How Europeans Live Now: Ben Judah on Capturing the Arc of Life in Our Time

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Ben Judah – author of the new book This is Europe. How We Live Now – discusses what motivated him to tell stories on a continental scale, which authors and books have inspired him the most, and what has been his approach to narrating. He also reflects on key themes have emerged from his extensive travels and reportage and on what he sees as the most consequential new aspects of how Europeans live now.

Ben Judah is a British journalist and author. He is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. and has contributed to a host of leading media. He is the author of three books.

This is Europe. How We Live Now has just been published by Picador.

Ferenc Laczó: This is Europe tells captivating stories of many kinds of Europeans. What motivated you to want to tell stories on a continental scale?

Ben Judah: That question gets right into why this book took so long to write. I initially wanted to write a book about France. I spent a lot of time in France – Paris, the South of France, and the Alps – looking for the France that interested me to tell a story about that country.

I gave up on that idea because I realized that none of the trends, none of the processes, none of the human experiences that interested were French stories. In fact, they were all European stories that were best understood on a continental scale and many among them crossed continents.

The moment that really hit me was when I found myself reporting in the Alps in March 2018. Because of how the EU asylum system works, large amounts of French-speaking African migrants wanted to leave Italy—where they had landed—to enter France. They found themselves up against the fact that they would be returned to Italy if they were caught on the trains, borders, or buses, and returned – along the lines of the Dublin Protocol – to the country where their asylum had initially been processed.

I found myself in the mountains where a lot of these men, women, and indeed children were trying to cross the Alps through the passes that Hannibal, Napoleon, and so many other monarchs in European history used. Late at night while crossing one of these passes with them, I realized that there was no way to tell this as a story about France. It wasn’t a story that began and ended at the French border.

You indeed have a fascinating chapter which focuses on one of the rescuers in these mountains between the two countries that are very difficult to pass, and how that rescuer notices the changes that are going on, how he notices that people are coming to try to cross at this very difficult and indeed hazardous location.

Were there perhaps authors or specific books that inspired you when developing the manuscript?

I’ll tell you first about the negative side of my inspiration because I had an extremely clear idea of what I didn’t want to do. Once I realized that the book was going to be about Europe, I set out and I rushed to the library, I started ordering online, and I read maybe 10-20 books about Europe. I hated about three quarters of them because they were all written in exactly the same way: almost always a man, usually from Western Europe, drives out or travels across the continent and tells us a story that’s really about history or politics, and then arranges the interviews he does with the people he meets along the way so that it all stacks up into a civilizational story.

For me, the prime example of this is Geert Mak’s In Europe, in which he travels around Europe to tell us a story about his own views on the EU and what he remembers or thinks about World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. People he meets in that journey are merely background or stage props for his political meditations. I found that unsuitable for writing in the 21st century for various reasons.

Firstly, because that genre inherently privileges and prioritizes the narrator at the expense of the people he meets. The people are inevitably turned into characters or subjects, and the narrator is always evaluating and judging what they say. That is just not how it is when you’re a journalist or a reporter: you go out, you meet people, you listen to them, you take all of their views seriously. I really don’t like the way that those other books were doing sort of the opposite of that and I really wanted to break free from that way of writing about Europe.

I didn’t want to write a didactic book either which tells people what to think about Europe.

I wanted to give people a book where they could draw their own conclusions about Europe, a book where they would have the closest possible experience of what it was like for me to travel around Europe and listen to these people.

They wouldn’t read a book where they had a completely different experience than the one I had, and being lectured by me at length from the back of my car. I really didn’t want to write a travel book from the point of view of a traveler, which really sounds to me like a dead genre – a genre of late 20th century postcolonial British, Dutch, German, and French writers who were traveling around, commenting on the world, and does so often from a position of superiority.

This is indeed one of the greatest strengths of the book: it’s the main characters of the chapters who are centered, not the narrator. Many of the twenty-three chapters in the book you have included are poignant and memorable. There are numerous fairly evident and many more subtle connections between them. Which key themes did you wish to cover?

To come to the positive side of my inspirations: I was very inspired by old books. I sat down and committed to writing this book at the start of the pandemic. I was reading The Decameron,andI loved the way that all these different people have come together to tell different stories about the same thing – chiefly what it’s been like to live at that time. The Decameron doesn’t privilege one story over the other. The whole point is we’re all here in this book, in this castle, and we’re going to listen.

Another book, or rather another world of writing that has deeply inspired me is the Talmud. For a long time, I studied with a rabbi and studied the Hebrew language, both modern and ancient. One principle of the Talmud is that you have to look at something from multiple points of view before drawing a conclusion. The Talmud is full of one rabbi arguing, another replying. One rabbi tells a story, another responds.

I wanted to write a book which brought some of the things that I found so interesting about the way medieval and ancient texts were written – their polyphony, that sense of different voices. That’s how I came to the conclusion that there would not be a narrator.

I’d actually written an early version of this book with a narrator, and I hated it. It was boring, I found it arrogant, and I wasn’t sure why anyone should listen to me. I felt that none of my reflections were particularly interesting about taking trains, or arriving in Berlin, or touching down on a cheap flight in Istanbul in a world where we constantly see how other people, who are like us, travel and live through Instagram and the internet, and we live in an age of mass travel. I just felt it was irrelevant to write about that. So, I killed my own narrator.

As I decided I was going to write a book about Europe, the thing that I started to notice while crisscrossing the continent—from Finland to Portugal, from Istanbul to County Cork—was that the very fabric of our lives, the way we live now, is different. It’s changing. It’s not the same as it has been in some cases for a long, long time. I started thinking very hard. How do we experience life? The way we experience life is the arc of life. The key thing is, are you a child? Are you a teenager? Are you growing up? Are you a parent? Are you looking after the elderly? Are you mourning the loss of parents, or are you facing death?

I had this idea that I was going to arrange all stories on the arc of life. That I was going to try and see Europe through every single stage of the life cycle.

That’s where the ideas came together and that’s a reaction to a lot of the ways in which we’re used to writing about Europe, in which a particular kind of person, either the person in what the Americans rather amusingly call diner journalism gets to be heard, or a certain kind of politician gets to be heard, which really privileges a certain kind of age or voice or gender. I thought that was so limiting and just missing the real story.

I wanted to do a book on a continental scale that was, as closely as possible, to be told through the voices of the people that were being interviewed in a way that didn’t make them subjects. That really made it as though you were experiencing what it was like to be inside their heads, or talking with them, or listening with them. The book would tell the story of that arc of life from teenagers—because you can’t really interview a child—to people facing death—because you can’t interview a dead person, though if that ever becomes possible, I’ll be the first person to try.

The book indeed covers a huge scope. You have a chapter on a rural area of eastern Portugal. You explore working in the gas fields in the far north of Russia. You have a chapter which takes place largely in a castle and in a hospital in Ireland. You also go to the front in eastern Ukraine. There’s really a huge diversity of stories and you cover the arc of life through that. What kind of balances were you trying to strike whether in terms of geography, generations, gender, ethnicity, or class?

Once I decided to do that, I sat down and tried to work out the answer to the question you just asked. It was very important to me that the book have as close as possible to a 50-50 gender balance, that the book also had stories that weren’t just from a straight point of view, and that the stories really reflected the class breakdown of Europe, the different ways that Europeans work today.

It was really important that we had stories from all over Europe, not just within the European Union, not just within the Europe of democracies, but really the greater Europe.

And that, if not every country, at least every broad, recognizable region would be present. Very quickly, the book started to fill up.

I found myself looking to answer my own puzzles. For example, I spent months looking for a woman in the last phase of life that was middle or upper-middle class in Scandinavia. That’s how a lot of the process was, trying to fit it all together. I chose to foreground people’s experiences of a few trends because, like I said, I was trying to write a book that’s different from a lot of the books that have been written before.

I find that Europe is almost always written about as memory – there are very boring books about sailing down the Danube with the soul of Franz Ferdinand floating above you. I really didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to write a book about Europe as a legal or political system because there are very, very good books about that, and they’re just not going to be written by me. And I didn’t want to write a book about Europe that was a civilizational quest. Those old books, they’re really about the Europe of the mind, and the Europe of the mind is a fascinating and very beautiful place, but it’s also quite a calcified concept.

It’s this vision of Europe as summer holidays, stained-glass windows, and coffee, which is increasingly disconnected from the way we live now, the Europe we actually live in—and I wanted to write about the latter.

I foregrounded a couple of trends, and that meant foregrounding a couple kinds of people. One is immigration, because we’re living through a transformation of not only all of the cities—both great and small, from Moscow to Lisbon—through immigration from the rest of the world, we’re also seeing the countryside get transformed by immigration, because that’s where immigration plays such an important role in low wage labor and in agriculture. There are lots of stories from the points of view of new Europeans, people who’ve just arrived.

I really wanted to capture what I felt so acutely through my interviews, which is the change in Europe as an environment. Everywhere I went and spoke to people, the sense of alarm about our changing climate was far more acute than one would get the impression from the news we receive through the internet, or our phones, or if you’ve still got a paper or print subscription, or from watching TV. Lots of these stories talk about that sense of the climate changing.

There’s immigration, there’s climate, and then there’s technology: something that I really feel is that in the way we live now—the very nature of chance, and how our relationships work, how we meet people, how we fall in love—has been transformed by the presence of technology in our lives. I wanted to capture what it’s like to live through technology, as people try and find their way with it.

And then there’s work: a lot of these stories are about people’s work. There’s a lot of detail about what it’s like to be a truck driver, to be a gas worker, what it’s like to complete these tasks, because not only is the nature of work truly transforming. What lies behind that—the relationship of work to the internet, to these incredibly complicated supply chains—has really changed the way we live now.

Finally, there’s war and conflict.

Immigration, climate change, technology, supply chains, and war: those are the big trends that are creating a new Europe and that are foregrounded in the book from the perspectives of people living those trends.

Many of the chapters are quite dramatic; many are quite tragic as well; many of them are really surprising. Would you perhaps say that what you’re telling are “extraordinary stories of rather ordinary individuals”? How did you decide to include a particular story? After all, you had hundreds of millions of cases to choose from.

I guess the most important thing to say is that on some level, these people selected themselves, because they’re all like me in that they’re all storytellers. They all wanted to tell their story.

They all believed that their story said something about Europe, and had taught them something about Europe, or captured something about Europe.

Everybody in this book wants you to listen to them, and not everybody on the whole continent wants that, or feels they have that type of personality.

The second thing that’s key here is that I interviewed a lot more people than are in the book and the stories that I chose to include were the ones that I think were truer to that intention. They really captured not only a sense of Europe and how it’s changing, but a sense of how the fabric of our lives is changing just as they reflected Europe’s gender, class, sexual, and regional diversity, segmentation, and distribution.

This book is based on a rather special kind of reporting. At times, I really wondered how you have managed to get to know so much about all these people’s lives and even about their thought processes in some of the most dramatic moments of their lives. Were there perhaps special challenges you had to face when you were covering all these stories from across the continent?

When I was a teenager, I used to draw and paint quite a lot and I thought very seriously about going to art school. In the end, the appeal of writing and the humanities was too strong, but I have always considered painters and in particular portrait painting to be the highest of the arts. There’s a very particular quality to a portrait and it is the art that I’m the most fascinated by and that moves me the most.

The approach I took with all these people is that of a painter and a sitter. When a journalist comes, he or she takes a few quotes, or takes a whole interview, and goes away and produces an article. He’s not concerned, or she’s not concerned, about what the sitter thinks of that result.

The nature of painting a portrait is you’ve sat down in front of somebody, and the result has to be that it is undeniably that person. Even if they don’t like it, even if they’re shocked by what they see, it’s got to be undeniable that it is them.

I think that’s a set of really interesting constraints that produces really interesting art.

For me, an example of a truly great portrait is the one that Francisco Goya did of the Duke of Wellington when he arrived in Madrid in 1812. Here you have the Iron Duke, the conqueror of Europe, on his way to Waterloo and to glory in the British Empire, and Goya has the chance to paint him. A real magnificent painter operates within those constraints and creates an even more powerful truth out of them. You see that in that painting of the Duke of Wellington: Goya somehow manages to capture in the red ruddy cheeks and in the nervous eyes that even though he’s in dress uniform and it’s obviously him—it’s undeniably him, every single aspect of his face is right—Goya brings out that he’s actually still this nervous boy from Dublin whose not quite sure if this is really him now or if it’s really happened to him.

That was my inspiration: to operate like a painter with a sitter. That leads to a particular kind of intimacy.

It means listening to people for a lot longer than you would normally do – and being with them for a lot longer than you normally would. One thing that for me was very important is that in a portrait, or in the kind of writing that I’ve done here, what we’re trying to capture is that intimacy of seeing the world through somebody’s eyes and being inside somebody’s head.

For that to qualify as journalism, you got to show them what you’re doing, and you have to keep asking them “is that how you felt at that moment? Is that right? Is that accurate?” Once I’d finished the portraits, all of them read it. They read the draft and they told me, “Well, actually that’s a mistake” or “I didn’t actually feel that at that time.” All of them had a chance to read their portrait. It was a bit like the job of a formal New Yorker fact checker where somebody calls you up and asks you about all these different facts, but just done by me who has also painted the portrait.

Then I asked them, “do you have any photos?” The book is illustrated with a lot of photos. Half of those were taken by me, and a few were gifted from other journalists that were there at the time or had things that I couldn’t reach, and then half are photos that they took themselves. For example, in the story of Ionut, the truck driver who crisscrosses Europe, he took all those photos himself of his life. That’s his attempt to make his own portrait. So, you’ve got my portrait and you’ve got his portrait. I feel that especially with those photos, a professional photographer couldn’t have captured those things, and I think there is a fascinating dynamic between the art that they’ve made and the portrait that I’ve made of them.

That’s also one of the new aspects of life in Europe and across the world: we have all become visual documentarians of our own lives. The number of images that we produce is just infinitely larger than even 10-20 years ago. That’s very nicely captured also through all these pictures that are included in this book.

One thing you mentioned earlier is that you didn’t interview the dead, even though if there was a chance, you probably would have. That leads me to a question about how you close these chapters. Could say more about where you decided to end them and perhaps were there developments in these life stories since that one could potentially add if one was to revise the version that you have published?

The last chapter of the book takes place in Ireland, and it’s the story of Sheila. When I got to know Sheila, I was operating under those constraints, and I needed to find a woman facing death in Ireland.

I found her and I spent all this time with her to write her portrait after she’d received her diagnosis of terminal cancer and was in palliative care. She was living in a castle in County Cork. I spent time with her in the most beautiful gardens you’ve ever seen – the colors and the flowers, the blues and the reds, and the sound of the birds.

She was telling me, “When’s your book going to be out?” I told her it was coming out now and the first PDF copies will be available by then. And she went, “Well, I won’t be there to read it.” Cancer is deceptive because looking at her, I wouldn’t have believed it – she just looked a bit older than one would expect, and a bit out of breath. She did pass before the book came out.

For me, that was a real solemn duty I had from her. To capture her life and capture her story, also for her child and for all the people she knew and loved in that final phase. So, in answer to your question, the book really did end somewhere. It did end in that case for someone.

I feel very honored that she trusted me and worked with me for that portrait in what were the final months of her life.

It is tragic to hear that one of the main protagonists, the person who’s at the center of the last chapter of your book is no longer with us.

I also wished to return to something we’ve been discussing slightly earlier. You mentioned that technological changes, migration, climate, the changing nature of work are all prominent themes in the book, and that your aim is to show how they are reshaping the societies we live in today. As a final question, may I ask what strikes you the most about these consequential new aspects?

Most people are used to reading me—unfortunately, they’re mostly used to reading my tweets—as a political writer. A lot of people have told me they’re incredibly surprised to open this book. There’s no narrator, there’s no me, there’s no voice from me, and there’s no argument, there’s no analysis. They’ve said to me, “How the hell has this happened? You’re always writing these policy papers or foreign affairs analysis pieces. What is this?”

My answer to that is to ask what our political philosophies are.

At their root, political philosophies, like liberalism or socialism, are moral questions about how we should live. Is this how you want to live? I see my book as an invitation for readers to answer that question for themselves.

I’ve tried to document how we live now, but how we live now is also a question.

One of the stories that really moved me was the story of Aboud. A refugee from Syria comes to Berlin and his wife is dealing with very serious trauma and depression; she can’t work and she’s at home. He spends his days delivering packages for Amazon, dealing with his own trauma, and living in what he feels is a sort of soft digital authoritarianism, where he has very little freedom—because the moment he drives in the wrong lane, the app starts bleeping at him and starts telling him what to do.

I really want readers to ask themselves that moral question, which is the question of politics: is this the way we want to live now, do we want people to live like that? Do we want to live in a society where we don’t know who these people are, and how they live when they knock on our doors and deliver our packages, and we close the door and get back quickly to what we’re doing?

Somebody asked me what I thought was an interesting question: what would I want a policy wonk to take away from this book? At first, I couldn’t answer the question but then I thought more about it. I think that’s the whole problem with Europe today: the idea that there’s only policy. “What do you think about climate change, or exploitative jobs, or the way the internet is transforming—and in some cases disfiguring—our lives? Well, I’ve got a policy for you.”

What the book is trying to say is that there’s a moral question behind all those policies.

Policy wonks should remember that and think that what we need is politics, not policy. Because politics is really where you can begin to answer the moral question: is this the way we want to live now?

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Lucie Hunter and Hannah Vos

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