By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French
The Croft Magazine // In this instalment of 'Letters from Paris', Xander Brett discusses his journey across France, Germany and Belgium, the new lockdown announcements and travelling back to the UK.
1st November, 2020
In 1946, Winston Churchill declared that an ‘iron curtain’ was going up between east and western Europe. Seventy years on, another curtain is going up: the ‘corona curtain’. Today’s danger is not communism, but a virus. There’s no physical barrier and, crossing from a ‘red’ to a ‘green’ zone, you’re unlikely to be fired at. But coronavirus has made travelling a challenge. It’s a reminder of the ease of transit we took for granted… Will we have a test on arrival? Are we subject to quarantine? I spent a few days last week travelling in the northeast corner of France, dipping into Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. I wasn’t to know of Wednesday’s announcement. Just in time, I left Paris when cross-regional travel was permitted.
The 1995 Schengen Agreement removed border checks on the Continent. Checkpoints have become tourist offices and garages. Though checks returned during the first wave, they are currently absent. But borders remain a dividing line. A glass screen of separation. One step across the Rhine and every car has German number plates. All signposts switch to German. Tram announcements change voice. The phone signal jumps. Just a few metres from France, I had lunch in a restaurant that was straight out of a German folk tale. It served beer in tankards. With hot stew, there was no bread. When the bill arrived, I had to specify it was an espresso I required, rather than just ‘a coffee’. The assumptions of France had disappeared.
Travelling from France to Germany, it’s the change in language that’s most apparent. In Strasbourg, French is the sole language. In Kehl, the residents had to put up with my poor attempts at German. The following day, I travelled on to Luxembourg, a small country stuck between two powers. Here, the language of commerce and advertising is French, the language of education is German, and the language of politics and the home is Luxembourgish. With so many foreigners, it’s easier to shop in French, even with fellow Luxembourgers. Though the radio is in Luxembourgish, it’s rarely written, and journalists choose between French or German in print. Picking up Land, I found articles in the same newspaper were written in either French or German, depending on the author’s preference.
Unlike Belgium or Switzerland, the languages of Luxembourg are not confined to certain regions. Travelling its length by train, I entered Belgium in the far north. Here, though there are three official languages – French, Dutch and German – they are all clearly isolated. Last year, when I visited Flanders, I had to struggle by with Dutch (unlike the Netherlands, the Flemish are monolingual). In Wallonia, I was pleased to be able to communicate in French. While the countryside of the Ardennes was lovely, and surprisingly hilly, it wasn’t long before the stereotypical grey concrete returned. I travelled through Liège, Namur and Tournai… each town slightly more bearable than the last. Now I’ve ticked off Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia, I’ll be grateful never to set foot in Belgium again.
I spent my final night in Lille, returning to Paris the following morning. The second lockdown had begun that night. Confinement was inevitable, and the only way to stop hospitals being overwhelmed... something we’re dangerously close to. We all agree on its necessity, but we’ve had to reorganise fast. When I leave Paris on Tuesday, I’ll be one of the last in a flood of departures. This weekend the streets are emptying, rather than empty. Next week, however, France will fully return to the life it knew in April. I’ll be back home in England, slightly earlier than expected for the Christmas holidays. I’ll be getting to grips with your ‘tier’ systems and strict social distancing, hoping to return to France again after the New Year. Letters from Paris will continue, becoming Letters to Paris instead. I’ll join you in watching, across the Channel, a way of life we grew re-used to disappear once again. For a second time this year, the lamps are going out all over Europe.
Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett
Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.