Ode to Joy makes me cry now, and I suspect it always will; the notes forever sounding an evocative hymn to what might have been, could have been, should have been.
Four years ago I would have described myself as British, or English. As a Northerner and a Londoner. And as a European. Today I am still proudly Northern and passionate about my adopted city, but first and foremost I self-identify as a European. When push comes to shove you realise where your loyalties lie, and mine lie with the great ideal of togetherness and peace and co-operation which are the basis of a united Europe over and above the defensive, insular, excluding and frequently jingoistic ideas which are now all too frequently cited as ‘British values’. Dr Johnson famously declared that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’, and watching over the past few years as our current Prime Minister has built himself an entire career on a wave of faux-patriotic fervour it is hard to disagree.
However, I was determined that this post should truly be an ode to joy, a celebration of everything I love and value about Europe and being a European rather than playing the blame game.
This post is for my first taste of European travel when I went on a school French exchange trip aged 17 and discovered that these exotic creatures, The French, drank their morning coffee in bowls, ate dinner at 9pm and had elevated bread and butter to an art form.
It is for my second trip abroad, to achingly beautiful and romantic Venice when I was 19 and madly in love and beside myself with excitement to be seeing the world with my beloved. It is for discovering on that trip that an English girl from Liverpool speaking no Italian, and an Italian girl from Venice speaking no English, can communicate perfectly well in the French which they both learnt at school.
It is for every night sleeper train I have taken, laying my head down to sleep in one country and waking in another.
It is for getting engaged on a Roman roof terrace.
It is for croissants, steak and vin rouge in France, pizza, gelato and prosecco in Italy, pintxos and txakoli in the Basque country, seafood and jamon in Spain, strudel and hot chocolate in Austria, croquettes and waffles in Belgium, pasteis de nata and fresh orange juice in Portugal, goulash in Hungary and cherry vodka in Poland.
It is teaching my children to say ‘grazie’, ‘merci’, ‘danke’ and ‘gracias’ so they can mind their manners almost anywhere in Europe.
It is careering across a continent taking in eight countries in seven days on an inter-rail trip with my husband, 5 year old daughter and 5 month old baby bump whilst never having to show my passport.
It is home exchange trips where we have swapped houses and, temporarily, lives with European neighbours from France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, providing our family with some of our most memorable (not to mention cheapest!) holidays.
It is the kindness of strangers in an Italian playground when my 4 year old face planted off the swing onto the tarmac, and I was instantly surrounded by people offering me wipes, water, ice packs, snacks and sympathy.
It is my friends and neighbours and my children’s classmates here in London – German, Belgian, Italian, Danish, Spanish, Polish, French – a glorious melting pot which enhances every element of life in London.
It is for freedom and excitement and romance and possibility entrancingly combined with security and stability and prosperity.
It is for a convention on human rights which enshrines liberty, freedom, justice and equality in a law that surmounts national boundaries.
It is my passionate belief that the closer we entwine our economic lives, our political lives, our cultural lives and our legal lives with our European neighbours, the less likely we are ever to fight another war with them.
On a continent which has historically started conflicts which rent the world asunder it is 450 million people diverse in language and culture but bound together by common values and a desire to change and improve but, above all, maintain peace in an increasingly scary and divided world which faces truly global challenges.
Britain may officially leave the European Union tomorrow, losing much of our influence, protections and freedoms as we do so, but nothing can change simple geographic fact: we are Europeans, and Europeans we will remain. I hope with all my heart that this is au revoir but not goodbye. #iamaeuropean