The strangest summer in Europe


It is the end of a continent: a finis terrae. Or its zero kilometer, if it turns its back on the sea. Low tide, the squawk of seagulls, a persistent rain that at times turns the city into a fish tank isolated from time and space. The intrepid bathers, severely guarded by the lifeguards in their red uniforms. “It’s very cold, very cold,” says Naser, a teenager who has just come out. “And salty.” He trembles, runs, and laughs with his friend Hariri over a piece of towel. Ostend’s etymology gives rise to confusion: the Eastern end. It is because, originally, the place where the city rises today was the east of an island off the Belgian coast. The island no longer exists and Ostend is not the eastern end. If anything, the western one. Beyond the sandy beach, the waves and, even more, Great Britain. “It was summer, there was little work in journalism – the month of July is usually the quietest in Europe in the year -, in view of which I decided to go spend eight days in Ostend ”, writes Josep Pla in one of the stories in La vida amarga. From the Excelsior’s window, the narrator observes the beach. And he sees “all kinds of human monsters, male and female, dry and wet, young and old.” Ostend, 70,000 inhabitants, aristocratic and popular. Scoundrel and sophisticated. Literary. Demolished with its belle époque buildings by the bombings in World War II and rebuilt in the gray and functional style of the postwar economic miracle. An ideal setting for a noir that mixes smugglers and equivocal cabaret artists: the Kursaal casino, the hotel du Parc. A misty port from which the last ships to exile leave or to which the stars arrive in search of a penultimate opportunity, such as a Fassbinder’s film or a story by Patrick Modiano. Here begins this journey from the North Sea to the Black Sea – coast to coast, a photographer and an editor – across the continent in its strangest summer, after a pandemic winter and spring. More than 200,000 deaths and almost three million cases; confinement that slowed the spread of the virus; a de-escalation without conviction; and, on the horizon, an autumn and another groping winter. Palm trees, mojitos, mussels: there is something out of place – a vague feeling of displacement – at Polé Polé Beach, a tropical-style bar on the rain-soaked sand and the Ostend tide. The covid-19 is and is not. “People are friendlier now,” celebrates Benjamin Leyts, a waiter. “We have it in mind all the time: the mask, washing our hands. But, for the people who come here, it is a beach day. They forget about the problem, ”explains his colleague Aaron D’Haene. 106 years ago, a subject of the Austro-Hungarian emperor who was spending his holidays in Ostend noted a similar phenomenon as the gears of the Great War got going. “The happy vacationers would lie under the colored awnings on the beach or go to bathe, the children would fly kites and the young people would dance in front of the cafes on the dike (…). The only disturbance came from the newspaper vendor who, in order to stimulate business, shouted the threatening headlines of the Paris press: Austria provokes Russia, Germany prepares the mobilization, “the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig would write years later in his memoirs, The World Yesterday, Zweig would return to Ostend twenty-six years later, in July 1936 – everything happened in summer in Europe and in Ostend – but nothing was the same. He and a group of exiles were there: his friend the monarchist and dipsomaniac novelist Joseph Roth, the writer Irmgard Keun, the fast-paced reporter Egon Erwin Kisch, the Komintern publicist Willi Münzenberg and Arthur Koestler, eager to travel to Spain after receiving the news of the uprising against the Republic. “Friends, enemies, storytellers thrown on this beach by the humors of world politics. Storytellers in the face of collapse, ”writes the German journalist Volker Weidermann in Ostend: 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft (Ostend: 1936, summer of friendship). From the Ostend of 1914, that of Josep Pla, that of 1936, little remains. “The sea, without a doubt. Seagulls. The atmosphere, the light: it is the end of Belgium, the feeling of being on a border ”, describes the Belgian essayist Mark Schaevers, author of another book about the same group, the same year and the same place, Oostende, by zomer van 1936 (Ostend, the summer of 1936). Schaevers explains that the Flore café that Zweig refers to in his writings could well be the hôtel du Parc, one of the few surviving period establishments, where a 71-year-old man sits at a table, his head almost without hair due to chemotherapy to treat her pancreatic cancer, mocking smile. “I’m a frustrated romantic singer,” says Arno Hintjens, half seriously half joking, like almost every word he utters. He pulls up his shirt and, while pointing to a scar, says: “I had a cesarean section.” Arno, as he is known, is the most beloved of Belgian rockers, the one who brings together flamenco and Walloons as only the national soccer team and the monarchy can achieve. Arno sings in flamenco, in English, in French. Pure Ostend. Of James Ensor, the contemporary of Zweig, the painter of the monstrous masks of carnival and death, the great artist of Ostend, says: “He is my mentor. A provocateur, an anarchist. He was in black, like me. He didn’t take himself seriously … “” I’ve never worked. I make music! ”He says at another time. “I have lived an incredible life. I say thank God, if it exists. ” And he says that he learned the blues from the American soldiers of NATO and the English who brought the music from the other channel loop, he traveled to Kathmandu by hitchhiking, cooked for Marvin Gaye when the soulman retired on the Belgian coast one season, and in the United States he discovered that he really was European. A “European cowboy”, as one of his songs says. In another, Oostende, bonsoir, evokes nostalgic walks through the city: “Like every night, / we don’t say anything to each other, / we go from bar to bar, / it doesn’t mean anything. / Like every night, / I’m alone with you, / Ostend, good evening. ”Ostend, goodbye. The next day, already en route to the Black Sea, Arno quotes us to photograph him in Ghent, 60 kilometers from the end of Europe, or from its beginning. Rehearse with your band for the next concert. “Eat a lot,” he says goodbye. “Winter will be long.” In search of the European myth There is a whole mythology of the transcontinental trip, and it is not European. No, at least, in our time. The journey from coast to coast, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is associated with the literature and cinema of the United States. The vast spaces and their conquest are part of the identity of that country. “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this westward expansion with its new opportunities, its continual contact with the simplicity of primitive society supply the forces that dominate the American character,” wrote Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago in ‘The Frontier in American History’. What would it be like to go from one coast to another in the European Union? Where would it start and where would it end? What would be its myths? The purpose of this journey was to observe and document this particular moment in European life: the first summer with the coronavirus. And do it by car, by train and by boat from coast to coast, from the North Sea to the Black Sea. The route had to cross several Europe – the Rhineland and the Alpine, the Latin and the Austro-Hungarian, always in the direction of the eastern border – and look for the thread that connected them: the thread of the “European character”. Europe, in contrast to the United States, does not have a mythical border, but multiple borders that in these months have become very real. And it lacks endless horizons. Here always appears a village, a hill, a cultivated field, a service station. Here everything has been conquered a thousand times and a thousand times discovered. “Like the ruins of Troy with the layers of the nine cities or like a calcareous sedimentation”, wrote Claudio Magris in “The Danube”, “each fragment of reality, to be deciphered, demands the assistance of an archaeologist or a geologist, and it is possible that literature is nothing more than this archeology of life ”. Welcome and have a good trip.