Europe made me

Posted on February 12, 2020 · Posted in The Independent

It was 45 years ago that I left Britain for the first time, to hitch-hike around Western Europe.  I was a different person and the continent was a different place.  Today, Europe is about to become a different place again.  Brexit – assuming it goes ahead – will change the EU, as well as changing the UK.

Back in 1974, I was embarking on a big adventure – I gave up my job to live in a tent for several months.  Exchange controls to protect the pound meant I could only take £300 in travellers’ cheques, plus £30 in cash, yet I was determined to spend a long summer away.

This was years before visa-free travel, so I wasn’t even certain I would be able to enter some of the countries I wanted to visit.  Much of the continent was under fascist dictatorship, while the eastern part was subject to Soviet Union domination and beyond my imagination.

No one in my family had even been abroad – apart from my grandfather and uncle, when they went to war.  My grandfather ended up a bitter old man because he never travelled – other than troop marching along French roads and ending up in a German prisoner of war camp, before struggling home near starvation at the end of the First World War.  It was a bitterness I was determined not to copy.

But my decision to travel meant I resigned my steady (boring and stressful) civil service job.  This was the type of job my grandfather had – and he was so angry at my choice that he would not even allow my name to be mentioned in his presence.  This was a time when jobs were thought to be for life.  My decision to travel created a big family split.

Nearly half a century later, I have now visited or lived in all 28 EU countries.  I was determined to complete the set before Brexit happens.  By chance, that final, 28th, destination – Lithuania – is a neat illustration of why European harmony is – or would be – a good thing.

Lithuania was on the frontline of those disputes between the German, Russian and Polish empires that were factors in centuries of warfare.  It was as a response to the millions of lives wasted in two world wars that led to what is now the European Union.  Around 200,000 Jews from Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis, while another 200,000 Lithuanian partisans and political dissidents were killed by the Soviet Union under Stalin and Khrushchev.

Tourist visitor centres in Vilnius today include the former KGB prison, which also served as a detention centre for the SS while Lithuania was under the control of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.  A Holocaust Museum across the city portrays the mass transportation of Jews out of Lithuania to extermination camps.  Today Lithuania is a vibrant city, sharing liberal European values – far distant from its quite recent past.  It was a country out of reach to me 45 years ago.

Yet the first sensation I had when I disembarked the ferry from Dover to Calais and got my entry visa, was the smell.  France, at least Calais, smelt differently from England.  All my senses went into shock.

Hitch-hiking was much more common then – and mostly very practical.  I travelled easily across France, getting repeated lifts in barely roadworthy Citroen 2CVs.  In one I was given a lift in order to hold down the roof as the wake from every passing truck almost lifted the car off the road.  Driving across the French countryside amidst the raging yellow of flowering gorse and broom was a shock to the system for a boy brought up in what felt like monochrome Essex.

The 1970s were very different from today, not just in Britain.  Spain was led by dictator Franco, Greece by the fascist junta.  And there were tremendous events in 1974.  I entered Portugal just days after an anarchist-led revolution swept aside the fascist dictatorship that had been created by Salazar.  It was a country of joy and generosity, as a people who had been ruled with fear and in poverty rose up in a tide of optimism.  I had never before, nor since, seen how a society could be instantly transformed by hope and expectation.  The generosity of a truck driver who insisted on taking me to a large meal in a Lisbon bar touched me deeply, yet was typical of a population that wanted to share their joy.

By contrast, it was suddenly unsafe for the British to go to Greece, because of the anger at the Turkish invasion of Cyprus – which many Greeks blamed on Britain for not acting out its role as guarantor of the island.

When I crossed the border from France to Spain – travelling via Andorra – I fell in love with the country and its culture.  My 21st birthday was spent in San Sebastian, where I listened to a 21 gun salute celebrating anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s proclamation of himself as president in 1936.  As I travelled around the Basque country I met language activists who were demanding independence for their region.  While I adored Spain, it was difficult to hitch-hike and I suffered heat stroke as I tried to get lifts in the baking sun.

Spain’s beauty was in the landscape, the people, the sun, the warmth, the food, the red wine.  These were all new experiences for a young man just turning 21.  To buy a glass of wine for three pesetas – less than three pence – was a shock.  And a cheap glass of wine was just two pesetas.  It seemed as if everyone was friendly – though also amazed.  One word was almost screamed at me repeatedly.  “Solo?  Solo! Solo!”

It was an earlier solo journey by a great writer that had persuaded me to travel.  Laurie Lee’s book ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’ – along with George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ as well as the novels of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler – inspired me.  Greene wrote ‘England Made Me’: but Europe made me.  My travel was in the context of post-war literature that considered at length the tragedies of the early 20th Century and what must be learnt from them.

As I travelled around Spain, camping, I met others doing the same.  It was unusual to meet anyone else who was English – but common to meet Americans.  They had endured service in Vietnam and their emotions and nerves were messed-up as a result.  Many were keen users of dope, alcohol and other drugs, but unsure what to do with their lives.  I met the same people several times while travelling across France, Spain and Morocco, all on the same circle of southern Europe and North Africa.  While I hated the way that European tourism had created a cynical commercialism in Morocco, many years later I visited Algeria and loved the country.

Like many other travellers, the book I used to guide me around was ‘The hitch-hiker’s guide to Europe’ – which surely inspired Douglas Adams to write ‘The hitch-hiker’s guide to the galaxy’.  I even contributed a chapter to later editions. (I wrote a section on Algeria, despite it not being in Europe and me not actually hitch-hiking around it and instead using trains, buses and a plane.)

From 45 years distance, I know that I visited some of Europe’s great cities – Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, Amsterdam – yet can remember few details.  After four months I ran out of money, came home to work and then travelled again – heading for Greece via what was then still Yugoslavia.

In the years since, I have visited much of eastern and northern Europe, as well.  I cycled from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia in the period soon after the fall of the Soviet Union.  It was the smell of dill that I remember most of all and the uncomfortable relations between the indigenous populations and those Russians whose families had been forcibly displaced under Stalin.

And it is easy to forget – at least if you are British – how recent it is that eastern Europe was transformed.  When I visited Romania, Ceaucescu was still president – one of the most evil and repressive leaders in post-war Europe.  As we walked down the street, locals would cross over to the other side of the road when we approached, and crossed back after we had passed – fearful of being accused of fraternising with foreigners.  When my then partner took a photo of an old building, and a police officer was in the shot, she was threatened with having her camera smashed.  While we were able to visit the country and travel by train, we were accompanied on the journey by what was clearly a state security agent who spoke no English and whose only purpose was to ensure we did not go to the wrong place.

Other countries in the Soviet bloc were less oppressive.  East Germany just wanted my money.  In Bulgaria I was struck by how a communist state produced a society in which the only black people to be seen were either cleaning the floors or else begging.  Poland was already, before the fall of the Soviet Union, going through a transformation in which tourism income was in high demand.  But it was also still a very traditional country in rural areas, with horses with carts much more common than tractors.

For me, Brexit is a challenge to my identity.  I regard myself as European – an English person, formed or transformed by European travel, who now lives on the far edge of the UK, in Northern Ireland, a five minute drive from the border with the European Union.  It is the place facing the greatest economic, political, social and paramilitary disruption from Brexit.

I even married (and divorced) a German woman, who I met on a bus in northern Cyprus.  If my national identity is confused, that is even more true for my children, who have a mix of German and Irish nationalities and whose horizons are potentially constrained in the future.  Brexit is a family tragedy.  Our mix of German and English genes felt like an example of European progress towards an optimistic future: now it feels like a metaphor for an over-optimistic past.  Our European identity and our own self-identities have been challenged and undermined by the decisions others took in the referendum.

I would not be the person I am – probably not even a professional writer – if it were not my experience of travelling repeatedly across Europe – the Greek islands, the Balkan cities, the Arctic circle, the freezing cold of Berlin and Istanbul in the winter.  My life’s overwhelming love affair has been with continental Europe.  I find it terribly sad that others have seen as negative what to me has been massively positive – visiting and learning about different cultures, cuisines, wines.  What seemed to be a journey of progress for Europe, is now at risk of becoming a circle, where we begin to turn in again, more interested in ourselves than in others.  And that, to me, is tragic.