When I was seventeen

I travelled to Europe, to study and to work, before going to Teachers’ Training College. I flew to Brussels on a Sabena Airlines plane, with just £50, all the currency you were allowed to take abroad in those days.

While I was there I  first heard of ‘Benelux’, which consisted of  Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. This felt like something special, and I loved the sound of it. To me it was the sound of freedom, of the chance to travel and see new places, meet new people. The  Benelux countries were part of the core group of European countries that had signed up to the treaty of Rome some years before.  They were part of what was to become the Common Market and this was my first encounter with it. There was a referendum in the 1970’s and, as I was over twenty one by then, I had the vote and I voted ‘IN’. United Europe grew and more countries joined. It became the EEC (European Economic Community) and then the EU.

All that time, ever since I first went to Belgium and discovered they already had duvets, two languages, and ate chips with mayonnaise, ever since then, I have considered myself a European.

I still am.

At the end of that year in Belgium I travelled by train through what was then West Germany and through the restricted corridor of East Germany to meet my father in Berlin. I have never forgotten that experience or how frightening borders and border guards can be.  In 1964 Germany was a divided country; a country divided by a wall, and had been for almost three years. I stood with my father on the Unter Den Linden, the great boulevard leading up to the Brandenburg gate. We went as close as we dared to the wall. It was a ghastly sight: miles of concrete and barbed wire stretching in both directions and every few yards a watch tower with armed guards watching us, two innocent tourists, as we stood below. I asked my father if he thought it would ever be knocked down. He was a great lover of Europe, having worked for a Dutch company for most of his life. It was with great sadness, I remember, that he said that he didn’t think the Berlin Wall would ever come down, either in his lifetime or in mine. Twenty years after he died he was proved wrong. The wall came down, pulled down, sometimes with their bare hands, by people who did not want to live with borders and divisions any more. Germany reunited and became the powerhouse of Europe that it is today.

For me this story is a story of hope. Now we live in a country deeply divided and in what seems like political chaos. It is also a frightening place where we could see borders and barbed wired grow up between us and our friends in Europe. Yesterday Angela Merkel described us as ‘leaving the family’ and that is what it feels like to me.

In the midst of all this and of my sadness and shock at what’s happened, I am trying to hold on to the idea that there is no way we can know the future and that it is human will alone in these matters that directs what happens. We need to find the people to lead us who will understand that we are still part of the great continent next to us and who will lead us with truthfulness, imagination and integrity into a new relationship where we belong, and forward to a resolution and healing of our differences here at home.

Till next time





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