Brexit: how do expats live in London?

Ornella Tarantola’s testimonial from the Italian Bookshop in London.

For the past 3 years now, the Brexit issue is ever-present in the political chronicles. All expats follow its ups and downs with great interest, but expats in the United Kingdom experience it with a special degree of concern and apprehension.

A few weeks ago, on my latest trip to London, while I was having lunch, I met up with Ornella Tarantola, who, in a recent article in Repubblica, was defined as the Bookseller for Italians in London. I took the opportunity to listen to her testimonial.

Ornella, when did you arrive in London and what brought you here?
"I needed a fresh start (her story is told in the novel by Luca Bianchini “Dimmi che credi al destino” N.A.), I received the offer from who was then the director of the bookshop and I went. I should have stayed with her for 6 months, and I’ve been here for 25 years."

What happened? Did London get a hold on you?
"It was out and out love at first sight for this city. I began to feel young again, because a great love rejuvenates you. I tasted a feeling of utter freedom. It was like coming across a boyfriend, I felt protected and loved, and at the same time, it gave me the courage and will to open myself up to the world."

What difficulties did you initially have to cope with?
"London is an expensive city, logistics is complicated, and if you want to see a friend who lives on the other side of the city, it is quite difficult. The health system is very different and culturally a long way from our own. But I was in love and when you fall in love you put up with whatever."

What has helped you to integrate?
"I've been a lucky migrant. I found a job straight away and that has allowed me to get into the system. Apart from a job that gave me some recognition, it has opened up countless doors. Not to mention opening up the bookshop to the public, which is either Italian or loves Italy... this has opened up to a favourable environment for me."

What features of the Italians do the English like most?
"They appreciate how fast we are when it comes to integrating, our skill in socializing and tearing down barriers. Getting closer to people is a bit complicated for them"

You are an institution in London. You have managed to create a mini-world around the Italian Bookshop. You evoke our homeland …
"Books evoke home, they make time go by spending very little money. Numerous young people come to the bookshop fascinated by the freedom they find in London. They ask me for recommendations on books to read and I end up giving them advice as if I were their mother. They want to go and dance and I twist their arm into staying at home reading!"

What advice would you give an expat coming to London now to integrate quickly?
"Go to the pub, take part in quiz nights, listen to the radio, attend meet-ups"

How are expats in London experiencing Brexit? What is the atmosphere like?
"I've been here for 25 years now, always in the same company with the same customs, I have had difficulties to get hold of the Settled Status (compulsory for EU, USA or Swiss citizens wanting to stay in the United Kingdom as from 30th June 2021, N.A.). The first time that I applied for it, they turned me down without a word of explanation. I applied again with the help of a lawyer friend and I got it. Right now, this is a cause of concern for all the expats living here and, without this document, your status is in jeopardy."

Has Brexit changed your relationship with the English?
"As a general rule, Brexit has changed ways of thinking and a sense of balance. On the one hand, there are the English who, after this political chaos arising from the referendum, judge us and our country less. On the other hand, there are the English, who love us but don't respect us, who used to be reluctant and now openly talk to us about what they think."

So what about you, Ornella, how are you experiencing your relationship with this city?
"I have experienced it like a kind of treason; everything that I used to tolerate now exasperates me no end. London is one of the great loves of my life, I hope it will make it up to me."

Read the articles on Expats and the world of Intercultural Mind

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