The tension between integration and separateness is one that Jews know particularly well.
To be Jewish in the diaspora is, by default, to have a hybrid identity. Where one identity ends and another begins, and the spaces where they overlap — these are waters most of us navigate throughout life, even more so when we travel and those identities are thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of foreignness.
But who knew such existential angst roiled the soul of Great Britain? Like nearly everybody, I woke up in complete shock over last week’s Brexit vote. I immediately wondered what it meant for my trans-Atlantic family, hybrid in a half-dozen directions, and for the Britain and the Europe I thought I knew so well.
Changing of the Guard, London. Wikimedia Commons
Then as I watched the pound plummet, the traveler in me thought: What a fabulous week to be in the U.K. … spending American dollars.
I can’t remember a time when the British pound (not to mention London) wasn’t frustratingly expensive. But neither can I remember a time before the European Union. For longer than I’ve been alive, Britain has been both an integral part of the postwar European community and — just as critically — a bulwark of solidity in a region historically buffeted by often-violent upheaval.
Let other countries turn Communist, have revolutions, go from rich to poor or vice versa overnight, change currencies and languages and boundaries; Britain stays the proverbial course with its pound and its Windsors and its stolid tradition. Both geographically and culturally, Britain straddles Europe and not-Europe, a tension more agonizing than most of us imagined.
Europeans both within and outside of Britain are reeling as they mull their uncertain futures. Across the pond, many of us wonder: What does this unprecedented breach with Europe mean for the Britain traveler?
For now, the biggest travel impact will be on exchange rates. In the immediate wake of the surprise vote — late polls had the U.K. staying firmly in the E.U. — the British pound plunged to its lowest level in more than 30 years against the U.S. dollar. As of Monday morning, the pound was at $1.30, down from $1.50 the previous week, and many prognosticate a decline to near-parity.
Changing of the guards, Buckingham Palace. Wikimedia Commons
In practical terms, this means anyone exchanging dollars for pounds — or paying with American debit or credit cards in Great Britain — has at least 12 percent more buying power than last week (and probably more since this writing). Since few factors influence the overall cost of travel more than the exchange rate, a 20-cent currency discount substantially improves one’s overseas holiday.
The new exchange rate just bought you an extra hotel star, another round of drinks, an upgraded train ticket or a taxi instead of the bus. In a country where a shabby hostel bed costs the same as a nice hotel room in Lisbon or Madrid, this is great news for travelers.
But there will be other reverberations. Wielded by legions of British investors, vacationers and retirees, the powerful pound sustains many a tourist stronghold. With pensions at risk and diminished buying power, whither the resorts of the Costa del Sol and the Côte d’Azur? Vast swaths of Southern Europe, from Black Sea golf resorts to decrepit villages revived as weekend retreats, are propped up by British investment. And what of the weightier matters — visas, borders, and so forth? Since it is without precedent, nobody really knows how the Britain-E.U. divorce will unfold. But the separation is expected to take at least two years, and those negotiations will likely include provisions intended to protect American economic involvement — recreational and commercial.
I don’t expect any change to the visa waiver program, which allows us to travel visa-free for up to 90 days in Great Britain, or to London’s status as the premier air hub of Europe, offering myriad connections to the U.S. and discount tickets to destinations around the Continent and beyond.
Oxford Circus in London. Wikimedia Commons
And we’ll still have to go through customs, both coming and going. Britain never was part of the Schengen border-free zone that allows free movement through much of Continental Europe — which is why for me, one of the great mysteries of this vote was the oft-cited rationale that this island nation felt compelled to take back control of its borders.
But as diaspora Jews know all too well, matters of identity are not so purely rational. If the Brexit vote has given us Americans anything, it is a topic of conversation and a point of reference for the complexities of modern nationhood — along with a story whose dénouement remains unclear.