“Good morning! Wake up. Your whole world has changed.”
My 17-year-old niece Jamie moaned, eyes still closed, and shifted her body beneath the comforter.
I left her room, joining my husband Bob in the kitchen to look for coffee.
Like many, we went to bed on June 23 confident that British voters would choose to remain in the European Union.
We awoke to a different reality. Coffee and the BBC would help us process the result.
Brexit had become part of our trip. We were in Croatia, and therefore in the EU. Three days prior, we had been in London.
This trip was 10 years in the making. When Jamie and her older brother were in grade school, Bob and I decided to forego all future birthday and holiday gifts and instead give them the gift of travel. Following their respective high school graduations, we would take them on a trip outside of the U.S. The one rule? It had to be a non-English speaking country.
Jamie’s early pick was Italy, likely influenced by childhood loves pasta and pizza. We settled on neighboring Croatia.
“Wasn’t there just a war there?” Jamie asked.
She was correct. The Croatian War of Independence was fought 1991-1995. It ended three years before she was born. It wasn’t that long ago. Only more reason to explore this diverse and beautiful country.
Little did we know that we would stumble upon history in the making.
Prior to our two weeks in Croatia, we spent a few days in London. We were continually reminded of the upcoming Brexit vote. Coming out of the London Underground, we pushed by a campaigner in a blue “Remain” t-shirt, only to see his nemesis in a red “Leave” t-shirt next to him.
The street visuals prompted Jamie, Bob and I to talk about the interrelations and differences between the Euro and the European Union. For example, the UK and Croatia are both members of the EU, but neither uses the Euro as currency.
We tested each other–How many countries are in the EU? How many use the Euro? Can you name them?
All of us failed miserably.
For the record, the EU currently includes 28 member states; 19 of these use the Euro as their official currency.*
The upcoming vote seeped into every thought and conversation.
Bob awoke pre-dawn our first morning in London and struck up a conversation with the night shift security guard in our guesthouse lobby. The man was of Polish descent and a student at the nearby University of London. His father owned and operated a company in London. Like 850,000 Poles working in Britain, he considers the UK home. Our servers at breakfast were Polish. Polish workers were remodeling the building next door. The UK has attracted more Poles than any other EU country.
We then left the only nation to announce its intent to leave the EU for a country that had given everything to join it.
Following its civil war, Croatia committed to an independent, democratic, and prosperous future. After a decade of negotiations, Croatia joined the EU in 2013. It remains its newest entrant.
On the day that Brexit votes were cast, we were driving through a Croatian countryside that had been ravaged by war only two decades prior. Homes still had bullet holes. We passed the skeleton of a bombed-out factory.
Arriving at our apartment, hosts Marko and Marija warmly greeted us. They each grew up in the area. They both worked in Plitvice Lakes National Park– Marija by day, and Marko by night. They were parents to three children. By renting out apartments adjoining their home, they brought in extra income.
We got to know each other sitting at a picnic table outside their home. Marko poured us some rakija, a homemade plum brandy.
“Did you fight in the war?” I asked Marko.
He fought and was wounded in the war; I didn’t ask specifics.
The war actually started around Plitvice Lakes National Park. On Easter Sunday 1991, the first shots were fired. The Serbs occupied Plitvice and the surrounding area until 1995. Marko said 90% of buildings were destroyed.
It was hard to envision this place of overwhelming natural beauty as a war zone.
I accepted Marko’s offer for another pour. It’s not every day that I sit across someone of my own generation who fought for his country’s independence.
When we saw Marko the next morning, I was still mulling the Brexit result. I found myself wanting to ask Marko for his opinion, as the resident of an EU country.
I didn’t. Sometimes its best not to bring up politics with strangers.
But a heaviness weighed on me all day. The crystal clear lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice should have lightened my mood. Why did this heaviness remain?
Somewhere in the midst of our hike, I figured it out.
Globalization is all I know.
My U.S. passport allows me to travel globally with relative ease. I have friends all over the world. Traveling furthers my belief that we share more similarities than differences. Differences don’t scare me; they intrigue me. Global economies have been the focus of my investment career.
The Brexit vote questions every thing I know.
Looking back, my world view was formed with the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall. I had recently graduated from high school. I didn’t have a passport. For years, the Wall had artificially separated a faraway country into East and West.
People predicted that Germany’s collapsing Wall would have much deeper significance.
And it did. It symbolized the thawing of the Cold War. It symbolized globalization.
Bob and I wanted our high school graduate niece to have a passport. To see another country. To meet people and see things that might contribute to the forming of her adult perspective.
Similar to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the June 23 Brexit vote took place across the Atlantic. I am among those who believe it will have a continued impact on the U.S. and the world.
I think we were just a part of history.
And I wondered…did Jamie just experience her own Berlin Wall moment?
* For a list of European Union countries that use the Euro, click here.
Enjoy this TED Talk by Alexander Betts “Why Brexit Happened and What To Do Next”