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Great Britain

'Brexit won't influence our friendship': workers in twinned towns on their parallel lives

The butchers

Tanwir Jilani, 51, Jilani’s Halal Family Butcher, Longsight, Manchester

My dad was a butcher in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He came to this country in 1959 and had his own butcher’s shop in Manchester. I was his apprentice. There were three of us – my older brother, me and my younger brother.

I opened my business on 1 November 2001. My father was very proud; parents like their children to follow in their footsteps. My dad had tremendous ability – I won’t bring myself to say I’m on the same level, but maybe I’m halfway there.

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Tanwir Jilani in his halal butcher’s in Manchester (left), and Benny Gränitz at his family butcher’s in Chemnitz, Germany. Photographs: Michael Danner, Christopher Thomond/both the Guardian.

It’s a family business now. My wife serves the customers, and my son has a takeaway next door; I supply the meat to them. We work as a team. It’s a hard working life. I start at 7am preparing the meat for the counter, and we’re open 9am-9pm, seven days a week. I’m 51 and I’m still working away, but I’m making a living and I’m happy. When I retire, if I have the stamina, I’ll still do a few hours a day. I’ve always worked – I’m a working-class person.

I used to slaughter [animals] myself, but not now. Other people use machines to cut the meat, but we still do it the traditional way, by hand. We sell British lamb; maybe Brexit will affect prices. I wouldn’t know that – I’m a retailer, not a wholesaler. People aren’t going to stop buying meat – it’s still going to sell, however the prices go. There are lots of takeaways and restaurants in Manchester that I supply, and I have two restaurants of my own, in Rusholme and Longsight.

I love Manchester. I was born and bred here, and I would never go anywhere else. The Jilani name has been around for a long time – the mosques know us, the whole community knows us, and generations of people still come to buy halal meat from us.

Manchester has always been a base for Asian people, from India and Pakistan. I don’t feel European at all; I feel British, English. I’ve been to other countries in Europe, but England’s 10 times better.

David Cameron made the wrong decision. I think it would have been better to stay in the EU for business reasons. I’m a small businessman – we’re all out to make a living. Whatever happens with Brexit, I hope the change is for the better.

Benny Gränitz, 37, butcher in Chemnitz, Germany

I come from five generations of butchers. More than 100 years ago my great-grandfather started specialising in meat and sausages in Chemnitz. After the [communist] GDR years, my grandfather and my father opened quite a few new branches. But things have changed fast: big supermarkets moved in, and we had to close some of our stores.

Many people don’t want to pay extra for good-quality meat. But I am optimistic that is changing – it seems that fewer people are buying cut-price supermarket sausages. I like my job. We can influence the whole chain, from the farmer to the customer who eats our sausages.

For me, being European has its advantages. It’s practical to be able to cross borders without issues. On the downside, there are lots of European rules and regulations that make my life difficult. Maybe we’d have to comply with similar rules even without the EU, but they are definitely a big factor, and they have forced some local butchers to close. We’ve had to invest a lot to meet their strict standards.

I don’t foresee any big shift for our business after Brexit. A lot will depend on how Britain fares outside the EU. If things go well, maybe other countries will want to follow suit. If things go badly, I’m sure people will feel happy to stay.

Twinning is a nice idea, but I didn’t know we were partnered with Manchester. The two cities are well suited; they are both industrial places. We also have a Düsseldorf square in Chemnitz, named after our partner city in the former West Germany.

Life in Chemnitz is quiet and pleasant. There’s not much going on. Sometimes it’s as if the streets have been emptied of people. Other places are livelier but I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Interview by Jess Smee

The doctors

Punam Krishan, 35, is a GP who lives in Glasgow with her husband and five-year-old son

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Punam Krishan and Antonio Barillà. Photographs: Martin Hunter; Pietro Baroni/both the Guardian.

I’m one of the very few GPs who still loves being a GP. People see us when they’re at a crossroads – with their health, wellbeing or personal situations. You get to be part of their big moments as well as their not-so-big moments.

As a partner, I experienced stress and burnout. You work 12-hour days as a GP and then have to manage the business side, as well as juggling family life.

It was encroaching on all my relationships, and I felt quite unhappy. I remember being on holiday in Turkey, ordering toilet roll for the health centre for my practice. I left my partnership in September 2017 and I’ve been a locum ever since.

Although my heritage is Indian (my mum and dad are from Punjab) I was born and brought up in Glasgow. I’m very much part of two cultures. My mum used to take us to India every summer, and by week four I’d think: “I just want to go home.”

I love being Glaswegian; it’s such a multicultural, diverse city. I didn’t appreciate it until I moved to London for a few years. In London you have pockets with, for example, a large Indian population or a Caribbean community. In Glasgow, the communities are a lot more integrated.

You only ever realise the value of your home town when you move away. I had my child in London and I was pretty sick afterwards. I had a severe postpartum haemorrhage, lost about 70% of my blood volume, and had heart failure and other complications. I ended up unconscious in intensive care, and my family were told I was not going to make it. After that, all I wanted was the comfort of my city and my people.

Scotland didn’t want to leave the EU, so there is this sense of feeling hard done by, and the fact my son hasn’t had a choice in this saddens me. I want to keep him connected; I’ll probably take him on more holidays to Europe after Brexit.

I worry about what’s going to happen to my European friends and colleagues. If they leave, how will that affect our NHS, and our wider healthcare system? A lot of our machines and drugs come from Europe. If we don’t have a deal, how are we going to access these things?

Quick guide

From bombs to bonds: the story of twin towns

Although the idea of twinning towns predates the second world war, it was in its aftermath that the concept took hold as a way of promoting reconciliation and friendship between nations. Coventry, which suffered heavy bombing, was a pioneer. In 1942, women from the city sent a message of hope to the women of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), which had also been devastated. Two years later, the two cities agreed an official “bond of friendship”. Links with Kiel (1947) and Dresden (1956) followed.

In the early 1970s, as the UK prepared to join the European Economic Community, the government offered funding to encourage twinning. “The idea was that new forms of trade would be more successful if British people were culturally competent in dealing with Europeans,” says Nick Clarke, associate professor of human geography at the University of Southampton. School exchanges and foreign language learning flourished.

The 21st century, however, has seen some partnerships falter, with a number of UK towns “un-twinning” from their European counterparts. When Peter Davies became mayor of Doncaster in 2009 he scrapped its five town-twinning arrangements, as part of a series of cash-saving measures. “Only about a dozen people ever benefited from these trips,” he said. “I can see that it arose out of altruistic motives after the war, but it just became about junkets.” In 2011 the Tory-run town council in Bishop’s Stortford ended ties with Friedberg and Villiers-sur-Marne, after more than 46 years, blaming “lack of interest”. The Lib Dems argued it had more to do with Tory Euroscepticism.

Antonio Barillà, 57, is a family doctor working in Turin

I have been working as a family doctor in Turin and the wider Piedmont region for 26 years. Over the years the job has changed for the worse. There is a real lack of funding in the public sector. Bureaucracy slows us down. There are pharmaceutical and diagnostic rules that must be followed; treatment protocols that are still printed on paper. If a worker takes a sick day, they still have to present their employer with a written affidavit from their family doctor. It is this sort of bureaucratic strain that causes burnout, and motivates Italian doctors to abandon the public sector.

I don’t feel Turin is an important part of my identity. I was born in Reggio Calabria, in southern Italy, and came here for work. Hundreds of thousands of Italians moved from the south to Turin after the second world war. They left their cities and families to work here. Turin is a multicultural city, where Italian and foreign migrants coexist. You overcome these differences by seeking out what unites rather than divides us. My wife is Piedmontese, and we have two children. I am perfectly integrated culturally, socially and in my work.

I am proudly Italian – we are a free, extraordinarily complex and unpredictable people. But I no longer recognise myself in the Europe of today, where nationalism is raging. The populism taking root in Italy is the expression of the failure of the political establishment over the past 25 years. Populist leaders are being asked to solve problems like insecurity and the decaying social fabric. People believe that European politicians have not regulated finance; they have been at its service.

Brexit is simply another way to divide us, and I don’t think it will bring benefits to the UK. I believe it will eventually be overturned by the people who oppose it.

Interview by Lorenzo Tondo

The headteachers

Bob Holderness, 48, is headteacher at The Parkside School, Norwich, a complex-needs school

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Bob Holderness and Violeta Strahinjevic. Photographs: Christian Sinibaldi; Chris Ridley/both the Guardian.

Parkside is an urban school that takes pupils from the whole of Norfolk. All the specialist schools in Norfolk are heavily oversubscribed. We all face sustained pressure to admit more pupils to sites designed for far fewer pupils and staff. In the city centre we have the White Lion Cafe, where our pupils learn communication and interaction skills. It won a national award but we’ve had to make the decision to close it, as a direct result of our budget situation.

I have been in education for 25 years. I have seen so many colleagues leave the profession, citing stress and burnout. It’s difficult to recruit people where we are geographically, flanked by the North Sea. However, at Parkside we have staff who have worked in the school for many years, including myself.

Although I have lived in a number of other places, Norwich has always been my home. I was born in Sheffield – my dad was a history lecturer at Sheffield University; he did some work on our family tree and we established that my mum’s family moved from Suffolk to Norwich in 1602. I feel a sense of belonging here.

The original idea to twin communities after the second world war was to reduce the risk of future world conflict and promote cultural and economic links. Both of these ideas are still valid. The link between Norwich and Novi Sad in Serbia supported many joint education ventures. I recently got in contact with a former teacher who taught at Parkside in 1985, when the twinning first happened. A team went over, and they sent resources to a complex-needs school over there. When I arrived in 2002, that link had gone cold.

From a historical and political perspective, I consider myself European. I have grave concerns over the division of the country with Brexit. We need to work together to achieve a compromise.

Violeta Strahinjevic, 47, is director of Milan Petrović School for children and young people with disabilities and special educational needs, in Novi Sad, Serbia

I became director of the school last year, but I’ve been working here for 22 years as a specialist teacher. One of the daily challenges we face is how to increase the acceptance of people with disabilities within the community. We try hard to include our children in local activities – the film festival, exhibitions, music festivals. It is essential for their social inclusion.

We often collaborate with art students or professional artists – for our project Crossover they performed a stage musical in the city and surrounding villages. It is one of the many little steps we take to try to change attitudes. There is a long way to go, but I feel that in Novi Sad we are moving in the right direction.

The city has always been a melting pot of nationalities, so people here are very tolerant. The cooperation and friendship with the Norfolk and Norwich Novi Sad Association was important in the 1990s, when our country and our school were going through very rough times – because of the country’s isolation [through sanctions], general instability and a lack of funds. They stood by our side through good times and bad, and have been helping ever since. That is true friendship. They still fundraise for new equipment for the school, things we can’t get here in Serbia, and when it arrives it’s a great joy.

I feel equally a citizen of Novi Sad and a citizen of Europe. I think Britain should stay in the EU. It’s much more beneficial, not just for British people but for all of us, if Britain remains a member. But whatever happens, I am sure it won’t influence our friendship.

The artists

Lisa Gunn, 44, is an artist who works in Coventry, and is involved in the Coventry/Dresden Arts Exchange

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Lisa Gunn and Kerstin Franke-Gneuss. Photographs: Michael Danner; Stephen Burke/both the Guardian.

I was born in Walsgrave hospital in Coventry, and I grew up just outside the city. My father and his father were born here. Coventry is in our blood.

I was in a road accident in April 1997, and the seatbelt broke my spine. I couldn’t do anything for four years; I was in agonising pain. I was doing my art degree at Coventry University and my tutors were really supportive.

My recent work is strongly connected with the ruins of Coventry cathedral and what they symbolise. It was devastated in the war – it’s like a skeleton – and I feel a metaphorical connection. We are both physically damaged, but we are still standing.

I’ve only just become involved with the Coventry/Dresden Arts Exchange. I travelled to Dresden in February and took part in an exhibition called Condition Humaine, involving two artists from Coventry (including myself) and two from Dresden. It was organised around the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden in the second world war. We’ve all come from cities that rose from the ashes to create something new, and the work we’ve exhibited is inspired by that. The same show came to Coventry cathedral this summer.

The Dresden trip was fantastic. My father came with me. Since I’ve been involved in this project, I’ve found out a lot about his early life. He was born under the living-room table in a Morrison shelter in an air raid on Coventry during the war.

Everyone I met in Dresden was lovely – the artists and everyone connected with them. I made some great new friends. I invited them to come and stay with me.

The economic impact of Brexit will definitely affect my work. Since the 2008 recession, people have become more careful about how they spend their money, and art is a luxury. I do sell work, but not as much as I used to.

I feel European; I think most [European] artists do. We’re part of a larger culture. I’ve exhibited in Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland. We move around, we meet people – that’s what we do.

Kerstin Franke-Gneuss, 60, is an artist who lives and works in Dresden, and is involved in the Coventry/Dresden Arts Exchange

I have worked as a freelance artist in Dresden since 1984. I have a studio in the Künstlerhaus, the Artists’ House, which was built 120 years ago and is custom-designed for artists to live and work in. I make prints, and create big installations in public spaces. I can only make my art here in Dresden; it is inspiring for me.

The concept of twin towns brings people together. It’s important for me to talk to people with different views, or ideas, to look through their eyes. For Coventry and Dresden, the main impulse is the idea of forgiveness, mutual understanding and community. It’s represented in the words “Father forgive”, which were inscribed in Coventry [on the wall behind the altar of the cathedral] while the war was still going on. That always deeply impressed me.

The theme of this year’s exhibition of the Coventry/Dresden Arts Exchange is human existence in war and suffering, in reconciliation and peace. Twinning brings us closer to the “common European home” envisaged by Mikhail Gorbachev. This grand idea is being lost. Why would people want to have new borders? I come from the former GDR, and I know how small the world can be.

With Brexit, there will be difficulties to overcome: new border controls, papers to fill in for customs clearance – a lot more hassle. This makes the connection and friendship between Coventry and Dresden all the more valuable.

The bar workers

Milo Smith, 36, is general manager of Ninety-Nine Bar and Kitchen in Aberdeen

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Milo Smith and Kristine Ekeland. Photographs: Sophie Gerrard; Ben Speck/both the Guardian.

I’ve been general manager of an eclectic wee cocktail bar for five years, and I love it. Previously, I was an art teacher at a secondary school, but there was a lot of politics and paperwork, unnecessary stress, and too many hours. Believe it or not, when I became a bar manager I started working a lot less. I’ve worked in bars since I was 15, so it made sense to come back.

The main challenge is the business rates, and how expensive everything’s getting. Taxes, and the cost of everything from sugar to alcohol to plastic, have gone up. The minimum wage is going up. The more you work to generate a profit, the harder it becomes.

I think Brexit is a total farce. I’m someone who will roll my sleeves up and get on with whatever needs doing, but in this case we don’t know what to get on with. Most of the drinks we stock in our bar come from Europe. Our drinks suppliers import them, so any cost implications of crossing borders after Brexit will affect us.

I was born in Aberdeen and I’ve lived here, on and off, for the better part of 35 years. I feel a strong identity with the city. It’s quite a close-knit community. Aberdonians are pretty stubborn, and we also like to have a good time. We’re the sort of people who will have a barbecue even if it starts to rain – we’ll just get the brollies out. We make the most of a bad situation.

The last time I was in Stavanger was four years ago, for a friend’s stag do – he lives there. Both Aberdeen and Stavanger are oil and gas cities, and you can tell that as soon as you arrive. It has a similar feel, the same company names, the industrial-style buildings, trucks transporting goods.

We know when the oil rig and the boat changeovers are – we get a lot of oil and gas workers coming in [to the bar], just after they come off the helicopter. The Norwegian workers and the Brits all arrive together and tend to have a few drinks before they go their separate ways.

Kristine Ekeland, 26, and Steffen Rege, 28, are co-owners of Hygge bar in Stavanger

Kristine I’ve been running the bar with my co-owner Steffen since March 2017. I imagine it’s a demanding job in any part of the world, but here you have different challenges: Stavanger is a small city – there are about 120,000 people living here. There is quite a good nightlife, but you’re fighting over the same customers.

We designed the bar to create something unique. We have a gigantic wall of plants and a beer pong area. We’ve just renovated using wood from an old fishing boat. We get some tourists, but it’s mainly locals. We also get quite a few international students.

Stavanger is home but my mum is from Brazil, so I can relate to both cultures. Steffen was born and raised in Stavanger. It’s only a small place, but there’s an aura here that always reels people back.

Personally, I feel there are a lot of cities in the world to discover, so my goal is to move around for as long as possible. I feel European, obviously, since I’ve lived 99% of my life in Norway. The Scandinavian way of living has helped shape the way I think. Growing up in Scandinavia also influenced my views politically and culturally – I am very liberal, and I value democracy in every aspect of my life, not just in politics.

I don’t necessarily think Brexit is a good or a bad thing. Norway isn’t 100% in the EU, although it is still bound to some EU regulations, and we’re happy about that. It means you’re not under someone else’s control.

Steffen The two cities have got oil in common – platforms in the North Sea. A plane goes to Aberdeen every day.

I used to work for Halliburton in Aberdeen, and I thought the city was great, all the redbrick houses. The price of beer was a bit cheaper, but not much, and the food is different – a bit more greasy.

I feel European. I’ve been to many places but I’ve never travelled outside of Europe. In terms of Brexit, there will be good or bad things whatever Britain does. It’s better to be able to do things yourself, than to be told what to do.

The academics

Dr Steve Wharton, 56, is a senior lecturer in French and communication, and departmental Erasmus and assistantships director at the University of Bath

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Dr Steve Wharton, lecturer in French and communication at the University of Bath; Dr Mauve Carbonell, history professor at Aix-Marseille university. Photographs: Gregoire Bernardi; James Arthur Allen/both the Guardian.

Being an academic is one of the best jobs in the world. It gives you the chance to engage with young people, to help them to develop, and you get to do it alongside some pretty good colleagues.

We do not live in an ivory tower, though. We face the same problems of pay, pensions and insecurity as any other profession. There was a national strike last year over changes to the pension scheme. I was on strike for 14 days.

I’ve worked at the university and lived in Bath for half my life – I’m 56 now. I met my husband through the university. He now lives and works in Parma in Italy, so we travel backwards and forwards quite a lot. Brexit could affect that.

I’m originally from Dorset, and I felt at home within about six months of moving here. Bath is a friendly place. If I’m at the bus stop I’ll talk to people and they won’t look sideways and move away, they will join in the conversation. There’s a remarkably international presence within the city, and that’s not just the students. It’s home to people from France, Spain, Italy, Germany… Being European is very much part of my identity – I’m a European Brit.

When I was 21, I taught English at a school in Normandy for nine months. In the 90s, I taught at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, and I lived there when I was doing my PhD.

I became involved in the Bath/Aix-en-Provence town-twinning initiative in about 1998. It struck me that, since we sent students to Aix [through the Erasmus programme], it would be a good idea to become involved in the non-academic side of twinning.

The decision to leave the EU is a mistake; the ridiculous mantra of taking back control of things we controlled already skewed the debate. I have colleagues who have broken down in tears because the website for registering an interest in remaining in the UK wasn’t working. As a UK citizen, I felt ashamed.

The University of Bath has been proactive in contacting all of its international partners and saying it wants to continue working together. There is apparently a government promise to underwrite some kind of exchange programme. But quite what that will be is something none of us knows.

Dr Mauve Carbonell, 40, is associate professor in history and director of the master’s programme in European and International Studies at Aix-Marseille University.

Life as an academic in Aix is thrilling – and busy. In reality, I have two jobs: professor and researcher. I manage about 20 international cooperation agreements to encourage student and staff exchanges. The partnership with Bath is long-established and one of the most important and successful we have had.

Every year we send six of our students to Bath and we welcome about six students from Bath on our master’s programme. Our students have an obligatory mobility period of six months in the spring semester and a lot of them decide to go to Bath. Erasmus agreements allow them to study abroad without paying additional fees to the host university; to benefit from a grant, and to have their overseas study programme formally recognised.

Aix-en-Provence is the city where I grew up as a teenager, where I studied 20 years ago and where I now work, after spending time elsewhere in France and Europe. It’s a part of my identity, but it has become a smaller part as my European identity has become stronger. First I got an Erasmus grant to attend the Humboldt University in Berlin. Then, for my PhD on European integration history, I travelled to European archive centres and met people involved in the birth of the European Community. I lived a truly European experience as a young researcher. I feel at home anywhere from Tallinn to Lisbon, from Galway to Athens.

We fear Brexit will limit our students’ choices. Dismantling 70 years of economic and political ties is a sad and exasperating process. I don’t recognise the UK I know in this madness: wasn’t British democracy the most pragmatic in the world?

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