In walking through the Frankfurt Airport yesterday I was struck by how difficult it was to tell that I was in Germany. The only hallmarks seemed to be the volume of Lufthansa flights boarding and the proliferation of pretzels at various eating establishments. Otherwise there was very little to indicate it was a German airport. For instance, English was not only ubiquitous, but at times it was the default language (ie, the airport even refers to itself as the “Frankfurt Airport,” and not the Frankfurt “Flughafen,” and some advertisements lining its corridors were written entirely in English with no German whatsoever – like the one for Avis car rentals…). Meanwhile the currency is all the same as many of its neighbors, cell phones roam easily from one country’s carrier to another, and traveling between countries is a simple matter of walking on and off a quick flight and then right out the door.
I don’t describe all this as a complaint, per se, but it did prompt a “kids these days” sort of reaction as I recalled my own first serious backpacking trips traversing Europe. Back then (1995 and 1996) Europe had already just changed rather drastically in that the Iron Curtain had just fallen, which opened up areas and cultures that had previously been walled off (often literally) from the rest of the continent. But even in western Europe passports still needed to be shown at country borders, money changed in each one, and separate phrase books consulted. Each country seemed very far away from every other one, and each retained a very different language, culture, food, coinage, telephony, and general aesthetic from its neighbors. Half the point of a European travel adventure then was to have to get to and cope with each one throughout the journey.
Which, as one must now imagine, was often difficult. Pan-European travel is undeniably much easier today, and certainly MUCH easier than it has been for so much of history. And in many ways the new status quo is definitely a good thing. The more separate and distinct each European nation was, the more likely it was to war with its neighbors. Having a common sense of European community is tremendously important to the overall success and stability of the entire region.
But how much needed to be overcome in order to reach this point is an important lesson of history, and one that can so easily be forgotten as the challenges, and with them even some of the charms, of a more localized Europe fade so quickly into the past.