By Anita Graafland

For this month’s Brexit Story and Meet the Team, Bev and I changed places: Bev wrote Meet the Team and I did the interview for this month’s Brexit story, which I’ve renamed “Our Brexit Story” for the occasion, as it features my story and that of Feyona, my daughter. I’ve also changed the format slightly: following this short intro, which is more of a reminder to our longstanding readers, I’ll recap an interview I did with Feyona.

Just some background for those not familiar with the details: my husband Simon, our 11-year-old daughter Feyona and myself moved to Cornwall for a year in 2014 and ended up staying, with Simon working as a gardener at Trebah and Feyona going to school in Cornwall, while I travelled between our two countries to keep my language skills up to scratch and serve my Dutch, German and Belgian customers. Our life was subsequently turned on its head by Simon’s death, Brexit and my own cancer diagnosis, the ultimate outcome of which has been that our now 19-year-old opted to apply for settled status and I decided to “go home” and forego all rights I may have had. This interview was conducted in my kitchen in Amsterdam, where we had just returned from a trip to Cairo.

A: So how do you feel about your mother committing you to an interview?

F: There’s no point arguing, is there? Plus which, I’ve said “No” to enough things in my life.

A: I feel that you and I have very, very different Brexit stories, is that true?

F: I think that’s because I was a child and I had different priorities. I think most of the concern about Brexit was rubbed off from you and other people in that circle. Most of my worries didn’t come from my own concerns, more from other people being scared and running into problems. I’ve never really faced any problems in that area. You know the only exception being the long wait for settled status, but even then, half the time I was distracted by other things because I had a life of my own.

A: And that life was firmly in Cornwall anyway?

F: Yes, and to be honest, Brexit was nothing compared to Dad’s death, and I was dealing with that – or rather not dealing with it. […] And the relief of getting settled status wasn’t that massive. I mean, I was glad I got it. That’s why I said that my story would make for a very boring story, because I just didn’t experience much of it.

A: Why would a relatively easy story not be interesting? It’s actually quite encouraging, I mean, for some people it is easy.

F: The only thing that has stuck with me about having to apply and having status is that they were really, really sneaky about it. The thing that I discovered is that if you try and log in and see your immigration status through the website, it’ll say “No status”. It will let you log into your account and then say “No status”, whereas if you log in through the link that they sent you, it will show up with your account and you can download proof of your status. And I think that’s really sneaky, because people that don’t know that are going to log in and think that they have no status and start panicking. Aside from the fact that it was a real drag to even apply.

A: Can you explain that to me? You really need a link to get to your status? So how does that work?

F: So when I got my settled status, that email has a link in it to the government website and to the immigration status page where you can log in with your account, which I’ve got saved. You can log into that and then you’ll get your picture, you get your details and then you can download proof, you can activate a code, so you can supply people with proof.

A: But you always have to go back to that same link?

F: That’s the only link I’ve known to be consistent, whereas I’ve tried to access that same immigration page not using the link but then it said my status was empty. There was nothing there. So my login was valid, the page was valid, but I had no status that way. I actually had a mild panic, I thought they’d removed my status. 

A: So how does this work in practice?

F: You use the link to go to that page and you activate a code. It’s like a mix of letters and numbers. It’s a code they can fill in on a different government website to check someone’s immigration status, purely designed for institutions, jobs and landlords to check whether what you’re saying is legitimate. I supplied that to my university, for example, and they approved it.

A: Didn’t the uni offer you all sorts of things as if you were not living in the country?

F: I regret that a little now – I think I kind of went the opposite way really. I kind of distanced myself more from Europe.

A: Did you realise that’s a very Dutch thing to do? So by doing that you were being very Dutch. The Dutch have a habit of not wanting to associate with other Dutch people, because they want to be part of wherever it is that they’re living.

F: Yes, but the thing is – and this is not to pat my own back – but my English is kind of hard for locals to distinguish from natives. I get more people that are confused about which part of the UK I’m from, which I kind of think I might have used subconsciously to my advantage. And I hate to say this, because it’s atrocious that it is that way, but because of my skin colour and appearance, I never had any trouble. Realistically, it’s kept me safe.

A: So the whole Brexit thing, for me, was about losing you. Or actually it was about losing a country I loved. A country I had invested pretty much all of my life in. About being rejected, almost by my first love, if you like. So for me, it was quite emotional. And I remember when the vote came, my first instinct was to go back. And, of course, your Dad stopped me because he was happy where he was and so were you. If it had been up to me, we would have left that summer. But for you it was completely different, wasn’t it?

F: I’m not in love with the country. I find the country itself ‘meh’, not particularly appealing. It’s not the country that I love, it’s the people that I love. Even then, not all the people, but it’s the people that I care about. And the people that I care about make it an important place to be. Obviously, Cornwall itself is different again, because there’s something quite fantastical about it and welcoming in a way that other parts of the UK haven’t been for me. And it’s also the first place where I kind of felt comfortable with myself, which has been hard for me. I just didn’t have that cultural/societal pressure that I felt in Amsterdam. There was a difference between that pressure here in the Netherlands and in Cornwall there is just none of that, because there was always an exception made for me.

A: So that’s the flipside to being rejected as a foreigner; that’s the leeway you’re given as a foreigner.

F: There’s no pressure and a lot more leeway. There are not really many boundaries. You know, people tend to forgive you a lot more quickly. I think moving to Cornwall was such a “clean slate” moment for me that I just had the opportunity to build people’s impressions of me based on what I had to show rather than their assumptions of me. I looked like I blended in. It was such an opportunity to build a supportive network based on how people experienced me as a person and not as a foreigner. You know, being foreign in the UK is just part of my identity.

The interview ran on for a quite a bit longer, but not much was about Brexit any longer. Clearly, my daughter and I have very different experiences. She is happy where she is.

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