By Esra Aygin
I should be sitting in the section allocated to media at the European Parliament, listening to a debate on GMOs. But ever since I set foot in Strasbourg, I have been plotting my escape to cross from France to Germany, and today is the day.
I have so many questions for the people living on the French-German border. How do they live together after centuries of wars that took the lives of millions? What do they feel? Can enmity become something of the past?
The taxi driver’s voice startles me when we reach the bridge connecting France and Germany:“Voila Madame, Le Pont de l’Europe!”
Before me is the River Rhine. On the bridge over it, there are people cycling, walking their dogs, fishing. As a traumatised Cypriot, I find myself looking for a barricade, a wall, a piece of barbed wire, a uniformed official or at least some sort of a ‘line’ drawn on the ground. As I cross the bridge, I reach in my bag and am ready to ‘draw’ my ID any moment if demanded.
At a certain point on the bridge I see the sign “Bundesrepublic Deutschland”– the only indication that I am now in Germany in the small town of Kehl.
Yannick, a young teacher, is on a school trip with his nursery school class. Under my scrutinising gaze he talks to the children both in German and French. He tells me that an increasing number of kids are learning both languages.
“The war was stupid… I am German but I don’t feel any different from someone who is French,” he says.
“Don’t you have any problems?” I insist. “There is no difference between us. We are the same,” he says. His great-grandfather fought against the French in WWII. “How do you think he would feel if he saw you now?” I ask. “I am sure he would be happy,” he answers.
My next target is Niklas, who is walking his dog. “Do you live here?” “Actually I live both in France and in Germany. My girlfriend is here in Germany, and I work in France…,” he says.
I approach a French taxi driver, who crosses to Germany every morning to walk in the woods. As I bombard him with questions, he smiles and says, “The war was a long time ago. Why is it so surprising that we live in peace now?” I feel embarrassed.
I get out of the park and walk towards the small market in the town centre. I approach a French woman and ask why she is shopping here. “Because things are much cheaper here than in Strasbourg,” she replies. “But don’t French authorities have a problem with this?” I ask. “You are contributing to the German economy instead of the French economy!”
I gather from the way she looks at me that this question makes no sense to her. I ask her what she thinks about the past.
“The French and the German have realised that war brought them nothing,” she says. “If you want to live, you need to stop living in the past.”
The people I speak with tell me that a lot of French prefer to live in Kehl and work in Strasbourg since property prices are lower in Kehl. They particularly shop for food, clothes, alcohol and cigarettes in Kehl.
While Kehl is the place to go for a quite day in the park, Strasbourg is all for a fun night out, arts and entertainment. Many people speak both German and French. Most youngsters don’t see any difference between themselves and ‘the other.’
The extent of this lack of ‘national consciousness’ starts to become a little too much for my Middle-Eastern brain. Ingo, a 53-year-old musician who says that living on the ‘border’ is “difficult”, comes to my rescue.
“The youngsters speak both German and French. They live and work on whichever side they want. It’s no longer possible to tell who is French and who is German. They have no national identity whatsoever,” he says.“What can we do, at least there is peace.”
As I walk back towards Strasbourg stupefied by the whole experience, I ran into two street musicians playing a familiar song. Tears fill my eyes:
Imagine there’s no countries
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…