All Quiet on the Railway Front

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, for years now, have been risking and losing their lives in the 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 – under the violent eyes of the Macedonian or the Hungarian police – 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.’


In Calais, Northern France, last May I met with a few refugees from Syria and Somalia. I have been listening to and recording personal stories of refugees for the last fifteen years. I always feel amazed by the fact that their personal stories are so similar and at the same time absolutely unique. The refugees I met and talked to in Calais had faced and defeated death, both in their country of origin and in their trip toward the European shores. Some of them told me that Europe, for them, was something like a ‘dream’. In Calais now, they were continuing to challenge death, on the European soil this time, in order to reach and become part of their ‘European dream’.
If you get to ask native Europeans today whether they believe in some sort of ‘European dream’, I am afraid that only a few of them would answer by nodding their heads. In this respect, these refugees, fleeing from wars and slaughters, carry with them the ‘European dream’ that we, native Europeans, are still looking for.
I went also to the harbour of Calais – there where the refugees struggle every day, risking their lives and their bodies, in order to cross the English Channel. There, on the other side, they believe that refugees are treated in a more ‘European’ way than in the very homeland of the Enlightenment.
When I arrived at the harbour, I saw barbed wire and police all around. The faces of the policemen seemed frozen to me, without expression. The faces of those desperate refugees, around the harbour or in their dirty tents, radiated something like the hope in a better tomorrow.
Going back to my hotel, I thought that not very far away from here, some seventy years ago, there were also refugee camps of Displaced Persons, ‘crammed’ with desperate lives: native Europeans who were coming out from the cruelty of WWII. Back then Europe was not simply on the edge of the moral and existential abyss but rolling into it in a free fall. As refugees usually do, they were looking for some safer place to go, like the USA, Canada, Australia, or Latin America or Palestine.
Now most Europeans have mostly forgotten about all of this. (Europe is the continent where Museums of Immigration constitute an exception – even though the idea of the Museum came from Europe). Now European governments are afraid of being simply human toward such human desperation reaching the European soil.
Europe, my love. You have such a long history; and oftentimes such a short memory. That’s where your troubles come from, I guess . . .
Published in "Granta Magazine" 7th September 2015


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