With every time that I visit Europe, the difference to Asia seems to become smaller. Cause is not a booming Asian economy but increased autocracy, bad infrastructure and services, and an ever more apparent inequality in Europe, that help the two continents merging together.
Let’s start where my journey started: from Vietnam, where I have been working and living for the past five years, my trip first brought me to Istanbul where I made a short stop over. The city (and Turkey as a country), which at the same time both separates and unifies Asia and Europe, is as beautiful as ever, only maybe a bit more busy than before. And while Turkey’s economic growth resembles the Asian dynamic of the 1990s, so do – unfortunately – politics. It might be a coincidence that my visit fit with the anniversary of the Gezi protests, but it’s clear that in my life I haven’t seen as much police force as in Istanbul on 31st May 2014. According to press comments a sheer 25’000 in number! Economic success comes at its price, particularly in a well-populated nation. Or as one Turkish citizen commented on twitter “Welcome to Turkey. A police state or Erdogaland.”
While thinking of all the people fighting for freedom and probably spending a cold and lonely night in some prison in Istanbul, I made my way to Milan, Italy. Silently giggling about the warnings of some Turkish shop owner (“Italy? Watch out for thieves!”), my landing was tougher than expected. Not only that the plane stopped somewhere in the lushest countryside, but the expected “sequestration” was actually a scheduled landing at the airport of Malpensa. Whereas some decades back the designers of the Milan airport must have had vast expansion plans for the city, today’s infrastructure is short of visionary ideas. The fact that no one seems to speak English (thank Berlusconi I understand and speak some Italian), wasn’t as bad as understanding train routes was difficult within a system that requires at least three travel guides to get a grasp. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already, two out of three ticket vending machines didn’t work at all and whereas the third accepted my credit card and PIN, it didn’t issue any ticket. “No ticket means you have to buy one (or another one?) at the counter”, explained the (oh so helpful!) young man who’s only task was to manage tourists that couldn’t cope with the defective ticket machines.
Finally the train took off and while it increased to a maximum speed of about 20 km per hour, an automatic voice indicated that the trip would take 58 minutes to the city centre! Time enough to watch grazing cows, studying train routes (my hotel required a change of trains), or thinking about the trains that bring you from Shanghai airport to the city centre with a speed of 400km/hour within 8 minutes. In China one can almost travel from Nanjing to Shanghai in 58 minutes, whereas in Italy the same time is required from the city airport to the city. The “Leitmotiv” here isn’t only “slow food”, but also slow trains.
The train station where I needed to change was worse than everything before: no helpful young man, nor did anyone really seem to understand which track their trains would leave from. No wonder if the electronic(!) information board only announces the corresponding tracks 3 minutes before trains leave. Time enough to ran down the steep stairs with the suitcase in one hand while swearing with the other and what’s left from your lungs. Better ignore that all five elevators didn’t work: in Europe action is included in your holiday package, even if you only travel tourist class.
Back in good old Switzerland everything felt like one would never have left. The pace slow, people slower, and everything in place and order as ever before. Everything? Well, in Interlaken, menus and advertisement now come in Russian and Arabic, but that’s what tourism is all about, isn’t it?
I dare to ask “Have you ever seen someone in a burka climbing a mountain?” In a country where the construction of mosques has been prohibited by popular vote, a Muslim must have better reasons to go for holidays than seeing some snow covered mountains or chocolate producing cows. However, that’s not the sort of things you talk about in Switzerland. As long as people have all they need, they prefer to complain about what they don’t have instead of asking where the wealth they live in is coming from. And while trains are a bit faster (and certainly more expensive) than in Italy, one must acknowledge that there is indeed room for improvement, particularly if one is used to an Asian understanding of speed.
In retrospect, while I have enjoyed the tranquility in Europe as much as its ever charming culture, I can’t help thinking about all the protesting Turkish citizens and the young Africans I have seen sitting around in parks in Italy. Even without legal papers or work later are still luckier than all their colleagues who drown everyday on the way from Africa to Europe, trying to escape the brutal reality of their life back where they come from. Compared to the wealth of the filthy rich tourists who come to launder their money in Switzerland, the future of these young people is as unpredictable as that of Europe as a whole. Autocrat leadership and increased populism is definitely not the answer to an economic crisis. What Europe must aim for is more equitable realities and a vision that puts the weakest citizens first, not last. However, for that we need leaders with visions, not such with megalomania, and voters with values, not egocentric whiners.