It’s a sunny Saturday morning. A hip young couple, she -small and pretty with a thin waist in a shirt dress, he -tall and handsome in his leather jacket and Ray-ban Aviators, are making their way to a new part of town, a few kilometres away from the lake. With them, an older couple, smartly dressed, her ash blonde hair coiffed in the same style she had in her youth in 1954.
It’s 1987. The year my parents got married.
I don’t know whether it was a sunny day, actually, but I can see it being like that in a film. My late grandfather fought in the war and worked hard to rebuild his country and by then, things were looking great. His daughter was able to graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts, the first in the family to go on to higher education. His son had no academic ambitions: he had a stable job in the silk manufacturing and would go on to start a family soon. My grandfather was able to do what Italian parents do: help him buy a house. Not just a house, but an apartment in a newly built luxury building in a newly developed part of town. Bespoke design in every room, with the latest technology. A perfectly, professionally kept garden, and respectable neighbours, mostly young families who would grow up with his much-wanted grandchildren. It must have been such a proud day for all of them.
A common complaint in London is that areas are losing their character to gentrification. Protests are organised to try to stop it. Expecting areas to be cleaner and safer is somehow painted as an unreasonable middle class request that isn’t in the interest of everyone. What I have seen in this little corner of Northern Italy was the reverse. It’s never been as good as Switzerland (but that may have to do with me inheriting my contempt from my mother’s side), but it wasn’t quite Elephant and Castle either.
Looking at pictures of my childhood during the long Christmastide days, I could see the appeal it had on my family in 1987. What I could see outside my window wasn’t quite the same.
I’m not here to make a reasoned point with statistics and big numbers, there is already a lot of that in the official campaigns, and if you want to hear smart people talk about it then Brexit the movie is free to watch on YouTube. This is the story of a child who loved the European Union, loved Jeux Sans Frontiers and always wanted to be on it, and loved all the talks of fraternity and a brighter future for Europe, and never thought she’d see the day this dream turned into a nightmare.
I was the first person to befriend the only Muslim girl in my area. Immigration was slow, most movement was the daily going back and forth from or to Switzerland for work or studying. One of my classmates one year was mixed race, the daughter of a famous African doctor. I went to school with the daughter of a Lebanese business man too. My parents were on very good terms with the man selling lighters and other small things in the supermarket’s parking lot. He sent the money back home to Nigeria, and his daughter is now in medical school. We had a local Chinese restaurant, the owner changed his original name to an Italian one and picked a rather uncommon one which happens to be my baby brother’s (I named him after my friend in kindergarten and he hates it).
I was the first to befriend the only Muslim girl because we both were lonely. We both were outsiders in different ways. This brought us together when people were wary of anything different. She wore a hijab, and so did her mother. She would cook and clean in beautiful clothes and it would never move. They were very kind to me.
This landscape changed all of a sudden. People don’t talk to each other anymore. Immigration speeded up, fuelled by the conflicts in the Middle East making people flee for their lives. Emigration speeded up too: not only the young, but also older people without jobs trying to find a better life elsewhere. It’s so bad in academia that it has its own name, “la fuga dei cervelli”.
You can’t walk a quarter of a mile in London without overhearing an Italian. A friend learnt German to move to Austria because staying here would mean being stuck in a low-pay job in a café, waiting for the big opportunity to break into something different, when the hard truth is, if you want to work in a better field you need to come here fluent in the language and stay away from those jobs. Few have escaped them.
Many went back to their hometowns after being au-pairs or what not, to a market that offers no opportunities. They are still chasing the few job openings which seem to be unpaid entry-level internships requiring a PhD, 8 years of experience and the blood of a virgin.
Many are settled into jobs that may disappear in the foreseeable future, and a few are doing well for themselves. A couple I know even bought a house, maybe thanks to a housing market doing so poorly my inheritance, that luxury new flat bought in 1987, is now virtually valueless.
I have met people who moved to London from everywhere in Europe, including people who hate it here. They got food sent by their parents, and got themselves a job through co-nationals so they never had to learn the language at all. We’re told it’s free movement and it’s good, but when you ask around the majority is running away from something that feels like doom. They’re doing what people did in the 1910s crossing the Atlantic. They go to a better place, where opportunity is. They want a better life, we all do.
My Polish friends enjoy lavish holidays back home thanks to much higher wages in London than the cost of living in their home country. The inequality in the situation of individual countries across the EU makes me wonder why anybody ever thought unifying things so much was a good idea.
I can see why my grandfather’s generation was all behind building this European project. We needed peace and stability and helping each other out towards a better future together. Nobody wanted another war, and the duress that comes at the end of it. Everybody wanted the sunny Saturday morning in 1987 of my imagination. But this isn’t what we have now, and this isn’t the direction that the project is trying to take in 2016. This EU is leaving the people I know, including my own family, behind. This is not what my grandfather fought for, and if he didn’t die 14 years ago this month I don’t think he’d be happy to see it.
Some may say that having benefitted from many EU laws I’m biting the hand that feeds me if I campaign for Leave, but I feel like it would be selfish and unfair of me to steal the future of my generation to sustain my own.