"there it is, you can see the boats! "
I pushed the button and held tight, training my little video camera on the unseen waterway beyond the glass. With a final clickety clack we left the outermost suburbs of one of France's easternmost cities and glided across two hundred meters of bridge linking the high speed rail network's radiating out from Paris with Germany and the continent beyond. Behind us lay two hundred miles of track, much of it covered at a speed greater than any other train in the world outside China, a technological, and staggeringly expensive, arm reaching out in friendship from the French capital to the people of Alsace, and fulfilling a commitment to provide seamless connectivity between France, Germany, Austria and Hungary. The ride was smooth, though the speed, around 200mph, was also surprisingly noticeable as the TGV Duplex tore across the French countryside. Strasbourg, the second home of the European Parliament and historically a pawn in past conflicts between France and Germany, was reached in around two hours, the train having slowed considerably after coming off the still to be completed fast line and crawled through undulating terrain to its first stop.
I must confess that borders, particularly those in Europe now rendered largely transparent by the Schengen agreement, fascinate me. At times they seem so strong, impermeable, constraining the cultures that abutt them on either side. Yet, are do they really apply societal segregation so strictly? When we boarded the train French voices were certainly in abundance, but German, English and other languages were well represented too. Writing this as we head towards Stuttgart, an hour or so after crossing the Rhine, the accents remain just as mixed. Perhaps a high speed train, pausing only every hundred miles or so, is not the best environment to ponder the meaning of boundaries and the genuine strength of the demarcation they purport to symbolize, but I can't help feeling these arbitry dotted lines, drawn by Generals and politicians mean a lot less in a modern Europe.
I wonder if it is my Britishness which still perpetuates my interest in the border. Gazing across the English Channel from Dover, Eastbourne or Brighton my thoughts have frequently turned to the watery frontier dividing our land of roast dinners, stiff upper lips, and orderly queues, from our nearest neighbours, with their foie gras, elegant sophistication and chaotic traffic. We may be neighbours but at times we seem so different, a sense exaggerated by the physicality of the sea between us.
Of course we aren't really as different as we think, and our national sniping is closer to that of bickering siblings than genuine animosity. Likewise, the wall between between us is breached easily with a boat or train.
So why was it so important for me to capture that moment where France met Germany mid stream? If the line between the two is a join rather than a divide, and if in any case the brothers and sisters of Europe are not so separate as we might think, surely it shouldn't matter on which side of it our steel wheels roll? I think it is about recognizing the history of this continent, the people who have worked for and fought over it, the cultures they have created, the stereotypes which have grown strong or been broken down, the perceptions of difference and the realities of similarity. Or, rather boringly, perhaps it was just to provide narrative in my holiday video, a noteworthy point in a significant journey.
Whatever the reason, as my Dad pointed out the river and I held the camera against the vibrating window, I hoped to capture a symbol of progression and transition in the water's of the Rhine far below.