A Patriot on Brexit

A few days ago, I flew home from a family holiday in Croatia. I love travelling; I love the adventure, the new food to be tasted, clear seas to swim in, unexplored dusty roads to walk. And yet, at the end of every holiday, I find myself sitting in the window seat of the aeroplane, watching with eagle eyes for the lush green fields and scattered houses that will tell me I’m home.

To be a patriot is, perhaps, unfashionable among my generation. We are, more than ever, children of the global age. We are connected through the Internet to thousands of other people, with the same shared interests and ideas. Travel has never been cheaper or easier, and we can hop on planes to far away destinations at the drop of a hat. We grew up in a more multicultural society than our parents and grandparents did, taking new languages and skin colours and ethnicities as a given. I remember a girl at school saying to me once that she didn’t feel British; she had lived all over the world, moving around with her parents, and she felt more than anything to be a bit of everything, a citizen of the world.

I’ve never felt that way. I feel British to my bones. I couldn’t tell you what it is, exactly, without resorting to trite stereotypes. A love (addiction, my boyfriend says) of freshly brewed tea, so hot it burns the tongue. A desire for order, queues, structure. A straight-laced sense of humour, a sarcastic quirk. A knowledge of Britain’s history (both good and bad), and a sense of belonging when I hear that distinctive Oxford accent. Of course, this feeling has changed and developed. In many ways, I feel less British now than I did when I was younger. Meeting and falling in love with my boyfriend showed me – intimately, in a way my small town girlhood never had – what it means to be between two cultures, to be both British and Other. Travelling, reading, exploring; these are the things, I think, that expand our horizons and make it harder to call oneself simply “British.”

All of which leads to the EU referendum, just a few short weeks ago. I voted of course; I voted to remain in, as did nearly everyone I know (certainly nearly everyone of my own age.) That night, my boyfriend and his friends were set to graduate; I sat up until late in the night, drunk on life and cheap wine, watching the results roll in. It looked positive, it looked in our favour, and I fell asleep confident that we would survive this.

When you have a nightmare, waking is the only relief. But the next morning, the nightmare was my new reality, and I couldn’t wake from it. My boyfriend and I sat in bed for hours, reading as many news articles as we could, both in shock.

As the news sunk in, the shock got worse. I didn’t expect Brexit to pass; I certainly didn’t expect to feel as I do. I feel heartbroken. I feel scared for my future, and the future of people I care about. I feel angry. I cling (desperately, foolishly, bleakly) to the hope that I might wake tomorrow and the result will have been reversed.

I am angry at the politicians who manipulated the public perception for their own personal gain. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage; I believe, with everything that I have, that these men lied and wormed their way into the leave campaign for political gain and then, when they won, quit rather than face up to the disastrous consequences of what they’ve done. I am angry with the people I know who voted for leave in the referendum. I’m not the only one; such is the depth of feeling among my contemporaries, many have removed pro-Brexit friends from their Facebook feeds. My own grandparents voted to leave. Of course, I still love them; I have always, and will always love them and do everything I can to make them proud. But knowing that they were complicit in what I see as the ruin of my country and the narrowing of my future chances in life is hard.

Sitting in the sun in Croatia, in amongst the wine and food and swimming, there were moments of heartache. Every time I saw an EU flag, I flinched. My passport – EU and British – was a stark reminder all the way through Gatwick of what my country had done. One night, I sat in the harbour of the town we stayed in. There was live music, English songs crooned with a slight foreign accent. Stopping to listen, you could hear Croatian, German, Italian being spoken. I wanted – I want – to be a part of that. I believe, more than anything, that we are stronger united than we are divided. I believe in the greatness of Britain; but a Britain working within Europe, with the people who – after all – are not that different from us.

We cannot know what the future holds, and I pray that it will not be as bad as I fear. But the day Britain voted to leave the EU, I became less proud of my county. I became, for the first time in my life, ashamed to be British.

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Food

“Doesn’t it look good?”

“Yes. You’re a great cook, Sarah. In fact, I’d call you a chef.”

They are simple words, and yet they meant the world to me. They came from my dad, upon seeing me take tonight’s dinner – of stuffed peppers and courgettes with homemade garlic bread – out of the oven. They meant a lot for two reasons. My dad and I have always had a strained relationship. Compliments or praise have always been rare and hard earned. I distinctly remember telling him my GCSE results, beaming with pride, and seeing him nod once and walk away. A-levels were better; and in fact, calling him to say that I’d secured my place at Cambridge was the first time I can remember him saying he was proud of me. As I get older, I’m working on mending my relationship with him. It’s a slow process, and a difficult one. Knowing that he enjoys the food I make means a lot to me.

But there is another reason why his words pleased me, and that’s because I love cooking. I love food. I love it the way that other people love their families, or their partners, or their sport. I wake up thinking about what I will cook later, and I fall asleep planning meals (last night, I fell asleep planning salads for an upcoming barbeque I’m catering.) When I was bullied at school, there were two things that never failed to comfort me when I got home: writing and cooking. Writing took over my nights. I would huddle in my room, pouring my soul on to the paper. It was something that the bullies couldn’t touch. I created my secret worlds, and I filled them with friends, with magic, with love. The rest of the time, I spent in the kitchen. I cooked my first full meal when I was eleven. It was pasta with tomato sauce, but I made the sauce from scratch. I spent hours peeling the skin from tomatoes, sautéing them with onion and garlic, adding a little wine, a pinch of oregano. It was average at best, but it sparked a passion in me that has yet to be rivalled.

My days are built around the food I eat. I plan my lunch as I eat breakfast (while reading a cooking book at the same time, of course.) I shape my social life around cooking for friends, cooking for my housemates, cooking for my boyfriend. At school, several days a week, I would bring in tins of cakes or cookies, and watch them disappear among my friends. Coming home from school, I would put music on in the kitchen and start baking again, the rhythm and process always managing to soothe me. At university, my final year, I finally got an oven. I had the pleasure of five housemates more than willing to consume what I was making, and I fell into the habit of baking around my work. I would spend a morning making a loaf of bread, working on my laptop around kneading, proving, shaping, baking. The week of Lent bumps, I baked every day, under strict instructions from our coach that my boys had recovery food. Oat cookies, fruit loaf, chocolate cupcakes (at the end of the week), the leftovers devoured by my housemates.

I love to cook. I love selecting the ingredients as I walk around the supermarket. I love weighing the courgettes in my hand, selecting the brightest tomatoes, the firmest carrots. I love hunting through the meat aisles, looking for anything discounted, anything I can freeze. My store cupboard is always full, of beans and pulses, herbs and spices, pasta and rice, cous cous and noodles. I love trying new recipes, new ideas. When I cook, it is chaotic, I take over the whole kitchen. I taste as I go along, a pinch of turmeric here, a cinnamon stick thrown into a beef casserole at the last minute, a grind of pepper into a risotto. I grow herbs in the garden (not in a pot – I can’t keep them alive for longer than a week in a pot) and I love to run my hands over them, inhaling their scent, deciding what to do with them.

Nothing excites me more than cooking new food. One of my friends is vegetarian, and I love looking for new recipes when I cook for her. It has led me to vegetable curries, stuffed peppers, vegetarian lasagnes and inventive stir fries. Another friend is a vegan, and it recently led to vegan brownies, soft and rich and crumbly. Last summer, I taught myself how to make a selection of Indian curries. I spent hours researching them online, reading as many recipes as possible, looking for the similarities, how I could make them the best possible. I tested and perfected them, one at a time, changing the levels of spice and chilli and fire. By the end of the summer, I could make nearly half a dozen different ones, all distinct, all (in my humble opinion) delicious.

When my dad ate the stuffed peppers, he didn’t say anything. But he smiled, and that’s enough for me.

Graduating Cambridge: girl to woman

Today, I began a massive undertaking. I started to take down my wall (pictured above.) I created the wall when I was 13, a collection of photos, posters, tickets and cards that formed the basis of my teenage identity. I stopped adding to it several years ago. Yet every year at Cambridge, I have replicated it with my new life: with hall menus, race numbers, ADC tickets and birthday cards from new friends. Every year, I have taken those items down and stored them carefully. I now have three bags of them in my room, one for each year. Finally, the time has come for me to do the same to my childhood room, which is still decorated as it was when I was a girl.

Why am I doing this? Partly it’s because I will be moving out in the autumn, and feel like I should leave my room in a passable state for my parents. More importantly than that, however, is the shifting of my identity, and the need I have felt since graduating several weeks ago to consolidate it. The items that 13, 14, 15 year old Sarah decorated the walls with are telling. There are anti-bullying posters and declarations of self-esteem; ill-fated attempts to reclaim ownership of my body and mind which would fail for years to come. There are gay rights slogans and the flag I waved at my first pride parade; evidence of the stirrings of my activism and sense of social justice that have shaped so much of my life since.

There are pictures of young men, actors mainly, that teenage Sarah found attractive. There are movie tickets, neat and lined up in a vertical column. They are a testament to hours spent traipsing round the nearest town with a girl I no longer talk to, whiling away our adolescence by absorbing ourselves into someone else’s life. There are tickets to plays and concerts: a particular favourite being The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I first saw when I was 15 (with my Dad, not knowing the contents of the play. My conservative father was, it goes without saying, less than impressed.)

There are pictures drawn by friends, of jokes long since forgotten. Satirical cartoons, cut from copies of Private Eye, evidence of a burgeoning interest in politics that would eventually lead me to Cambridge. There is the personal statement I wrote when I was seventeen: in which I, ironically, express an interest in both Middle Eastern and gender politics (both of which I specialised in during my final year.)

Since graduating, I’ve been trying as hard as possible to keep myself busy. I have gone to the pub with my friends, met up with my boyfriend’s friends, cooked dinner for my family and spent more hours in the kitchen (already) than I would care to admit to. I even cleaned house (without being asked) the other day. I have also started sorting through my bedroom, a task of considerable effort. Part of this has been taking old clothes to charity shops, sorting through my family’s extensive video collection (including no less than three copies of Pocahontas.) In amongst this, I have been thinking about who I am now I’ve graduated.

Cambridge has been such a huge part of my life for three years, and it’s daunting to consider who I am without it. I will have to find a new identity, one that can move forward while still holding on to who I am. Some things will not change. I will still love cooking. I will still be a feminist. I will still love Disney movies, and dancing to Taylor Swift, and I plan to find a new rowing club. Some things will change, however. I won’t be a politics student; I will be a professional woman. Outside of Cambridge and my hometown, my name will be meaningless. There is some comfort in that.

Caitlin Moran once wrote that other people are mirrors; you see who you are reflected in them. If the mirror is distorted or broken, however, then you will see a false picture. For so many years, I have seen myself reflected in the hometown that I grew up in. As hard as I have tried to shake it, the words fat, ugly, bitch, go kill yourself, no one would care have still reverberated around my mind. When I walk down the high street here, I forget sometimes that I am a graduate of Cambridge University, that I am smart and funny and sexy. I remember being followed home from school, the time a group of boys threw rocks at me, and I feel once again eleven and scared and alone.

Leaving my hometown is a huge step for that very reason. I hate running into people I knew from school; and in a town this small, it is a weekly occurrence. Here, I hate the sound of my surname; the bullies at school would always call me by my full name, denying me the humanity of simply being “Sarah.” Here, I avert my eyes in Sainsbury’s, wary of being roped into a conversation with someone who called me a freak at school.

I have written before about exercising to reclaim my body. The coming months are about finding a new identity to reclaim my mind. I will find new mirrors, ones that reflect truly. Clearing out my childhood room is just part of that. As I look through my memories, I see moments of friendship and happiness, something new to build myself on. Thirteen year old Sarah needed self-esteem slogans painted across the walls. Eight years later, I will finally carry them in my head.