Those who've ever asked me where I'm from will know that I tend to give one of two answers to that question: either "It's complicated" or "I'm European". People never seem to be satisfied with either of those, so I then end up launching into a lengthy explanation of my origins, legal status and history, after which they reach the conclusion that either "It's complicated" or "I'm European".
Today is, apparently, Europe Day, and as a European, I almost feel an obligation to post something about it. A lot of people have been posting about their visions for a future Europe, but I thought I'd have a look into the past instead. I'd like to revisit some of my defining European moments - some of the things that have happened over the last 30 years that have made me European.
Age 10, changing my watch as I crossed into a different time zone
I left the country of my birth - both for the first time and permanently - at the age of 10. My grandmother was a staunch Bulgarian patriot. Her grandmother had fought in an uprising against the Ottoman Empire. And so she had imbued me from an early age with a strong sense of pride in my country. Bulgarian was the greatest language, Bulgaria the most beautiful country, etc. This was probably just as well as it gave me a kind of confidence in myself, a sense that I didn't need to justify myself for being Bulgarian, which would serve me well over the years to come.
So leaving the country in the back of my father's car, moving somewhere where I didn't speak the language or know the first thing about how things worked, was an interesting experience. I remember thinking that this was a momentous occasion in my life but not being really sure how I should feel about it. I remember driving through the border regions which really are extraordinarily beautiful, crossing the then-Yugoslav border and finding that the landscape was still the same - and still beautiful - on the other side. And as I changed my watch to CET, I remember my father saying how privileged I was to be doing this for the first time aged 10. He's picked up some East German hitch-hikers in their 20s recently and that had been the first time they'd crossed into a different time zone.
The final thing I remember about that long drive from Sofia to Bruck and der Mur in Austria, through a war-torn Yugoslavia and the wide Hungarian plains, is getting to the Austrian border at 9pm on July 31st 1991. "I'm sorry," said the border official to my Dad, "your family's visas don't actually start until the 1st of August. We can't let you into the country before midnight." And so we slept at the Austro-Hungarian border for three hours, before finally being allowed into the country that would be my home for the next eight years.
"But Mili's different."
My relationship with Austria had its ups and downs.
I picked up German fairly quickly, and was generally accepted by my classmates. When my German still wasn't that good, they did all they could to help me out. Once it became better, the main emphasis changed to making me speak the local dialect. It was entertaining.
We moved to Austria at the same time as a very large number of refugees from the various wars that marked the demise of Yugoslavia. The town we lived in had a significant refugee population and there was a refugee centre where they lived, were looked after and were taught German. As the staff there knew Austrian immigration laws inside out they had been involved with helping my Dad and his employer sort out our paperwork when we originally moved there. We kept in touch with them and a few years later my mother ended up teaching German to the refugees as her first ever job in Austria.
Bruck and Kapfenberg - more of a conurbation than two distinct towns - aren't exactly big. Between them they had about 70,000 inhabitants at the time, and the influx of refugees was visible. I remember a discussion starting one day at school - we would have been 11 or 12 at the time, and it was of all things in the equivalent of a home economics class - about the refugees. The teacher didn't start the discussion, but clearly felt the obligation to guide it to some sort of constructive place. I sat to one side of the class listening silently as my classmates - my friends - went on for a good quarter of an hour about the lazy refugees who had everything handed to them - food, clothing, housing, and a daily allowance to boot - who couldn't be bothered to work or even learn German. With hindsight a school trip to the refugee centre would have been a good idea, but what preoccupied me at the time was that the word my friends used, "foreigners", included me too. Did they see me in this way? I certainly wasn't going to draw attention to myself at that point and ask them, but my teacher did.
I will never forget the answer: "But Mili's different."
"My Dad spent all last night pacing up and down waiting for the referendum results."
Austrians are the most apolitical people I have met in my life. Out of the 65 years since the end of World War 2, Austria has been governed by a Grand Coalition of the conservative People's Party and the Social Democrats for 37 years. Yes, that would be like Labour going into coalition with the Tories. Only in Austria. Politics isn't something that is overtly discussed in Austria, and admitting interest in it is almost like showing people your porn stash.
When in 1994 the country conducted a referendum on EU accession, I had pretty definite views about it. For me, EU accession would sooner or later open more doors, give me more opportunities. I was for it. I found it really hard to judge the popular mood though, because no one was showing me their porn stash. So all I could do was sit there and await the referendum results. When they finally came in - a resounding Yes - I was happy. What surprised me was that my friend Petra came into school that day and said "My Dad spent all last night pacing up and down, waiting for the referendum results, hoping it would be a yes." Maybe some of them did care about politics after all, and maybe they weren't quite as insular as I'd originally thought.
The process of getting Austrian citizenship was an interesting one. We applied well before the official minimum timings, after about 6 years of living in Austria. We thought we had a chance. We had integrated well into Austrian society. Both my parents worked, my Dad was a competitive sportsman, my friends' efforts to make me speak the local Styrian dialect were paying off to the point I almost sounded native.
I remember the day our application was approved. We were asked to attend an appointment with the official who'd been working our case. The paperwork was completed. My parents were asked to swear an oath of allegiance. I was still a minor so they swore it on my behalf too. We were advised we had to give our Bulgarian passports back to the embassy to be invalidated. And we walked out of there with a piece of paper declaring us Austrian citizens, with official stamps worth 12,000 shillings (about 700 quid, more like a grand in today's money) attached to it. It's the most expensive piece of A4 paper my family own.
I remember my mother feeling slightly iffy that day, trading in one citizenship for another. Austria's not a fan of dual citizenship - something which plagues me to this day. For me, being Austrian meant a whole new set of doors opening.
Meeting William Hague
Not one of my finest moments. I was a little preoccupied with other things. Funny though.
I was at the Vienna International School by that point. I came in one morning, 2 hours late as I'd decided to skip the first two periods to have coffee with someone who was later to become my boyfriend. I was asked to the office of the Head of the Secondary School (who was also my philosophy teacher). "Bugger, I thought. I've been caught this time." (Skipping class was an activity I had a lot of practice at - I'd had a couple of near-misses at previous schools but never been caught.)
When I went to see Mr. D, though, he didn't even seem to know that I'd only just walked through the door. Or possibly he was willing to turn a blind eye to it. What he did say was that we had the leader of the UK Conservative Party (newly in opposition) coming to visit, with a team from the BBC, and would I be willing to be part of a group of students asking him - and I quote! - "difficult questions about why Britain is so awkward in the EU". Mr. D, who was British but whose political leanings I wouldn't even want to try to guess, clearly had me pegged as a European even before I started calling myself one.
To this day I've no idea what Mr. Hague was doing at an international school in Vienna, what the programme was about or whether our bit ever got in. And to be fair when the next day I sat in that room with him and my classmates I was still far too preoccupied with having met Oliver the previous day to say anything intelligent. But the experience did give me a glimpse into UK political culture and attitudes to Europe. Didn't put me off moving here though.
My first 5 Euros
On January 1st 2002, shortly after midnight, I walked to the local cash machine and got my first ever five Euros. The intention was to keep that five Euro note at the back of my wallet for all eternity, to take it out and show it to the grandchildren, all that faff. A couple of years later a friend I'd given my wallet to to buy drinks spent it. Ah well, nevermind.
But I do also remember the first time I did extensive travel through the Euro zone. I'd done a fair amount of travel before and juggled currencies all over the place. Rather unexpectedly in mid-2002 I found myself in the course of one weekend going from Austria to Germany to the Netherlands and back to Germany, and not having to faff with currency. It was a strange realisation.
EU enlargement to the East
I must admit I wasn't always in favour of EU enlargement into Eastern Europe, particularly not as quickly as it happened. I was studying European politics at the time, up to my eyeballs in treaty texts and the working or otherwise of EU institutions, and really didn't think the EU could cope with an additional 10-12 members before it had had a chance to implement fundamental institutional reform, for which there was little appetite. From an Eastern European point of view, I also thought those countries should be given a chance to stand on their own and develop their own structures and identities for a little longer before becoming part of the EU. They had been under Soviet influence for half a century and less than 10 years later they were joining another international political bloc. I would have liked to see what they would have done on their own for a while.
Having said that, I believe EU enlargement has overall been a success, and has been beneficial for both sides. I lived in Prague for three months in 2003, about a year before accession, and the excitement among my Czech colleagues was palpable. It was great to see.
My personal Europe moment when it comes to enlargement is an article on BBC News covering the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. The BBC have since replaced the photo, but the original photo used was of a man waving Bulgarian flags and wearing an extremely nationalistic Bulgarian t-shirt.
Voting for the first time
I was just the wrong side of the age cut-off to vote in the notorious Austrian elections which put the Freedom Party in government and caused the first ever mass political demonstrations I had seen in Austria. I had actually also left the country by that point. I promised myself I'd make sure I got an absentee ballot for next time round. By the time the next election came round, though, I had done the research and found the absentee ballot process to be hideously bureaucratic, and I had been living in the UK for three years. My connections with Austria were few and far between (I had split up with Oliver 6 months before), and I was so out of touch I couldn't make an informed decision, or one that would affect me directly in the foreseeable future.
So the first time I actually ever voted was in the UK, not too many years ago, in a local election. I make it a point these days to exercise my right to vote in local and European elections, and I continue to hope that one day EU citizens living in an EU country other than that they're citizens of will be able to vote in their country of residence.
I am European
Time to nail my colours to the mast, in case the above was too subtle.
All of these experiences, and many many more, have contributed to my strong feeling that I am European. I'm not a fan of golf, but the Ryder Cup is about the only sporting event that I actually support a team in - because that team is European. I firmly believe in, in the words of the Maastricht Treaty, "ever closer union". I am one of those weird people who would actually love to see a federal European Union. I certainly believe that there is still a lot of scope for EU institutional reform before the institutions are fit for purpose in a 27-member Union, and that recent waves of enlargement haven't helped with that. But equally I hope and believe that somehow we will muddle through.
Personally have benefited hugely from the European Union. But I believe it has also brought a huge number of benefits to everyone living within its borders. The global political and economic environment is increasingly such that individual nation states find it difficult to face it on their own. The nature of the challenges we face is such that we all - as Europe, and as a world - need to look at them together.
So yes, I am a fierce internationalist, and above all, I am European.