Last week, I experienced something foreign to Knox students: a break in the middle of the term. (Don’t be jealous; I now have to cram five classes, taught entirely in German, into 10 weeks. We’ll see how that goes.) While many students chose to go on a program-sponsored “European capitals” tour, a few friends and I decided to see if we could plan an equally cool trip for substantially less money. We ended up taking a 9-day trip to Hamburg, Amsterdam, Bruges (in Belgium) and Brussels.
Traveling over fall break was a much-needed reminder that there is more to Europe than what I see in Berlin every day. Stepping off of the train at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station was like entering a different world. Whereas Berlin’s streets are wide and its skyline is peppered with massive steel office buildings, Amsterdam is a maze of meandering canals, quaint architecture and bicycles bedecked with fresh flowers. Where Berlin is constantly on the move, Hamburg is never in a hurry; its subway trains putter along leisurely, and the Hamburg-Hafen gives off an air of carefree life on the water that undermines its status as one of Germany’s most important harbors. Neither of these cities is all that far from Berlin (it takes about two hours to get to Hamburg by train), but they embody such different personalities. It is a stark reminder that Europe, although comparatively small, retains cultural and societal richness—and a wide array of domestic and international problems.
Nowhere are these more apparent than in the case of the European Union (EU). A trip to Brussels would not be complete without a visit to the EU buildings there, and being an unabashed international relations nerd, I was not going to pass up the opportunity, regardless of my friends’ interest levels. (The fact that flights from Brussels to Berlin are quite inexpensive—and that I was only going to make them suffer through one afternoon of EU-flailing—convinced them to indulge me.) Asher and David followed me around grudgingly as I skipped (literally) from building to building and occasionally made such witty comments as, “Guys, guys, guys, that’s the seat of the Polish EU presidency!”
Standing in the shadow of the European Parliament, with its massive glass façade rising to meet the sun, it’s easy to believe that the EU is an unshakable organization. It’s easy to marvel at what the Union has accomplished: a single currency for most member states, a semblance of political unity and transnational policies ranging from travel to technology. Then you see the sign identifying the building as the European Parliament, written in all 23 official EU languages, and you remember that this entity is a loose conglomeration of countries with vastly different identities and aims. This can either make the EU seem more impressive—how did this many countries manage to achieve any sort of unity, after all—or it can make Europe’s future seem that much less certain.
Several weeks ago, we discussed Berliners’ feelings about Berlin in my intensive German language course. In a city with a comparatively thriving economy and one of the lowest costs of living in West-Central Europe, I was surprised to learn that unemployment is Berliners’ number one concern. Although Germany weathered the 2009 recession relatively well, avoiding a U.S.-style bailout, its position as Europe’s number one lender has led to considerable stress as it has struggled to keep countries like Greece afloat.This has increased feelings of distaste for the EU among the German people; without the Union, they say, Germany would not feel obligated to come to other countries’ aid and could focus more on its own problems.
Upon returning to Berlin, I encountered unexpected construction on the way from the airport to my apartment, lengthening a 45-minute commute to an hour and 45 minutes. Two decades after reunification, bulldozers still dominate the streets of East Berlin, working frantically to repair outdated infrastructure. Berlin, and Germany as a whole, may be doing well compared to some areas of Europe, but that does not mean they do not face their own trials and tribulations. Transnational policies may bind the EU together, but the true common thread is the constant struggle to rebuild, recreate and fashion individual identities within a larger European one. And whatever they may be, each is fascinating in its own way. Now, to experience more of them—only ten weeks to go.
Anna Meier is Co-News Editor for The Knox Student.