Thirty years ago, I joined AEGEE. L’Association des États Généraux des Étudiants de l’Europe. A long-winded name for something simple: A European Students Association.
Here’s the young man from a Bernese farming village starting to study in Geneva. I didn’t know anyone. My French teacher at the Kirchenfeld Gymnasium in Berne told me on my chances to succeed in the French speaking part of Switzerland: “Of all the class everyone but you.”
Early on I got in touch with a local student’s group. They had Europe in their club’s logo. Europe was a big discussion topic back then: In Switzerland we were about to vote whether or not to join the European Economic Area (By a sliver we eventually didn’t).
The group though did not speak politics. Instead, they showed me a wide range of activities also in other towns. Here in Geneva, they were organizing a congress on the just created student’s exchange program Erasmus. Across Europe there was an Environmental Week. In summer they had summer universities – I eventually learned Spanish tolerably. In Cologne they had a literature congress and in Krakow there was a presidents’ meeting.
To Krakow I went. A long train trip via Vienna later, I arrived in a town of change. The Iron Curtain was just a few years lifted. And western culture did arrive: The first tram outside the main station I saw was CocaCola colored. The local history was present everywhere: On the large central square, the castle, down by the river. Over the years I came back and found with Krakow a marvel, reflecting its rich past.
At the congress I met students from all walks of life and from all corners of Europe. We had a blast. And more: It was the assembly of the delegates from all the local chapters, or antenna as we call them, preparing the upcoming General Assembly or Agora. Over two days we discussed issues affecting us and how to organize our student’s club. Debate followed by votes, with winners and losers, followed by a big all night long parties making us all tired but united.
I got pulled in. And spent the next four years traveling Europe (mostly by Interrail). I did not visit one Museum in all these years except the Forum Romanum in Rome. Instead, I spent countless days and nights with students from all around the continent immersed in their daily lives and got to see their world and mine through their eyes. And I met friends for live.
For example: In Kos a group proposed to accept a chapter from Istanbul. Our Greek hosts went ballistic. We couldn’t understand why. Three nights of heavy Ouzo drinking later I did: The recent past of war and cruelty between Greece and the waning Ottoman empire was too present. We did accept AEGEE Istanbul to join our club. A few years later we all retravelled the historic Via Egnatia from Athens to Constantinople.
In a similar fashion I spent time all around Europe. Closer to home, I remember traveling from Basel to Kehl and Strasbourg and then further through the Ardennes to Bruxelles on the moment the border barriers were lifted. We all had tears in our eyes of emotion and disbelieve that a short fifty years after Armageddon costing the lives of thousands of youngsters our age, we could travel these historic lands without passports and hatred.
European integration through understanding. We understood that our different roots and upbringings gave us different identities. Yet we also realized how same same we all are despite our differences. It made me comprehend my country better, and its place in Europe. In fact, it made me realize that Switzerland and Europe are just one and the same Fibonacci sequence.
Today I can only recommend to anyone if you have a chance: Buy yourself an Interrail, travel Europe, get to know the continent through the eyes of peers in other countries – the museums will still be there in a couple of years. And yes, if you can, join AEGEE*.
* This and Zofingia were the two best student investments I ever made. More on Zofingia in a forthcoming post.