I am not an immigrant tonight. Tonight, I am a resident of the United Kingdom. But tomorrow: what?
I moved from Athens to London in 1996, at age 18. This September, if I’m allowed to stay, I’ll celebrate twenty years in the UK.
If I’m allowed to stay. Can you imagine? Twenty years: that’s more than half my lifetime. That’s my entire experience as an adult; that’s pretty much everything I know about the world, everything I’ve learned about how to conduct myself in it, everything I’ve become. When I come to Greece, I don’t quite know how to make myself fit in. I am awkward, I am strange, I am, somehow, a little displaced. I don’t know how to ask for the things I need; I use English words where the Greek ones elude me. I apologise too much, and hold doors open for people who storm through them, casting me hurried looks of confusion or contempt. I have trouble crossing roads because the cars keep coming at me from the wrong side, and they don’t seem to obey the rules of traffic that I’m used to. I don’t belong here. My passport may be Greek, but I’ve been marked for Britain. I am a Londoner. I’ve never been an immigrant, so far.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never stolen anyone’s job. I’ve never accepted lower than average wages, making it impossible for the British jobseekers to compete with my rock-bottom immigrant standards. I came from a country that considered itself prosperous; I came to go to university, not to survive. I didn’t come for better; I came for good. If anything, my standards were unrealistically high.
In the early days, in the late nineties when barwork was still cool, my colleagues behind the bar were all British, every single one of them, and we all interviewed for our positions. We were all on minimum wage and we all spent most of our earnings on beer and dancing and late-night kebabs.
And later, when the EU opened its doors to many more nations, the ratio of foreign to native workers in the hospitality world settled at around 50/50, perhaps even tipping to 60/40 in favour of the foreigners, but it wasn’t because the latter were being chosen over their British counterparts. It was because the British weren’t applying. I know, because I was the one going through the CVs. Having gone off and done other jobs and got myself a Masters in Creative Writing, I wandered back into barwork in the mid- to late-noughties. My own generation had long moved on by now, and the kids, it seems, were no longer interested in serving drinks. I don’t know where they went or what they were doing, but they certainly weren’t queuing up for jobs in pubs and being rejected in favour of cheap Polish (and Greek) labour. Perhaps they were signing on: they were, after all, entitled to benefits; we were not. Because – in case you wondered – no: you don’t just stroll past the borders and sign on, and then sit back and drink cider out of a plastic bottle and have lots of foreign babies to drain the country’s resources. They don’t let you do that. Funnily enough. You have to earn it.
In twenty years, I’ve never signed on. In twenty years, I’ve never applied for or received any benefits. In the twenty years that I’ve been making National Insurance contributions, both through PAYE and voluntarily, through self-employment, I have probably received statutory sick pay twice. In twenty years, I’ve visited NHS hospitals three times, and my GP perhaps ten, mostly to renew my prescription for the contraceptive pill (not a single foreign baby in sight). I’ve had one filling part-subsidised by the NHS. I’ve paid several thousand pounds in taxes. I’ve paid several thousand pounds more in rent to British taxpayers.
I think, on balance, I’ve probably put more into this country, financially, than I’ve taken out. I think, on balance, I haven’t drained this country’s resources all that much. I have earned my benefits, but I have never abused them. And I’ve chosen this country, I’ve adopted it as my own and Britain, in turn, has never treated me like an immigrant. So far. This Great Britain, made up of immigrants and thriving on the multitude of cultures that it’s embraced. Gradually, yes, and with difficulty at first, but bravely and wholeheartedly, for the most part, with the openness that makes this Britain great.
And yet, tomorrow: what? Will I become in immigrant, at last, in this country that made me who I am? Will Britain make me an immigrant, at last, twenty years on?
I think I’d like to celebrate my twenty-year anniversary in the pub. I don’t go to pubs that often anymore, but it seems appropriate. I’ll drink a pint of lager with my friends and later, perhaps, we’ll go dancing. We might even have a kebab on the way home, but a nice one, and we’ll sit down to eat it, with cutlery. Our standards are still quite high.
I think I’d like to do that, if I’m allowed to stay.
This is the first of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part two, part three, part four, and part five here.
And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.