JEF Europe Bus Tour – A Post Scriptum

What do you get when you take a dozen youths all over Europe and put them on a bus for a week? A rollercoaster of euphoria, melancholy, exhaustion and excitement.

The project

At the time of writing, the EU parliamentary elections are just around the corner. Actually the advance voting has begun today. These are set to be momentous as contemporary trends and forces are expected to uproot the political status quo with far reaching consequences. 

Enter bus tour: “Aiming to raise awareness about the upcoming European Elections2019 and encourage young people to vote, JEF Europe leads the campaign “I Choose Europe”, with a promotional bus tour as one of its highlights” reads the call for participants on website. The bus tour was executed in three parts: Frankfurt – Budapest, Budapest – Skopje and Rome – Brussels. From starting city to the finale each day of the week was spent in cities between. We were on the last leg of the trip, so our stops were in chronological order: Rome – Montpellier- Barcelona – Montpellier – Paris – Lille – Brussels. In each city we met up with the local JEF section to do a street action. In essence it is all about meeting with and engaging the locals with the purpose of ensuring they vote in the upcoming elections. Super!   

Federazione europea subito!”- calls can be heard in the vicinity of our stand as our cheerleader hypes the crowd. Still weeks later I keep hearing these haunting words in my mind. Thanks for that. Anyhow, while the mob is being riled up others give out flyers to passers by. This has led to multiple awkward and comical encounters where we simply did not find a common language with the other person. The flyers may have been in spanish, but since my spanish is limited to phrases such as “La nina bobo leche”, explaining the intricacies of the european project may have faltered on my part. Nevertheless we all did our part be that by stopping every single pedestrian to hand out the flyer or by sneaking them in old ladies shopping bags. 

If loud activists and aggressive f2f marketeers did not get the locals excited about the elections, the wide assortment of gimmicks we’ve brought with us certainly did. By far the most popular of these was a large canvas of Europe with EU countries highlighted and the participants are tasked with identifying each EU country. This activity attracted participants from all ages to share in the joys of political geography. Some may have been rewarded with an appropriately branded cloth bag or a t-shirt. Other participants wrote what EU means to them on a star- shaped sticky note and filled other, plain blue canvas with them. Naturally no street action is complete without balloons.   

Photo: Milosh Riskovski

The people

Now the people – meat and potatoes of this federalist concoction. The people are who make the experience. In this instance the cuisine was exquisite. 

First and most noticeable feature of this motley crew was our different backgrounds. We covered nearly every EU country in addition to non-EU members. JEF has national sections in 32 countries with additional four candidate sections. Meeting new and interesting people all over Europe by itself is fascinating, but having people from non-EU states gave the experience a significant boost. Naturally they have very different concerns when it comes to practical day-to-day life and our conversations were superbly insightful. Though it was everyone’s unique personas what made the trip. 

The experience

The bus tour was a surreal experience for me on many levels. I arrived in Rome a day before the bus tour was set to begin. Since childhood Rome was this near fantastical place from the long past, where legendary heroes and villains walked it’s streets. My whole life I’ve dreamt of ancient roman festivals and renaissance era Italian arts. Needless to say I was not disappointed, indeed I was overwhelmed by the culture. Rome has monuments on every street and plaza. Temple of Mars, Trevi fountain, Vatican, Pantheon and many other wonders were simply stunning. I ran from one location to another, like an over excited dog, covering roughly 40 kilometers in 24 hours. I did have a moment to sit down for a coffee and I met the happiest woman in the world when purchasing a gelato. The pigeon incident notwithstanding, it was wonderlust through and through.   

I would be remiss if I did not mention the natural beauty I saw on the trip. Most impressive part for me was our trip starting from Montpellier going to Paris. It was foggy and overcast as we drove through mountainous green valleys and incredible French countryside dotted with fields of flowers and castles. The small town of Millau made an impression. The town is located in a valley, surrounded by mountains with a river running past it. Driving by the town you cross a gorge valley on Millau Viaduct – the tallest bridge in the world. The view was breathtaking.  

Barcelona was an interesting city and I wish we could’ve spent more time in there. Barcelona is the center for a Catalan independence movement, being the regional capital. Just weeks before I arrived at the Spanish central government has banned yellow ribbons, symbol for catalan independence, from public buildings. Yet the yellow ribbon and the catalan flag is inescapable sight in the city. Painted on roads, hung from balconies and posted on walls the symbols of independence are ever present. For me it was simultaneously both inspiring and a sad sight. In Europe – the supposed leader in freedom and human rights – in my view there should not be such a struggle for some of the basic human rights, the right for self determination. On the other hand places where you can openly defy the central government are few and far between. It’s a work in progress I suppose. 

In the end it was Paris that was the highlight of the adventure. It was special. Something happened to us and I can’t quite put my finger on it, whether it was the legend of Paris, quaint streets of Lille or simply being stuck in a bus for a week. We were taken by a state of inexplicable bliss. Running around, laughing, singing and reenacting romantic scenes in the night against bright lights of the Eiffel tower. No doubt we were regarded as complete loons by the passers by. As one of my friends wrote: “I haven’t felt anything for a long time. Then Paris happened.” 

Coming from highs of Paris, the town of Lille on the Belgian border was something else. Lille is filled with charming streets and friendly people. It is an ideal small town to visit prior to the conclusion of our journey. Unlike previous day of joy in Paris, Lille gave an opportunity for reflection. For instance we met with an Brazilian politics major studying in Paris, who’s taken a day off to come to Lille after exhausting exams. She spoke of the situation in Brazil, how political opposition is killed or imprisoned. The lawless and arbitrary injustice and cruelty faces those who challenge the powers that be. How can you operate in such an environment? I don’t know. Yet she is resolved to go back to her home country to defend democracy when she’s finished with studies in France. It is these human stories that ran through my head on that night walking in the park by the river, highlighted in neon purple lights from the silent carnival across. It felt like a fever dream, as if the situation was taken straight from a movie. This feeling is impossible to transcribe in words and for this reason I better leave it at that. 

Photo: Milosh Riskovski

The last words

I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to broaden their horizons by traveling, get inspired by new experiences and make meaningful connections by meeting new people. This bus tour gave me the chance to do all of the above and I know it will do the same to you. JEF Europe tirelessly organizes similar events around the year. And do not forget the local JEF sections in your country. I encourage you to get in touch if you have not done so already. The local sections provide the basis for all activities we do.

I want to thank the organizers, participants, local JEFers and the people we met on the road for making this an unforgettable experience. As for me, the work for a better Europe continues. Until next time, cheers!

Denis Shemyakin
is a board member of JEF Helsinki, and works in digital development in Finland. Though intensely interested in history, philosophy and cultures he remains a self described political alien. JEF is the first and the only home he has found so far.