We, the European people

By Guy Tegenbos, translated by Mathieu Soete
Original publication: De Standaard, 22-01-2013

‘We the people.’ This was president Barack Obama’s message at the inauguration of his second term in office yesterday, four years after his hopeful ‘Yes we can’.

‘We the people’ is also the name of the website of the White House where citizens can put their signature under the president’s projects they would like to support. This website suggests that the people are being listened to. The presidential inauguration suggested more. ‘We the people’ says that the policy of the president voices what ‘the people’ want. The speech suggests that what the president stands for, is also the only possible translation of the ancient American values. The projects of the president—from equal rights and chances for gays and poor people, over climate measures, to restrictions on arms sales—fit within those American values.

There’s a certain truth in that statement. American society is politically extremely divided. But the American values firmly stand ground.

Implicitly there exist equally strong European values, but these are not quite so profiled or articulated. As a European one can only dream of such a compactly formulated set of values which are so eloquently phrased.

‘We the European people’; it would be nice.

Not nice as such, but nice because it could move this continent a little faster than it is now. The democratic deficit of Europe is mainly located in the political structures, but also in the lack of ‘pronounced’ common values.

The Erasmus project—young people spending at least one semester of their tertiary education in a different member state—contributes to this. A study published yesterday by the University of Antwerp on this topic, gives both good and bad grades to this policy.

But two points are beyond doubt. Students ‘returning from Erasmus’ have a European attitude, although some of them already had this before leaving. Second, after their Erasmus they all have a network of friends all over Europe. They can go in this continent wherever they want, having friends in every place where they can even stay for free. This entire continent belongs to them. This is how you build ‘We the European people’.

Completing a part of your studies in another European country, it should almost be made mandatory in Flanders, especially in higher education. The system of scholarships must be enlarged for this aim. But even more important is this: young people learn how to finance this investment in their future themselves. In Flanders we still don’t realise enough that working and studying is more rewarding than just studying.

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#GoingNorth Day 5 … Of World Heritage and first snow

7.05am, Bergen. A couple of minutes ahead of schedule we reach the Atlantic shores of Norway in the second-largest city of the country: Bergen. Well, shore…the coast of Norway is so riddled with fjords, you’re never sure of when you’re looking at the ocean and when it’s “just” the mouth of a river. The city is the most hilly of the country, resulting in bending and twisting roads leading up and down the slopes. Through this still-dark maze of streets and stairs we will have to make our way to the apartment we rented, without getting too lost. Good luck to those people travelling with trolleys… But first we wait for my brother to arrive. It will further inflate his ego, but he’s pretty much the reason we’re all here and after threatening us to let him sleep, he has agreed to come to the station this early, so let’s give him some more minutes…

11.10am, Bergen. Once the capital of Norway and one of the Hanseatic strongholds in Scandinavia, Bergen is still most famous for its Bryggen, the old harbour slightly north of the modern city centre. Recognised as UNESCO World Heritage, these wooden warehouses are an early 18th-century replica of the orginals built by the mainly German traders of the Hanseatic League, importing grain and selling fish and timber. The numerous craftsmen’s workshops and artists’ galleries are all closed on New Year’s Eve of course, but some of the buildings are still open, allowing us to wander around and get a sense of the frantic hustle-and-bustle that must have reigned here once.

3.00pm, Bergen. Fi-na-lly! After almost 5 days of #GoingNorth, the first snow of the season is falling on our heads. And in our faces, eyes and nose, whipped up by a violent wind. It melts as soon as it touches the ground and the little storm won’t last for long, but at least it is something. There is still hope.

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#GoingNorth Day 4 … Of Treebeard the Ent and mothers on trains

10.35am, Karlshammn. After a quick sightseeing tour of Karlskrona on imported Dutch bikes, I’m back on the train for the next leg of #GoingNorth. Oak and elm and the white flashes of birch with their purple-marron fingers (say it slow and gravely, like Treebeard the Ent) blanket the landscape, increasingly peppered with fir and pine and huge petrified remains of trolls that stayed out too late. A stretch of flooded bog reflects everything it sees and backlights the scenery with the golden aura of a sunny winter morning. On the open patches domesticated descendants of the fierce aurochs graze at the crispy frosted grasses, not in the least disturbed by the metally clang of yet another mechanic snake #GoingNorth.

12.20pm, Lund. Don’t you just love those trains that actually arrive on time and even ahead of schedule? Even though there are plenty of countries with worse records, after travelling through Belgium and Germany, Scandinavian punctuality is a bliss for the long-distance traveller with tight connections. SJ.se even allowed me to jump on an earlier train to Göteborg, cutting my waiting time in Lund to mere minutes instead of an hour. And with this delightful dish of punctuality, is served a healthy side-dish of free wifi sprinkled with plenty of plugs. Three huzaahs for Swedish railways!

2.30pm, Varberg. It is barely past midday as we pull into Varberg, but the sun is already courting the waters of the Baltic Sea, bouncing off the season’s first ice and painting the last grasses golden brown as she goes. The natural effects of #GoingNorth are increasingly visible in the shortening daylight. Days are short here and the winter long. I’ll have 2.5 hours to walk around in Göteborg now, but by the time we get there twilight will probably be setting in, making the option of an earlier train to Oslo rather tempting. But then again, except for a miraculous show of polar light, it will be even darker there and all will be closed. Göteborg then?

4.40pm, Göteborg. Sometimes you have this feeling like everything just falls into place as if it had been planned way in advance. It looked like I would have the little enviable choice between quietly sitting almost three hours in the train station of Göteborg or lugging my backpack through its quickly darkening streets. Instead, my backpack is safely locked away and I’m enjoying the orderly exhibits of the Göteborg Stadsmuseet, learning about the six possible origins of the word viking, the intricate family ties between the main actors of the Battle of Hastings and why so many historic finds in Göteborg carry the weapon of Amsterdam. All without even spending a single Krone.

7.30pm, Swedish-Norwegian border. “We are crossing the border. Welcome to Sweden…erm, Norway!” So we’re back in Norway then. But still not a single flake of snow. Not a single. It is almost New Year’s Eve, but the roads, fields and houses of southern Scandinavia are still very much without snow. No icicles hanging from the roofs, no cushioning blanket on every object and not even a fragile film of ice on the water. Damn you global warming!

11.45pm, Drammen. So here’s something you should try once: take a night train with your mom and don’t book a sleeping cabin but just a seat. “So when are they switching off the light? When is this guy going to close his laptop? When are those kids finally going to be quiet? When will that woman get off the phone? And why are these lights still on?” On the other side of the corridor my 14-year-old sister is enjoying it all, drinking in the experience with twinkling eyes and open ears. Her first night train as well, but perhaps contrary to my mom, something tells me it won’t be her last. Good night sis!

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#GoingNorth Day 3 … Of an active Crown Prince and hearty bean salad

10.30am, Kopenhavn. I awake as the train gently rocks across the length of Zealand and before long we are pulling into Kopenhavn Central Station. A brand new city to explore, the final gem on the Quadruple Scandinavian Crown after discovering Stockholm and Oslo this summer and Helsinki some winters ago. It will probably take some time before I get to Reykjavik to complete the Quintuple Northern Tiara, but for now I will have my hands full with crash-seeing Kopenhagen before taking the train to Karlskrona in Sweden. Bag stored away, the next connections checked… Købmannahavn, Merchant Harbour, here I come!

12.25pm, Kopenhavn. A kingdom. A capital. A palace. A Royal Guard. A change at noon. Whether it is London, Madrid or Kopenhagen, some traditions are so universal they seem invented for the American “it’s Tuesday so this must be Paris” tourist in need of some beacon to organise their day of sightseeing. Except for Brussels; for some reason we don’t seem to have it. A failed attempt at keeping the American tour buses out of our capital? Anyway, I am digressing. A Royal Guard. A change at noon. And a police officer chatting to us about his son’s time on the Royal Guard – Looks good on the CV, sir! – and the Crown Prince’s time with the Danish Navy Seals – He was given no discount, sir, on the contrary! – in between warnings to Japanese tourists to stay behind the line – Or I will have to shoot you, madam! A Royal Guard. A change at noon. The same as in London or Madrid, perhaps, but much more interesting.

3.40pm, Kopenhavn. On top of Rundetårn the view stretches for miles around, but one step out of the protection of the central part of the tower and the relentless wind could send you flying over the red roofs of Indre By, the oldest part of Kopenhagen. If not for the beautiful wrought-iron railing around the viewing platfom of course, reached after a climb of 209 meter up a unique walkway corkscrewing 7.5 times around the hollow core of the tower. The sun just kissed the horizon goodbye for her journey across the underside of the world and blue hour is setting in quickly, washing the last golden light off the streets and roofs. With the sun gone, the temperature finally drops and I pull my jacket a bit closer as I make my way to street level again, carefully avoiding the little kids cannonballing down the spiralling slope. Still a good way from the train station, the 15.52 train is literally out of reach, so a quick dash into the prehistoric and Viking sections of the Nationalmuseet will provide an interesting and free bridge till the next train.

11.50pm, Karlskrona. Nothing says “Welcome!” more than a plate of hearty bean salad and a cup of hot tea after an evening train journey across the Øresund and into southern Sweden. It is here that Michaela Hogenboom (@MHogenboom), former Dutch youth representative and one of the founders of Rio+Twenties is studying Strategic Leadership in Sustainable Development and, being one of the few people not going home for Christmas, I couldn’t possibly dream of passing so close without meeting her again. Also staying with her are the first Liechtensteiners I ever meet and after some discussions on what living in one of the tiniest countries of the world is like, and how you deal with studying in what in essence is a city built around a Swedish marine basis, we start watching Zeitgeist Addendum. This independent movie gives an intriguing view on the financial system dictating our lives and our countries’ economies and leaves us with a list of tips to change the system: move your money to an ethical bank, change to a green energy provider and – above all – spread this movie around. It’s legal.

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#GoingNorth Day 2 … Of ice-skating and drug controls

11.10am, Amsterdam. Travelling through the Christmas and New Year’s period not only makes it difficult sometimes to arrange meetings with friends along the way, but also makes it harder to come across the necessary travel information. With the librabry closed over the weekend, I find myself a couple of hours from a completely unknown Copenhagen, without a guidebook or even a map. Luckily there is always wikitravel, allowing me to quickly download some information before heading for Utrecht. A nice reading assignment for on the train!

2.30pm, Utrecht. Christmas is in town, so I’m meeting Liset Meddens (@LisetMeddens) and Mariana Orozco at the open-air ice-skating ring on de Neude. Both are active youth in the Dutch sustainability scene, Liset as Dutch youth representative on sustainable development and Mariana as intern with SustainUS, an American ngo. Over cups of steaming glühwein and hot chocolate we discuss about campaign ideas to get our leaders in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, ways of cooperation between Dutch and Belgian youth and how to increase youth activation towards Rio+20. The skating in between discussions reminds us of the times before global warming, when it wasn’t 10 degrees at the end of the year and you could just take your skates to the nearest river. Yes, you can pay for artificial ice, but it never leaves you quite satisfied like the real thing.

4.15pm, Utrecht. Last time I was in Utrecht, it was for the UN Millennium Development Goals Conference, organised by AEGEE-Utrecht in November 2010. This time I’m here to organise another Green AEGEE event, namely the yearly meeting of the Environmental Working Group. With members from across Europe, we are working online most of the time, but for a couple of face-to-face meetings throughout the year. For 2012 the choice befell the Netherlands, giving Utrecht a headstart with its experience and motivated team. Marleen Dijkhoff, one of the organisers of the conference last year, and now president of AEGEE-Utrecht, joins us for some drinks  at the skating ring and we discuss the details of the meeting, which will hopefully be confirmed soon!

9.10pm, Duisburg. A mix of cheap tobacco and Dutch grass meets me as I enter the train to Kopenhagen. In the compartment an East-German greets me with complete indifference and a half-empty look in his eyes, breathing heavily as he sits low in his chair. At every stop he jumps out of the train, a sigaret already waiting in his hand. Barely at the German side of the border, a routine patrol checks our IDs, frowning their eyebrows at the state of his papers. Half an hour later, a four man squad, complete with drug dog enters the train and heads straight for our side of the car. They interrogate the man, while searching his belongings and almost tearing the seating apart, looking for Dutch souvenirs. They leave with nothing to show for their efforts, and he rolls back onto the bench, leaving me to my compelling tale of Baekelandt, one of the most notorious outlaws ever to have roamed the forests of Flanders.

11.50pm, Dortmund. My silent companion startles back to consciousness just past Cologne, as the conductor comes by to ask for his ticket and he realises he is going to Berlin instead of Kopenhagen. He leaves for another part of the train, ceding his place to Peter, a young boy from Trier #GoingNorth to visit his girlfriend in Hamburg. They met on the internet about two years ago and have been dating for over eight months now, crossing the country to see each other every couple of weeks. In Wuppertal we are joined by Georg, a metal-loving archeology student on his way back to his exchange place in Arhus, Denmark and for the first time in years, I’m chatting the night away on a train with perfect strangers. Tales of love and family Christmas traditions, old Viking lore and contemporary German authors, all is possible when sleep is not an option.

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#GoingNorth Day 1 … Of Nova Zembla and Northern Light in Amsterdam

7.30am, Roeselare. The alarm goes off. Time to get up and start #GoingNorth. For 5 days I’ll be in limbo across 2 countries, travelling from Belgium, through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, before finally arriving in Bergen, on the Atlantic coast of Norway. Today is the first leg of the journey, stopping and overnighting in Amsterdam. So it’s time to get out of bed and on that first train!

4.35pm, Amsterdam. What better way to start #GoingNorth than by watching Nova Zembla? This Dutch movie tells the heroic adventure of the third attempt of Willem Barentsz, a 16th-century explorer from Amsterdam, to find a way to the rich spice countries of East Asia. The Spanish are controlling the way East around Africa and the Portugese are blocking the Western route around the Americas, so the young Dutch republic has only one option left. To find a way through the icy waters of the North. The expedition makes it as far as the Northern tip of Nova Zembla, but then has to survive through the harsh polar winter as their ship becomes stuck in the expanding ice…

9.00pm, Amsterdam. As a coronal mass ejection is making its way from the sun towards the Earth’s atmosphere, the chances of seeing the magical Northern Light increase in Scandinavia. By the time I get to Norway, however, I will probably be either too late or still too far South to see it, but at least I will have seen some Northern Light on this trip: Noorderlicht, a cosy organic restaurant in the harbour of Amsterdam, serving delicious lentil curry pies and a Dutch cheese fondue big enough to feed two people.
Many t
hanks to Wieke, president of AEGEE-Amsterdam for the delicious food and the tour in beautiful art deco movie Theater Tuschinski!

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