Lifestyle & Culture

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey in Paris: A personal Brexit story about our German/British family

When you are German with an English husband and live and work in France, you can’t help but feel European through and through. So, I was deeply shocked when the United Kingdom was starting to consider leaving the European Union.

It was the time when nations across the world began vilifying immigrants and talking about building walls rather than tearing them down. But I never imagined the UK would really consider leaving the EU. Not with the Brits’ love of holidays and retiring in France and Spain, with an estimated 800,000 Brits living in other EU states, and, well, being part of a team.

Immigration fun

Not long after, we were at the self-check-in at Charles de Gaulle Airport for another trip to Blighty. My husband scanned his passport, fine. I scanned my passport, and a box came up asking me if I had a visa to Britain? Did I need one? Who knows? But procedures were obviously being put in place.

We moved on to passport control, in the EU queue, and my husband got a sad remark from the French control officer: “Aren’t you in the wrong queue?” Oh, I was looking forward to future travel. We would soon have to queue separately, by the looks of it.

Next time I was queuing for the Eurostar from Paris, my passport refused to swipe me through, and I got the third-degree from the customs officer in the cubicle, together with a hapless Portuguese family on holiday by the neighbouring window.

Why was I going to London? Why was I coming to the UK so often? What was I doing there? Did I have any other ID? (What, better than my passport Seriously?)

The family and I were being treated worse than third-class citizens, and I am sure we all would have loved to shout at the customs officers to keep their wretched island, their long-lost empire, their immigrant-free dream and see how they will fare on their own.


On Brexit voting day, we were in the UK supporting our daughter’s first-ever opportunity to cast a vote. She had to do it for the entire family, as I, as a foreigner, never have been eligible to vote, and my husband forfeited his rights by living an expat life for some 20 years, even though he was still allowed to pay taxes.

But that is another story.

So, we put all our hope in the daughter, never believing that it would go any other way than Remain. The next morning – 22 June 2016 – was a blow. Even for those who voted Leave.

Watching the German and French news, it was obvious that there was a lot of sadness in Europe, everybody felt as I had when the news broke. Heart-broken and hurt, and at a loss as to where this would leave those of us who took advantage of the open borders.

I felt personally hurt and offended, feeling as rejected as most Europeans did. Maybe the UK never was a solid part of the EU family, barely acknowledging being part of the same continent.

I remember when I was at university in England and people always introduced me as being “from Europe,” forgetting that EU or no EU, they too were part of that continent called Europe. But even the currency stayed different, so I guess the distance, – that narrow channel between the UK and Europe – has always been there. And now we had it in writing.

We returned to France with a heavy heart, wondering what would happen to us. It was time for my husband to apply for a Titre de Séjour, a residence permit, to ensure he could go on working in France. But, approaching his French company, they refused to furnish him with the required documents, reasoning that nobody knew if he would actually need them. They would deal with if and when.

Considering it takes months to get an appointment, we felt left hanging again. Would my husband be allowed to keep working in France? Would I eventually be allowed to return with him to live in the UK? Nobody had any answers, and alas, still don’t.

Three and a half years later the Brexit date is finalized, but not much else is. We have travelled a few more times to the UK while we could do so without aggravation, and are contemplating leaving France, to get away from this mess. We are expats, after all. The world – supposedly – is our oyster.

Even if Europe isn’t.

About the author:

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer, guidebook author, and serial expat. Having lived in seven countries on three continents and two hemispheres, she is currently based in Paris, France. 

See more of Ulrike’s work on her website here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

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