Barcelona, Basel, Berlin. In a nutshell, that have been the past 48h. 2.211 km through Western Europe that will likely be the fastest on this trip.
On Wednesday morning at 9:30 I picked up the Mini, freshly inspected and fit for traveling. Off to the warehouse to pack all bags and boxes that waited prepared. Before leaving I had to pass the technical inspection. And in the end it wasn’t until 12:30 before I got onto the Gran Via on this sunny morning, and drove all the way through Barcelona onto the motorway. The 175 km to the French border are a beautiful stretch of mediterranean, arid landscape.
Crossing into France seamlessly without border controls, nature gets much greener, fatter. To make good for the morning delays I moved faster as there was little traffic and the roads were good. From the Pyrenees the road leads along the Mediterranean sea for quite a while, before turning north at Avignon. At Valence I drove northeast towards Switzerland through the beautiful mountain ranges of the Vercors and Chartreuse, and the Massif des Bauges. It’s a spectacular panorama to drive by and the great weather helped a lot.
Before leaving France I fuelled up, and to my great astonishment realised that a plastic cladding over the left rear wheel had gone missing. WTF, the car had just been checked by the BWM official service center in Barcelona, costing a fortune. I hope they were more thorough on the rest of the checks! This added some nervousness for the coming days. The car is 13 years old and has been almost unused for the past 2.5 years. Let’s hope it carries me safely over the coming weeks with no further issues.
Entering Switzerland at the Lac Leman, things change notably. It seems everything in Switzerland is orderly, clean and neat. Nobody exceeds the speed limits. Perfectistan. As it was getting late and to avoid driving in the dark, I stayed on the left lane, and of course got my first red flash on this trip 😉
At about 22:00, after 9.5h on the road, I finally reached Basel to see my cousin Nicola and her husband Herbert. Over a late dinner we had a few hours to chat and catch up. Great to see them again after a few years I’ve been MIA.
The next morning my uncle Hans joined for breakfast with a lot of tasty croissants for coffee. Before leaving town I got some great views of town from Herbert’s office in a former Nestlé factory office building. Very stylish! Thank you Nicola and Herbert for the hospitality!
Leaving Basel early in the morning, as I crossed into France the police stopped me at the border. I guess the car with the missing cladding and a graveyard of insects on the windshield looked suspicious. “Do you speak French?” “Oui.” “Where do you come from and where do you go?” “From Barcelona to Berlin.” “What’s the purpose of the trip?” “Leisure.” “What do you carry in your car there?” “Camping gear, clothes, tent, personal belongings, food.” “Aha, you’re staying in Berlin with that?” “No, I drive on, to Russia.” “Oh… eh… do you do that often?” “It’s my second time.” “Ok ok, you can go.” I need to fix that piece of plastic on my car. This is too easy a target for police or border guards looking for bakshish or just cause trouble.
As I drove through the Alsace in the early morning hours I realised how well off this part of Europe is. And how the interconnectedness of the regions, the freedom of movement of goods and people makes coming together in Europe so easy. This region that has changed hands between France and Germany over the centuries, is a mix of both countries. In today’s Europe it’s actually irrelevant if it lies in one or the other. It’s all one, people move freely, and we’re at peace. That’s what matters. The trucks on the road show the internationalisation of the economy here. Then I noticed some “Frexit” posters on the motorway and wondered if the grass always seems to be so green on the other side to this level of nonsense. I also don’t understand what that “other side” is supposed to look like. The European elections are coming up in a few weeks, so political posters are all over the place. It was shocking to see how in France, Luxembourg and Germany there are so many anti-Europe campaigners and far right slogans, when it should be evident that this Europe is maybe not perfect, but is the best that can happen to people on this planet in terms of peace, freedom, and opportunity. Just look at the traces of history all around.
2 hours from Basel I went to see my grandfather. On a cemetery for German soldiers fallen in WWII. I have never met him. He was shot by an Allied plane at the age of 28. My father was three months old. The war was over 5 months later. I remember where I was at 28, and how much I have lived since. The cemetery of Niederbronn holds 15.427 dead German soldiers mostly from the 1944 German resistance to the Allied liberation of France and Western Germany. As I walked through the rows of crosses, reading the names of the dead, I realised the vast majority was in their early twenties when they died. The oldest I found was my age. What did these Germans have to do in France? And these 15.427 people, how many other soldiers or civilians did they kill? What atrocities did they see or commit? What did they do this for? How would the life of my own family have changed had my grandfather come back? How about if he never had to leave in the first place, never see (or commit?) the horrors of the war in Russia, never having to spend endless months in field hospital after field hospital to recover from almost being blown to pieces by a Russian grenade, never have to volunteer again to re-join his comrades in a useless war that was already lost. Then there are the anonymous grave stones: no name, no dates, no rank. I can’t imagine what it takes to not be able to identify a dead soldier. But it’s likely not pretty. Human beings blown to pieces, corpses left to rot dead on a battlefield or who knows what else. There are a lot of these unknown soldiers in Niederbronn.
Leaving the cemetery silently my mind kept asking questions and I couldn’t find any answers to. A few km further north I passed a bunker of the Maginot line. From it you can see over the lovely hills across the German border. It’s a beautiful stretch of land, people live in prosperity all around. How can anybody come up with the idea to go from one side to the other and start killing the people in the next village? I can’t see how anybody that is not extremely criminal or insane can do this. I remember driving through the battlefields of WWI a few years ago. A beautiful hilly landscape a few hundred km further north, deformed by craters, trenches, bunkers until today. In the heart of Western Europe. These places have seen brutality and the worst of mankind on a scale I don’t want to imagine (this and this can help with imagination). But there are people out there today, that want to roll back the clock, undo Europe, go back to “patriotism”, “the nation state”, “defending the borders”, “build walls”. They want to stop migration when Europe is a melting pot of thousands of years of migratory flows of all kinds and origins. You can see their leaders’ faces on the election posters. They live everywhere among us, have normal jobs, even run governments in some countries, and must have some kind of problem in their head. Or maybe there’s just nothing in there, an ignorant void. Looking at them from the cemetery of Niederbronn, from the Maginot line, from the Somme, the Marne, Verdun and so many more places, I get scared.
It got late, and I went to visit my grandmother. She lies on a cemetery in Germany, 200 km away from her husband. I kept thinking about these two lives I know so little about and how history had taken them apart, tearing apart all plans they probably made in their youth. I will see more family history in the coming weeks, in other parts of Europe. This trip coincidentally has a personal touch in this regard.
Leaving the cemetery, I took a deep breath. After a day thinking about the dead, it was time to go see the living. Off to Berlin, still 680 km away across Germany. Leaving the Rhineland I got lost a few times on pretty bad motorways with a lot of traffic. The sun disappeared, and the further I drove the worse it got. At some point I had to leave the motorway and drive on smaller roads before reaching the Inner German border of the cold war. History is all over the place here. Another intent to separate, dictate ideology, subjugate people, that ultimately failed. The last 300 km to Berlin I drove on the A9 motorway, that took me so often from Rome to Berlin and the other way around during my time as a student, before the advent of Ryanair & Co. It’s incredible how the motorway is still of concrete plates like in GDR times. The richest country in Europe has not been able to fix its infrastructure. One could say that you can’t expect that from who is unable to open a new airport in its capital city in almost 30 years of planning, building and postponing inaugurations. But let’s not be mean 😉
Arriving in Berlin over the Avus, entering Kurfürstendamm the Beton Cadillacs greeted me, like 23 years ago. Berlin always feels familiar after having lived here for 12 years on and off. Fond memories came up on the way to Schöneberg, the neighbourhood where I started off in this city. Berlin is the least urban big city in Europe, a huge village, that feels peaceful, calm, with lots of neighbourhood charm. I parked the car, got my bags out, and the 3 flights of stairs in an old Berlin townhouse nearly killed me. But when my friends and hosts Timo and Frauke welcomed me at the door, it felt like back in student times.