by Susan van de Ven on 17 December, 2018
I was born in Essex to two British parents. Three grandparents came from London, one from Cheshire. My wife is from Middlesex, and we live near Cambridge.
But I am a European.
How can this be? One of the most inspiring experiences of my life was living in Germany for two years while in my mid-20s. I had already learned French and Spanish at school, so now I had to work hard on my German. I worked at a renowned scientific institute, with great people who came from many countries.
I loved Germany, and still do. You can get around their cities easily with cheap punctual transport that bypasses the traffic jams and has integrated ticketing. They have historic towns that are immaculately preserved. They have a high value manufacturing economy which benefits from the efficient running of the country. I also admire them for their national psyche. They are remarkably humble about the horrors of the war, yet also proud about the successful nation they have become. It’s a fair and considerate sort of place. For example, you’re not supposed to drill holes in your wall on a Sunday because it may disturb your neighbour.
But I also saw things that made me realise the strengths my own country has. Germany has a lot of rules which can be overbearing. For example, you can’t cross a road at a red man even if it is completely deserted as far as you can see in either direction. And yes, I’ve even seen someone sent back by a traffic warden for trying it on. The food’s tasty but they have no idea what a curry is. And all that beautiful neatness and fresh paint could get a little sterile. One day I crossed the open border into France for a visit and was almost relieved to see some peeling paint and dog poo. For that day, I didn’t have to feel quite so inadequate!
Living in Germany opened my mind. New ways of doing things. New people. Languages. Travel. Mountains. And it also helped me to value what I already had. I returned to the UK and built my professional career on respect for others, humility, determination, and high standards. I now run a technology business in Cambridge which exports about half our work to the EU. When building a business relationship, a few words in their own language and the ability to make reference to their own culture does wonders to build rapport and earn their trust. When they buy services from my company, we pay UK tax on our income which means their money is paying for our public services.
We are experiencing a resurgence in our politics of those who prefer to blame others for their own failure rather than make themselves a success; who have overblown belief in themselves yet threaten and attack others; who have disregard for facts and for people’s dignity.
But these cynics cannot take away my European values. I am a product of the new peaceful Europe, not the war-tangled nightmare in which my great-uncle was killed. The Europe which values freedom, safety, fairness, the environment, and the rights of others.
My life journey has made me proud to be a Citizen of Europe.
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