This is a post about 25 years of driving. Every year I cross Europe by car.
I say it’s driving, but this post has a prequel. The prequel is over 20 years of dreaming of going to ‘the West’. This is what we did, you know. I still remember the greyness of communist (or is it socialist?) Poland. During the martial law (introduced in 1981, ended in 1983) some shops were stocked only with Chinese tea. Today I think of it as a scene from a Ionesco play, but it was our life. As people here travelled to France to get some wine, in the early 1980s I was wondering if I’d make it home before the curfew.
My first drive across Europe was in my newly bought 10-year-old green VW scirocco. It was so cool! I was finishing my postdoc in Lancaster, I knew I was going back to work here, so I decided get myself a Western car. And it was a scirocco! No, the scholarship money wasn’t that great, I simply didn’t have dinner every day.
The drive was unreal. I still remember a white car which overtook me just after crossing the Dutch-German border. My car wobbled as it passed me, it was going so fast. It was going so fast I didn’t notice the make! But I didn’t care. My scirocco was doing an amazing 140 kmph and I felt like a European, not Eastern European. It kinda ended on the way back, though. The British immigration officer decided to order me to pull over to the side; the fax confirming my work permit was simply not enough. As the Home Office opened in 6 hours’ time (it was 3 am), I didn’t fancy the wait. Momentarily, he was weighing up the choice of letting me in or waking up his supervisor. It seems the threat of pissed-off supervisor is universal. After making all sort of threats – SAS would parachute to apprehend me if my work permit was phoney – he let me in. Wow!
The British border was not the only one. It was really the German-Polish border which was a nightmare. Every single car checked, in the summer you queued for 2-3 hours, sometimes more. It was horrific, with young children it was hell. To make matters worse, I was once pulled over for having a British car, a Polish passport and a Ukrainian driving licence. I thought the German border guard was pulling my leg. Yet, for him the ‘UK’ on my licence meant Ukraine, which was sort of funny.
Still, you could travel. Yes, the roads on the Polish side were awful, but the feeling of driving 160 kmph in Germany, the freedom to go anywhere was indescribable. I still remember driving with a colleague to a conference in France. Just like that. All those of you who had a passport in your drawer will never understand what it means to just go across a national border. No questions asked, any time you wish. I still can’t believe I do it many times a year.
With time, Poland joined the European Union, money started pouring in, roads were getting better. Also my salary was going up, I could now stop somewhere in Germany for lunch. Just like that. Bloody hell, it was wonderful! You just stop, order goulash soup (it tastes awful, but I will probably always have it there) and eat. You’re in Europe, in the European Union. I was part of a political project which allowed me all this.
Every year, during my drive from Britain to Poland, I lived the European Union. Every year, it changed, first the French-Belgian border disappeared, then Poland joined the Schengen group, the Polish-German border disappeared. With time, you couldn’t tell when you were leaving West Germany and went into the East. The annual drive got easier and easier. The roads got ‘straighter’. Well, apart from the traffic jams: first Antwerp, then the Ruhr, Hannover, Magdeburg and Berlin. Always annoying, but who wouldn’t like to be in a traffic jam in Antwerp, for goodness sake? For a moment or two at least. Then you could see cars from Poland, Czechia, Romania. Europe got larger, as we all stood in German traffic jams, all equal, all Europeans.
The drive across Europe, however, is not only about German goulash soup. It’s also about quite a few hotels on the way. My special mention goes to the towns of Kerken (Germany) and Eersel (Belgium), I began to feel at home there. But what really mattered was that I always was made to feel at home. I never felt out of place, always welcome, first exotic, later an ordinary Pole speaking Polish, about which no one cared. I was European! And yes, at the beginning I wondered, a Pole in Germany (you know what I mean) – and they simply were all smiles.
I was once at a conference in Bonn, it was during a football championship of sorts. I was sitting in a restaurant with colleagues, TV was on, and… Poland played Germany. As it happened, by some amazing fluke, Poland scored. Buoyed by the atmosphere, I jumped to my feet and screamed Yeaaaaahhh!!! If looks of a couple of colleagues could kill….I was the only one cheering. Literally, the only one. All those Germans eating around us looked at me and started laughing. And they applauded. Oh, the war had soooo ended, we were somewhere very different. If memory serves, Poland (amazingly) drew with Germany and as the match ended, many German supporters waved at me, congratulating. That’s the European Union for me!
I have driven across Europe, as it has changed after the collapse of communism. I have driven looking how the European Union accepted me without question. And it’s not only that I have always felt European, the European Union made it easier and made it welcome. And every year, the 1200 km (or so) I cross from Calais to somewhere in Poland have been my own little epitome of what the European Union is. A project which allows me the freedom to turn into the street I like and stay, if I choose. I find it very difficult to understand that someone could say they haven’t felt European. It’s beyond my capacity to understand.
I decided to write this post because this year was different. I crossed Europe in no time (well, almost no time – a poorly marked detour in Germany and a traffic jam in Antwerp took their toll) and I came Britain. 1200 kilometres without a single border, only to face a British immigration officer looking at me suspiciously, as if my coming to the UK directly affected him. No, as if my being in Britain took something away from him. I gain, he loses.
Yes, I was leaving the European Union. I had to look for my passport, which, to my despair was nowhere to be found. As the immigration officer was impatiently waiting I found it on the floor of my car. I handed it to him as he ordered me to turn away – apparently, I shouldn’t look at the computer screen displaying my immigration ‘profile’.
The road from Poland stops in Calais. It stops physically and now metaphorically. Britain is much more of an island. As Europe is gets easier and easier to drive, when you go to Britain, there are speed bumps. And I really don’t get it. I really don’t. Make it stop, please. It makes no sense at all!