I’m typing this seated by a floor-to-ceiling porthole on the Stena Brittanica ship. Outside it’s dark, yellow and red lights scattered across a vast blackness. Inside, it’s all fake wood paneling, 60s-style swivel chairs, a pulsing TV screen, and a sea of cheerful, mostly white, Netherlands families playing board games, the click of dice. We’re sailing from Harwich, England to Hoek van Holland, the port near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Check-in took just a few minutes, because tonight the UK still belongs to Europe.
It’s my first night on the winter road. In the past five years, I’ve been through personal and professional changes in Geneva, Switzerland, where I’ve made my home: left a job, a marriage and a cat; researched and wrote a book about the global effort to end HIV (now in production), launched a consulting business, got an academic job, went on a lot of dead-end dates, had a few dead-end crushes, made good friends, threw good parties, tattooed a feather on my shoulder. All the mid-life things, with no real break: my brain and heart are fully fried. As I’m divorced, childless, in my early fifties, and employed by organizations that hibernate in January, it’s carpe diem – grab your suitcase and go while you can. The boat for Holland is the first step on a journey that will end with a friend in a forest in Finland, where I hope to see reindeer and the aurora borealis. My suitcase contains a pair of sneakers, a pair of boots, and many kinds and layers of dark wool clothing.
My two nationalities are going through changes too. While I’m on the road, the UK will leave Europe. I’m a dual US/UK citizen: my grandparents were Jewish immigrants who fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and found a good home in Britain; my mother married an American, and I grew up in New York. I witnessed a few of the ups and downs of the later 20th century in England. My early memories of visiting Nana and Pop in England are of clambering over stiles on paths through Yorkshire moors, seeing a cow stick its nose through a kitchen window, hearing about Peter Rabbit and Pooh, imagining myself one of the railway children. In the 1980s, I lived with my aunt and uncle in South London, read Orwell and algebra at a local grammar school, and explored depressed Thatcherite London with the A-to-Zed; I crushed on a young Billy Bragg wailing miners-strike-era ballads in London pubs (here’s a fully crushworthy young Bragg singing St Swithin’s Day).
For the country to join the EU seemed a no-brainer to someone with one foot in the country and one foot out. By the time I moved to Geneva in 2013, London had a fully European soul, its now-gourmandized pies and tarts flavored with a a dash of Ottolenghi and a splash of fizz. London didn’t seem provincial, unless you asked someone living on one side of the Thames to go to a pub on the other side. But it also seemed to be a place deeply living in the moment, with excellent drugs and dance parties, and no whole vision of the country beyond anywhere you could get to for a weekend break.
At night, though, the dark truth seeped out of the TV set: the country was quietly nursing nostalgia for a postman riding a bicycle with a bell; for sponge cake and Pimm’s cups served in a summer garden; for a time when everyone had a job and a cheery uniform, a place in the village and a cause worthy of self-sacrifice; our grandparents’ world. That country is gone, the cheerful postman replaced by mass screaming on Twitter. There does not seem to be a way back to the simple dignity of Peter Rabbit and his little waistcoat.
In my visits to London over the past decade, I’ve missed a vision of the country as a whole, as a place in the future, other than “not Europe”. Maybe Brexit, torturous as the long road here has been, will spur the UK to engage in a real national dialogue that creates a new vision of itself. Maybe it won’t. Either way, the UK will still be a home away from home for many Americans, like me, whiplashing between watching parallel political disasters on both sides of the pond.
The Netherlands families were still deep in their board games in the ship lounge, but it was time for me to get a few hours’ sleep before the ship docked at dawn. I packed up my laptop and circled the outside deck – a short, delicate walk, as it was chilly now, the deck slick with rain. It will get colder, degree by degree, city by city, as I travel east and north. The air was fresh and damp, dark sky blending into darker water, and the ship slid through both easily, to Europe.