The Statesman 28. März 2019
While the tragicomedy of Brexit drags on and on, with a new, never-seen-before scenario every other day, I reflect on what Europe has given to my life and the lives of my generation which grew up soon after the Second World War. First and foremost, it is a generation which has seen 75 years of uninterrupted peace! I was a mere fourteen years when I, together with a classmate, went from Germany to England by train and ferry to spend two weeks with a family near Colchester. A year later I spent a month in London staying at an international students hostel which had been vacated by many of its normal roomers for the summer vacation. I strolled through the centre of London alone every day, entering every museum and church and shop just to see and understand. The African students had stayed on, so I interacted with them, attending their African dance parties and engaging in animated conversations. What a great learning experience! Immediately after my Abitur (after class 13), I spent a month in Paris, using the one-room-apartment of a German teacher who was a friend of my father. Again I was roaming the streets, all on foot of course, with an indefatigable curiosity.
Right from the second semester onwards, I left German academia and completed my University studies in Vienna, Austria’s capital. These were the early 1970s and the EU was not even on the horizon. So my passport and luggage were checked at the border, and once I was enrolled as a student, I had to apply for a visa to remain in Austria. I interrupted my studies to spend nine months in Paris to learn French and enter more deeply into French literature. At school I had already learnt French for a few years, so my intensive courses at the Alliance Française soon enabled me to read the novels of André Gide and Albert Camus in the original and participate in jokes with my colleagues at the Collège Passy-Buzenval, a boarding-school, where I had taken a part-time job as a student supervisor. I had to pay my bills in Paris which was and is an expensive city. Again, what a learning experience!
Such a spreading-out to several European countries was, already then, possible because of a liberal University policy. Unless you wanted a job with the government, one could study anywhere in Europe and qualify for a degree and still return to Germany to get employment in the free market. This University-hopping was not yet encouraged. It was due to my father’s far-sightedness that I was able to get his support. In the last two decades it has become routine for European students to spend a year or more outside their own country and also to learn one more language apart from English. These have become items of their CV which nobody wants to miss because they improve their job prospects. Some spread their wings all the way to Canada, Australia or New Zealand. By now, for the young generations, borderless travel within EU countries has become a fact they do not even reflect about. It is as normal as brushing one’s teeth.
Within a society which has no castes and which has a much shorter ethnic memory than for example India, the mixing of nationalities and languages has become the new normal. Let me take my family in Germany. My maternal grandmother is Italian. She spent her childhood in an Alpine village before she, driven by poverty, went to Germany to hire as a house-maid. This was over a century ago. She stayed on and married. Her children received a proper education and established themselves securely in middle-class society. After the Second World War, my maternal uncle married a French woman from Alsace-Lorraine. Their daughter married an American and is settled in Texas as a pediatrician. Their son remained in Germany, but his son fell in love with a Thai girl. They are both doctors and live in the USA. My brother married a girl from my home-town, but one of their sons started a family with a Scotswoman who has roots in France.
This is the reality of Europe. It is imperative to know one’s roots and to nourish them throughout one’s life. It is good to pass on that knowledge to one’s children. Ideally, they should grow up bilingual if the parents have different mother-tongues. What an immense personal enrichment it is to fluently move in two languages and that means, within two sets of mentalities, histories and societies. It is not a mere duplication of communication skills. It creates a dialogue within oneself, and, provided the person is sufficiently intelligent and emotionally stable, it increases one’s maturity, knowledge, and social skills exponentially.
Observing individuals, groups and nations, I am most wary of mental and intellectual narrowness, of small-mindedness, pettiness. It would shut out growing into a Europe of multiple allegiances. It lurks in all of us. It is so tempting to be vengeful or ill-meaning, to be suspicious of other’s qualities and intentions. Such emotions run wild in us all the time, and we must fight them all the time. One main source is, I believe, personal insecurity. If our politicians and social leaders enjoyed more personal security, if they possessed a loving adherence to clear social and moral values, then the squabbling, the meanness, short-sightedness of politics would not be tolerated. They would then, one hopes, train their sights on larger issues than their individual goals.
It is so easy to lean back and allow the status quo to continue. Such complacency shuts is eyes to the ancient wisdom that everything moves and changes. We are, if we want it or not, a part of it. Personal maturation can happen only by agreeing to – judiciously – absorb external influences. The petite bourgeoisie is satisfied to stew in its own juice. But others who want “to become what they are” go beyond their boundaries – be they defined by caste, social class and other group identities.
Getting back to our initial observations, the advantages of being in Europe and participating in its process of opening up small units and merging into larger units, is so obvious, particularly to the younger generation. It is unfortunate that the country we have been looking for leadership in Europe, the United Kingdom, makes such a torturous, curvaceous, farcical performance out of a decision which ought to lead towards a mentality and social reality which, to such a large extent, already exists and only needs to be embraced.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.