Movement, Mobility, Meaning

Four 4Citzens explore how it feels to be on the move both during and after 4CITIES – and what it means.

To Brussels (John Mason, Cohort 5)

My parents were almost as nervous as I was about moving to a new city in a new country, and so insisted that we have a family holiday to Brussels one month before the course started in order to scope things out and view potential apartments. We set off with a car full of assorted family members on a road trip from the English Midlands to the Belgian capital, where I had tried – without great success – to set up advance viewings with private landlords. Luckily, the only place that managed to keep our appointment turned out to be a nice room in Saint Gilles (which remains my favourite part of the city), which we rented on the spot. Four weeks later, we drove back to Brussels with a car full of my undergraduate belongings – including a duvet, kitchen equipment and even a chest of drawers – to set me up for a new life “on the continent.”

To Vienna (Panos Bourlessas, Cohort 4)

You might agree that there is a very specific sense of movement in today’s EU: while the region’s exterior contour is becoming extremely rigid, exclusionary, aggressive, ‘defending’ itself from influxes of refugees, the internal borderlines are officially and legally annihilated. At least for the ones ‘belonging’ therein. For these, movement is —better. It is supposed to be— unhindered, fluid, and potentially continuous —on a continuous plane of spatial terrain. Nothing to block it. An example? Think about 4CITIES programme itself: four European capital cities are connected whereas movement between them is either a fading out background (taken for granted) or just an invisible part of spatial explorations that are made only of celebrated arrivals: Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen, Madrid. It is as if arrivals exist per se; as if no movement generates them. Yet, this material and discursive annihilation of (interior) borders does not automatically mean the annihilation of border experiences or of the practices that reproduce ideas of bordering and control. It is this very intersection of experiences and practices that I would like to talk about now, through the following flashback:

The Brussels semester is over, and it is time to move to Vienna. Along with two beloved Brussels natives, Hanne and Boris, we have decided to take an overnight train to reach our next city. The train is cheap, environmentally friendly (we’ve been told so, at least), and without the stressful, inescapable control of airports. The train is easy. We will only have to cross three European states at the Union’s (constitutional and spatial) heart: Belgium, Germany, and Austria. And we all are ‘European citizens’ (again, we’ve been told so). Gare Du Midi, people and baggage on board. Ticket at hand. Train departs. Au revoir, Bruxelles! We find a quiet couchette for the three of us. A film on the laptop (‘The Artist,’ if I remember correctly), some reading, then some sleeping. So far so good.

In the middle of the night, the train suddenly stops. No lights, outside the window a dark nowhere, unmapped.

And we are still —movement breaks. We assume that this is the German-Austrian border. So it exists. Our stillness seems to confirm it. Policemen get on the train. Their bodies in uniform disturb the silence, passengers are sleeping. Passport control. A policeman arrives in our couchette and asks us in German to show him our documents. Hanne and Boris (I am sitting on the opposite side) show him their ID cards. Fine, a glance is enough. My turn now, I give him my passport. Something is going wrong. In German again, he asks me to stand up. Then to lift my arms. I don’t speak German but what follows is clear: my body is about to be controlled. The policeman’s hands are tapping it with a forced rhythmicity. The posture and the instants of physical contact with this man make me feel awkward, confused. With each tap on it, my body feels less private, transgressed through touched. My skin reacts. Hanne and Boris are watching. I receive their gaze constantly.

Then, the jacket – the pockets are inspected. I start feeling nervous, trying to rationalise in order to make sense of all this. I am asked to open my luggage next. Why? The policeman notices my tea packages —I am a tea lover. He wants to check the tea inside —he does not look like a tea lover. I still don’t understand. My friends’ gaze still there, fixed. Some tea leaves are falling on my palm. I start wondering whether his actions are legitimate but don’t dare to ask; we don’t speak the same language, he is bigger than me, and, above all, he is a policeman in his own country. After that, the inspection is finally over. But, until the moment we arrive in Vienna in early morning, my presence on the train feels ‘out of place.’

To close, I would like to focus on one specific effect —and also affect— of the control: it made me feel different in relation to the others, in that case Hanne and Boris. For I was the only one to be inspected, in that way. And the gaze of the others while all this was happening marked the difference between who needs to be controlled and who doesn’t.

The in-between line is fine, often arbitrary and always politically loaded. Nobody knows why the policeman decided to inspect me and not the others. Was it my Greek passport? Was it my clothes or face? Was the policeman looking for someone specific who happened to have my traits? Or was he just abusing his ‘power?’ Of course, the aim of this vignette is not to present my case as too grave or exceptional; this has been only one small incident that cannot be compared with experiences of other 4CITIES fellows, whose movement has been seriously affected, controlled and limited due to, say, Visa issues —Merve and Luanda from my cohort have much more to say on this. Nevertheless, what this vignette may push us to do, I hope, is to not take movement for granted. Even where borders are materially annihilated, or in ‘banal’ cases such as moving during a master’s programme, movement is not simply a movement between two points. For it becomes, as Tim Cresswell reminds us, mobility: complex, embodied, experienced, signified, involving various material practices, amongst which those of control; above all, it is political by generating social difference.

To Copenhagen (John Mason, Cohort 5)

Copenhagen could not have been more different from Brussels: I left the airport with a small suitcase and no idea of where I was going to go, having been unable to find a room in advance. I ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas for four weeks until I finally found a place via Spare Room – a single older man looking to rent a room to a younger, preferably gay, male in a fashionable part of Fredericksberg for a pittance. Beggars can’t be choosers. Luckily he turned out to be “normal” and we got on very well: my apartment viewing turned into a bar crawl and then an extensive cycle tour of gay Copenhagen, at the end of which he announced that the room was mine. I ended up being very lucky – with his Danish cooking lessons, my trip to his office in Roskilde, and our celebration of Danish Christmas, I gained a true insight into the life of locals in Copenhagen.

To Madrid (Kieran Toms, Cohort 5)

By the time I arrived in Madrid I had shed everything. I had shed my inhibitions, I had shed my preconceptions, and I had shed my possessions. What was necessary in Brussels – I had brought what I judged to be the sensible bare minimum – now seemed a grotesque abundance. Some sort of mark of the material excesses of our privileged continent, I perhaps thought.

Fittingly, my room in Madrid was tiny as well. I had come to realise that I was not in each new city for the room but for the city itself. And Madrid was perfect to be outside in. Having come straight from Copenhagen the world was suddenly improbably hot, and the beers, drunk on the street in that idyllic balminess, were deliciously cheap.

My room could barely fit me in it, let alone anything else. So inevitably more friends than in any city before came to visit me there. This was their last chance of redeeming the offer of free accommodation in a European capital before it expired, after all. But we made do, shrinking into small spaces.

We can always make do, I learned. How conventions and habits can come to seem unnecessary. For various reasons, mostly to do with the unlikely good fortunes of the small London football team I support, I frequently found myself flying back and forth between London and Madrid. Habitualised to plane travel, the much repeated caution (you must get there two hours before the flight!) was shed, and I would rock up to the airport and saunter through security and onto the plane almost without breaking stride.

But of course – if everyone arrived just minutes before the plane was about to leave, then there would be a problem. The world is not just levity.

I remember Madrid one night, in some bar, with a whole gang of our 4citizen family, feeling boisterous and wild and smug somehow in our adventuring ways. Because, our thinking at that moment went, we alone were not tied down to the mundane, to the everyday, to the foolish structures of those trapped in their unthinking. We alone roamed free.

Then we met the members of a travelling circus and our status as bohemians-in-chief was usurped.

We were well looked after on a Master’s degree and soon we would be going home. Our Botellón always ended up getting cleared away by the blasting of high powered hoses. I had begun to apply for jobs back in Britain.

One night we went for a drink with one of the French circus crowd. We spoke her language, not mine for once, and so everything seemed profound to my overly romantic ears. She was tiring of life on the road. It turned out she just pressed the buttons for the lights.

She showed us a secret late-night bar (you had to call a number and they’d open the door). Inside someone else from the circus balanced a dog in one arm and a glass of red wine in the other, and everything and everyone swirled around, unfixed and inconstant. A few weeks later, with visiting friends, I managed in faltering Spanish to phone the bar myself and they let me in. The delight of local knowledge. But of course, I would have to leave that behind too.

Post 4Cities (Scott Durno, Cohort 8)

As 4CITIES came to an end, I decided to move back to Brussels. Though I had made the conscious effort to never have too much with me throughout the two years, I had slowly accumulated things – enough to fill a large suitcase, two small bags, and a backpack. I had gone back to Montreal for the summer, travelling light, but coming back a little heavier, knowing that I would eventually settle down. Iris had been kind enough to keep most of my larger things in Madrid (under her bed), and when I went back there in the two weeks before the thesis submission deadline, my luggage was lost on the way. A few days of compounded stress later, everything was righted, not without some characteristic Spanish drama on the part of my boyfriend, and (by extension) myself.

My suitcase found its way to Brussels (via Ghent) on the train by way of Laura, and my other bag was promptly thrown into the back of a people carrier – yet more lovely cohort mates on a road trip back to Belgium. When I finally got to Brussels, I collected everything I could in the Airbnb I had rented, then carried it all after the graduation (again with the help of Iris) to the Netherlands, then back to Brussels again. After bouncing around for a little longer in short-term rentals, I found a room, and victoriously dragged everything there. My suitcase’s wheels were pulverized, my back hurt, but I was finally somewhere, without an end date in sight.

If this seems convoluted, it absolutely is. But, there is logic of self-sufficiency to it all. Luckily, I’m young and I’m able-bodied. I came to depend on those around me, and them on me. In that context, coupled by a few terrible instances of lost shipping boxes, I wanted to exert a certain control over my things, even if it meant lugging overweight suitcases over cobblestoned streets and through metro stations. Tight budgets and a can-do attitude are in some ways fundamental parts of 4CITIES, and the sheer physicality of shuttling your life around makes that all the more stark.

Now that I’ve come to rest for a time in Brussels, I’ve started filling my space with the things I care about. When I went home to Montreal for Christmas, I came back with my favourite books and my bike – I had always intended to bring it wherever I decided to settle. That was yet another serendipitous moment; as I got off the train at Gare du Midi and wondering what to do with a massive bike box, I ran into Iris, who helped me bring it to my flat. As I made her coffee in the stovetop pot that I had carried around for two years, showed her the posters I had put up, and she leafed through my dog-eared copy of Joan Didion’s collected essays, I felt at home.