Published by The Guardian, December 24th 2020

It sounds perverse, but for some of us the twin disasters have strengthened the bond we feel with our new home

Mutant-Covid Christmas seems like a cruel but fitting ending to a year that has seen a reckoning with mortality and extreme limitations on travel. This year has forced many of us from EU countries living in Britain to consider what it means to “belong”. After news of the border closures streamed in over the weekend, my friend Rob was contemplating making it back to Ireland for Christmas through Northern Ireland, then reconsidered. Another friend had come back from Berlin to quarantine before seeing her father, who had been ill last year. After the tier 4 announcement she booked her return flights to Berlin and left six hours later without seeing her dad.

Of course, some fled back to their countries of origin during earlier stages of the pandemic, or had left for Christmas already, or hastened to get out ahead of the mutant virus. But for those of us who stayed – and are now receiving concerned and pitying messages from our friends and families in Europe – there remains a grim determination to double down on our commitment to the place we’ve chosen as a home in the UK – in my case London.

The past months of pandemic in Britain have inspired a somewhat unexpected sense of loyalty towards the place and people who formed the backdrop to a painful year. One friend, Nik, made it out to Vienna before the ban on UK flights, but with a return booked for 27 December. “I surprised myself, as a continental European,” he says. “Feeling strongly that I had to be back in the UK before the moment the real Brexit fallout commences. This is where my strongest sense of solidarity resides: with the real people, whatever they voted for, about to be fucked in a momentous way. I’m one of them.” But border closures suddenly make the prospect of coming back much more complicated.

It seemed many had become inured to bad news, but last weekend, with updates on a new variant of Covid-19, increased lockdowns and closed borders, offered the opportunity to prove we’re still capable of being shocked and depressed by headlines. I recently read an article proclaiming a new golden age of horror films: it described a “slow horror” that induces “a hallucinatory, trance-like state”, with “human beings as just one component in the bigger world – and not even the most important one”. This seemed an apt summation of these weeks and months of government fiddling with Britain devolving into a Plague Island and Kent turned into a piss-soaked, never-ending car park. Becoming an international pariah at a symbolic time of “coming together” feels like a horror dress rehearsal for the realities of Brexit.

The default mode of illustrating the personal repercussions of both coronavirus and Brexit for Europeans living in Britain and vice versa, has been to invoke stories of nuclear families separated by respective sets of circumstances. But there are also the stories of those of us without families whose sense of belonging in Britain has intensified over the period of the pandemic, culminating in this restricted Christmas. The usual rituals and preparations to return home (to Rome, in my case) have been replaced with clumsy attempts to play family with our friends and to stay away from vulnerable people. “Distance is care,” as a friend tells me.

I’m spending Christmas in London for the first time, and with the so-called “family you choose”. London felt like home to me as soon as I moved here, three years ago, but the past year has forced a reappraisal of what I value about the city. I like being in a train at rush hour no matter how uncomfortable; I look at every single ad on the escalators in the underground; I miss the expansiveness and speed of a fast-moving crowd; I hate seeing the poster for Parasite still up outside closed cinemas; I miss talking late at night to a potentially tedious stranger I will never meet again; I don’t like how dark the city is when businesses are closed. Being here for Christmas in such dire circumstances feels like a recognition, a gesture of solidarity to the place that wasn’t allowed be itself for the best part of a year, to the place where I was and continue to be frightened, and to the community I receive comfort from. It’s forced a stronger attachment to London and to the people in my life here.

Almost a year of this virus and its mutations has influenced the sense of belonging many of us feel towards London and the UK. What happens with Brexit on 1 January won’t change that. In part, this is because the real character of a place doesn’t exist in top-down ideas of citizenship – or trade – but in the margins of society, where exile and rejection allow for perspective, critical distance and support. Between Europeans and Britons, the margins are likely to become an overcrowded space in the new year.

 Ren © 2021