Travelling Europe One Railway at a Time
Interrail pass, backpack, laptop, notepad: Alex Rühle travelled light on his tour of Europe. But he asked some weighty questions: What is the European Union today? Do its early values still apply? Rühle collected all sorts of answers while crossing its borders – and tens of thousands of kilometres.
By Marit Borcherding
On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded the sovereign state of Ukraine. It was the capstone of a phase marked by deep crises for the European Union, a political entity that began as a great promise but has recently had to deal with the conflict-prone issues of immigration and integration, climate change, Brexit, covid, rising nationalism and, finally, the brutal war on its eastern border that has now lasted a year. In the context of this war in particular, the cohesion and values of the EU are increasingly being invoked. But what’s behind them and where can one learn more about their substance?
Alex Rühle, long-time culture reporter for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and currently its Scandinavia correspondent, wanted to know more. In March 2022 he set off by train with an Interrail pass in his bag. Interrail continues to be a successful European project: At the beginning of the 1970s, 21 European railways introduced the pass to enable young people up to the age of 21 to travel cheaply across several countries of the continent. In the meantime, its range has been enlarged, a number of versions of the pass are available and the age restriction has been lifted. The author, born in 1969, was able to use an Interrail pass to take a look around the “troubled continent,” as his book Europa, was nun? (Europe, what now?) is subtitled.
The journey began in GreeceThe first leg of his journey took him to Athens, a starting point for two reasons, according to Rühle: For one, it is the city “where Pericles once described democracy as the form of state in which ‘state affairs are not the prerogative of some, but the prerogative of many.’” Moreover, the country has been weighed down by the so-called sovereign debt crisis since 2010, a situation that cannot be viewed in isolation from the EU. He writes, “Athens was the place where the new Europe suffered its first dramatic shipwreck.” Rühle now wants to know to what extent the Greeks have overcome the crisis, how the rigid austerity policy has affected the social fabric and how the stricken country has come through the pandemic.
In search of answers, here and in the following chapters, Rühle speaks with people – an unconditional quality of the book – who, through their daily work, know what is happening in society and speak openly about it. Despite adversity, many of them also embody values with positive connotations such as solidarity, empathy, hope and a combative spirit. In the Greek capital, the latter applies to cardiologist and doctor for the poor Giorgos Vichas. Teacher Artemis Kliafa doesn’t mince words, noting, “We’ve witnessed the impoverishment of Greece in our classrooms. Children keeling over in class because of malnutrition ... Entire classes where the parents were unemployed ...” Her conclusion gives the EU the worst possible report card: “The rift between North and South has only deepened, we have to get out of it.” Out of the EU, is what Artemis Kliafa means.
More resistance against the EU’s enemiesThese kinds of direct controversial impressions and opinions characterise Rühle’s entire survey, which took him to places like Belgrade, Sarajevo, Calabria, Marseille, Ceuta, Lisbon, Brussels, Strasbourg, Finland, the Baltic States, Warsaw, Budapest and Sofia. In each, he grapples directly with what he has seen and experienced in conversations. The passion and conviction with which he defends a democratic and united Europe becomes clear, for example, on his stopover in Budapest when he makes no secret of his assessment of Orbán’s policies – and the passivity of the EU bodies in the face of his destructive approach. “In 2010, Viktor Orbán announced the ‘restructuring of the entire country.’ Since then, the EU has stood by and watched him dismantle the foundations of democracy.”
In addition to dealing with the respective political circumstances – the Finnish educational system, EU bureaucracy in Brussels and Strasbourg, over-tourism in Lisbon, the late effects of the wars in the Balkans, the segregation of migrants in Ceuta, the patchwork of history in a French amusement park – the book is also about travelling itself, specifically by bus and train. Rühle learned that the journey from Thessaloniki to Belgrade would take 14 hours because there were no train connections, only bus connections, and those only on Tuesdays. Sometimes the journey was quite idyllic: “Model railway landscape architects should be able to deduct trips to Slovenia from their taxes because they can get so much inspiration here in such a small space: craggy karst mountains, primeval forest-green valleys, glowing golden plains.” Occasionally, world events fade into the background. For example, when Rühle finds himself in elegant Bologna stopping in front of a shop window in his “old clothes reeking of the bus,” admiring “the silky sheen of a slim tailor-made suit.”
No alternativeThis successful mixture of essayistic discussion of urgent political questions, lively descriptions of encounters with fascinating EU citizens and how he relates his travel impressions as if chatting with close friends over dinner make reading the book so rewarding, stimulating and entertaining. Faced with so many sobering experiences and insights, does the author allow himself to be dissuaded from his positive attitude towards the European Union? Not at all – although he also takes us, his readers, a little to task. “Fatalism is for saps and cynics. It’s so easy to give up on Europe. Do you see a better alternative anywhere in the world? What should take its place? You couldn’t do China, Russia and the US Republicans a bigger favour than to give up this formidable structure and fall back into small statehood.” It’s a strong case – certainly also a case for buying an Interrail pass. There’s hardly a better way to experience Europe.
Alex Rühle: Europa - wo bist du? Unterwegs in einem aufgewühlten Kontinent
München: dtv, 2022. 416 p.
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