December thirty-first 2015. A small company of young four Europeans prepares itself for New Year’s Eve in Paris. There are snacks and drinks and the conversation which follows soon touches upon politics and our future. What future?
Bulgarian, Dutch, French-Algerian or Russian – none of us hold much confidence in what tomorrow brings us. We don’t have any prospects or certainty. We all wonder when the world will start falling apart. Will it be in the year which is about to start or the following? How will it happen? Another economic crisis or a political one in Europe? We don’t know. All we know is that we – despite our education and ambitions – will be powerless when the moment arrives.
It doesn’t take long before the discussion develops into a competition of who find itself in the worst position. The French-Algerian fears his compatriots, the Russian is afraid of her visa expiring and of her motherland, the Bulgarian fears that same country. Without any respect for my privileged position I posit that, except for the French-Algerian, I won’t be in a better position when the shit hits the fan. I feel as if Western Europe has had its time.
Spring. Three years earlier. I am in a train in France. “I will reach the top and nothing can stop me.” I stare into the determined eyes of a Spanish girl. She speaks in a perfect British accent. We are in the middle of a heated discussion. I retort immediately: “I believe you can and that you have the willpower, but there are thousands like us who are just as competent and just as willing. Only a handful of us will make it and those who fail have little to blame themselves for.” The Spanish youth unemployment rate hovered around 55% that month.
Several weeks before New Year’s Day 2015. I am speaking with a Viennese friend from my generation. She tells me something which worries me: “I feel as if a war is coming in Europe.” Though I can’t reach for any fact to substantiate what she is saying I am not able to disagree with her. When? We don’t know. Where? We also don’t know (we suspect Eastern Europe). Will it happen. We can’t say no without lying to ourselves.
Two weeks ago. I am sitting in a restaurant with the same friend and her best friend. We speak about jobs. How we struggle to gain (unpaid) experience. How we have to lie to get a job. How desperately we cling to the work we get. Her friend cites from a newspaper: “We are the first generation since the war which will be worse off than that of our parents. We are the first peace time generation to have had it worse than our parents when they had our age.”
Last Easter. My stepmother reads that same newspaper. She sighs. “How did you guys get in such a bad spot,” she tells me. She has a job below her own level, but it offers some certainty. I look at my sisters. Generation K, the one to follow my own. I ask myself: “How will they fare?”
Some say we will become just the same as our parents’ generation. My fear is that they are wrong, that they enjoyed life in a historically unique period of prosperity. My fear is that the struggle of our generation is a futile one against the return to historical “normality”: inequality, insecurity and unfreedom for the great majority of the population.
January first 2016, three ‘o clock. I and my New Year’s company cross the street to the metrostation Bir-Hakeim. The Parisian streetlights shine fairy-tale-like. French soldiers bathe in the soft yellow glow as they try to regulate the multitude of pedestrians. I think back of our conversation earlier that evening. I look at my phone. The pessimism which marked the discussion contrasts sharply with the images of on social media people who are intensely enjoying their life. They party, they travel and take their chances. I am reminded of “Der Tanz auf dem Vulkan”, that phrase which sums up German culture during the Weimar republic. Germans living life to the fullest one last time before catastrophe struck.
At times I wonder whether we are now having our dance on the volcano. How its eruption will mark our lives.
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This article was originally published in Dutch on Joop.nl on April 5 2016.