The EU on a Shoestring

By Max HolleranMay 12, 2018

The EU on a Shoestring

Backpack Ambassadors by Richard Ivan Jobs

THE STORY OF European Union integration is often a pretty dry tale. France and Germany, ravaged by war, began to search for a vehicle for economic cooperation in order to avoid future conflict. They started by swapping coal and steel in the 1950s, and that economic exchange slowly led to trade agreements, open borders, and the euro currency. It’s a story with little human agency, featuring bureaucrats at conference tables discussing regional economic development and tariff policy, firmly believing that if you set up the right economic and political conditions for a new pan-European identity, social reality would readily follow. These high priests of the De Gaulle generation not only wanted a system of European integration that would operate from the top down, but they were also suspicious of a younger generation of activists who proposed radically rethinking borders on anti-colonial principle. The EU was thus a useful compromise: it protected the welfare state while rebuffing socialism, and it made the European continent more integrated while resisting full-on globalization from non-European countries.

But what we now think of as pan-European culture was not achieved in the boardrooms of Brussels; it was the product of cultural movements that often ran afoul of European governments. As Richard Ivan Jobs shows in his new book Backpack Ambassadors, shared EU values owe as much to hitchhiking, music festivals, and the roving young activists of 1968 as they do to bureaucratic planning. Exploring how unstructured travel, beginning immediately after World War II, helped to shape a collective European culture, Jobs focuses on how tramping around Europe became a global rite of passage for young middle-class Westerners, helping sew together the continent with a network of parties, hostels, and friendships. The countercultural tour of Amsterdam coffee shops, DJs playing the electronic music of Ibiza from Kiev to Rabat, and young people “surfing” couches are all examples of transcontinental bonds that are perhaps stronger than formal EU programs. Most of the trips described in this rich oral history were aimless treks by young people in search of experience, the increased mobility of postwar Europeans creating a sense of belonging to something larger than their country of birth.

Jobs begins his engrossing book by examining the relationship between nationalism and tourism in the phenomenon of youth hostels, which originated in early 20th-century Germany, rapidly internationalizing before being shuttered by the Nazis (who appreciated young people’s hiking clubs, camping, and scouting, but sought to nurture these programs within the purely nationalistic context of the Hitler Youth). After World War II, hostels were rebooted with the clearly cosmopolitan mission of bringing together young people across the national schisms that had thrown Europe into turmoil. Often, young people traveled during the summer to volunteer in youth labor camps, drawn together through hostels and homestays to rebuild landscapes ravaged by war. These camps were hard work with minimal facilities, but participants relished being side-by-side with youth of different nationalities (despite the obvious tensions) as a rebuke to the reflexive nationalism of their parents’ generation.

These programs, however, were soon politicized by the Cold War. The 1951 Loreley Festival, on the Rhine River in West Germany, brought together young people in an amphitheater originally constructed by the Third Reich for music events in a carnivalesque atmosphere. Another successful youth festival was held in East Berlin later that year. Immediately after the war, both sides of the emerging Iron Curtain attempted to draw together Eastern and Western youth to serve their own distinct cultural projects, but soon the lack of mobility in socialist Europe made young people’s independent travel largely a Western European phenomenon.

While backpacking is often regarded as an exercise in hedonism and a gap in the progression toward work and family responsibilities, its roots lie in community service with quasi-religious undertones. Transcontinental youth travel first attracted widespread public attention in stories about the “mud angels” who rescued priceless artworks from extensive flooding in Florence in 1966. These multinational volunteers often mobilized quicker than the Italian government, pouring into the city by train and forming assembly lines to carry paintings and sculptures from mud-inundated museums to safety. Ironically, public praise for the young people saving the national patrimony came at a moment when the general public, especially in more conservative Southern Europe, were growing wary of long-haired independent travelers, starting to see their ad hoc adventures as a dangerous form of itinerancy.

Italy was in fact the country that produced the fewest international travelers, followed by other Southern European countries where family bonds were strong and disposable income was scarce. Previously, backpackers were seen as essentially middle-class youths taking a break from the “real world.” This had been the case for many years, from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trek across Europe in the 1930s before becoming a British secret agent during the war to George Orwell’s famous interlude as a self-styled “bum” in interwar Paris. Yet the new generation of travelers inspired by beatnik and hippie rebellion were more explicitly dropping out of society and telling those they met on the road that they had no intention of returning.

Starting in the 1960s, unscheduled and aimless European travel became a middle-class rite of passage that confirmed one’s economic position while also challenging the bourgeois propriety of one’s parents. While Europeans, especially those from wealthier and more multilingual countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, were keen backpackers, much of their routes across Europe were created by Americans and Australians. In some ways, outsiders were more likely to be the first to acknowledge and accept the more homogenous youth culture that travel was creating in Europe and to be less concerned with the petty national differences of years past. It was also the well-heeled Americans who embraced the tramp-like existence of summer backpacking with gusto. As Jobs observes:

Though American students were accustomed to middle-class comforts at home, they happily put up with cramped accommodations without plumbing, the vagaries of hitchhiking, warm beer, and unfamiliar food. For most, this was necessary budgeting for a prolonged journey, while for those who could afford otherwise, it was all part of the adventure, because this was how it was done and thus an essential component of the experience.

Yet this footloose freedom was often regarded by locals as unseemly. Many countries enacted minimum currency requirements and were put off when American Express office bathrooms became wash stations for the shaggy, smelly masses. In other locations, the reaction was even more hostile, with locals attempting to give hippie backpackers coerced shearings to remove their offensively long hair, as happened in Belgrade in 1968.

In general, most cities were only mildly put off by the influx of free-spirited tourists. Although backpackers may have looked like penniless wanderers, they still had deutschmarks and dollars that went far in places like Greece and were extremely important for those intrepid enough to venture into Eastern Europe, where foreign currency was essential for locals attempting to navigate shortage economies. Some cities went a step further and branded themselves as backpacker cultural attractions. In 1966, the left-wing provo movement started performative activism and mass squatting in Amsterdam, attracting the attention of like-minded young people. Rather than dissuading the resulting migration, the Dutch tourism board capitalized on it, offering a four-day package tour called “Meet the Provos!” which had a typical holiday itinerary, plus a cruise on the IJsselmeer with young provos aboard. When Amsterdam was besieged with hippies sleeping in plazas, the country, rather than prohibiting rough sleeping by adventure-seeking youth, allowed camping in the Vondelpark and created mass backpacker barracks.

1968 brought a true test of the new tolerance as young activists sought to view the events unfolding in Paris firsthand. Many were treated roughly, especially Daniel Cohn-Bendit, whose travails Jobs narrates in detail, as he was repeatedly detained and expelled from countries where the political leaders feared a contagion effect from the youth rebellion. Yet most tourists came not as dedicated rabble rousers but as spectators — whether to Paris, where some predicted a rebirth of the revolutionary spirit of 1789, or to Prague, where young people pushed back against the censorship and heavy hand of the Soviet Union (only to be crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). As The New York Times excitedly put it before the invasion: “If you are under 30, Prague seems the place to be this summer.”

Jobs’s book unfolds with the drama of a whirlwind train tour, but despite its many stops, it never loses direction, showing how backpacking countercultures helped form pan-European identity and irrevocably changed the global tourism business. Trips by wealthier Northern Europeans to the cheaper South created a dynamic that is now reproduced on a global, rather than regional, scale. As early as the 1970s, backpackers were taking overland buses as far as Kabul and creating backpacker districts in Istanbul, Marrakesh, and Kathmandu. Indeed, as the European project succeeded and economic disparities between Northern and Southern Europe shrank, Mediterranean tourism became less desirable to those who wanted to live on next to nothing. Also, as European culture became more homogenous, many young people sought out exoticism in Thailand, South America, and India.

Jobs is careful to show that backpacking is just one form of mobility that radically changed in the postwar era. At the same time as young people from wealthy countries were exploring Italy, Spain, and Greece, migrants from those places were taking the reverse trip to Germany, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, to work and sometimes resettle. This trend would also soon transcend the bounds of regional movement and become fully global. However, the question of whether or not backpackers recognized their privilege to be from countries that visit — rather than receive — guests, is unclear. Throughout his narrative, Jobs explores how travel is increasingly expected, both as a form of cultural status and as a right for all classes in developed countries: “in postwar Western Europe […] mass leisure and personal mobility were embraced as democratizing forces that empowered a broadening middle class, spurred economic development, and encouraged transnational encounters. […] Leisure mobility changed from aspiration to expectation.” As travel became more ubiquitous, however, one is left to wonder if travelers still approach their journeys with the same sense of yearning for discovery and thirst to experience new places, or if it is now merely another box on the becoming-an-adult checklist for the middle classes that also includes buying a car and going to college.

Although backpackers relish the open borders the EU has provided, that does not equate to a celebration of the EU itself. As Jobs makes clear:

Those backpacking in Europe were, of their own accord, doing some of this voluntarist democratization of the borders of Europe through their circuitous travels and interpersonal interaction, though in ways well outside the federalist European project. Their sense of community was exactly one of shared construction that denied the fundamental relationship of people to territory to property.

But in creating a thick sense of Europeanness, many of those drawn to pan-European culture — backpackers included — have let the institutional and political mechanisms that brought them open borders lapse. Political support for the EU is at a nadir. Many of those who have enjoyed backpacking across the continent, studying abroad through Erasmus, and buying tariff-free foreign products at the supermarket nonetheless voted for the Five Star Movement in Italy, UKIP in England, or the Danish People’s Party — all new euroskeptic political parties.

The cultural memory of Europe’s formidable walls and borders is fading. The area along the Maginot Line has been open for over 60 years and the Berlin Wall was gleefully sledgehammered and bulldozed nearly 30 years ago. Today, European transit hubs like Budapest’s Keleti Station often mingle young people resting on their backpacks perusing the EuroRail map with Syrian and Afghan refugees looking at the same map and hoping to find a place to reestablish their lives. As Europeans take travel for granted, by virtue of EU law and their powerful passports that open up the rest of the world to them, the continent’s outer borders are hardening, creating a massive distinction between those who adventure for pleasure with their provisions on their backs and those who flee in fright, with all their belongings in a waterproof bag.


Max Holleran is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Melbourne.

LARB Contributor

Max Holleran is lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne. His work focuses on urban development for tourism in the European Union, and he has written about architectural aesthetics, postsocialist urban planning, and European nationalism for anthropology, sociology, and history journals. His work on cities and politics has also appeared in Boston Review, Public Books, New Republic, and Slate.


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