees since that infamous 23rd of June 2016 vote.

Back then I have been happily living in Northern Ireland with my family; we moved house in late 2015, were expecting a baby girl in 2016 and haven’t considered moving from Ireland/NI/UK. Irish weather was (is) crap but despite all its complex past and some, more or less annoying oddities of everyday life, NI and its people were class, so they were 😉 One prescient thing I did at around that time was my naturalisation which at that point was primarily a step “to belong more” – to vote in general election and maybe to have an argument with my ignoramus MP from the DUP. Brexit seemed like a remote idea with apparently no viable path of it happening.

And then it came. Making it blindingly obvious from Day 1 that NI and the Republic of Ireland will become the bone of contention in post-referendum wrangling. As we learned in all possible permutations, it was and still is fundamentally impossible to square the circle of invisible border, customs, EU freedoms and contiguity of the UK. Add to this multi-faceted issues of post-conflict NI with several sectarian divides cutting across identities, lives, schools, names, pronunciations on top of the Brexit vote.

Thinking back to those few shell-shocked days in June 2016, I reckon I made a decision to leave the island of Ireland. However, I don’t think I dared to verbalise it to myself for quite some time afterward. The thought of it filled me and my partner with dread. A new house, our son starting school in September, his sister joining us in August – how on earth can we even entertain an idea of moving anywhere, not to mention leaving Ireland?

But eventually leave we did. Something broke in me in the runup to and after the Brexit referendum. I never hid the fact I couldn’t comprehend the motivation of the leave voters. Some of it is undeniably some derivative of my bubble and its views – almost proverbially middle-class, educated, multilingual, appreciative of the European project. There is no denying that I benefitted from the EU and the freedoms it offered. The idea of the UK leaving the EU but also the idea of havoc it would unleash on the NI/ROI border with all kinds of conflict flaring up was and still is unbearable for me. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but the risk may be non-zero.

What became exhausting from then on were the small, mundane daily mendacities of post-referendum UK that made me feel first annoyed, then sad and eventually tired and finally indifferent. Stuff across the entire spectrum of messages – the mainline political posturing of “the easiest deal in the world”, the gloating of DUP – the major party of NI Protestants/Unionists/Loyalists about how they showed two fingers to the EU, and by extension, to the ROI and the Irish. I have always loathed the DUP – in my view they share disproportionately large portion of blame of how badly the Brexit negotiations went in the end. DUP’s insular, narrow-minded and thinly-veiled sectarian view of the world may backfire badly on NI at some point. DUP’s short-sighted view aimed at obstructing solutions that would have brought NI more closely to ROI and the EU, in some respects may result in DUP’s worst nightmare materialised, i.e. a lost referendum on Irish unity at some point in the future probably sooner than they thought. As an anecdote I like to say that my DUP MP couldn’t be bothered to reply to me in coherent English when in 2015 I mailed him asking what provisions there will be for EU nationals in the event of Brexit happening. Not surprisingly, his non-reply didn’t surprise me and he is on record rambling on about “getting the ethnics out of NI”.

Apart from true to the form DUP cretin, there suddenly was an uptick of those passive-aggressive questions many non-British friends started to hear about “going back home” but “we don’t mean you, you are OK to stay”, all those sudden experts on all things EU who would tell me “look at the Swiss, look how well the do outside the EU”. I grew tired of all kinds of ignoramuses who felt that their views were suddenly vindicated and who would triumphantly tell me “GATT”, to which I was tempted to add “ACA” (or some other random DNA code string). This stuff wears one down. Listening daily to Today and PM programmes about Brexit and the parade of self-important buffoons overflowing with their Oxbridge P.P.E.-imbued ignorance fuelled by disregard of cold data and Realpolitik made me worried, anxious and furious.

Now, I have never heard any of the stuff we keep reading in other testimonies – NI folk were and are great to me and have always made me feel welcome in Norn Iron. My perhaps cynical take on this was that each community hated the other half much more than some rather insignificant numbers of immigrants in NI.

At some point of this protracted post-referendum gloom a friend called and casually asked if I’d consider going back to Germany where I did my PhD to work there again. Another friend dropped an email about this or that rather interesting idea near Cologne or Freiburg. But Helen was still a small baby, the house was still new-ish, the idea of moving still filled me with dread. I was telling myself “ack, surely the UK will find a way to make a deal with the EU, NI may get some special status to become Emerald Hong Kong (with crap weather, though) and everyone will be OK. NI peace process will be untouched, former paramilitary bandits, or “community activists” as they are now known as, will peter out into well-deserved oblivion. But no, DUP had a hissy fit and eventually brought down otherwise inept May and Johnson’s reign was about to begin. This was the last straw for me and my family. We started looking actively at exit strategy,

I spoke with a friend, one thing led to another and I was offered a job in Germany. Some wave function collapse happened and that was it – we were leaving.

It felt bittersweet. On one hand I was able to put money where my mouth was after complaining for 4 years how mad a decision that vote was. But I also felt sad, frustrated, worried and overwhelmed at the thought of relocating 15 years’ worth of life to a new place, new/old language, new job, partner’s new job, new school/pre-school for kids. Still, Germany is one of the last “normal” places in Europe – lead by an unfazed quantum chemist, at the core of the EU with decent projection of staying solidly boring and boringly solid. Yes, there are challenges, there is AfD and there are issues but none so fundamental like tearing up EU membership and possibly risking stability and peace in Europe.

Anyway, things were prepared, agreed, signed and in January 2020 I left for Germany. The plan was for me to shuttle back and forth for a few months and for my family to join me in June once our son finished his school year in NI. We thought we’d sell the house in the spring, pack up towards June and move to Hessen to enrol kids in some summer language school to set them up for September Einschulung – German school year kick-off.

Covid had forced an adjustment of all of this but a long story short, we had to push all plans back by a couple of months. This had some impact on kids’ school and preschool, but since then we have sorted out most of these issues.

From August all four of us are in Germany with most of our 37 cubic metres of stuff now being unpacked in a longer-term place we moved to a couple of weeks ago. All of this wasn’t easy, and I fully understand that such process will not be available to many people. Some of them may not be in a position to leave due to care commitments or language or kids at day-care/school/uni or nature of their job or one of many other equally valid reasons. Moreover, such total household move isn’t exactly cheap and that is another major hurdle to overcome. 

Grass certainly isn’t greener on the other side, but it feels good and stable. There is the bureaucracy, Stempel muss sein (often trivial documents need an official stamp 😉), there are different mindsets, our German is nowhere near as good as our English, kids had to start in new places with new language and friends around them. On the flipside, we can drive to places, we will eventually be able to travel to our parents in Poland more easily, we don’t have to take a flight every single time. Equally, I miss many things from Ireland/NI/UK. Some of them are intangibles like accents, phrases, self-deprecating jokes. I will even probably miss Irish weather at some point. And a decent Ulster fry isn’t too bad for hangover, either. I will miss the UK and I wish it well. I spent great 15 years there, I am a part of it, NI is a part of me for the rest of my life.  

All these recent changes and challenges made me feel tired but also in some sense stateless. Not legally but mentally – my Old Country – Poland is going through some unfathomable transformation into “a democrature” hand in hand with Orban’s Hungary – two illiberal democracies within the EU; my New Country – UK has been in Brexit dans macabre for the best part of 5 years creating infamous hostile environment for so many.

Theresa May once said, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” I still think fundamentally she was wrong, but her line touched something deeper that has been resonating with me ever since as an ominous memento.  

Dr. Marcin Barszczewski, Polish, lived in Northern Ireland for 15+ years, moved to Germany in 2020

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