Shahrazad asked a group of European and non-European writers to compose open letters addressed to ’their Europe’. The results were published in Letters to Europe, a book highlighting how this continent means different things to different people.
Peter Vermeersch (1972) is a Belgian political scientist, poet and essayist.
By Peter Vermeersch
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes I see you from the window in the plane. Far below you lie, stretched out and quiet, as though you were my slumbering beloved. I see a web of fields and oval towns, with hair-fine roads, mountains like white fists, long rivers glinting in the morning sun. And then I wonder what it would be like to really long for you. How it would be if I couldn't just take you for granted, having to do my best for you because you were still not mine. I try to look through the eyes of an outsider. Perhaps the mist and rarefied air up there make me dream: that you're still young and smooth and naive so that you can still become whatever you like and that your inhabitants in their ant-sized cars and houses like pebbles, cherish you like a newborn child. Shall I hide away in this machine so that I can be with you? Freeze myself permanently to the wheels? Later, when the plane has landed, I walk towards you through long, clean halls, between businessmen with laptops and tourists in shorts and loose shirts. I see the others there, too: large families with children, with all their possessions, men with crumpled documents. Those are the ones I have to leave behind because you won't keep me waiting. Even if your reception is somewhat cool and the man behind the counter doesn't return your smile, he nods at me and just lets me through. Sometime I wonder what it must be like realize fully what cruel privilege lies concealed in the nod of that official.
It doesn't happen often but sometimes I stand on your frontiers. I wander aimlessly along the quayside and look at the smooth water, like oil. I see a ship and the bustle of activity in the docks, the cranes under a steely sky and the supply of goods brought to you, a constant stream of gifts in the shape of containers. Do you deserve them? Do I deserve them? And what do we do with them? I know they leave storms of poverty and injustice in their wake. I also know how stubborn poverty and injustice are still here. Are you aware of that, too? Those demarcations, those concrete wharves: those are your damaged borders. Where do you end and where does the area start which you may no longer claim as your own? Do you also consider the nonchalant randomness of the division equally confusing? Sometimes, on sunny days, I compare us - you and me - with Escher's lithography: we are two hands which each mark the other's character. Together we will redefine our contours. Everything is still in the process of development. Everything is still possible. New space will open up, and suddenly the unknown will no longer be different. But on less sunny days I say an irreconcilable chasm. Just like a few years ago when I was sheltering in the high doorway of the Hotel Des Bains on the Venice Lido. Fighter jets flew past on their way to the Balkans.
Now I'm at home in Brussels, it's April and in the park across the street, the sun is shining. I'm listening to a tape of my great-grandfather's voice, Léon Van Houcke, born in 1893, in a different century, in a different Europe. The recording was made a few years before his death, during the eighties. I hear his short sentences for the umpteenth time, his dry West-Flanders description of those couple of months of war which he experienced in the trenches in Schoorbakke and Pervijze. Throughout his life he had spoken very little about it, only at the end, in those final years, then he had: he would sit by the stove with his cap on his pale head as if time had ceased to mean anything to him - and he could no longer speak of anything else. He saw it all once more, right before his eyes: the bullets and the mud and the insanity. To me he seemed like a time traveller someone who came to report on a lost world. Not that he
had a message because - even after all those years - he seemed not to have entirely grasped what had actually happened there in 1914.Only that it had marked his life. If I see a report about you on the television then I always find myself thinking of Léon, and when I read something about your perpetual official murmuring on a website.
Of course, I realize that you have achieved a great deal in the last hundred years. I don't have my great-grandfather's shrivelled lung. But I realize with a sense of regret how unintelligible you have become. You are walled in and protected like an oval town. Smooth and impenetrable: you strive for that kind of perfection. At the gates you positioned airports, organized closed rivers and guarded quaysides. And even though you're not really sure who belongs and who does not, you draw the lines of division with an air of conviction. Sometimes you are ugly and sometimes arrogant. You are often aloof and relentless. I know all of that and am prepared to forgive you for a great deal. Often I look away if you become pompous and you lose yourself in the jargon of your own riddles. But sometimes I want to ask you: do you still realize that you are fragile?