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6 Reasons Why My British Passport Is My Most Valuable Possession

British Passport Map Great Britain

           Almost 7 years ago my friend Libby and I were backpacking around Cuba at the beginning of our gap year. On a bus from Havana to Viñales we got talking to a young Australian, whose father had emigrated from Ethiopia to Sydney and had managed to get citizenship there. As far as travellers go, this guy was the real deal, carrying around just one small rucksack with him, totally phone-less and iPod-less, instead reading local newspapers for entertainment. He seemed a bit eccentric but was clearly very intelligent and the conversation turned to the subject of nationality. At the tender age of 18, and having had a particularly sheltered upbringing, up until that point I had completely taken for granted my British nationality. He recounted the story of the numerous challenges his father had faced to get into Australia in the first place, then adapting to the label of ‘immigrant’, and finally managing to obtain Australian citizenship and thereby protecting his descendants from the struggles entailed in the life of an immigrant. He then fished out his passport and waved it at us to illustrate his point, as he uttered a sentence that’s come back to me on several occasions since: “Your passport is your most valuable possession.”

          I am lucky enough to hold a British passport, and I repeatedly take it for granted – I think most Brits do. Then something will trigger that memory and I remember just how fortunate I am. Recently I got talking to an American girl about her troubles obtaining visas to work in Europe, and it set me off again. Despite this impossibly materialistic, capitalist world we find ourselves in, I still believe my British passport is my most precious possession and here’s why:

1. Britain is part of the European Union

Belonging to the EU gives me freedom of movement and allows me to live, work, study and do whatever I please anywhere in its 28 member states. No questions asked, no visa applications, no restrictions. Along with this freedom and ease of mobility comes the incredible Erasmus programme, the Leonardo da Vinci programme and a number of other initiatives to develop and nurture us European citizens. It’s what allowed me to take a Third Year Abroad to study in Córdoba and work at Armani in Italy, and it gave me the chance to work as an au pair near Rome and do a ski season in Courmayeur, in the Italian Alps. Each of these experiences living abroad has had a profound effect on who I am, and it’s all thanks to the EU. As a non-European it is much harder to obtain a work permit here, as this American girl was saying, who is only allowed to teach English as part the BEDA Programme and not allowed to seek other work.

Update July 2016: Since I originally wrote this post in early 2014, a small majority of the UK has voted to leave the EU and therefore my status as an EU citizen is at risk. I feel absolutely devastated by these events and I’ve tried to describe my feelings in more detail in this blog post: For the Record: I Do Not Want to Leave the EU

Passport-page-stamps-001

2. Ease of travel in the Commonwealth

Although a lot of negative outcomes emerged from Britain’s colonial footprint, one legacy it did leave is the Commonwealth. A decent number of this collection of 53 sovereign states offer favourable or visa-free entry conditions for Commonwealth citizens, which include those with British passports, meaning that I don’t require a visa to visit countries such as Malaysia, South Africa, Canada whereas other nationalities do. Furthermore, in 2013 the British passport actually ranked 1st in the world (tied with Swedish and Finnish passports) in terms of freedom of travel, as it offers visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 173 countries and territories, more than any other passport. Here’s an up-to-date full ranking of each country in the world, and it’s really interesting to see which countries have which levels of freedom of travel.

3. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office

There are 268 British Embassies and Consulates in more than 170 countries, meaning in theory that I will be looked after wherever I am, in the event that I’m robbed, etc. While plenty of other developed countries offer similar protection through their diplomatic missions, when compared with a large number of developing countries with far fewer resources, the British have a huge advantage. I disagree with the idea that some nationalities are more newsworthy than others, but it is unfortunately true that if a citizen from a developed country goes missing abroad, it makes international news and therefore prompts increased efforts to recover them, which I’m certain is not the case for every nationality in the world. Holding a British passport allows me access to one of the finest international support networks in the world.

Diplomatic_missions_of_the_UK

 4. Immigrant vs. expat

Technically speaking, I have been an immigrant to a number of countries. However, I have never actually heard anyone refer to me as an ‘immigrant’, only ever as an ‘expat’. I don’t really need to explain the semantic differences between these two synonyms. One of these terms has developed quite negative connotations while the other is something many people dream of being. I don’t know exactly why I’ve only ever been labelled as an expat, perhaps because I’m not from an ethnic minority, but I suspect it’s because I come from a developed, prosperous country which on the world stage pulls well above its weight. For example, the United Kingdom is the 7th largest economy in the world, however in terms of population it’s only 22nd and in surface area it’s only 80th.

5. The Social System

Brits love nothing more than to complain about how the country is run and we often take our social system for granted. Free healthcare, a benefits system which, although flawed, will at least look after us (to some degree) in most eventualities, and the security of a relatively stable economy and political system. My home country is far from perfect, and I for one love to live abroad in any case, but this combination of social security systems and political stability contributes to a relatively high Human Development Index and a high Quality-of-Life Index, both of which are good to fall back on in a crisis. Not all countries look after their citizens in this way…

6. The English Language

While the vast majority of the British Empire’s colonies subsequently gained independence, one thing which hasn’t been lost is the importance of the English language internationally. Did my colonial predecessers ever imagine that they were imposing my native language onto such a huge swathe of the world? Circa 1.5 billion people are estimated to speak English. English is the lingua franca of business in the Western world and of the colossal travel industry right across the globe. Which is pretty great news for anyone who grew up, like me, in Britain, although very few of us Brits actually realise what a huge advantage this is. I can’t count the number of non-English speakers who’ve complained to me about the fact that they’re forced to study for years and years  to learn a language that I just picked up naturally without even trying – it’s deeply unfair for them. While I strongly believe that more Brits should make the effort to learn foreign languages, it is true that our command of the English language opens many doors for us. (See this blog post  in my languages series: ‘Why You Should Learn… English‘)

English Dictionary Definition

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           I haven’t even touched on the fact that some other countries make it almost impossible for their citizens to even obtain passports, let alone leave the country. Take Cuba as an example: Libby and I each received marriage proposals from at least 4 random Cuban men over the course of a month, because in 2007 marrying a foreigner was one way to leave the country. Just last month the Cuban government finally abolished the requirement to obtain elusive exit permits. Previous to this change, the cost of a passport, exit permit, and associated paperwork added up to around $300, which is 15 times the average monthly state salary, making it practically impossible for any Cubans to leave the country.

           Another statistic that people love to pounce on is the fact that 2/3 of Americans don’t have passports and have never stepped foot outside their native country. However this is understandable given the size and the variety within their one country. I suppose this is one benefit of coming from a small, freezing cold, rainy island such as Britain – it forces you to go abroad in order to find some sun!

           I feel so unbelievably fortunate to be in possession of that little burgundy paper book that I carry around with me – and I value it far more than any other material object. I own it through no merit of my own, just sheer fortune, and no Brit should take it for granted in the slightest.

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61 Comments »

  1. #1–I’m so jealous!! When I travel, people always think it’s “so great” to have the American passport, and it is when it comes to travelling abroad. But in terms of actually working (like the girl you mentioned) you get stuck with the teaching English jobs, and if you don’t like that, well, too bad. So what did I do? I moved to France, learned French, and am now in the throes of applying for a Masters programme so that when I graduate, I can live and work in France, maybe even eventually applying for citizenship…;)

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  2. Hi Virginia.
    I agree with your point of view. Being an EU citizen is a great advantage.
    I can tell, that searching for opportunities to go abroad and develop a career without important limitations is something very hard in some countries, despite of your social status. Consider yourself lucky.
    Cheers.
    Jorge

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  3. I completely agree Virginia. I was born and brought up in Spain but my parents are British so the laws in Spain are that you take your parents nationality up until the age of 18 when you can choose to have a British or a Spanish passport. I´d always been labelled a “guiri” growing up, but in a nice way among my friend. However when I turned18, I stuck to my gut and decided to keept my British passport (there was also a load of paperwork to fill out…) and its the best decision I ever did! it gives me so much freedom and its hassle-free. Anyways, I have my Spanish ID card and my British passport, what more could I want? Love from Marbella x http://www.theblondeb.com/

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  4. I’m South African and moved to London 10 years ago. I have only just got my British citizenship and passport and I couldn’t agree with you more! For a language student and determined traveller such as myself the British passport is absolutely essential. Before the 2 year fight to get the passport I was always envious of my friends who just completely took it for granted. I’ve had so many heartaches of applying to visas to go to Spain or to visit my boyfriend in Italy and having them rejected whilst costing me alot of money. The heartache still exists for friends of mine in Rio and other places in the world who are finding it virtually impossible to come back to live in London. I will always be so so grateful for my British passport and how lucky I have been.

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  5. Dear Virginia:

    I just renewed my UK passport that was expired for over 10 years. I am now a dual UK/ Canadian citizen. I intend to use my UK passport soon.
    You’re very pretty btw

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  6. EU Passport gives a lot of freedom, but there are current talks about negative impact of EU membership for UK, and who knows, one day UK may leave the Union to protect the borders from immigrants.

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    • Yes it’s a hot topic at the moment. I personally am pro-EU, and I think that inviting other nationalities into the UK enriches us culturally and globalisation is simply unavoidable. We can try shutting our borders but it’s a global phenomenon that we don’t have the power to restrain, so we might as well embrace it… That’s just my view though.

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  7. U are very lucky…I am an indian and have very little freedom for travel…but later after completing my course in medical school,I am planning on immigrating to Britan and practice medicine there and have a happy future…

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  8. I currently hold a USA passport and recently acquired a Polish passport (through my grandfather), and in the process of obtaining a French passport ( through my grandmother) I think I’m covered, USA passports currently is visa free in 174 countries in par with the UK passport, i get the bonus of being part of the EU and a few more visa free countries through my EU passport, I also get cheaper visas to some countries with my EU passport than with my USA passports (yes we are very rich in the USA and should pay for it 🙂 )

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    • Three passports! You probably don’t really need a second EU passport, having a Polish one will give you most of the benefits the French one would allow you. Very lucky, I know there a lots of Americans who’d love to be in your position!

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      • Really – most Americans I know can’t wrap their heads around being anything other than an American. They can’t fathom having parents born anywhere else but America, especially if you’re an American “Red” Indian. People in America can’t wrap their heads around an “American” Red Indian being born in Canada to an American-Indian mother and a French-Irish-Indian father. So I don’t know which Americans you’ve been talking to, but apparently all I’M meeting “from Sea to Shining Sea” are whopping morons. I even get told by places that are surprised that I have ANY passport at all, that “you don’t look like someone who could have a passport” – racists much??

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    • You should see if you have any Italian ancestors and get a fourth just for the hell of it. If I can get around to filling out the forms for the British passport, I’ll be rocking a US/Australian/British combination that should be pretty useful. Hoping to get some marriage proposals too!

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  9. i have a new zealand passport and british , so im sorted , i obtained my british since my father was born in scotland , im so glad he was haha

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  10. I am currently gathering things together for my immigration to England from the United States; I write British history and of course, that is best done from England! My question to you, given there are immigration tracks that both lead to and do not lead to citizenship: what do you consider the pros and cons of keeping verses foregoing my USA citizenship in favour of the more difficult to obtain UK citizenship? What should I expect once my application for residency is approved?

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    • I’d be very surprised if you needed to give up your US citizenship to get a British one – I’m pretty sure that’s not necessary. Keep both and then you’ll have the flexibility to return to the US. I’ve heard that thr residency process can take something like 5 years if you don’t have British ancestors, so don’t expect it to be quick. I haven’t tried to obtain residency myself (obviously, as I’m already British) so I’m not the best person to ask. But I know that it’s incredibly difficult to get US citizenship too – don’t undervalue your current citizenship. Sorry I can’t be of more help, having not gone through the process myself!

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    • For your different visa options in the UK as someone who is British I would recommend looking at Home Office website. Their website will give you the official information that you need to make a decision: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/uk-visas-and-immigration. I will warn you in saying that the UK is now increasing the stance against people immigrating to the UK and as for achieving citizenship prepare for a ‘Life in the UK’ test. Also if you are already affiliated with a university you might be able to find a route that way.

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  11. I first came uk in 2012 and get my British passport after naturalisation this year I belongs from NON-EU but not now I’m feeling lucky to get freedom in world 😄

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  12. Hi there . I have a British passport and a permanent residency card in India.
    When its winter in Britain, I stay in south India where it’s balmy and when the weather becomes too hot in india, I escape the heat by staying in UK lol
    I’m very fond of my little burgundy passport which gives me this option.

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  13. I’d rather have my American passport any day. After the USofA ‘IS’ the only Superpower in the world. Besides who cares if we need to request a visa to travel to for say Cuba? Or North Korea or Syria. Besides Americans don’t really go to Europe to ‘Work’ We go for travel and leisure, then we come rushing back home to the land of plenty were everything actually makes sense. Besides if you work in Europe you can kiss have your paycheck goodbye for Taxes and social services for the flood of immigrants that are constantly coming in. You can keep your British passport and i’ll cherish my American passport any day.

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    • The only superpower in the world? I’d debate that. Not that Britain is a superpower of any kind, but I don’t think that’s hugely important. And I know tonnes of Americans who’ve come to Europe to work, mainly as English teachers on the continent, as that way they can get a visa, and they all tell me they wish they had the freedom of movement that we Europeans enjoy. But each to his own and I’m very glad you’re appreciating your own passport!

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    • Ah superpowers! The benefit of being a historian is that I get to see things in context and have been trained to pursue objectivity.

      The Romans were the western superpower of their time. Life in the Roman Empire was pretty dreadful for everyone except the 1% of wealthy Roman citizen men who were the only ones allowed to vote. And yet for 2000 years we’ve been hearing this propaganda that the Roman way is/was best and everyone else are savages. America modeled itself on Rome (ever hear of the “senate?”) and has managed to duplicate its primary features — different technology and slightly different buzz words — but the same results. History repeated. Down to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri!

      I learned a lot about Rome when writing my biography of Queen Boudicca. I learned what it means to hold Celtic English and Irish blood. And for my part, I am eager for my residency visa so I may live in England, my heart’s truest home. I will gladly forswear the United States in favour of an oath of fealty to the queen. For life in the revived Roman Empire is no place for me. And I cannot receive my burgundy UK passport fast enough!

      God save the queen!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I am lebanese who lives in Kuwait and have a british passport which I inherited from my mother whose father lived in london for a few years – only have been to London this winter… Cool post but you made it seem that only the brits have access to this passport.

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  15. I hold both American and Polish citizenships, and have been living in the UK for over five years now. The Polish (EU) passport is good as gold in my opinion; it lets me live and work anywhere in the EU. Although, I spent about 15 years living in the states, the quality of life in the UK is much better, as are the job prospects; sorry to all you moaners of UK life but I’d disagree with you any day. I’m currently in the process of getting British citizenship which will set me back £1000, however If I could swap my American passport for a UK one, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

    Besides who would want to live in a country full of people that share the opinion of Cali Dude (a few posts above). He can stay in his “USofA”, and please stay away from Europe, it’s nice here without the likes of you. 🙂

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  16. I am a nigerian bt livin in holland,since 2001 got my citizenship in 2010 and am so hapi 2b a dutch citizen.guess my passport is as value as british p. in d world.

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  17. After reading your post on British passports, I’m a dual citizenship only because of my mother. Shes from wales and I was born in america. I have American passport and a British passport..she told me i can travel practically anywhere even Cuba with my British passport, I feel extremely lucky to have been able to have duel citizenship…im looking to move over to wales, but as it says you can move and work in any of the european countries with a British passport? Interesting..

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    • Yes you can most definitely visit Cuba with your British passport, and you can work in any country in the EU. I’d take advantage of that and work somewhere outside of the UK, which is culturally very similar to the US, so you’ll have a more interesting experience in a different country. Lucky you to have both passports!

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      • You can visit Cuba with a USA passport, its illegal for a USA citizen to visit Cuba no matter if you have dual citizenship or not, laws have become more laxed recently and eventually every american citizen will be able to visit Cuba legally, but Cuba does not care what passport you have and they will let you enter on an american passport, and they wont stamp your passport so you don’t get in trouble.

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  18. I was born in England. My dad was 100% German, and my mom was 100% Scottish. My dad was adopted by a US family, and eventually joined the US Air Force. We moved to the US when I was 2 years of age, and when I was 5 years old my parents passed away and then I was taken in by a family. This past May I made it a mission to finally apply for my UK passport. I had no documentation about anything, other than a copy of my birth certificate. It took a lot of effort and investigating to get all the documents needed (as well as finding a proper “Consignatory” over here to vouge for me).. but I sent away my application, crossing my fingers.

    Less than 3 weeks later I arrived home from work to find a package containing my passport! I’m so excited. A lot of my friends and family are like, why do you need another passport? When I try to explain how amazing it would be to be able to work and live anywhere in Europe, it kind of falls on deaf ears. Like you mentioned in the article, the majority of Americans don’t even have a passport, let alone think about going to work in another country. In 2017 I’m hoping to leave America, and give it a shot in Europe 🙂 . I lived in Edinburgh for 3 months a couple years ago, and loved everything about the place.

    Anyway, completely random story.. but I thought you’d (possibly) enjoy reading the journey of one American trying to get my first UK passport. Apparently I was issued a NHS number when I was a baby.. so I’m assuming I’ve been a citizen my whole life.. I just lacked the proper documentation to prove it? Would that still be my NHS number?

    -Paul

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    • Wow that’s an impressive story, and in just 3 weeks! Congratulations and well done for getting the passport, you should definitely see what living in Europe is like, the freedom to travel is the very best bit about Europe. Good luck in 2017!

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  19. Thanks for understanding that. Your passport is indeed the most valuable thing, as a naturalised British of Ukrainian origin I can assure you. Some people believe that getting UK passport is easy, at least, this is what I’d been told once by someone of that type who always say “they took our jobs”. Nope, it is not, even for a PhD in astrophysics.

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  20. I’ve been living in the UK, in London for a year now on an Ancestral visa. I’m originally from Australia. I’m fortunate enough that in 3 years I can apply for residency, get dual citizenship and work, travel, live almost anywhere. London is not my ideal destination, but a means of future opportunity.

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  21. Hi

    I want to ask one question.
    I am a citizen of the UK and I have a British Passport and was wanting to know the visa with Canada. As the UK and Canada are both part of the commonwealth, can you come with a British passport for work or would you need a visa to work in Canada. Also if you want to become a citizen of Canada how long would that take

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    • You would still need a work visa, and I’ve no idea what the application process is I’m afraid, although if you’re under 30 then you may be eligible for the working holiday visa, so perhaps you could research that?

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  22. I’m a 30 yr old South African and have just got my British passport (my dad was born in the uk) so my husband and i are thinking about taking a year off to go backpacking, we just havent decided where yet… I was wondering if there is somewhere i can find out which countries will i be legally able to work in with my British Passport and would my husband need a partnership visa to travel with me or what? Any info would be appreciated:)

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  23. I like the content and would like to add a few comments of my own: I was born in England in the aftermath of World War II and was quickly in contact with nationals from other countries from a young age. My father went to Germany after the war and recommended I learnt German as their knowledge of engineering was quite advanced to that of the UK at the time despite the previous conflicts of war. I never knew my grandparents on my maternal side, they all died before my mother met my father. I also did not know my grandmother on my paternal side as she died when I was about 1 year old, just a photograph. My mother’s father was gassed during World War I and died of the effects during World War II. My conclusions were that war should be avoided at all costs. Consequently I strove to learn, German, French, Latin, Italian and Spanish which has enabled me to travel with ease and get to know the thinking from others in their own language. I still keep in touch with many of them on a regular basis. As a teenager I was able to go and work in Germany, then Switzerland and later in France, Italy and many other countries. My knowledge of their language helped me to communicate and understand their background, culture and feelings much better than most of my English colleagues who only spoke English. It was quite a shock for me when last week the UK voted in a Referendum for Brexit without realizing what message they were sending to the rest of the world. And now look what happened in the last 10 days shear CHAOS in a country that is looked up to for democracy and tolerance. I challenge the validity of the Referendum particularly as Brits living overseas, especially elsewhere in Europe were not even considered for the vote and it is their lives that are also affected. Does the opinion of “Expats” who spread the good word and are the diplomats for everyday opinion abroad should be TOTALLY IGNORED. Those who voted out and lead the cause have now resigned, leaving the situation in a complete MESS. Many of my overseas colleagues do not understand. It is not just a question of money but how we interact with each other. If the problem was money then why was these issues not fully debated internally and proposals agreed before hand on what the intention really was. Now the EU does not really understand Brits either. In addition 48% voted to stay so in my opinion the 4 % of the voters are deciding on the changes ahead, is this democratic or should we not consider what this really means instead of just saying we need to press the Clause 50 button. I agree that the UK has a changed a lot since when I was a boy and many of the key values seem to have changed. I was recently in the UK for a short while and surprised how the reactions were before the vote, even from good English friends. I have seen how London is very different from the rest of the UK not always for the better in many cases. However if London wants to me multi-cultural and business-like they have to consider the rest of the country’s feelings. It seems the source of the problem lies in the politicians not having been aware of what really was in peoples minds, where there is a large difference in wealth there will be friction. The elite in the UK need to tone down their affluence, invest some of their earnings in education of the less fortunate , on the other hand control of immigration is a key issue bit it seems this was not understood by all for a long time, now the bomb has dropped and with it the shrapnel causing a lot of unneeded damage. Look at the history of Hungary and you can see similar things that happened their in the 1920s , history is repeating itself. In conclusion I feel Brits should have to learn at least one foreign language as part of their basic education. When I was at university at Manchester a foreign language was mandatory at the beginning of the course, by the end of the course a language proficiency was dropped because practically everyone else on the course could not pass the language exam. I was lucky I continued and this has been one of my best assets. Looking around the world today practically everyone who wants to travel learns English and the Asians do it with full conviction, that is why they are ahead, I have lived with them for years so know their attitude. I hope some people realize the attraction of the UK to foreigners and that is why the UK has so many foreigners. Assimilating different cultures requires a knowledge of the other persons point of view and the ability to compromise in both directions. Let’s hope this does not get out of hand. best regards Martin

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    • Martin I couldn’t agree with you more and thank you for your comment and thoughts on the subject! I’m so glad to hear you say you support everyone studying a language, and that your languages have helped you communicate, understand and assimilate better into Europe, exactly how I feel. Perhaps if everyone in the UK did speak at least one other language, then there’d be more understanding and interaction with the rest of the EU, and a better relationship with the EU… UK citizens would feel more compelled to travel, meet fellow Europeans and want to collaborate, rather than distance ourselves through separating from the EU. I obviously voted to remain in the EU and I’ve been in such shock over the last month since the referendum. In case you didn’t see it, I wrote a short post about it here: https://thewell-travelledpostcard.com/2016/07/01/for-the-record-i-do-not-want-to-leave-the-eu/ Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Got indefinite leave this evening after 5 years (and have filled out the citizenship as a draft). It’s a little sad knowing the it might not be permanent EU residency. Not the ideal venue to celebrate Australia day/India Republic day either! Congratulations on your grant. I recall from the movie Spanish Apartment that Erasmus seems like even more forms!

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    • Congratulations on your indefinite leave, even if it’s not necessarily leading to EU citizenship too! And thank you – there were a fair few forms for Erasmus and the grant, but that’s nothing compared to when I did Erasmus in 2010-11, as everything has thankfully become much more streamlined since then and since that film came out!

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