On the day of the referendum result, I arrived at my desk in an advertising agency in Munich to find my boss unplugging my computer and telling me to go home. He was joking of course (I think), but this move marked the start of a new form of communication with my continental comrades.
Brexit is the topic on everyone’s lips, in the UK, but also in Germany. At least with me that is. As soon as people realise I’m British, I am either benevolently pitied, become the butt of friendly jokes or am assumed to be an expert – until my interlocutors realise I don't know much more about what's going on than they do.
As I can never predict when a dinner, a work event or even a wedding might turn into what feels like an appearance on Question Time, reading up on the Irish backstop has now become part of my getting-ready routine.
This has been going on for over three years now. And as the process continues, I’m starting to notice that people don’t want me to explain the ins and outs of Brexit; they want me to make sense of it.
This was especially clear with the recent suspension of parliament. As Germany is run on clear rules and, more importantly, a written constitution (the so-called Grundgesetz “Basic Law”), no one here could fathom the lack of clarity in the UK. How on earth could a country that normally seems fairly orderly not know what is possible or what is not? I don’t know guys! Pass.
There was a similar reaction when, back in March, John Bercow based a decision on a principle that could be traced back to 1604. Delving this far back into the archives was utterly incomprehensible to a country whose Basic Law was approved in 1949.
It seems this bewilderment is having some impact on people’s perception of Britain. I recently went to buy a bike helmet and found the Union Jack design to be the cheapest. “UK branding doesn’t really sell right now,” the shop assistant kindly informed me. Ouch. That’s not to say I wasn’t tempted – all I would have needed was some flags and a zip wire to complete the look.
Curious to know if this Union Jack sentiment was felt elsewhere, I called an English shop in Munich – Pomeroy and Winterbottom – to find out how their clientele is dealing with the saga. They told me that Brexit is certainly a big talking point in the store, but that loyalty to Queen and country remains.
Given that customers here are willing to pay a premium for a bar of Dairy Milk or a jar of Marmite, this makes sense. The greater concern is where to source a Christmas pudding in Munich should the impact of Brexit cause the shop to close.
Earlier this week, I even heard Britain’s political conundrum being thrown around at Oktoberfest. Someone who’d announced they were going home was later spotted with a new litre of beer in their hand. Cue the “Doing a Brexit” jokes.
Of course not everyone wants to talk about it. Some simply aren’t interested and others don’t have time. The latter group might just offer the word “Brexit” in response to my nationality, an initially refreshing alternative to the previously popular “fish and chips” or “The Beatles”.
I was always unsure about how to react to these words of recognition, but a high five has never felt more inappropriate.
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