Living between Europe and America the last three years I was thinking that you can’t really understand America without recognizing the centrality of the car in the lives of Americans - in a country where a driver’s license serves as an identity card. On the other hand you can’t understand Europe without remembering the centrality of railways and trains in its modern history: the industrial revolution; urbanization; a continent “united” in its linguistic fragmentation through railways; WWI; WWII; the Holocaust; the post-war European economic miracle; the Cold War and a divided continent (old railways ended at the borders of Communist countries as a dead-end); the European Union and a borderless continent again - just as it was before 1914. Trains and railways symbolize Europe’s booms and dooms, its most shining as well as its most gloomy moments.
In the last few weeks, children, families, refugees from the Middle-East are embarking in a painful and hazardous journey through Europe, on trains taken from the Greek-Macedonian border bound for God-Knows-Where. Other refugees, years now, have been risking and losing their lives in the rail Channel Tunnel connecting France and the UK.
The refugees enter Europe from the sunny and not welcoming South and they are heading North, where there is little sun but more hope for them – so they hope at least. Watching them struggle desperately to find a place on the train of their dreams, I recalled an excerpt from “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque: “I lie down on many a station platform; I stand before many a soup kitchen; I squat on many a bench;--then at last the landscape becomes disturbing, mysterious, and familiar. It glides past the western windows with its villages, their thatched roofs like caps, pulled over the white-washed, half-timbered houses, its corn-fields, gleaming like mother-of-pearl in the slanting light, its orchards, its barns and old lime trees. The names of the stations begin to take on meaning and my heart trembles. The train stamps and stamps onward. I stand at the window and hold on to the frame. These names mark the boundaries of my youth.”