After the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, something new popped onto my to-do list, somewhere after Take back library books and before Book dentist appointment.
Apply for German citizenship.
My mother brought it up first over dinner one evening last autumn. Because of the referendum, she had decided that our family should avail itself of the right that Germany granted in 1949 to all those—mostly Jews—who had been stripped of their German citizenship under the Third Reich (and to their descendants): we could apply to reclaim it while keeping our current citizenship as well. Without discussing it with me, she had started her own application. “You should get yours and the children’s,” she said.
At first I was dismissive. I work every day with refugees in London, and their yearning to remain in the UK has made me vividly aware of the wonderful luck I have in being a British citizen. Who needs to gild that lily? And more, even for the most rational of us, citizenship is not just a piece of convenient paper. I was born in England and I have lived all my life in England, apart from brief stints as an au pair in Florence and a student in Massachusetts. I have never experienced this as a narrow horizon but rather as a deep, barely plumbed richness of landscape and language and culture. I love my country. I like to have that reflected in my only passport.
To be sure, the result of the referendum has made my relationship with Britain more fraught. Like the later stages of a long marriage, it is now full of difficult questions about whether I really know the object of my love and whether we have been growing apart rather than together over the years. Even so, I saw no need to add to my British citizenship. But my daughter, Clara, fastened quickly on my mother’s statement and did not forget it. For my children, Britain’s leaving the EU has more urgent implications. It is becoming a practical question about what they can do, rather than a theoretical question about who they are.
Clara is sixteen, and like many teenagers brought up in this multicultural London of the twenty-first century, looks outward in a way I never did. Her three best friends at her state school are, by background, Syrian, Chinese, and Bangladeshi. She has a French exchange friend, and they have become more than the usual reluctant pen pals; they have spent four holidays in each other’s cities, and they regularly message on WhatsApp in both French and English. And since the property boom here has made…
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