I first hitch-hiked across Europe in the summer of 1962. I had O levels in French and German in my rucksack. It was the same procedure every summer for the next five years. I would leave my home city of Leicester by bus, travel down to London, change at Victoria Bus Station, go on to Dover, take the ferry across to Ostend (often at night) and finally stand with dozens of other hitch hikers patiently waiting for a car or van or lorry to stop, pick us up and carry us into the unknown heart of the continent.
What then followed had little or nothing to do with the politics or economics of countries, let alone any grand ideologies. But rather a daily goal might be loosely planned - a town, a region, a youth hostel. Whether I ever made it to any particular destination
though depended on pure chance and on the kindness of total strangers with whom I shared an intimate space for 2 or 20 or 200 kilometres. It was in that space and in the recreation rooms, refectories and dormitories of countless youth hostels between Oslo and Vienna, Strasbourg and Stockholm, Luxembourg and Hamburg, that I became ever more mindful of voices, my own included, who were constructing stories about themselves in a more hopeful and free post-war world. Europe was being verbally re-imagined in these everyday, random encounters and scenarios.
Such encounters with a very human European reality created in me a unique sense of shared feelings expressed in languages I was slowly and surely mastering. Bridges that had often been literally blown up just 20 years previously were being re-built by strangers like myself and the individuals who stopped to give me a lift – itself a spontaneous act of unconditional human decency.
Such conversations across borders and cultures within the same continent have become completely natural ones for millions of ordinary people, and whatever the rhetoric of interests groups may try to tell us in the run-up to the referendum, there is now a fundamentally human understanding stretching back over several generations of ordinary British people that we have built personal bridges to our fellow Europeans after 1918 and 1945 that are intact and will last.
Posted: 20th May 2016