Sunday, February 22, 2015
«Imagine there is no countries…»
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A young woman, a talented journalist, Esra Aygin goes to Strasbourg with a group of journalists with the invitation of the European Parliament to follow the sessions and `skips` one of the sessions to go to the `imaginary` German-French `border`… She wants to cross `the border` and speak with the people living there…
Esra Aygin has done the type of journalism very much needed in Cyprus where our drama is suffocating us, stealing our breath away… I want to share with you what the young Turkish Cypriot journalist Esra Aygin has written… Here is what she says:
`I have tons of questions to those who live on the French-German border where millions of lives were lost throughout wars spanning over hundreds of years. What do they feel? How do they live together after countless wars, pain and destruction? Did they really manage to form a common life? Can hatred, lack of trust and enmity be overcome? I think of these as I travel towards the `Pont de l'Europe Bridge` in a taxi.
I am startled with the voice of the taxi driver:
"Voila madame, Le Pont de l'Europe!"
Here in front of me instead of a `border` there is only the River Rhine between France and Germany and on the bridge over the Rhine there are only people riding bicycles, taking their dogs for a walk, fishing and people walking… As a traumatized Cypriot who cannot travel within a tiny island without filling papers, showing identity cards and undergoing controls, my eyes impulsively search for a barrier, a wall, some sort of barbed wire, an official in uniform, a police cabin or at least a `line` even if symbolic. While crossing the bridge, I realize that I automatically reach inside my bag, ready to `draw` my ID any moment and I laugh at myself!
As I freely cross the bridge between France and Germany – the opposing sides of the Second World War which was stage to unbelievable massacres, I realize I am in Germany as I see the sign "Bundesrepublic Deutschland" in front of me… It's a very beautiful day. I go into the park stretching along the Rhine at the town Kehl. My first encounter is with a 23 year old young teacher, Yannick. He has a class of crèche students aged 3-4 years old. He has taken them for an outing in the park and under my scrutiny, he speaks to them both in German and French. He tells me that more and more kids are now learning both languages in the crèche, kindergarden and elementary school. And in secondary school both German and French are compulsory.
`The war was a stupid thing… We now live together. I am German but I don't feel any different from a French` he says. `Don't you have any conflicts or problems?` I insist. `There is no difference between us, we are the same` he says. His great grandfather had fought against the French during the Second World War. `If he saw how you lived now, how would he feel?` I ask him. `I am sure he would be very happy` he answers me.
Leaving behind Yannick with the kids who are getting really bored by now, I continue to walk. My next target is Niklas who is walking his dog. `Do you live here?` I ask him. `It's a difficult question` he says, `actually I live both in France and Germany.` He must have understood how surprised I am, SO he continues to explain: `My girlfriend is here in Germany and I work in France. Therefore I stay in both places, sometimes here, sometimes there…`
I ask him how it feels to be able to go back and forth like this between two countries with a history full of wars:
`Being free is wonderful` he says.
I approach another person who is taking a walk. Yann is a French taxi driver. He says that every morning he crosses to Germany in order to take a walk in the woods. As I bombard him excitedly with questions, he smiles at me and says, `The war was long time ago. Is it so surprising that we have no discriminations amongst us anymore and that we live in peace?` Yes, unfortunately for me it is surprising. I feel shame…
I get out of the park and walk towards the centre of the town Kehl. There is a small market set up in the centre. I watch the sellers and the customers. I hear them speaking both in French and German. And sometimes the conversations that start in French end in German. I approach a woman, whom, from her conversation I gather must be French. I ask her why she is shopping here… `Because here is much cheaper than Strasbourg` she says. According to Ingrid, many people who live in Strasbourg do their shopping for food at Kehl which is much cheaper.
`But don't the French officials react against this? You are contributing to the German economy instead of the French economy…` I tell her. From the way she looks at me I understand that what I say does not mean anything to her, it is not even comprehensible! She works at a French elementary school in Strasbourg. She explains to me that the French kids take some lessons at a school in Germany within the framework of exchange programs and some German kids coming to her school for certain lessons. I ask her what she thinks about the past. `The French and the German realized that war brought nothing to them` she says, `If you want to live, you need to stop living in the past…`
From the people I talk to I understand that around 60 thousand cars cross between Strasbourg and Kehl each day. A lot of French prefer to live in Kehl and work in Strasbourg since the property prices are lower in Kehl. They particularly shop for food, clothes, alcohol and cigarettes from Kehl and for luxuries from Strasbourg. For a quiet day in a small town, to take walks and spend time in the park they prefer Kehl and for city life, cultural activities and fun they prefer Strasbourg. The majority speak both languages with ease. The number of mixed schools are on the increase. The youth especially don't see any differences between themselves and `the other`.
Just as I begin to think that such lack of `national consciousness` is getting too much for my Middle Eastern mind, Ingo Wilmer comes to my help. He is a 53 year old musician who says that sometimes living on the `border` of France and Germany is `too much` for him. `The youngsters speak both German and French. They live whichever side they want and work wherever they want. Here it is no longer possible to understand who is French and who is German. They have no national identities` he says. I can read his discomfort from his face and from the tone of his voice… He tells me that his father fought against the French during the Second World War. But immediately after, he adds: `What can we do, at least there is peace and quiet…`
As I walk back towards the bridge to return to Strasbourg, I feel a bit stupidified by this experience, which has affected me more than I could have imagined. On the way to the bridge I suddenly encounter two street singers. The song they are playing is very familiar. My eyes fill with tears:
Imagine there's no countries.
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...`
Photo: The bridge between Germany and France.
(*) Article published in the POLITIS newspaper on the 22nd of February 2015, Sunday.