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In A City Transformed

The Schengen Treaty has transformed Trier/Trier-Saarburg beyond recognition. The city looks much the same as it always has – at as much as I remember. Every now and again there is a new building, another development or something that’s always been reinvented. Never-the-less, it’s a city transformed. Luxembourg pulsates with life. Clever statesmanship allowed for a country with some 300,000 citizens (nearly half of Luxembourg’s population comprises immigrants) to serve as home to several key EU agencies. The blindingly brilliant chicanery of Jean-Claude Juncker turned an anomaly of history, a fluke of a country, into an economic and financial centre that punches well above its miniscule weight. Trier/Trier-Saarburg in my youth was economically stagnant and backwards. It relied on a few light industries, wine and tourism to survive – just. Anyone with ambition had to leave. Unless one had the fortune to find employment as a cog in Germany’s gargantuan bureaucratic machine or the right connexions in the few industries, having anything resembling a life was a difficult task to manage. One was born there; one grew up there, went to school there – perhaps even read at Trier’s ancient university – and then left. Many chose to return in time, many never came back.

The opening of the border and Luxembourg’s glittering economic success changed matters. Trier has an economy; there is finally money in the region. Dying towns dotting the border have become desirable places to live. Land prices in Luxembourg are truly eye-watering. An unremarkable detached house in a suburban town will cost at least €1 million. In Luxembourg City, a shoe box so small that it would turn London mouse claustrophobic costs at least as much. A few miles away, a sensible house is available for a mere €350,000.  Ten, fifteen miles from the border – perhaps €150,000, €200,000. People from throughout Europe have come to live here – even Luxembourgers. But something hasn’t changed. One is given certain allowances. To move to Luxembourg is accepted, as is moving to Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and Germany’s myriad regions. Hardly anyone hasn’t done it, or at very least, is related to someone who has left for a time. Some things, however, are not so readily forgiven or forgotten. One may not leave the Continent. To take on the stench of Britain taints one for life. Naturally one can’t be told to “sod off”, but there will always be a pressure to leave again. There will forever be a lingering resentment harboured by those once intimately knew. Leaving for more distant shores – Canada or Australia, New Zealand or whatever’s south of Canada creates a permanent break. “You’ve left use, as is your right – best of luck to you, but you may never come back to what you left. You will never again be truly one of us”.

Having too much ambition, moving to Japan, Taiwan or Korea taints one for years. “Very well, you’ve gone and returned – but you’ve lost our confidence and must now start again at the bottom. Let this be a lesson for you”. In this way, Trier is as it always was. One may leave, but if one’s life diverges too much from what is accepted, one will never be welcomed back. One becomes a foreigner in the city of which s/he is a child.

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Categories: General
  1. February 18, 2017 at 7:48 am

    ‘A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.’ Mark 6:4

  2. February 18, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Janus: Those who leave come back changed, full of stories of strange and exotic places. In many places that isn’t always taken terribly well. People start to feel inadequate, as if they are somehow marginalised in the greater scheme of things. Perhaps the reason why responses aren’t as extreme in Trier as they are in other parts is because Trier doesn’t have a close-knit society. People have a few friends and contacts, but there isn’t the social cohesion scene in, say, Sweden.

  3. February 18, 2017 at 9:46 am

    Yes, I left my home town at 19 for university, then worked ‘away’ for the next few decades, never to return, except as visitor. I sensed that former mates were wary of my foreign escapades, especially when I married a Dane.

  4. February 18, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Janus: A few of my colleagues have told me the same. One is a Scouser who, despite having the chance to go to London, utterly refused because he didn’t want to leave his mates behind. Or, rather, risk having his mates leave him behind. When he was a child he had to spend time in London and his mates ganged up on him because he came back with a posh accent. Another is from the Midlands and has worked overseas for years. He dislikes living in Spain greatly, but he dreads the the opprobrium of his old mates and family more should he ever move back to Chesterfield.

  5. Boadicea
    February 18, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Very interesting comments, Christopher and Janus. But, I don’t think that your experiences are unique.

    I was, initially, surprised and, I own a little disappointed that, when I returned to family and friends in the UK after coming to Oz, all most people wanted to talk about was the UK. Very few seemed to be interested in hearing about Oz or what I had done, and rapidly turned the conversation back to the minutiae of British life if I talked too long (like 2/3 minutes!) about my life here – more amazing was that they expected me to know what they were talking about!

    Those who were interested were all people who had travelled in mind as well as body… Bearsy’s parents were such, my own parents far, far less so!

    I don’t think it’s because those who stay where they were born feel inadequate. It’s far more that those of us who leave are not the same as we were when all we knew was our home town, What we have in common decreases over time.

    I do make the effort to keep in touch with UK politics – but the number of people in the UK that I keep in touch with has declined over the years.

  6. February 18, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Boadicea: As time goes by, places change and so do we. We think we’re the same people we’ve always been because we’re stuck with ourselves. For others, it is less so as you say. It becomes hard to keep track of inside jokes and understand the minutiae of conversations. Remember when Dougie was pissed and stumbled over the constable’s daughter last year? Councillor Such-and-Such was a real disappointment, we thought he’d do a better job of it than Councillor This-and-That. Who? Oh, right… Memories of a person remain stagnant, when new experiences start contradicting expectations…

    My mother’s parents have never really forgiven her for leaving. For months after she took on that blasted new citizenship they struggled to speak to her. To this day my grandmother still has the occasional go at her and tries to push her to return. When she is here, she’s treated with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. She’s constantly badgered about whatever is happening in Canada’s barbarous neighbour, her status as an outsider-by-choice highlighted, but then lectured about having left. Her siblings aren’t as bad, but…

    Perhaps it’s best to say that, once we’re established in a place we find tolerable, it’s best to stay. Even as strangers we can carve out a niche and build something that passes for a life. There isn’t this excessive gnawing at the back of the mind that we no longer quite fit — that what was once a comfortable life and accepted reality fits like shoes we’ve outgrown.

  7. February 19, 2017 at 6:59 am

    Travel broadens the mind, as the saying goes, but it will only broaden the mind of the traveller.

  8. February 19, 2017 at 7:35 am

    Funnily enough James, I’m not the only traveller to disagree with the old saying. In some ways the human imagination is much broader than the reality. Seeing the world imposes boundaries.

  9. February 19, 2017 at 9:38 am

    I think you’re both right. Sometimes travelling forces people out of their comfort zones and gives them reason to be more open. At other times, the oft-disappointing realities of the world make one regret leaving one’s garden. Sometimes it is much nicer to read about places and look at pictures in books.

  10. February 19, 2017 at 9:41 am

    I suppose travelogues show only the most impressive and romantic sides of venues. Trust me, the reality of India is very different!

  11. February 19, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Janus: Travel writers are put under pressure to avoid offending anyone. As a result, one hears hideously lop-sided accounts that leave out the grit. The grit and dark sides make a place far more interesting, but it’s far less romantic.

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