In the forties, it was an 'endless journey' to reach England' But the low-cost company airlines of today's world let us be in another European country for 80 Euros. Two couples tell their stories about how Europe has changed in 50 years, especially in relation to communication and the freedom of movement. In 1995, the European Union's Schengen Agreement relaxed border controls and allowed travel without a passport.
English soldier and his girl from Vicenza
'Miriam, don't forget at least three slices of lemon for me!' Jimmy hasn't lost his typical British wryness; he doesn't really want lemon, as it's not customary in England to pop a lemon slice in the daily milky tea. This eighty-something Euro-couple, who are still going strong today, have not lost their sense of humour. But they certainly share enough history in their past together, when life wasn't so easy.
Miriam and Jimmy met each other in the summer of 1945. The Allies had just reached the north of Italy having been all over the peninsula. 'Jimmy was an English soldier who at the time was heading for a city called Vicenza in the province of Veneto. It's not far from Grisignano di Zocco, where I lived,' recounts Miriam. But her love story with Jimmy had to stand the test of the mentality of the people in her little sleepy town. 'I was seen as a bit of a black sheep. You have to remember that in this time, England was considered another part of the world.'
Her family finally consented to their relationship, but with one condition: the marriage had to be celebrated in Italy, according to Catholic ritual. Jimmy was Anglican, but this didn't stop him. At the least, he moved from his base in secret and travelled long distances by bike to go to catechism with Miriam's parish priest.
When they finally married, Miriam went to England alone and waited for Jimmy to finish his military service in her home country. 'Travelling by train? The journey felt endless. By the time I got to Bristol, I was knackered, I barely understood English, I felt so far from home and I certainly had my sorrowful moments,' the pensioner remembers. The economic situation was difficult in World War Two. 'I worked on the railroads and Miriam gave some hours of Italian classes. We were not well-off, but we got by,' says Jimmy.
Staying in touch with Italy however was difficult for Miriam, especially since at the beginning she didn't have access to a telephone. 'We wrote lots of letters back then. Sending birthday cards became a personal passion, which allowed me to be closer to those I loved back home,' says Miriam. And later, after retirement, she returned to Italy, 'But between us, we still speak in English.'
Love in the time of globalisation
It's difficult to imagine a more international pair than Irene and Mani. She's Italian and he is a French-born Iranian. They met in the summer of 2004, on the beach of Lignano Sabbiadoro. Mani, a Parisian who was then 22, was on holiday in Italy. The story began from there: 'We never thought that we would last this long,' Irene reflects. 'I thought I wasn't going to see Mani again, and remember him as a summer fling.' Irene and Mani stayed in touch, first through text messages and emails, then through MSN, and finally, through web telephone courtesy of Skype. 'We wrote cards too though, it was really romantic,' they say.
At Christmas Mani returned to Italy to visit Irene and from that moment, journeys between Paris and Vicenza were non-stop. 'We spent all our holidays together and we tried to see each other at least once a month,' they remember. For them, jumping on a plane is just a normal banality of life, travel and love. 'I've become an expert on low-cost flights,' says Mani, an engineering student. 'Travelling through Europe is easy and cheap. We never spend more than 80 Euros return to see each other and keep up our relationship.'
And if travelling poses no problems, living in the same city is even more satisfying. Irene has just finished a semester at the Modern Literatures department at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, near Paris: 'After this stay here, I am more and more certain that we are going to get stronger and stronger.' And the cultural differences? For Mani it's been about confrontations and growing: 'If not, we'd just get bored!' Irene too says that for her cultural experience, she feels much more open to accept what she doesn't know – starting with food! 'Before I was a bit picky. But now I discovered that snails weren't bad at all!
And what about the language barrier? 'We spoke in English at first, but then we both learnt each other's languages. Now, we speak 'Fratalian', a mix of our native languages and made-up words,' laughs Irene. 'It's our own private language, it's the language of our love story.'
To celebrate 50 years of the European Union on March 25, we are presenting a series of cross portraits in the countdown, illustrating what has changed in half a century. Cafebabel.com will publish the series in a dossier marking the historic signing of the Treaty of Rome on March 22.
Look out for the next instalment in the series, 'Football...and the others', which is onsite from March 2