Flitting between countries to live, work and steal ideas was one of the continent’s great perks

Looking back now, I’m surprised I took it all for granted. Once a fortnight or so, I’d walk out of my flat in Paris, ride the metro like an ordinary commuter, get off at a train station, and later that same morning have coffee with someone at King’s Cross, or in Brussels or Amsterdam. No generation in history enjoyed such easy international travel as those of us living in the north-western corner of Europe — call it the Londonsphere — before Covid-19.

As I write this, I haven’t left Paris city limits in nearly four months. This may turn out to be the summer of our lifetimes with the least foreign travel. Paris landmarks such as the Luxembourg Gardens, normally overrun with tourists, now feel spacious and soothing. It’s temporarily delightful, but I want my Europe back. And despite everything, I’m confident I’ll get it.

Europe has always been one of the most navigable bits of the world. The secret of its western end in particular is what the historian Norman Davies calls its “user-friendly climate”. It rains a lot here (though not, worryingly, this spring) so the land is fertile. That has always allowed lots of people to live crammed together in a small space. Blessed with ample coastline, Europeans started sailing early. Ferries carrying goods and ideas have been crossing the English Channel between Dover and Calais for nearly 900 years.

European exchanges ranged from tech — Galileo designed his telescope days after hearing about the Dutch invention — to everyday matters of fashion, food and romance. By 1840, you could get a train from London to a Channel port, and then another from Ostend to Brussels. Pretty soon, British tour groups were ­visiting the battlefield at Waterloo.

A poster promoting train travel to the French Riviera, c1950; for Europeans, rail is ‘the romantic equivalent of the American road trip’ A poster promoting train travel to the French Riviera, c1950; for Europeans, rail is ‘the romantic equivalent of the American road trip’ © K.J. Historical/Corbis/Getty Images

The usual sneer is that only the “cosmopolitan elite” crosses borders like this. That was never true. By the 1850s, the entrepreneur Thomas Cook was taking British tourists drawn from “the lowest ranks of the middle class” to Belgium, Germany and France, according to Richard Mullen and James Manson in The Smell of the Continent. Poor immigrants from Italy and Poland remade their lives in France. From about 1860 until 1914, European travellers didn’t even need passports, as the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled with marvel in The World of Yesterday, published in 1941:

“People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and to America without passport and without ever having seen one.”

Europe’s great cities became daily sites for the international exchange of ideas. Sometimes this had terrible consequences: Zweig’s fellow residents of Vienna in 1913 included the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and a young automobile worker named Josip Broz, who later became the Yugoslav dictator Tito.

If you ever make the mistake of taking today’s European miracle for granted, you can find the scars of past conflicts in almost any city. Ground Zero is the tranquil street corner by the river in Sarajevo where the archduke was assassinated in 1914. Border guards sealed western Europe’s frontiers pretty efficiently into the 1950s, and eastern Europe’s until 1989.

In 1990 I arrived in Berlin to spend a year studying at the Technische Universität. I’d grown up wondering whether I would ever visit the forbidden lands behind the Iron ­Curtain. Suddenly, I was living in an apartment building in East Berlin, though I had to walk 10 ­minutes to a phone booth in West Berlin to make calls.

New Year celebrations by the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, January 1 1990, a few weeks after the wall separating East and West Germany came down New Year celebrations by the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, January 1 1990, a few weeks after the wall separating East and West Germany came down © dpa picture alliance / Alamy

Most of my fellow new students were East Germans, young people who hadn’t been able to study under the old regime and had seized the chance. One was a former border guard, probably a Stasi informer. Another had worked in a library. In his early twenties, he had already been looking forward to his pension, when East Germany would allow him to travel and he could visit the sites of ancient Greece. He had got there decades ahead of schedule, in the summer of 1990, his rucksack full of canned food to save money. The friends I made seemed recognisably like fellow Europeans, in part because in class we’d obsess together over our continent’s wartime horrors.

In 1991 the former border guard and I visited Prague — so cheap, gorgeous and heaving with Europe’s adventurous young that I thought about moving there and commuting to university in Berlin.

The next summer, in freshly independent Latvia, I rented a room on a courtyard in Riga. One evening, standing on the balcony, my landlady pointed out the neighbouring flat that had belonged to the second secretary of Latvia’s communist party. She described the crowds breaking into it during the 1991 ­revolution. The story was exotic, yet the scene was familiar. I knew almost identical brick apartment buildings in Amsterdam and Berlin, albeit in better shape. Europe had survived communism.

I’ve been travelling around it since, often to steal ideas at conferences. Umberto Eco said in 1993 that the language of Europe is translation. By now it’s English. I grew up in Leiden, in the Netherlands, in the 1970s and 1980s, where my dad taught in Dutch at a rather insular ­university. Now more than 200 degree courses in Leiden are taught in English.

Many of the students taking them are Germans. Thirty years ago, few Germans were comfortable in English. Nowadays I keep meeting Germans who are so fully bilingual, often without even an accent, that I wouldn’t dare speak my hard-learnt German to them.

All these pan-European meetings help make Europe a wonderful place to live, as becomes apparent the moment you turn your eye from GDP numbers or the valuations of tech unicorns to more telling metrics. European countries cluster with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore at the top of most global rankings of life expectancy, income equality, gender gaps, the United Nations’ human development index and Transparency International’s corruption perception index. It’s partly because we steal each ­other’s best ideas: Dutch bike lanes and gay marriage, Denmark’s flexible labour market, Stockholm’s heating with biofuel, short British university degrees and the European café terraces with proper Italian coffee that revived drab London in the 1990s.

Coronavirus offered a case study in rapid European learning, even if several countries were a fatal week or two late. Europeans slept through the initial outbreak in Wuhan because it was far away, and China’s government and state media hid the truth.

But once the virus reached Lombardy, most of Europe — except the UK and Sweden — learnt fast. Germany, Denmark, Greece, Austria and the eastern Europeans did best, saving themselves through rapid lockdowns. Meanwhile, the US frittered away its learning opportunity. Even before the pandemic, the average American lived 2.7 years fewer than the average, much poorer Greek. Europe, warts and all, is a good place to be an ordinary person.

When the form asks whether I’m travelling for business or pleasure, I always want to say “both”. There’s a delight in meeting old friends in familiar places like Dublin. The fact of travel gives a frisson to the evening that would be lacking if we all lived in the same city and had just crept out from under our mortgages for a monthly meet-up.

There’s also a delight in discovering one of Europe’s fantastically liveable second-tier cities. I’d cite San Sebastián, Bordeaux, Lyon and Toulouse, Maastricht and Reggio Emilia. But Europe’s most liveable city is Barcelona. It exemplifies the European dream: that perfect mix of food, architecture, weather, wealth, friendliness and a manageable pace. Zoom will allow more people to live on the Mediterranean while working in an economy like London’s.

The privilege of European travel has something to do with money, but more with passports. When Zweig lost his Austrian citizenship under Hitler, he recalled what an exiled Russian had once told him: “A person used to just have a body and soul. Now he also needs a passport, or else he won’t be treated like a person.”

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig marvelled at the pre-1914 Europe of ‘no permits, no visas’; he went on to lose his citizenship under Hitler The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig marvelled at the pre-1914 Europe of ‘no permits, no visas’; he went on to lose his citizenship under Hitler © Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The most valuable thing I own is my British passport. However, it has been devalued by Brexit. Like Boris Johnson’s father Stanley, I have requested French nationality so that I can stay in Europe. I anxiously await my interview at the Préfecture de Police on July 17. 

Zweig’s story is a lesson: borders can go up as well as down. It’s harder now for Europeans to cross frontiers than at any point since 1989. Still, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and money behind continued openness, especially by rail.

Rail is Europe’s romantic equivalent of the American road trip. One resolution I made during lockdown is to take trains rather than planes whenever possible. Despite Brexit, that keeps getting easier.

Eurostar is planning to allow ­passengers to walk to their trains along a camera-lined “biometric corridor” that would, in a Zweigian fantasy, dispense with the need for passports. France plans to revive overnight trains, which merge the costs of travel and bed without generating carbon emissions. Now the Vienna Institute for Economic ­Studies is proposing that the EU spend part of its post-pandemic recovery package on an ultra-rapid train network that would, among other things, connect Paris and Berlin in four hours.

Cross-border exchange is Europe’s unique selling point. ­Post-pandemic, I suspect the forces of openness will win — but then Zweig once thought so too.

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