It’s 3:45am in Berlin but rather than cutting shapes in Panorama Bar I’m locked in a barely-civilised debate with a self-righteous German girl who is doing her best to eject me and my two friends from a houseparty. Our crime? We are wearing the German national flag on our cheeks, having just watched Germany beat Portugal in the capital’s vast Euro 2012 football fan zone by the Brandenburg Gate. We’ve been out toasting their 1-0 victory all night, first at one of the city’s signature beach clubs on the river Spree, and now here… but little Miss Party Pooper has burst into the kitchen and is determined to spoil the celebrations.
“This is an anti-nationalist houseparty,” she declares stridently. “You can either wipe your faces clean, or you have to leave.”
Such is her zeal for political correctness, that the – wastefully pretty – brunette is happy to overlook the fact that 1) we are in fact invited guests at the party 2) it’s not her flat from which to eject us and 3) she is by far the biggest Nazi in the room.
In the end however, we relent and leave the party, but funnily enough the next day, along with the needling pains in my temples, the debate about nationalism stayed in my head. One, far more amiable, hippy had urged us to wipe off our face paint with a salient point about the need to break down, not reinforce, borders between countries; whilst examples of nationalism as a driving force behind the worst depravities in history hardly need to be cited. Isn’t positive discrimination simply negative discrimination dressed up, I argued with myself?
However whatever the practical implications of creating an equal uni-nation without borders, completely devoid of creed, colour and citizenship – as I imagine our Berlin friends were aiming for – can you even begin to imagine how boring it would be? The same faces, the same ideologies, the same culture spread indiscriminately across the world. If that did ever happen, then only nature buffs and geography students would get excited about travelling. As it is there’s a strong argument for saying that globalisation is killing individual cultures as nations clone one another’s ideas and lifestyles, and major companies set up the same shops and businesses in every market available to them. As one of my friends once put it, “the world and humanity are becoming one big grey sludge.” A tad dramatic perhaps, but I did ponder, and not for the first time, that as countries blend into one aren’t we in danger of losing the diversity and colour that individual nations give to the world? Perhaps, rather than banning nationalism, arguably the blight of the 20th Century, we should be harnessing it in the 21st? Maybe some passionate nationalists are exactly what every country needs now and in the future to keep their unique art forms, traditions and languages alive…
A more immediate consideration that our utopia-dreaming Berliners also seemed to have overlooked is that without nations we wouldn’t be able to hold amazing international football tournaments! Perhaps we should have invited some of the house party guests with us as we ‘sped’ from Berlin the following morning in our 20-years-plus caravan towards Poland – co-host of the Euro 2012 football tournament? Here they could have witnessed both patriotic flag-bearing and intermingling of nations at its harmonious best (isn’t it amazing how the humble football fan is often far more tolerant than the highly educated, but self-righteous, hipster?). We arrived in Gdansk just in time to see Spain vs. Italy as the sun set over the city’s fan zone, whilst the game itself was played out in the spanking new PGE Arena Stadium. The atmosphere was buzzing: the Polish were either wearing either their own red and white colours, or had become honorary Spaniards and Italians for the day, considerable swelling the number of bona fide Spanish and Italians who didn’t have tickets but joined us in the fans’ arena. Not only were both sets of visitors impeccably behaved (provided singing loudly/badly, hitting on waitresses and peeing in the odd public place aren’t crimes… and during a football competition they really shouldn’t be), but the Poles themselves made for impeccable hosts. When taxi drivers start rounding down fares, you know the country is on its best behaviour!
With Poland’s premier beach resort, Sopot, sitting right next to Gdansk, we spent two more nights in the so-called Trojmiasto before heading down to Warsaw for Russia vs. Poland – a night where the vodka flowed only slightly less torrentially than the downpour that broke up the party at around 3am. After a cold shower out of the back of the caravan, in a puddle-strewn Varsovian car park, the following morning, we were on the road again, this time heading South East to Ukraine, the tournament’s other co-host. Despite the bleak, and shivery, start to the day things improved in the afternoon as the sun blew away the clouds somewhere around Lublin and the wild hinterlands of Poland’s Eastern front disappeared steadily under our trusty caravan’s wheels. With a bit of luck, we said to ourselves, we’d be in the Lviv fan zone, drinking with the Ukrainian football fans, by the time Portugal and Denmark kick off.
In fact we seemed to get more than a bit of luck when, arriving at the border, we were asked if we coming for the Euros. My friend’s German flag in the window must have given us away as footie fans and we were waved right past a rather long line to our right, straight to the border itself. That’s where the good vibes ended. Unfortunately my co-roadtripper and captain of the caravan, being a modern traveller (and clearly ill-informed with the still Communist practices used by all minor authorities in Ukraine), had elected to make the journey with just his German ID card rather than passport. This amateurish lack of protocol was of course music to a border guard’s ears. Cue a charade of “I have to consult with my colleague”, alleged phone calls to Kiev and “there’s nothing we can do” style utterances, all conducted at a Soviet pace. Despite nonsensical conclusions that we could pass only if we had tickets to a game (so therefore a passport isn’t a legal necessity!?) it turns out that reasoning with a Ukrainian border guard is a bit like trying to paddle up the Dnieper with a fly swat. A German border guard, who happened to spot our number plate, confided in us that a football fan would have let us through, but unfortunately we got the butch blonde spinster. My Polish friends, who had made the crossing on previous occasions), offered a more pragmatic solution for future occasions. We should have bribed her, they said.
As we waited a further 40 mins to re-enter Poland (on top of the 2 hours we had been left dangling precisely 20 metres inside the Ukraine) I couldn’t help thinking that those damn Berlin hippies were right after all. It’s high time we break down these borders!
Euro 2012 road-trippin’ aside, there’s been quite a lot going on with Urban Travel Blog since I last posted an editorial update! We’ve published guides to Berlin, Vienna and San Francisco… three fantastic cities you really ought to read about! And we’ve also launched a new post category called ‘In The Zone‘, designed to focus on the hippest districts of our favourite destinations. Check out Richard Tulloch‘s take on Little India in Singapore for what you can expect from future articles! Plus we’re also published great photo stories of the neon lights of Nashville’s Honky Tonk Row and the beautiful settings of Thailand’s Ko Panyi floating village, whilst Chris Osburn recently treated us to a tapas tour of Spain’s San Sebastian. Something to get the mouth watering.
The astute reader may also have noticed that in recent weeks we have started publishing quite a few guest posts from partners/friends in the travel industry. Whilst these often have a commercial message (we’ll always give disclosure when we introduce the article!) there’s some good reading there too. The Flamenco Express looks like a road trip worth going on (although I personally need a break from sharing a caravan with sweaty guys), whilst Retro London could be an antidote to the Olympics if it all gets to much in the UK this July.
Happy reading and stay tuned for more great travel stories and guides over summer!