How a small Dutch city became international
The master of ceremony cheered. “You made it” he exclaimed, as I was carefully opening the doors of the papyruszaal, trying not to draw attention to my late coming to arguably the most important event of my university career thus far. Luckily, he wasn’t addressing me, rather he was praising his audience: the hundred and forty students-turned-alumna who just graduated in European Studies.
A graduation ceremony is a blissful moment. You’ve literally written tens of thousands of words on dozens and dozens of papers. You’ve spent countless sleepless nights, pushing your brains to the limits, be it at the prospect of a dreadful exam period, or while celebrating its end. You’ve despaired at times, you might have cried, but also, you’ve laughed, you’ve cheered, you’ve danced. Most importantly: you have made it! That is what a graduation ceremony is all about. It is the celebration of your three-years adventure, a conclusion to a whole chapter of your life. It is, as people say in France, “the first day of the rest of your life”, a prologue of what’s to come. This day inaugurates the foundation on which to build your future experiences.
If the graduation ceremony offers the first layout of what your life could look like, it is also a reflection of the environment that you flourished in for the past years. In my case, that was Maastricht. This small Dutch city bordering Belgium is a genuine miniature of the European Project’s end goal. Three years ago, in the very same papyruszaal, the programme coordinator stressed this distinctiveness to our crowd of excited freshmen. Maastricht was the heart of Europe. It hosted the foundation of the European Union. The first public debate among Spitzenkandidaten for the European Commission had happened a few months before, again, in the papyruszaal. But even more than that, the soul of Maastricht was profoundly European. “Walk around the city” she told us, “You will hear people speaking English, German, French and sometimes…Dutch”. This city offered an enriched community bridging cultures and stifling national entrenchment.
I had spent my entire life moving from country to country, switching from language to language, accommodating to different cultures and meeting people from different backgrounds. My parents, a Swedish businessman and Franco-Malagasy computer scientist, had met in Germany in an American company. I was born in Austria, moved to France, grew up in Switzerland, finished High School in Germany, and was, then, starting my studies in the Netherlands. I witnessed striking differences across those countries. Yet there were also remarkable similarities. However, in a Continent were sedentarism is so entrenched, this bizarre equation always seemed like a peculiarity to the people around me, if not an uneasy anomaly. And here I was, stepping through the doors of a University that prided itself in cultivating this singularity to elevate it to the norm. I kept meeting people with an incredible variety of backgrounds and aspirations, mine were pale in comparisons. Nevertheless, this diversity only strengthened this distinct identity. We were, literally, united in diversity.
One ought to appreciate the feat. Maastricht is not one of those phantom town using student arrivals as a last recourse lifeline to preserve its culture. No, Maastricht is part of a province spanning on two countries: Limburg. The locals have their own language, the Limburgish, which is, curiously, grammatically closer to Basque than Dutch. This rich Limburgish culture makes for a proud people that fiercely oppose any form of assimilation from the influential northern Hollander culture. In this city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, the Limburgers cohabit with the Dutch, who cohabit with students, themselves quivering in a vibrant melting pot, also exchanging with the migrant community. Yet, these groups do not merely tolerate themselves. In Maastricht, cultures and sub-cultures overlap, trade folkloric feats and express themselves vigorously. How many places can genuinely claim social harmony among such diversified communities?
As this special day was going on, perhaps my last in this small, yet vibrant, city, I couldn’t help it but to recollect her assertions. I was listening to a master of ceremony who occasionally jumped from English to German or French, even throwing a few Latin words in the mix. On my right-hand side, a Brussels-born Swedish lad was chatting with a fellow Irish graduate. Behind me, a Belgian friend of mine was arranging pre-drinks plans for the graduation party with his Italian ex-flatmate. And this was just my corner of the audience…As I was sitting here, witnessing this —not so long ago inconceivable — prowess of bringing Europeans togethers, I could only think that we weren’t just attending our graduation ceremony. We were celebrating an ideal. We were the heartbeat of Europe.