Catrina Davies discovered her true self in Europe. In September she left Cornwall for Portugal, from where she reflects on severance, belonging and betrayal.
When I was ten my parents took me and my sisters to France for a week. We drove onto the ferry at Plymouth, all squashed into our Citroen AX, disembarked in Roscoff six hours later, and the whole thing took less time than going to visit our extended family in Llandudno.
Mum had been abroad twice, three times if you count Jersey. Apart from Ireland, Dad had never been abroad, and neither had I or my sisters.
Abroad. Out of one’s own country. In a foreign country or countries. Away from one’s home. In circulation. At large.
The same year we went to Brittany, 11 tunnel-boring machines began cutting through the 20 miles of chalk marl between the English port of Dover and the French port of Calais. One hundred and fifty thousand men were employed, at a cost of three million pounds a day. Ten of them got tangled up in the boring machines and died. The survivors tunnelled on, the English towards the French and the French towards the English, and eventually, on 1 December 1990, they met. Englishman Graham Fagg and Frenchman Phillippe Cozette broke through the last bit of solid matter that stood between their two countries, and shook hands. A BBC television commentator noted that Graham Fagg was “the first man to cross the Channel by land for 8000 years”.
I don’t remember when I first noticed my home was an island. It might have been when I was 22 and living for a brief period in Strasbourg. Strasbourg is the geographical centre of the European Union, which is why the European Parliament is there. I remember the thrill of standing in Strasbourg-Ville station and reading the departures board: Vienna, Paris, Brussels, Basel, Munich. Change in Vienna for Budapest, Milan, Rome, Warsaw, Moscow. No ferries, no tunnels, no planes.
I’m sitting in the lobby of an IBIS hotel in Petite France, where Kevine is working a night shift. I’m with a group of friends from Scotland, England, Serbia, France and Spain. We’ve been out dancing at Elastique, and now we’re heading back to our student halls. To get there we’ll have to walk right past the European Parliament. All the flags will be flying, including my own. Kevine brings us trays of IBIS tea and biscuits, and we consume them rowdily.
I’m here as part of an EU-funded scheme, called the Leonardo Da Vinci programme. A friend from university told me about it, and we both applied. She was assigned Italy and I was assigned France. I’ve been given three months’ free accommodation (in student halls), enough money for food, a month’s worth of free intensive language classes, and two months’ work experience in a French business of my choice (I choose a radio station). Anyone can apply for the programme. You don’t have to have a degree. It’s designed to promote freedom of movement between the different countries of the European Union. We’re first-generation European citizens, trading thoughts, stories, ideas, love, friendship, food and songs.
Kevine’s friend Etienne plays the guitar. In the evenings we sit around in his room and smoke weed and sing along to Manu Chao. On the weekends we take trains to all the countries within striking distance. Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland. On my last night in Strasbourg I sleep with Etienne. Then I go to Paris. Then I go to Montpellier. I get a job and a house and a car and a boyfriend. In the evenings I go to jazz school. It costs next to nothing and I take it all for granted, all of this freedom, all of this opportunity. The wars are over, history has ended, I’m a European citizen, and Europe is my playground.
I’m sitting on a rock on the western edge of the Algarve, where Europe falls into the Atlantic. I’m drinking Sagres beer and watching the sun go down with Eduardo from Madrid. I’m at the end of a long journey and I feel like I’ve finally encountered a version of myself that rings true. I don’t want to lose her, but I won’t know if she’s real until I take her home. The next day I load up my van with boxes of wine and five-litre tins of olive oil. I head north to Roscoff, snacking on kilos of cherries I buy from vendors on the side of the road in Spain. I could never afford cherries in England.
I’m sitting on the steps of my friend’s house in Newlyn, watching trawlers motor in and out of the harbour. The granite walls of the terrace opposite seem harder and less forgiving than they did yesterday. Even the sea looks different. I’ve never felt so close and so far away from my friends on the mainland, from my other selves. I feel like I’ve been dumped, like something precious and vital has been ripped away and part of me has gone with it. I try to explain to my friend and boyfriend why I’m so devastated. They don’t get it. I throw my phone at the wall and it smashes. They didn’t even vote.
I’m sitting on the roof of a house made of rammed earth, six miles inland from the coastal town of Vilanova de Milfontes. The Alentejo reminds me of California, even though I’ve never been there. Sun-soaked west-facing beaches backed by dunes and snaking wooden walkways. Bougainvillea creeping up the walls of the whitewashed houses and spilling over the verandas and terraces. The Alentejo isn’t quite the Algarve, in the way Devon isn’t quite Cornwall. There are more trees and fewer surf shops. The light is not as blinding. There are goats and sheep and cows with bells around their necks and endless winding dirt tracks leading mostly nowhere.
The rooftop I’m sitting on is six miles as the crow flies from the sea, but 15 miles by road, because there’s a river in the way. Actually, the Mira is not a river, it’s a long tidal estuary, a kind of shallow fjord. I’ve taken to going down to the river that’s not a river at least once a week. I like the emptiness and the stillness and the birds. It helps to sit and watch the water moving slowly backwards and forwards between the hills and the ocean.
From a historical perspective, this is nothing. Zoom out. Imagine the Roman Empire a hundred years after it fell. Imagine being a refugee crammed onto a tiny boat that’s sinking in the channel. Get a grip. I can’t stop crying.
The quickest way to the Mira is straight down through the eucalyptus. I can see it spread out in front of me, hectare after hectare, one of countless vast plantations that are slowly draining the life and water out of the soil, leaving the earth scarred and barren, like the sitka spruce plantations in Wales.
One of the worst things about Brexit is how it’s sucking energy and resources from things that really matter, things that require international co-operation and global focus. 2020 will soon be declared the joint hottest year on record, tied with 2016, which at least had the excuse of El Niño.
According to Friends of the Earth, “[Brexit] makes it much easier for government to relax or delete the rules we have, and doesn’t provide any incentive for either the UK or the EU to improve environmental rules in future. Fail.”
On 7th January 2021 the UK government used its fresh ‘sovereignty’ to approve plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria. Two days later they give farmers the go-ahead to use a bee-killing pesticide that’s banned in the EU, despite having explicitly promised not to.
It’s hard to navigate the eucalyptus. I’ve started building surreptitious cairns for myself where the tracks fork. I put another couple of rocks on each of my cairns every time I pass, in the hope they’ll help me find my way home.
In her essay, ‘Suddenly A Duck’, Claire-Louise Bennett writes that in her third year at university, “the importance of academic achievement began to wane – discovering how to live, how to inhabit the world was a more urgent and engrossing assignment”.
As a European citizen, I lived and worked in France, Italy, Austria and Portugal. I busked my way through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and Spain. I was engrossed in learning how to inhabit my world, which stretched from Helsinki to Sagres, Galway to Zagreb.
Now I’m scrabbling to get my papers in order before the island of my birth builds a virtual wall between itself and the continent that is my home. If I’m lucky, and I get all my forms right, and I spend at least six months a year here for the next five years, I’ll be able to live and work in Portugal. Not France, or Spain, or Italy, or any of the other 27 countries my fellow Europeans can still move around in. Just Portugal, and the UK, for as long as it holds together, and Ireland, for as long as there’s a Common Travel Area. My nieces and nephews are coming up to the age I was when I first started spreading my wings and crossing the water and finding my European family. They will never know that sense of freedom and belonging.
I left in late September in the small window between lockdowns. I drove onto the ferry at Plymouth, in my Y-reg Citroen Berlingo, and disembarked in Santander 20 hours later. It was not a good time to be travelling. The ferry was half empty and most of the cafés and bars were closed. There was no holiday atmosphere. I was riddled with sadness, guilt and anxiety. I was deserting friends and family in the middle of a pandemic. I was leaving my shed just when I’d made it legal and bought my first ever sofa. I was disrupting work on my third book. I was potentially taking a deadly virus from the UK to Portugal. I was embarking on a long-distance relationship with the one person in the world who knows how to keep me sane. It takes three days to get from Cornwall to the Alentejo if you don’t want to fly.
I wanted to stay at home, but I also wanted to stay European. I didn’t want to have to choose. I had to choose. It hurts even more over here. I’m still surrounded by my fellow Europeans, only now I don’t belong and I’m not free. I have to do things they don’t have to do. They can do things I can’t do. Nobody actually knows what I can and can’t do yet, because [at that moment. Ed] there’s no deal yet. There might never be a deal. The UK government don’t seem to care either way. They have a different agenda.
“Fascism is now an international movement”, wrote George Orwell in 1944, “which means not only that the Fascist nations can combine for the purposes of loot, but that they are groping, perhaps only half-consciously as yet, towards a world system.”
For its perpetrators, Brexit is a kleptocratic project. It’s very much about power and looting. But for the kleptocratic ruling class and their billionaire backers, fascism is a means to an end. The Big Lie about ‘Global Britain’ returning to its rightful place of dominance is underpinned by the myth of sovereignty. Scratch the surface of sovereignty and you find white supremacy. For many of its most avid flag-waving supporters, Brexit is a racist project. When the awful ramifications of what we have done to ourselves begin to manifest, rage and tribalism will kick in. Priti Patel is already pledging a “regular drumbeat” of deportation flights. As Hardeep Matharu wrote just after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building in what many are calling a fascist coup attempt: “That we think it really couldn’t happen here is exactly why it could.”
For four and a half years I’ve been trying to find somewhere to stand, somewhere high enough to catch the angle from which this violent act of national self-harm makes sense. The truth, as seen from up here on this Alentejano roof, is shocking. The only place from which it makes sense to destroy a country is behind ‘enemy’ lines.
Whichever side you think you’re on, in this new world system we’re all victims. Poorer, sadder, angrier, more isolated and more exploitable. The deadly incompetence displayed by the UK government during the coronavirus pandemic is a front. The truth is, they don’t care about us. We’re a captive market, a source of money they can funnel into the pockets of their friends, a plot device (the ‘will of the people’), and a mirror. From behind enemy lines, citizens are adversaries, cannon fodder, tools. They need us to buy their shit and to die for them, and they need to see their troubled, hollow, puffed-up, broken selves reflected in our disbelieving eyes.
I can hear the sound of a chainsaw, the sound of dogs barking. I can hear the sound of the wind gently rattling the palm fronds, picking up small leaves and putting them down again. I can hear insects buzzing and the occasional car engine on the road to Troviscais. I can see the cork oaks across the valley. They’ve been cut. There are numbers painted in white on their exposed and blackened flesh.
Cork oaks (Quercus Suber) are closely related to the sessile oaks (Quercus Petraea)that grow in Wales, where I was born, and in Cornwall, where I spent my childhood and most of my adult life. Quercus is a Latin word, a hangover from the Roman Empire, like most Portuguese words and many English ones. Portuguese has a smattering of Arabic, and English has plenty of Old Norse, but on paper our shared Latin roots make it fairly easy for us to understand one another. It’s much easier for me to guess the meaning of a Portuguese word than it is for my Dutch and Israeli classmates. I say “class”: the three of us sit with our (anarchist) teacher outside a café once a week on red plastic chairs, eat toasted cheese and oregano sandwiches and fill our notebooks with whatever words are uppermost in our minds: doninha (skunk), oculos de sol (sunglasses), morrer (die), morar (live), beber (drink), fe (faith), raiva (anger), sistema de exploracao (system of exploitation).
The cork oaks are evergreen as well as fire-resistant, qualities that help them thrive in a climate with too much sun and not enough water, as opposed to the not enough sun and too much water that I and the sessile oaks are used to. The cork oaks, like all oaks, appear to be calmly, patiently, waiting for something.
The Portuguese verb esperar means to wait. If you add que, as in esperar que, it means hope. To wait is to hope.
It’s been raining for two weeks, after one of the driest summers on record, and from up here I can see how all the dead things have returned to life. The olive trees are a bluish green. The palm fronds are psychedelic. The hills are so bright it’s like someone’s coloured them in with a highlighter pen.
It’s coming up to Christmas and the nights are cold, but there’s still warmth in the sun. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The second wave of Covid is building, feathering, ready to break. My immediate surroundings are peaceful. I’m okay. I’m sad. I’m scared. I’m furious. I’m abroad, out of my own country, in a foreign country, away from home, in circulation, at large, British, European, human, animal. Learning from minute to minute how to walk the line between denial and despair.