How Did Europe Touch upon My Life?
I can close my eyes, and walk through Petrogradskaya Storona in St Petersburg; through El Casco Viejo in Bilbao; through Blackrock in Dublin. I can whisper these strange sounds that compose the names of the streets and boroughs, villages and towns that form parts of these cities, of these locations, of these geographical places. I am smiling. So many interconnected maps in my head. So many crossroads. O’Connell Street crosses Nevsky Prospect at the Plaza Abando.
I am in Dublin, it is wet out here; it is refreshing. It reminds me of that sunny day, the end of the first year of the National School of Drama. We rented a boat and travelled across rivers and canals of St Petersburg, when the rain started so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and so predictably that we were laughing. I remember we were still calling this city Leningrad. It is less and less Leningrad, though. The last children born in Leningrad are now almost thirty years old. No single cat born in Leningrad is alive. This city belongs to a different Europe, not the one I would like to be proud of: this Europe punishes those who disagree, kills the weak, doesn’t care about the past. I want to find another Europe.
How did Europe touch upon my life? I see a question mark. It means that this is not a rhetorical question. Is it a question at all? Europe is my habitat, a place where I learned to be. No, it’s a place where I learned to be myself, my ordinary self, my unsupportable self, my passionate self. Back there, far away from European borders, parched by the brightest sun I’ve ever seen in the Central Asian steppe, I was raised as a child of Europe learning the history of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, learning English, Spanish, and French, memorizing the dates of European battles, names of European scientists, European poets and European monarchs.
Like billions of others, born and raised outside geographical Europe, we were born and raised inside the European cultural space. The timeline, the landscape, the toponymy – everything there was dictated by Europe. There was a statuette of Don Quixote in our home library, a portrait of Shakespeare and Chekhov, an immensely big album of Michelangelo’s reproductions on our tea table, and vinyl records of Beethoven and Mozart. How did Europe touch upon my life? Europe has been seen by me as an Eldorado, I have been taught that this is the land where a human being lives in dignity and prosperity, not in that desperate misery, in which people find themselves in post-Soviet countries. I was seven when the Soviet Union collapsed. I was ten when the European Union was founded.
“Europe is the main problem,” my friend Arkaitz told me. We were sitting at the entrance of his caserio not far from Bermeo, a gorgeous coastal village in Bizkaia. Arkaitz believes that his land should be reunited, but that the Spanish and French states don’t want this and the European Union will never support the independence of euskaldunak.
“The European Union is a joke. They destroyed everything; they made us poor. We don’t need them, we don’t need Madrid or Paris to decide for us. We can manage ourselves. And you know, it’s not about independence, it’s about being asked, it’s about principles”, Arkaitz is getting emotional. He looks to the green hill and smokes weed. His boyfriend Sean is from Dundalk.
“The only country in the European Union that I respect is Ireland. They managed, they managed against the fucking Brits. We will manage too. I promise”, Arkaitz and Sean laugh out loud. I laugh with them.
“You guys preserved your language though,” says Sean, “in Ireland people don’t speak Irish at all. No one I know speaks Irish. I hated it in school.”
“Without your language you don’t exist. Without your language you are vulnerable. I envy Russians. You got your own alphabet, bastards.” Arkaitz smiles at me.
“We destroyed a lot of others,” I answer thoughtfully.
“You are so fucking stoned. You can’t even move. Who will you destroy?” The three of us start laughing again. We laughed for a good while.
“How is Ireland?” I ask Sean.
“It’s like here, but without mountains,” Arkaitz answers instead.
“What do you mean?” I reply.
“I mean it’s green and fool of stupid sheep!” Arkaitz laughed.
“This is not true,” Sean shakes his head. “We have mountains.” Arkaitz falls from the chair laughing. We follow him. They kiss. They are free. I feel free with them too.
“This is Europe,” I thought. “Europe is freedom.”
I am talking to a person who works with people seeking international protection in Ireland. I am safe, I am in Europe. Everything will be alright. But I feel very lost. I don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow. I managed to escape. I feel very lonely and I am alone most of the time. He says Ireland is particularly bad at dealing with people seeking asylum. He says that my case is strong, but despite this fact, despite all the evidence, I will have to wait for several years, without permission to work, somewhere far away from the city. I haven’t lived far away from any city in my life.
‘Maybe it’s not that bad,” I think.
He describes the process. He goes into some details. I feel worse. I know I have to go through this. There is very little I can do, anyone can do.
“You will be given food and relocated to one of the direct provision centres across the country. The situation with housing in Ireland is very difficult, so it is almost impossible to stay in Dublin. They don’t allow you to choose where you will live either. The situation has improved slightly, but the average waiting time for the first interview is eighteen months. We are pushing them to move faster, but it is still quite slow.” His eyes are sad. He tries to smile.
“What can I do?” I smile back. “I will try to survive somehow, I guess.”
“It’s cruel to make people spend years of their lives eating shite in direct provision, it’s unacceptable that Ireland, a nation of emigrants, treats people this way. I am ashamed of my country,” Sean screams in my ear. We are in a pub in Dublin. “I am so sorry, dude. It’s a fucking shame. Why did Germany receive a million asylum seekers? Why do other countries give people papers much faster? And we are making them wait for years in direct provision for nothing!”
“I am ashamed of all of Europe,” Arkaitz disagrees with Sean. “Look at what is happening in the Mediterranean, look at those terrible refugee camps in Greece. We are totally fucked up. It’s all Europe. Fortress Europe. We are all fucked up. You’ll see now with the COVID we will be all in deep shit.”
“I am so sorry, bro.” Sean gives me a hug. “I am so fucking sorry.”
I have got my refugee status in the Republic of Ireland. I have benefitted from the commitment of the European Union to human rights. For some inexplicable reason the process took nineteen months of my life. The committed and passionate work of hundreds of people in our small island, first of all, driven by people seeking asylum themselves, convinced the government to make some improvements. I was allowed to work, while most others, who had already spent years of their lives here, weren't given this right. I worked very hard to restart my life at the age of thirty-five. It is still ok. I managed somehow. While thousands of others have not.
How did Europe touch upon my life? I see a question mark. It means that this is not a rhetorical question. Is it a question at all? Europe is my home, my old new home. I have been allowed in. But today I hear those who have not been allowed in, or sent back after waiting for years, after fighting for years for their lives; my contemporaries, knocking on the fortress gate, asking for help. They are drawing in the waters of the sea, the one most described by poets, painters, and musicians, Mediterranean Sea. The old sea is looking at them as Gustav von Aschenbach was looking at Tadzio. Death is everywhere. Calm and relentless death.
My life is intertwined with the lives of those who I met in direct provision. They are my legitimate Europeans, people I want to stand for. How can I live in European comfort without thinking about them, without trying to help them! People of every colour, of every language, of every culture are the future, the love, the joy, and the hope of Europe. They will make Europe thrive. This is the one and only future that Europe, my Europe deserves. The Europe that has been imagined in the Central Asian secondary school, in my University on the Petrogradskaya Storona, on the quay of the Nervion River by the museum of Guggenheim-Bilbao, in my cul-de-sac in Dublin 1. Europe is a place where diversity meets freedom. For how much longer will it be only in my imagination?