If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” recently declared our Prime Minister. I believe that this statement is both parochial and narrow-minded, as if spoken by someone who has only ever lived in one country, spoken one language and does not know better.
I grew up in four countries, was educated in three and have worked in six more. Now I happily live in London. I guess I am a citizen of the world, but this is the direction the world is moving in. To think that we can go back to an insular existence within the confines of one country, no matter how great that country is, is unrealistic.
I remember the almost fanatical nativist spirit in the US in the 1980s, when immigrants were expected to assimilate and let go of their original identity, sort of like Simón and Davíd in JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. So although you may have called yourself an Italian-American, a very small and culturally insignificant element of the “Italian” would be on display. I suspect that this is the scenario that Theresa May is trying to achieve.
What struck me about the UK, however – and what makes it such a fine example of modernity – is that I did not feel I had to give up my background when I moved here in 1997: instead, I was a Russian living in London, and I tried to explore the best of both worlds.
In 2005, when I became a British citizen, I had to swear a citizenship oath. When it came to declaring allegiance to the Queen’s descendants, I asked if that included Prince Andrew. I was cautioned, but the town hall official could not contain a smirk.
So if you ask me if I identify myself as British, yes, I absolutely do: I identify with the humour, the irreverence, the free spirit. But then when I go to France, I try to be French; in America, I am thrilled if I am still taken for a native New Yorker. And underneath all this, I am fundamentally Russian. This is a wonderful way to live.
I realise that I open myself to accusations of elitism, but on what crazy planet is the wish to explore the world considered anything less than commendable? In fact, I would argue that it is embarrassing to go through life and only ever speak English, especially in a city like London, where there is a language school on every corner and international travel is cheap.
If May told me that I was a citizen of nowhere, I would say that that was abject nonsense. If I care about what is going on in Russia and France, it does not make me care less about the UK. And I would state the obvious by saying that having an international perspective makes me a more savvy, informed citizen: I read newspapers in five languages, for example.
I guess the ultimate test of my citizenship would have been if the UK had a conflict with Russia, and I had to decide on which side of the barricades I would stand. I don’t know – or, rather, I won’t say. What I can say, however, is that, as a global citizen, someone who has real roots in several countries and who has learned not to regard other nations as a distant curiosity – let alone an enemy – I would go further than many, as a citizen, to prevent this from happening.
Bashing the cosmopolitan way of life is the stuff of the seventies. I hope this disturbing trend does not stick.