We were in Strasbourg, France, and I had planned for my long run to take me into Germany on Friday. I mentioned this at dinner, and a Frenchwoman snorted dismissively. I may as well have said I was going to mix my salade niçoise in the bathroom sink.
You can, but why would you?
As it turns out, I never made it into Germany. The Rhine, which marks the border between two formerly implacable enemies, remained tantalizingly close. But I got slightly lost and, before becoming thoroughly lost, decided to retrace my steps.
We’re staying with a friend who lives the Quartier Européen, which is the official seat of the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, with a slab of the Berlin Wall out front, and numberless other organs of European bureaucracy.
The Quartier is massive and seems to have doubled in size since the last time we were here, ten years ago, with gleaming new buildings rising in every direction. The work of government is divided with Brussels and Luxembourg, so when meetings shift from city to city, long caravans of tractor-trailers shuttle equipment and documents. Armies of politicians, bureaucrats, translators, observers and countless other functionaries also migrate, conspicuous on the streets in their dark suits and ties.
J. Simpson, Plaintiff
I took a walk the other day, and stood near the gates of the European Court of Human Rights to take pictures of painstakingly hand-lettered posters protesting one outrage or another: cases the Court has heard and dismissed, or refuses to hear, or has decided against.
A thin man in clean, threadbare clothes approached and asked if I knew about the case I was photographing.
“No, I don’t,” I said, bracing myself for what I knew was coming.
“If you will allow,” he said, and for the next forty-five minutes, one J. Simpson expanded on his life. A former software expert, he said he’s had his throat cut. Britain’s MI5 and MI6 are bent on destroying him. Tony Blair is personally involved. Listening devices have been planted. Judges and lawyers bought off. Indeed he’s been under surveillance since his university days forty years ago.
Here’s a quote from the literature he passes out:
…After a blood-spurting, throat-cutting killing I unexpectedly awoke to see the paramedic cut my forehead (Who wanted me to see that?). Subsequent months twitching like a dog, even in a locked cell, included (Number 5 of the 14 most serious) a drugged panic…
I looked into J. Simpson’s eyes for obvious signs of madness. I saw nothing and wondered if the fault was mine. What if he’s absolutely correct about everything and the rest of us are mad?
Simpson, Plaintiff, has bright, pale grey eyes and a stooped posture. Thinning hair and an odd, barking laugh. And the European verbal tic of seeking agreement at the end of a statement by saying “Yeah?”
He’s been camped out here for four years — literally camped out. His small silver tent was just visible above the tall grass across the busy Allée de la Robertsau. It was a cold winter, he said, ten below for weeks at a time. He now lives hand-to-mouth on the meagre savings from his working days. Rides his folding bike to Kehl, just over the border, for tins of sardines (everything is cheaper in Germany). Treats himself to a small wheat beer some evenings. And comes here every day, rain or shine, to talk to strangers about his case.
“How can I help?” I asked.
“Tell people about me.”
I shook his hand and wished him luck. But what I really wanted to do was hug him.
As I retraced my steps over the canal bridge, I heard shouting behind me. There was Mr. J. Simpson, Plaintiff, gesturing broadly and calling at the top of his voice for justice.
Things fall apart
Europe, or the idea of Europe as constituted here, in these buildings, is under attack. Neo-liberals, deracinated bureaucrats, the erasure of national aspirations, sclerotic decision-making, a cabal of billionaires and politicians. The charges are familiar.
I don’t live in Europe, but it seems to me that a vast and unhumorous army of inefficient bureaucrats is preferable to armies with guns. In the twentieth century, Europe was convulsed twice by unspeakable horrors: senseless murder on an industrial scale, chemical warfare, and tens of millions dispossessed and homeless.
The genius of a pan-European government was that these regular spasms would cease. Perhaps erased through the unremitting boredom of bureaucracy, but at least made far less likely. No more appeals to blood and soil, or to the glory of the fatherland.
But now the idea of Europe is under attack. Through a lack of memory and imagination, leaders on every side are dismantling what took so much effort to build. As before, they play on fears, stoke suspicion. And a rough beast with orange skin and yellow hair, the physical embodiment of a lit match, slouches toward Europe to ignite a new conflagration.