We Were Free Until We Weren’t

in France

As I write this blog post, I am waiting for the internal European borders to re-open to fly to Italy. While we wait for life to become normal again, it is getting harder and harder for those which normal life is associated to regular cross-border airport trips – whether it is to hop on a plane for business or personal purposes. The bubble I live in at the moment (Brussels) is quite international, and it is an issue for many non-Belgian people here. At the same time, not everyone sees a problem in delaying the opening of borders when we are fighting off a pandemic. And fairly so: we are talking about one of the worst public health crises our generation has had to face.

For the first time since 1945, our freedom has been dramatically limited. At some point, France made you carry a certificate specifying the reason why you were out every time you would leave your house – even to fetch a baguette at the baker’s located 200m away. Our daily freedom was materialising into a simple piece of paper. While according to the country we live in, we have experienced different restrictions and different timelines, according to our financial, familial and mental situation we have lived the confinement in many ways. We joked that introverts were coping better than extroverts as we were strongly encouraged to stay home at all times. As health workers still fight to protect all of us, some might say our only job is to sit and wait, and that we shouldn't complain; which is to a certain extent understandable. The reality is, a couple of months in, everyone seeks freedom of movement and the possibility to gather with their family and friends – more than ever.

The world as an open border

Focusing on the European case, what strikes me is the extent to which I took the benefits offered by the Schengen area for granted, up to the closure of borders. In total, 26 European states belong to this European Union zone, where all passports, visas and other types of border controls have been abolished since 1995. As a matter of fact, I was born in France in 1992 and never got to know how the world was without open intra-European borders. 
 
I came to wonder: to what extent has the freedom to travel from one country to another shaped our lives
And in particular, mine?

I am particularly addressing how easy it is for you to live in any of the EU countries if you wish to do so. Through Erasmus+ (the programme allowing students and professionals to study and work anywhere in the EU), the European Union has enabled millions of people to discover what life looks like in another country. It has led to the full realisation that the language you learn at school can lead you to communicate with another culture, and to enrich you up to an unexpected level (in-between parties). In particular, many have become accustomed to the idea of living abroad, finding themselves asking for foreign residency. Or found love and more: according to European Commission’s estimates, we’re talking roughly one million babies born to Erasmus couples since 1987.

The sky's your limit

Since my first year at uni, I became curious of a life abroad. I remember I was dying to spend a year in the US but as it didn’t pan out, I chose to go and live in England during a gap year as a French language assistant. Soon after I would live in Scotland for 6 months. Then, I went to Italy and fell in love with the Eternal City. And while I desperately wanted to stay, work opportunities were scarce; I reluctantly chose to move to Belgium to build myself a career in public relations.

But despite hard times, I was holding on. After all, Ryanair flights could get as low as 20€ over the winter period. From the Belgian capital, to catch a flight to Rome was cheaper than to hop on a train to Lille. It looked like the whole air ecosystem adapted to the shrinking of territory – caused by the pushing out of its own limits. The only reason why I was living in Belgium – if not to benefit from a top-notch professional environment – was because I could get out of it quick and easy. The possibility to move to Rome exists within periphery of my twenties, a permanent asterisk attached to the city I live in at the moment.

Back to essentials

But to put a halt to a deadly health hazard, governments closed down the borders. I no longer had this possibility. Just like many people, I was stuck in my flat alone for a few months with no possibility to meet my family, boyfriend, friends. FaceTime and WhatsApp video were the way to go. For my pro-European generation, seeing this freedom taken away is traumatising. Would we live abroad if we couldn’t go back to the people we love without hurdle? Could long-distance relationships even work?

Looking forward, we may be facing a one-in-a-lifetime pandemic that will turn 2020 into an exceptional year. Maybe we will not be confronted with the issue again. However, it does give me - and for sure many others - food for thought. Taking into account the expected rocketing of flight rates and the sustainability element, are we getting back to a more traditional way of thinking, to an “out of sight out of mind” mindset? Is it the time to end a “transition period”? Can’t we just overcome the complexity and just be where we belong instead of travelling non-stop? At the end of the day there’s no right or wrong answer – just a choice.

One thing is certain: as I am incredibly fortunate to be living in a democracy which grants me the power to go wherever I fancy, I can spend more time gauging the freedom we benefit from. With such power comes great responsibility, the one to shape the future we truly wish to have. There’s no such thing as having too much freedom if we make the right decisions. 

I feel I could go on and on on the topic and write a whole chapter on it. But instead I'll leave you with these questions: would you be working and living where you are if there was no freedom of movement (in which case, you got it sorted already)? Did the confinement change your perspective or encouraged you to take a step towards the life/job/etc. you wish to have?

Copyright: Pinterest (here)


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