The first time I felt truly European was in the UK, when I was an Erasmus student at the University of East Anglia. The UEA is in Norwich, in Norfolk, an area which was quite rural, sometimes almost exotic and generally not too eventful. Over the years, when I’ve returned, I’ve had the strange feeling of returning to a place that was important to my idea of Europe.
It was not because I felt a difference with continental Europe. Since I had not lived outside Spain before, I couldn’t really compare. European institutions, and political and economic negotiations were part of the conversation I was used to reading about in the papers. But this time it was more specific: I could study there thanks to a European project. Although I lived with several British people and some of the friends whom I’d see more were from Canada and the United States, I was part of an international community that came from many parts of Europe, and communicated in English as a second language which was also the language of the EU and of many international institutions. For most of us it was the first time that we were with so many people from other places. Another advantage of being at a British university is that there were many students from outside the EU.
Some of the concerns were similar to the present ones, some were not. Shortly before the start of the academic year, the attacks of 9/11 took place. We started using the euro in Spain in everyday life. Students of Development Studies organized rallies against globalization which often ended with songs by Manu Chao.
I wanted my university to be more similar to British Universities, I wanted that my country’s newspapers were a bit more like the British press. And I wanted more Indian restaurants.
At that time I did not realize, perhaps because it was something natural, or perhaps because I was mostly interested in Anglo-American culture, but the university had a very clear European element.
The most famous person on campus was the writer W. G. Sebald, who published his novel Austerlitz that autumn. Although Sebald had been born in Germany in 1944, he had long been living in the UK. He taught literature from Central Europe, he had a couple of courses about Kafka. One of the subjects of his work was memory. His books often deal with the recent history of Europe and its traumas: from the exploitation of Congo by Belgium or the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II. From the plains of East Anglia, which appear in some of his works, the RAF had flown to the continent.
Sebald’s office had a copy of an engraving by Goya in the door. It was near the British Centre for Literary Translation, which he had helped to create. At that time, the director was no longer Sebald, but Peter Bush, who translated authors such as Juan Goytisolo. Another translator who frequented the university was Don Bartlett, who had rewritten in English many Scandinavian books (and lately Knausgård), and was married to Cristina Punter, a descendant of Spanish exiles.
These issues were were also British issues. Many of the scholars who best explained Central Europe to the rest of the West were British historians. T. S. Eliot, who’d decided to be British, noted that England was also a Latin country. Few authors embody more clearly the idea of Englishness than Orwell, an author who knew French culture, who wrote about Paris and went to fight fascism in Spain, who wrote works that inspired the dissidents of communism, who wanted to call 1984 “the last man in Europe”, and who argued, from the positions of the democratic left, for the union of European countries.
Obviously, that was the cosmopolitan, university, liberal UK, the one that benefits from globalization –and also where people who are overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the European Union live.
We were also in contact, albeit much less, with other parts of the UK: Portuguese men working in a McDonald’s plant, trade unionists. Shortly after arriving, I saw some posters offering to work in police identification lineups. I enrolled with some friends. It was well paid: 15 pounds an hour. Once there, we had to go in front of the glass and the defence attorney would choose those who resembled most his client. As Spaniards, we were classified with Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese. As I have light coloured eyes, I was often rejected. My more Mediterranean looking friends fared better.
A policewoman, Frank, would call when there was a lineup . She was very friendly. “My dream is to live in Spain when I retire”, she told me one day. I hope that Frank was able to fulfil her dream. And that she votes for the remain side.