The first time I came to Britain I was 15. I came on a three week student exchange to Ramsgate in 1981. What I took back with me was the memory of rows of identical Victorian terraced houses with differently coloured doors, Royal Wedding paraphernalia, a visit to London, cheese-and-onion crisps and, oh, cream teas!
The next time I came was following my A levels. I came for a year to work for a charity with learning disabled adults. I was quickly struck by the diversity in Britain which seemed to be in such a contrast to my native Germany back then. Growing up in fairly rural Germany the only non-Germans I had ever encountered were Turkish “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers), and even then they had been people I rarely actually came in contact with. They seemed to live in different places, move in different circles and go to different schools.
By comparison the Britain I encountered was vibrant and diverse, with people from different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds living and working and studying together, with cultures blending and merging along the way.
In short, I fell in love with the country. Incidentally, I also fell in love with an Englishman. Eventually we were to get married, have two children and make our life in England – but first I returned to Germany to train as an occupational therapist.
I came back to Britain newly qualified in 1990, this time to stay. I applied for three jobs and had three job offers. I started working in the NHS which I have done in a variety of settings and specialities ever since.
I eagerly embraced the British way of life. I never particularly held on to my German background, upheld German traditions at home or sought contact with fellow expats from Germany. For a long time I tried to lose my accent until I finally accepted that I probably never would and that it was OK to speak English with a foreign accent. I taught my children my mother tongue, but only fairly half-heartedly. Although they now have a basic understanding of German and have visited Germany fairly regularly over the years to stay in touch with family there, they both see themselves as British more than German.
I love Britain! I love the country with its varied countrysides and cities. I love the people, the English language and the British sense of humour. I have mastered the English language and no longer need to look for volunteers to explain countless puns and innuendos to me. I have a fair grasp on the humour thing although I may never fully get sarcasm…
In all those 26 years I never bothered applying for British citizenship. Firstly I wasn’t required to and secondly I never felt it necessary. As far as I was concerned I was already British. A Brit with a German passport!
Recently things seem to be shifting. In the run-up to and during the EU Referendum campaign we started to hear from a very different Britain.
Ask any German of my generation and they will probably confirm that we had it drummed into us to be vigilant against any individuals, groups or systems which try to single out minorities and outsiders to blame and scapegoat for wider problems in society, and which seek to divide society into “us” and “them”.
And here we are in Britain in 2016 where the Brexit campaign has openly blamed migrants for anything from the housing crisis to unemployment and pressures on the NHS. Where groups and individuals have been emboldened to spread xenophobia and racism. Where hate crimes are on the rise. Where even in government it has become acceptable to consider forcing companies to disclose their foreign staff, and where advice from experts on EU law is not welcome if those experts don’t hold a British passport.
Increasingly I find myself questioning whether this is still the Britain I so admired and fell in love with.
If Britain leaves the EU I no longer have automatic right to remain in this country. So together with 3.5 million EU citizens in he UK I am now weighing up my options:
I could do nothing and hope that common sense will prevail and I will be able to remain in this country – which seems risky and careless.
Or I could apply for British citizenship under Naturalisation, a process which is expensive, time-consuming and complicated – and which may mean I end up losing my German (and therefore European) citizenship.
Or I can explore my options of returning back to Germany – which, given that I have not lived in Germany for 26 years and never worked or paid taxes there, seems an unlikely solution.
It may just be that applying for British citizenship is my safest bet to ensure my future in this country. But I fear that even if I apply for and obtain citizenship, I will never feel British again in the same way I did when I was a Brit with a German passport.