“Those who can’t change their minds, can’t change anything.” (George Bernard Shaw)

It seems ironic in 2018, that it was in Britain that I became a European. I left my native Sweden in 1993, two years before it joined the European Union, and for most of the 1990s, when my childhood friends were busy embracing Europe, I was living in the United States, eagerly absorbing all things American. Europe was little more than an abstract concept to me back then.

It’s now been more than eighteen years since I settled in London, one of the most European cities I’ve ever known, and today begins the 12-month countdown to the day that Britain officially leaves the European Union. There’s a part of me who still believes – or hopes – that Brexit won’t happen in the end, that sense and reason, and community, will prevail, and that Britain’s political leaders will step away from the cliff edge before it’s too late.giphy

“There’s no turning back,” said Theresa May when she triggered Article 50 on 29 March 2017. Her words made me think of Elizabeth Allen, the main protagonist in Enid Blyton’s popular children’s book, The Naughtiest Girl.

Unlike Mrs May, Elizabeth Allen, aka the naughtiest girl, finally realises that it’s a measure of one’s strength, courage and maturity to be able to admit fault and to turn back, rather than obstinately racing towards the cliff edge for fear of losing face.  Unfortunately for Britain, it seems Mrs May fancies herself something of a Thelma and Louise.

The other part of me, however, thinks I’m clutching at straws, for there’s nothing that seriously indicates that Mrs May will find the courage and sense to halt Brexit, and any anti-Brexit thinking within the Labour party is tempered by Mr Corbyn’s apparent disinterest in Europe and Brexit alike. We’re all going to fall off that cliff edge.

While I no longer lie sleepless at night worrying that I’ll be forced to leave Britain, I do worry a great deal about what kind of country Britain will become post-Brexit. Any claims of ‘taking back control’ ring hollow in my ears; I don’t for a second believe that Britain after Brexit will be more democratic than it is today unless of course, populism is what counts as democracy these days.

The European Union has its fair share of problems for sure but leaving it doesn’t necessarily translate into greater democracy for the British people. Democracy isn’t simply ‘rule of the people’; it also requires the protection of fundamental human rights, including that of minorities, be they political, ethnic, religious, or other.

Like no other British politician, Theresa May has repeatedly attacked human rights, when she was Home Secretary and as Prime Minister. Although any plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and take Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights have been put on hold for now, it’s anyone’s guess what the government will do when Britain is no longer an EU member.

Racism, antisemitism, and sexism are the enemies of democracy, and as long as these forces remain alive in British society, democracy will continue to be under threat. And it’s not just EU citizens and other foreigners who have cause to worry, so should the Brits themselves.

Where’s My Thingamajig?

Here’s an extract of the kind of conversation you’ll often hear in our house these days:

Me: “Hello sweetheart, what did you do at school today?”

Older daughter: “Stuff. We did a thingamajig before lunch and then maths and choir.”

Husband: “Darling, have you seen my thingamajig? I’ve lost it somewhere.”

Me: “You’ve lost what?”

Husband: “My thingamajig, have you seen it?”

Me (screaming out loud in frustration): “What the hell is a thingamajig?”

Older daughter: “You know, a thingamabob.”

Husband: “Can you help me find it please, I’ve got a meeting on Skype in five minutes.”

Me: “I would if I knew what it is you’re looking for. For goodness sake tell me what it is you’ve lost instead of going on about a ‘thingamajig’.”

Husband: “My phone, of course, didn’t I say so?”

When we sit down for dinner that evening, I ask: “Where does this ‘thingamajig’ word come from anyway? I mean, obviously, it’s not a real word.”

Older daughter: “It IS a real word. Check the dictionary.”

Which I do, much to my family’s amusement.


(noun) Something that is hard to classify or whose name is unknown or forgotten (Merriam-Webster.com)

(noun) Used to refer to or address a person or thing whose name one has forgotten, does not know, or does not wish to mention (Oxforddictionaries.com)

Older daughter: “See, it’s such a useful word because it can mean anything you want.”

My husband nods approvingly and winks at me as if to say, “there’s no point arguing with a pre-teen.”

“Ok, it’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a proper word,” I say, but only the younger daughter shows any sympathy with my position. Then again, she loves being precise with words, especially when talking about birds and bees and like me, she’s never been one to use euphemisms. Why call something one’s ‘private parts’ when there’s a perfectly precise word for it?

Yet, this morning, as I very reluctantly leave the comfort of my bed to check that my daughters are getting ready for school, I hear myself saying to the older one:

“Bring me the thingamajig so I can do your hair.”

She returns with a hairbrush in her hand and smiles triumphantly,

“I told you it was a great word.”


Language and Power


I was seven years old when I first learned to appreciate the power of language. Children in the playground called me names because of my wonky face and fat lip.

One word that sometimes passed over my peers’ lips was ‘harelip,’ an archaic term for cleft lip, which according to the Oxford dictionary originated in the mid 16th century from cleft lip’s perceived resemblance to the mouth of a hare.

As a child and teenager, that word haunted me, and even now, I struggle to say (and write) it and hearing someone else using it, no matter how innocently, makes my blood freeze. But whereas once I’d run a mile to avoid this most demeaning of words, I now refuse to let the mention of it pass unchallenged.

That’s why, yesterday, when I came upon this word in the editorial of a major Swedish newspaper, I wasted no time to send off a letter to the journalist explaining my position. It was not the first time I wrote such a letter; over the years I’ve written to journalists, editors and once to a comedian who’d talked about ‘harelip’ in an otherwise fantastic show. Sometimes I’d received a reply, but for the most part, I’d hear nothing back.

Those who do respond, often defend their usage with comments like,

“Oh, but I meant no harm, it’s just a word,”

“If it’s in the dictionary, I can use it,”

“Don’t be so bloody p.c.,”

“It’s my democratic right to use whatever word I want even if it’s offensive to others.”

The last argument is a tricky one for I too believe in the freedom of speech, and I don’t shy away from saying things for fear I might offend someone. But with rights come responsibilities, and when language is used that dehumanise another person, we’re not only violating that person, we’re corrupting the very principle of freedom of speech.

On several occasions, journalists, in particular, have told me that using ‘harelip’ is justified because it’s a word people will recognise more readily than the medical term, cleft lip. The fact that I, a woman born with a cleft lip and palate, feel hurt and dehumanised by such terminology, is of little consequence. But just as it is not a white person’s prerogative to determine whether or not a word is offensive to black people, neither is it ok for someone not born with a cleft to judge whether or not ‘harelip’ constitutes acceptable terminology.

The right to judge whether a word is dehumanising, racist or otherwise debasing, ultimately rests with those who are on the receiving end of that word. For no one else can legitimately claim to fully appreciate the historical, social and emotional meaning of that word.

This is not political correctness gone mad, nor is it nit-picking. As anyone who works with language knows, words have power; the power to bring people together, to heal and embrace another; and the power to humiliate, shame and dehumanise.  That is why the words we choose matter so much.

Birds and Bees

baby-220315_640“Mum, do you know what day it is tomorrow,” my 7-year old asks as I am saying goodnight to her.

“Thursday,” I answer.

“But mum, don’t you know it’s international women’s day!?”

“Yes, of course,” I say and tuck her in, but my daughter sits up in bed, her eyes wide open and her nose scrunched up, an indication that there’s something she’s not happy with.

“Why do we only get one day, mum? That’s so unfair! Every day should be women’s day because life is so much easier for boys than girls.” Continue reading

Baba Marta, Where Are You?

IMG_5491‘The Beast from the East’ has arrived here in London, although having grown up in Sweden where temperatures often dropped to -10 degrees in the winter and where snow was the rule, not the exception, I wouldn’t quite call it a ‘beast’.

I don’t mind a few days of snow and freezing temperatures, but I do mind when it’s the 1st of March, known as Baba Marta (Grandma March) to Bulgarians. For after a depressingly cold and damp February, I am desperate for a sign that spring is on its way.

Speaking about Bulgaria, it’s a little-known fact that I was once conversant in the Bulgarian language, having learned it to be able to do field research for my PhD dissertation. I lived in Sofia for five months in 2001, and the winter there was so cold that my landlady plied me with homemade rakia, Bulgarian plum brandy, to keep me warm. London’s snow ‘blizzard’ can’t even begin to compare.

At least the kids are happy, and yesterday the older one came back from school gleefully telling of how, during break time, she’d thrown snowballs on her teachers. When the school closed early due to the weather, we drove to the nearest grocery store and bulked up on necessities: chocolate, biscuits, and more chocolate.

I didn’t drive of course, for having a bit too cheerfully admitted to my husband that the one time I was in a ‘proper’ car crash (in the US), the streets had been icy, and I’d been in the driver’s seat. I’m banned from driving our beautiful red car until the roads have been cleared and temperatures have risen above zero.

We’ve had our car for a month now, and during that time I’ve driven the kids to school and back without any major mishap, though my parallel parking skills are pathetic. Last Saturday, driving back from the movie theatre with my husband and discovering there was but one tiny parking place available on our street, I spent thirty minutes trying to fit our car in between two others, while my husband barked instructions to me from the pavement.

Parking trouble aside, I have to admit I enjoy the freedom of being able to jump in the car and take off. Better yet, I’ve discovered ‘Heart 80s’, a radio channel that only plays 1980s pop music, allowing me to sing along to my teenage favourites as I drive: Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, Wham!, Alphaville and Culture Club.

When the kids moan about the music, and the 11-year old requests a song by Justin Timberlake or Taylor Swift, I dismiss her with a curt, “it’s the driver’s prerogative to choose the music, so deal with it!” Besides, I feel it’s my parental duty to educate my children about the 1980s music culture, especially as I am set on throwing an 80s disco party for my 50th birthday, which terrifyingly, is less than five years away.

“You’re never too old for anything,” my 7-year old claims, and while I would like to believe her, I do have a nagging feeling that I am a tad too old for crimped hair, fishnet stockings and mini-skirts. Even so, when I turn 50, I am going to party like it’s the 1980s and I am fifteen years old.

But that’s still a few years away; for now, I’m sat in my snow-covered house, eating chocolates meant for my kids and blaming Baba Marta’s no-show on Brexit.