Essay: A Wedding and a Divorce

Jul 7, 2016

Lake Effect essayist Kirsten Wisniewski had a unique view of the Brexit fallout.  The Milwaukee native, who has been teaching in Austria for two years, found herself in the UK in the days following the historic vote, and found herself trying to understand it:

I never feel more American than when I’m in the UK. In my normal life in Austria I manage to fly under the radar - if someone notes that I am not originally from the region they generally guess somewhere other than America. Sometimes it’s Germany, sometimes it’s Switzerland, sometimes it’s Sweden. Once I was asked if I was French. It’s confusing for everyone.

Here though, it’s pretty obvious. Because my British accent impersonation is limited to really just “‘ello govna!” I’m not fooling anyone. Outside of Austria, however, the UK is where I have spent the most time over the past two years. I have spent more time in England and Wales during this period than in America, and this week I’m in Wales for a wedding. The amazing family I come to visit here lives on a very cool farm in Monmouthshire, a county bordering England. While we’ve still managed to get in the usual farm conversations about poultry houses and whether to power wash the stables for the wedding, there has also been a lot of talk about the Brexit. We are a “Remain” household here, so the results were a bit of a blow.

I landed in London 2 days after the vote. Because my British friends are not a random sampling of everyone from the UK, many are young and educated and they tend to be fairly pro-Europe, I was pretty surprised. But so, seemingly, were the British. Nearly every hour I have clocked in the farmhouse kitchen working on wedding cake related projects, has brought some radio story about a British person either being surprised that the vote passed, regretting voting “Leave,” or a combination of the two.

That’s the part that gets me.

There are many people who voted “Leave” and are content with their vote. That’s a boring story, though, so we never hear about them. BBC has standards. But the fact that there are people out there who vote for things that they might not actually believe is the right choice, is deeply troubling. One woman said it felt like a protest vote. Like if enough people voted “Leave” it would make a point to the government, but no one expected that it would actually get a majority. It was like a game of political chicken, and now British people working and studying in the EU are worried about their visa status.

At the wedding I had several people ask me about Donald Trump. This is not new. The past year of my life has been spent answering questions about him. I think it’s an unfortunate part of living abroad for all Americans right now. Austrians, interestingly, seem to find him hilarious more than worrying. Maybe it’s the hair. But last night’s line of questioning was different. There seemed to be a warning element to those conversations. While Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain, Wales was a mix. Monmouthshire voted to remain, narrowly. Talking with the family and with their friends at the wedding, it is as though the vote was a reality check. First, to the people who voted in protest, that votes have consequences. Second, for everyone else, you may not be able to count on your countrymen to do what is expected or predicted. So while 9 months ago my students had questions about the wall that Mexico will pay for, this time people asked what I thought the longer term impact would be of a Trump presidency, what the Brexit plus Trump would do to the US and Europe. Some people simply asked, “Do you think it’s possible?” Everyone included the warning, “we didn’t think this could happen, either.” Several people apologized for criticizing America about Trump early on, saying that now the UK was no better.

On the home front, my current home front that is, the presidential election results in Austria were just overturned by the federal court. It was a tight race between an incredibly right-wing, anti-immigrant, Freedom Party candidate and a candidate from the liberal Green Party. While the Greens won in that election, it left a lot of Austrians a little shaken. It was close. Very close. This is a country with a very mixed history when it comes to immigration. While many Austrians have some history of immigration in their family, there is still often a certain level of distrust in regions with fewer, more recent immigrants. The refugee crisis of the past year was also difficult to navigate for such a small country, especially one with a diverse set of political views but not much infrastructure for handling a sudden influx of people. But a few weeks ago they voted for a pro-Europe candidate. And now they will have to vote again in the fall. In the wake of the Brexit and the tension that it has caused not only in the UK, but in Europe generally, it’s anyone’s guess how that one will shake out.

What the past week or two has led me to believe is that we are playing fast and loose with our politics. In the US, in the UK, in Austria. We’re panicking. There are many different reasons to panic, some more legitimate than others. But we’re doing it. As a result, we’re losing track of what we want, and maybe even who we are. We have politicians across the world saying that they are running to try to restore a sense of national identity to Austria, to reclaim what it means to be British, to make America great again. But as we get involved in political movements that distance ourselves from our allies and the rest of the world, who will we have left?

There’s this sense I get sometimes from other Americans, that because we are a huge country, both in population and area, we’ll be fine on our own. We don’t NEED friends. This is incorrect, but I’m not surprised to hear that attitude from some American politicians. But when a little island country the size of Oregon decides that maybe it’s okay on its own, and when the people of a country with a population the size of London and land area just a bit larger than Lake Superior begins to echo that sentiment, I start to wonder. Are we headed towards an everyone for themselves kind of world? With so much of these movements being driven by fear or hate or misinformation, how do we fix this? How do we convince our allies not to jump ship, and how do we convince each other not to panic?

I, like a total traitor, celebrated the 4th of July here in Wales. Last week a British politician described the Brexit vote as an Independence Day for the UK. While I will never cease to remind British friends who claim credit for “inventing America” that we subsequently outgrew them, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be independent in an ever smaller world. Fierce independence and self reliance are the American way. At this moment, though, I’m of the mind that maybe the kind of independence looming on the horizon is overrated.