On Foreign Shores
10 years of living in the UK
On this day, ten years ago I arrived in the UK. A backpack slung over my shoulders, a suitcase trailing behind me, I stepped off the Eurostar train. My heart was racing at the thought of what was happening. I was twenty years old, lost and confused and in search of an escape.
My feet on the platform, I focused on the task at hand: finding the statue of the lovers where the family I was going to work for as an au pair should be waiting for me. It took longer than expected but I found my way muddling through with broken English.
Only the mother was waiting for me. We hopped in her car and set off for Ealing, my new home. I was dizzy with excitement, scared that I’d made a mistake, and stressed at the low level of my spoken English. Over the engine noise, the mother explained the children where at a cricket game and we were going there too. We made a stop by the house to drop off my bags and soon afterwards I was standing in a cricket club with a glass of Pinot Grigio in my hand. I wanted beer but only the men held pint glasses. I didn’t dare ask, afraid to break an unspoken rule.
The sun was shining, children were running wild in the grounds, conversations buzzed next to me, and I was a floating island. I had no idea what was happening, what cricket involved, who the people around me were. I quietly sipped on my wine, tears just behind my eyes. I was here. In London. In England. Away from France. I had done it.
The spoken plan was never to stay in the UK. I couldn’t, wouldn’t let myself hope it could happen. Because what if it didn’t? I had to come to terms with my relationship with France and my fellow citizens. But it was all a lie. And everybody knew it, especially me.
I settled in with my host family, I got to know the kids and the neighbourhood, eventually familiarised myself with British coins. My vocabulary expanded and I began to consider studying again. I wanted to work in libraries and as luck would have it, there was a master degree open at a university within walking distance of my new home. So I applied and after an interview was offered a place. There was no denying any longer that this would become my home.
Over the course of that first year, I listened and watched a lot, behaviours and patterns of life, learning slang and navigating between my master degree, my duties as an au pair, and my free Sundays to explore London.
Gradually I learned to say loo or toilet in the correct context. I learned what a pan was and how to use plug sockets on the wall. I bought snacks in corner shops, and DVDs from HMV as a reward for finished assignments. I visited my local library and gorged on their LGBT section. Who knew there was such an extensive literature for people like me?
My life had a pattern I could follow. I was safe from prying judging eyes of French citizens. No one knew me here. I was foreign and learning a new identity. Forgiveness was always a step away. But I did not need forgiveness. It was okay to like girls, it was okay to like museums and artsy films. It was okay to be who I wanted to be.
Busy with my new life, I stopped questioning why I had left France. I had left. It was all that mattered. My new life was underway. My English had improved and my slang vocabulary was expanding at a fast pace.
Only I kept finding myself crying while doing the most mundane of tasks. I could not explain it, did not want to explain it. Instead I blamed my body for not following my mind. I was still overweight, still eating badly.
So I began to run. And starved myself. In a matter of weeks I had to buy new clothes and could not stop running. Everyday, for an hour, I was out. People noticed how I had changed and it pleased me. It was another layer of France I had let go off.
Summer came and I was writing my master’s dissertation. I flew to France to spend two weeks with my family. I began to eat again, slowly. I cherished my time with my niece and nephew. But I hated my surroundings. Everywhere was Frenchness and everything I had ran away from. I could feel it sliding under my skin, irritating and still too close. A culture I felt rejected by, a gaze, a vocabulary I felt trapped under. I couldn’t wait to get back to London.
I left my au pair family shortly after receiving my diploma and started to look for a job. It hadn’t been easy being an au pair in a family so different from me, and I did not realise the toll it had taken on me until I was free of them. I found quiet again, a gentle friendship with my landlord, and space to think.
I cried for the girl that I had been. So fiercely angry and lost. I could not pretend to have found myself or be okay with being French. But I stopped fighting it and instead I took it easy. I found a job, I settled in and created a routine with my landlord. I would spend hours reading books in English, trying out new words out loud. I would listen to them roll on my tongue, repeating them again and again until I felt they would become part of my vocabulary or be shelved as a word understood but not for me.
I stopped running, I had never enjoyed it anyway, and took to swimming, the fitness of my body something I had become infatuated with. And I learned to eat again. Food was not a punishment. It could be something to be enjoyed.
I found work in a public library service, my colleagues as diverse as the London borough I was in. I worked for the outreach team which gave me unprecedented access to all aspects of life in this part of London. One day I chatted with recent migrants, my accent a bond of sort between us. The next day, I chatted with the local women’s institute group, my Frenchness an exotic escape for them. The day after, I chatted with a business, my identity irrelevant to the need of their clients.
On other occasions I’d help with the mobile library service, the staff there delighting in teaching me all manners of English expressions. I have never pulled off saying ‘ta’, but now reply ‘no thanks I’m sweet enough’ when ask if I want sugar in my tea.
I was not defined by being French any longer. It was a part of who I was. One I was not proud of and still didn’t know how to deal with. But it became less and less important. I was living in the UK. I was helping people in the UK. And I was getting to love British culture more and more.
I slowly made friends, discovered rights of ways and British outdoors culture. I took to writing again, taking photographs, and building a blog. I visited my family once a year or so. They came over too, keen to see where I had a made a home. I was at ease with my world. France was a place to be visited and left behind. It didn’t matter that I still hated it. I had a home and friends I loved coming back to.
I met a girl too. We fell in love and I grew some more.
Life carried on with me whizzing through London on my bicycle, exploring the countryside on foot and on two wheels, and lounging in parks with my girlfriend. My job in libraries was made redundant, so with a head filled with adventure dreams, I left. I moved from my studio to my girlfriend’s flat. I found a job for a few months and booked a ticket to Spain for me and my bicycle.
Arriving in Spain I was vulnerable once more. The confidence I had learned melted away on the night of my arrival. I cried myself to sleep, curled up in a ball on a foreign bed. But I was there and there was nothing else to do but cycle. So I did. Little by little I shed my fears and eased into life on the road to the rhythm of my bicycle wheels.
I was foreign and having to learn a new culture. But I was only passing through, visibly a tourist and not looking to build a new life. I was both French and English, my identity projected as I wanted it to be. People didn’t long for the countries I came from but for the freedom I had to explore and travel. Who I was mattered less than what I represented in people’s eyes.
I crossed the border into Portugal and found myself navigating my way in French and English. I met a lot of travellers, people in expensive motorhomes and cheap homebuilt vans. We were French, English, Dutch, and German but our nationalities meant little on the road. We were travelling and this was our new sense of self. We shared the same concerns. We delighted in not having to explain our choice to travel and of not being seen as adventurous and of being able not to repeat the same story over and over again.
I slept in fields, in parking lots built for motorhomes, in campsites when I wanted a hot shower or a day out, and occasionally in people’s home. I met a Belgian family cycling around Europe and tagged along with them for a while. We meandered our way out of Portugal and into Santiago.
One evening in Spain, in a field overlooking the sea, we talked about my life and how I’d come to live in the UK. It was a story I’d told many times but never as truthfully as then. At the end of it, the woman said ‘You ripped yourself apart from France and built yourself a new identity.’
That night, in my tent, I turned her phrase over and over in my brain. I ripped myself apart from France and built myself a new identity. It was so simple, so evident, and yet I’d never thought about it in those terms. The thought of France irked me and I never lingered on it. But she was right, I had rejected everything in me that I identified as French and filled the gap with what I perceived as British.
We parted way in Santiago. They carried on pedalling as I took a coach back to France’s border with Spain. My dad was waiting for me in Royan in a few days time. I was alone once more in a country I had taught myself to hate.
As the road signs changed from Spanish to French and everything became achingly familiar, I made a promise to myself to keep an open mind. I had left France six years earlier with a well of anger that had tainted my judgement. It was time to bridge the gap I had built and come to terms with being French.
I gave myself tasks. One evening I would ask to sleep in someone’s garden and see people’s reaction. Another day I would only go to bars and cafés for water. The following day I would speak to as many people as I could. I met rejection, I was made to feel guilty for not buying a café when asking for water, and I encountered racism. But often too there was kindness and open hearts. People smiled at me and I lowered my barriers. I met another cyclist and we tagged along for a while. We stopped every few hours so he could smoke weed. We laid on the grass soaking in the sun and not caring for anything in the world. We raided supermarkets for the cheapest food and spent hours building feasts out of our loot.
He was so different from my idea of Frenchness that I began to observe him with more intention. I swerved conversations to his life and gradually came to learn that there was more to France than the suppression and gaze that had made me flee to London.
I met up with my dad and we too started to mend our relationship. It had never been a simple one but with time to talk and be together, we both learned to forgive one another. As I did so, I let him show me his way of life, a way of life I had despised for so long. There was less racism than I remembered and more of a willingness to learn and accept difference. We both had changed. If he could change, if my own gaze and behaviour could change, could I come to like France?
As I settled in his home, I reacquainted myself with television and the routine of the news. Brexit campaigns were raging in the UK but it felt distant and trivial. Of course the UK would not leave the European Union. How could it?
When people asked me if I was worried I shrugged it off. It was all nonsense, a bleep in the system that would soon pass.
I left my dad as he had to travel to Paris and carried my journey along the Loire to meet up with my mom. I felt at ease along the river. People were friendly and relaxed in a way they hadn’t been on the west coast. As I pedalled among vineyards, castles, and fields, I grew to appreciate the slow yet busy pace of life in summer in France. I missed the never-ending days of being outside with my grand-parents, working in the fields and gardens to rip the season harvest. I longed for the stretched hours of evening when muscle ache was relieved by bottles of wine and barbecue feasts. I dreamt of meals together around a table lasting from 11am to 3pm. I remembered the plight of mosquitoes as I hid from them in my tent, the present mingling with my childhood summer camping memories. I could sense the rage in me mellowing, melting into something else.
I met another cyclist, J., and we teamed for a while. He was American but had settled in France, his visa long expired. He was cycling to avoid being caught by the police and sent back to the USA, his right to live in France being questioned over the last few months.
We talked about France and Europe, how different it was from the USA, a place he didn’t hold dear in his heart. Our stories had many parallels but I had had more luck in being born in a place and time of freedom and choice. He had been living outside of the law, never fully able to integrate into a society he had come to love.
I tried to imagine what that would be like but couldn’t. I felt sorry for him and incredibly lucky for me. I wished I could share some of my freedom with him as I knew he wasn’t as happy as he portrayed himself to be. But I didn’t know how to.
Brexit day arrived and I was still pedalling. The following morning I rushed to a nearest shop to buy a newspaper and find out about the news. Brexit had happened. I stood frozen in front of the headlines. I was conscious that J. was waiting for me outside but I could not move. Brexit had happened.
I took a deep breath, grabbed the nearest paper, paid for it, and exited the shop. I was on the verge of tears. Brexit had been voted for. I felt powerless, lost, and clueless. Just as I was beginning to bridge my two identities inside of me, they ripped apart from one another on the outside.
J. was silent next to me.
We ate a breakfast of croissants in a square and soon pedalled off. We talked a bit about Brexit. He asked questions and I tried to articulate answers. But as everybody on that day, I had no idea what Brexit was going to mean. All I knew is that I was sad, incredibly sad. I wanted to stop cycling and cry but that would have served no purpose. So I carried on.
We parted ways a few days later as I woke early from a campsite to meet up with my mom in Orléans. I arrived before her and settled on a bench by the Loire. The mosquitoes were not yet awake. I watched the river flow and thought about Brexit and what it might mean for me.
I repeated to myself over and over that it didn’t change anything. I would carry on living in the UK. There would be paperwork to be done but they could not kick all of the European people out. It was just too many people.
As I had done in my early days of cycling through Spain, I decided to take it one step at a time. First there would be a negotiation phase, then the UK would leave but it still wouldn’t be immediate. I had time to prepare.
My mom arrived and I forgot about Brexit. We hugged for a long time, meandered through the streets of Orléans, and had coffee and pastry on the terrace of a café. This felt normal and good. I shelved Brexit at the back of my mind as I slowly prepared to return to the UK.
I wrote to friends in England, arranged visits, booked a one-way ferry ticket, and a few weeks later was dropped off at Calais by my uncle with my bicycle loaded with paraphernalia from France to take back with me.
On the ferry, I couldn’t stop staring ahead to the white cliffs of Dover coming ever closer. My heart skipped a beat as I saw the first details of the land. My face broke from a small smile to a beam I couldn’t stop. As I stepped off the ferry all I wanted to do was lie down and embrace the ground. Home. I was home.
Instead I cycled away from the port, delighting in the fact that I knew this place, I knew this country and could find my way around easily. I reverted my vocabulary to English and bought a train ticket to London. I stepped off the train platform with a loaded bicycle and knowledge of where to go. I cycled through the streets, people barely glancing at my bicycle and assortments of luggage on it. This was just another day in the capital.
I settled back in my girlfriend’s flat and began the slow process of building a life again. It was August and life was good. I walked along the Thames every day, I met up with friends, I drank pints in pubs, and slowly sifted through adverts for jobs in Bristol.
Leaving London felt inevitable. It had welcomed me with open arms, witness me fall and rise multiple times. It had given me the ability to reinvent myself again and again. It had given me a home but it had not given me the space to heal. London held memories of hatred and anger, of tears and pain, and of a never-ending movement that left me feeling trapped.
I needed to move to a smaller place, somewhere where life wasn’t so hectic, and where I could hold on to the stillness I felt after cycling for four months, and process my ever complicated feelings about France.
I forgot about Brexit. I was too busy looking for a job and a place to live in Bristol. It was a tumultuous process, one of endless rejections, of bus journeys, and hopelessness. Until one day, in December, I moved into a new house and started a new job.
I knew it was going to take time to build a life like I had before. But I had known this going into my cycle trip. This was an opportunity to make a change and to explore the South West and Wales on foot or with my bicycle.
In the background, Brexit raged on. Slogans came and went. The news talked about the discussions with Europe, blamed this and that, and Brexit became a fact of life. Something that was constantly there and yet invisible and surreal. A part of me felt like it wouldn’t happen. Extensions were granted, deadlines not met. It felt like the UK would either be in a permanent state of waiting or cancel Brexit. In the meantime life carried on.
I changed job from one retail outlet to the next. But this time I was working in the caravanning industry, meeting people on a daily basis who idealised France. I was still bothered by being reduced to my nationality but not as before. I was more annoyed at them for their concept of France that was based on stereotypes and a two weeks holidays years ago. Occasionally though we would get a customer that genuinely loved France, had bothered learning the language and visited regularly. On those occasions I found myself curious and happy to discuss the country of my birth. I wanted to understand what had attracted them to a place I had hated so much. I was curious for them to show me what I didn’t see.
As I settled in the company and a new role, I earned more money. We began talking about buying a house with my partner, at first a distant and elusive idea, it finally became concrete as we booked our first house viewings. We met with mortgage advisors, put offers on houses, and eventually we were flooded in paperwork and boxes as we prepared to move into a new house, our new home.
No one in my family was under any illusions that I would ever come back to France. I had settled abroad, in the UK. They would visit or began planning visits. And in turn I was still going back when I could. I enjoyed those visits more. My cycling trip had help me shed layers of anger that had clouded my vision for so long.
I still felt stranded in France. I still saw the racism and the violence in people. I still heard the rejection of difference and the constant fighting for the sake of it. But I also glimpse what I hadn’t before. I heard people caring about change and talking instead of shouting.
There was a whole world of France I didn’t know about, left behind without ever looking for it. I knew it had been there all along, I had simply chosen to be blind to it. I had fled to a place I perceived as better but after ten years in the UK I had discovered sides of it I didn’t like and strongly disagreed with. But I was able there to work against them and focus on the positive that was happening.
Meanwhile Brexit day loomed closer without the threat of an extension. I was forced to look at it and consider the ramifications. Of course I wouldn’t be kicked out of my house, of course I wouldn’t be fired out of my job, of course I wouldn’t be dragged out of the country. But my brain could not stop those thoughts entering my consciousness. Because what if that happened? What if my world fell apart? What if I had to start all over again just as I was finding a balance between being French and feeling British.
I tried to pause and give thoughts to my feelings but I never dared spend too much time on it. I felt overwhelmed and vulnerable. Fearing the surge of emotions bubbling inside of me I often put a stop to them and carried on living as normal.
And then it happened. On the 31st of January 2020, the UK withdrew from the European Union.
I went to work that day feeling defeated and sad. I stared at my computer screen without seeing anything on it. I made trips to the toilet more often than necessary and cried silently until I felt I could face my e-mails again.
I cried on the way home too, tears I had long fought to keep inside of me were now pouring out of me. I couldn’t run away from the pain any longer.
My chest tightened and tears welled in my eyes in the following days every time I thought about Brexit. I felt empty and lost, rejected by a country I so fiercely love. I had fought to come here, I had fought to stay here. I came crawling and wounded to London ten years before and had risen to become the person I am today. And all of that meant nothing at all because I was foreign now, not of here, other.
I delayed my settled status application as long as I dared. I stubbornly refused to be officially marked as different and not British. But also I knew it wouldn’t be straight forward. As an au pair I was not visible to the government and then I left the country for a while to travel. I was gone then and invisible upon my return as I looked to find a job. Would I meet the criteria?
I became angry at the idea of not meeting the government criteria. I wanted to shout at them that I had been here for ten years. I wanted to tell them this was my home. I wanted to show them my life and dare them to tell me this was not my home.
And then I did it.
I logged onto my government account and began my application.
I yelled at my computer screen when the form refused my French ID card reference number three times.
I bit my lips to stop myself from crying as it asked me to prove my French identity by sending my ID card to immigration services, my one and only form of identification. By sending it to them I would become grounded, paperless.
I put the application on hold for a while until I felt I could stop raging at it every time I opened it.
One evening as I got home, I turned my computer on and logged into the government website. I was still full of anger but I needed to stop being childish. The government was not here to take my feelings into account. There weren’t here to listen to my story. I was a number to them, another piece of data to be processed, not a human being with emotions and a life.
I needed to take a photo so they could compare it to the one on my ID card. So I did and this unlocked the application. As the photo loaded and the government tapped into its internal data to figure out if I was allowed to stay, I waited silently while sipping tea.
The answer came quicker than expected. I was not allowed settled status. The best I could get was pre-settled status unless I could prove I had been in the UK in 2013 and in 2016. I had been prepare for rejection but seeing it on the screen brought back all of the anger I’d been trying to rationalise.
Why, why did I have to prove I had been here? I could understand 2016 but 2013? I was working for two councils at the time. ‘I was working for you in two services!’ I wanted to yell at the screen. ‘I was freaking employed and paid by you!’.
I remained silent for a while and then burst out. I yelled and I cried as I flung my paperwork box on the sofa behind me, frantically going through every single payslips of the time, gathering evidence for the government.
My partner came to find me as she heard the racket I was making. I was out of my mind. I was yelling, crying, protesting, irrational.
I was not going to get pre-settled status. Not when I had been in the UK for ten years ‘Ten years! Do you hear that computer screen! Ten years!’. But the screen did not budge. I needed to prove I had been here in 2013 and 2016.
Documents piled up on my desk, ready to be scanned the following day at work, I went to sleep exhausted and depleted.
Feeling drained and empty the following day I decided to call the settled status phone line. It took a while to find their number and then the information did not come from the government website. I called as soon as the line opened and was met with disinterest and coldness. I was told the website often made mistakes. I was told 2013 didn’t matter as they only looked at the past five years but the website searched the last seven years. And I was told this was irrelevant information to put on the website.
I struggled to keep calm and level. Those people were not here to be compassionate. They were not here to sympathise with me or listen to me. They were doing a job, a job that involved looking at people as data while having a human being on the other end of the line. This was not their fault they didn’t understand my anger.
I apologised meekly for my too often angry tone of voice and decided not to scan my documents. If the government couldn’t bother to have a working system on their computerised network, they would have to sort my application out themselves. I was not going to waste any more emotional time on it until they told me what they really needed.
At lunch time, I went to the post office and sent off my ID card. As I walked out of the store, I began to cry again. I was now grounded in a place that had been telling me over the last few weeks that I was different than they and not welcomed.
My ID card came back to me quicker than expected but not the results of my application.
As I waited I began writing this essay as a way to make sense of what I was feeling. I wanted to understand why I felt so deeply like I had lost something, why it felt like I was mourning. I also wanted to remind myself that I belonged here even if the government insisted on telling me I was foreign.
Slowly as I reminisced about the last ten years and put words to my memories, I began to accept that I might obtain pre-settled status in spite of my ten years here. Pre-settled status still meant I could stay in the UK, could work in the UK, could love in the UK. I would just have to wait a little longer for settled status.
I began to accept that this didn’t have to change how I felt about my home.
I began to accept that I was indeed mourning for the loss of the idea of a united Europe where people didn’t have to be defined by boundaries and passports.
And then on the 13th of March an e-mail appeared in my inbox. The letter attached stated in bold ‘you have been granted Indefinite Leave in the United Kingdom’. I had been granted settled status. I burst out of the staff room where I was having my lunch and proclaimed to the office my new status, the recognition of being allowed to stay here, in my home.
I felt a weight being lifted off my chest. I could breath again. I was allowed to stay in the UK. I was allowed the live in my home.
Brexit and my new status as European and foreign still brings me pain. I am not through with mourning for what used to be.
I have lost something I used to take for granted. I have joined millions of people who are left stranded and defined by the randomness of their country of birth. But I am privileged in this. I can still live where I want to. I can still work where I want to. I am still free.
I do not have to live in fear of being sent back to a place that is dangerous for me to be in. I know too that I could live in my birth country now. I would lie if I said I like France but I no longer despise it and no longer hate the parts of me that I identify as French. I also now know I can find people like me there if I bother to look.
But for now, I remain in the UK. I am not British though, will never truly be. There are deep rooted traditions I do not understand, a heritage I do not share. But if asked to pick, I will always choose the UK over France because this is my home. My chosen home.
So, where does this leave me?
Have I reconciled myself with being French? I would lie if I said yes. I still refuse to entertain the idea of ever moving back there. But I do not hate the parts of me that I identify as French.
Have I become Bristish? No. I have not.
So what am I? European is the answer I have always given. Having grown up in a part of France that got devastated in both world wars, being European is very tangible for me. I am unclear on what it fully means to me and to other people. All I know is the idea of it is important to me. It allowed me to come here, in London and then in Bristol. It provided me with the freedom to choose my home (a rare privilege in this world) and escape the oppressiveness I have always felt in the country I was born in.
I am aware that I am still privileged. I can still live here. I can still work here. I can still love here. But I cannot stop the pain in my chest when I think of the email stating that I am foreign.
Kudos for an excellent piece of writing. I hope it was cathartic for you writing it.
Thank you very much.
It was a cathartic experience. It wasn’t all easy to write but it helped me understand and work through a fair amount of jumbled emotions.