FLORENCE—Theresa May is no Lucy Honeychurch, the wide-eyed British protagonist of E.M. Forster’s Room With a View whose Florentine adventure inspired a generation of Brits to flock to the Tuscan capital in search of love and culture and everything in between.
She is much more like Lucy’s overprotective cousin Charlotte Bartlett, the killjoy chaperone who threw cold water on the young woman’s fabulous adventures.
Why May chose Florence as the location for her landmark Brexit speech is puzzling. Whether she chose the veritable seat of the Renaissance as a symbol to show Britain’s eventual rebirth or because she just wanted a final weekend under the Tuscan sun, like so many of her compatriots, is the subject of great debate.
Her speech is Friday, assumed to be at the 15th-century basilica of Santa Maria Novella based on a now-deleted tweet sent out by the church, but there are rumors of a hush-hush event for her at the British Institute in Florence on Monday, so it well might be the latter.
Security was being beefed up outside the basilica Thursday, which seems to confirm the location. But where she is speaking and for whatever reason she is coming to Florence at all, it certainly isn’t to speak to her constitutes. Regular British expats are not on the invitation-only guest list to hear her speak, and they aren’t very happy about it. Instead, many will be gathering in protest outside the church where she is thought to be speaking in a cloistered hall.
They’ve been told by the protest organizers to bring European Union flags to wave and placards and signs with such sayings as “No more soundbites, just our EU rights,” but reminded that they are not to demonstrate or march because the city did not give them permission for that. Instead many will likely latch on to an authorized march by the New Europeans group scheduled to make its way through town once May’s address has been confirmed. The group’s head, Roger Casale, told those who subscribe to his newsletter, “We want to remind Theresa May and the EU that as citizens of Europe, we have a voice, we have rights, and we expect to be heard… we are the mainstream, Brexit is the ‘freak show.’”
Helen Farrell is one of the 1.6 million British citizens living in Europe whose lives are hanging in the Brexit balance. Sitting in the elegant offices of The Florentine magazine, where she is the editor in chief, she talks of the roller-coaster ride her life has been since the Brexit vote “stripped her identity as a European” last year. “At first there was anger and dismay,” she says. “Now I try to be hopeful.” She sees May’s choice to come to Florence as peculiar, to say the least. “It’s backward-looking, not forward-looking,” she says.
Farrell had started the process of applying for Italian citizenship before the vote, but many people, like British fine artist and painter Helen Bayley, who has lived in Florence for more than eight years, made the decision that being British wasn’t enough the morning after the vote.
Bayley, who is a certified guide for art-history tours in the city, describes her life in limbo from a chic café in the Piazza Signoria, a stone’s throw from the Uffizi museum. She says if she doesn’t get her Italian citizenship or residency and the right to stay in Italy, she doesn’t know what she will do. “British have always been drawn to places of great history and beauty,” she says, describing how the British influence on Florentine culture is still apparent today in the way Britain has always been a patron of Florentine art and culture. “It’s OK to be English here,” she says, which is not an automatic sensation for most expats in other European countries. “We are connected to this place throughout our history. It is painful to think about what so many people fought for in World War II to create a peaceful Europe and now Britain has just chosen to leave.”
She, like so many other British expats in Italy and continental Europe, feel their voice has not been heard, and their lives not considered. “We are the shells left from the broken eggs they used to make this omelet,” she says, paraphrasing a comment she heard recently that rang true. “No one considers what these decisions mean to us. We are the last to be considered. We are forgotten.”
That’s why she finds it so curious that May is coming to this city to speak, but she doesn’t hold out hope that she will say anything she wants to hear. “It will be difficult for her to say anything that rings true to us,” Bayley says. “What can she possibly say to make this OK?”