The Euro-feels

I went to continental Europe for the first time since February 2020 last week. With my illness and disability following the first wave of Covid, travel has become a lot harder for me, and I'd focused on visiting family in the US and seeing friends on trips much closer to home.

A work trip compelled me to go to the Netherlands, where I also got the chance to catch up with friends. From the moment I hit the Eurostar terminal, jam-packed full of loud, squirmy, able-bodied travellers at 7am, I started to get the feels about going “to Europe”.

On my last trip over three years ago, I was a relatively care-free person. The UK had just technically left the EU, and but I still had that pink passport and the existential damage of Brexit had yet to sink in. We travelled to Brussels to see friends and Antwerp for a concert — which was really special not least because I already knew it would be our last for many months. (Never guessed years.)

But why hadn't we made any plans to go to Europe post 2020? We considered visiting good friends in Portugal and going to a natural springs in the Azores for my health, family in France... My health and Covid caution were factors. But they didn't fully explain our reluctance. It's almost as though we were scared to upset ourselves by returning.

In any case, I was quite happy that I was headed to The Netherlands – this strange somewhat mythical place for me as a long-life avoider of car culture. (And yet from my time in Timor-Leste and researching its past, I know the Dutch as the colonizers of Indonesia — think some really Conradian shit).

When I arrived in Rotterdam on the Eurostar, it was a bit like when I first went to the country after months of lockdown in the city. Everything felt strange and I had heightened sensations. First I noticed the pace was dialed back a lot from London. Still urban, still bustling but without the time-is-money annoyed frenzy. I immediately felt better, as one of the things I can least afford in this body is to feel stressed and rushed.

But moments later I began to realise that in this multi-cultural, somewhat laid back city, there were barriers to inclusion. Some literal. Nobody was working the train station exit gates, and I instinctively looked for a human in case my Eurostar bar code would not get me through. As there was nobody, I looked for the widest, least used gate to calmly try my luck, and was super relieved to make it through. But what would anybody else with a problem do? Or a disabled person or someone who was new to everything digital and simply couldn't figure it out?

I found the tram system to be a joy to use – conforming to my Euro-feel expectations. But when I exited and tried to figure out literally how to cross a very wide street, I realised that my expectations of European infrastructure “done right” were dashed. As any disabled person would have done, I scoped out the area on Street View prior to my arrival. I had assumed there was a pedestrian tunnel under the busy road, as there were entrances on either side to the train or metro. But I couldn't figure it out. Signage was cryptic. I had limited energy and couldn't afford to explore so I sought out a distant crosswalk in the light rain.

From then on, decided to stick to above-ground transport. I wished I had the confidence and energy to borrow the hotel bikes, but they weren't electric. What I noticed is what I'd perceived prior in cities with proper segregated bike infrastructure: trade-offs are made and the bus/tram user/pedestrian sometimes feels quite low priority. Which normally I would be ok with, as long as I felt safe on foot. But now that I have an energy impairment, I see the city through entirely new eyes. Extra walking has consequences for me.

Yet I didn't use a private ride app once while in the Netherlands. And only used a shared taxi once. I did much better than I would do in the UK. My intercity trip was a dream, and which made such a difference to me mentally. I was able to arrive with energy left to be social and enjoy the day. I was so happy to be somewhere that continues to care about infrastructure and transport, and I noticed the little stuff.

I remember sitting on a beautiful, spacious, hardwood bench in a Hague train station and feeling like I was in heaven. How many times have I been in UK train stations, my energy failing me, to find the only place to sit is on the filthy ground? What kind of society doesn't let tired people sit in public?

And what kind of society lets its schools reach such a state of disrepair they need to be closed days before the start of the school year, for fear they will collapse on children?

On my way out of the Eurostar I noticed the cover of Spectator, a conservative political magazine with the feature story Broken Britain: what went wrong?. So only now Tories seem to have noticed “the country’s major institutions all seem to teeter on the brink of collapse”. Slow claps from me, lying down on the floor in the back. (Too bad their analysis of what went wrong is confusing and delusional.)

It's hard not to feel bitter about the kind of society we could have had, had England not been played by opportunists using xenophobia* as a cover for their utter lack of vision or competence (at best), or cover for their ghoulish ideological plan to further enrich themselves and their mates (at worst).

Polls show that people do care about infrastructure – that 2/3 want to renationalise our shambolic railways run into ruin by private companies and a regulator asleep at the wheel. The outrage over our water companies dumping human waste in our waterways and beaches crosses all party lines and has united the country in the past year. And after our PM's populist attempt to attack “green” policies this week, new polling shows that actually people do support an accelerated transition electric vehicles, and want help to insulate our cold and expensive-to-heat houses.

Let's hope the next elections are about shoring up what institutions and infrastructure we do have, and investing in them – from transport, water, housing, schools and the NHS. So when I travel to the European Union, I don't get tears of joy when I have the most basic opportunities to move, rest, and take a shit knowing it won't end up in the nearby canal.


*It's worth noting that the Netherlands too has their opportunist-xenophobes, and they have been in power for nearly as long as we've had a Tory government, and that if you are an asylum seeker you might not notice any difference in your treatment between countries. And from what I know from disabled people in the Netherlands, they are gaslit and dehumanised too. Meanwhile Dutch police are innovating in criminalising democratic, peaceful protest. Shortly before I arrived, they threatened multiple climate protester parents with child neglect for taking their children to climate protests.