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Crossing borders: How we drove across Europe by van during the pandemic

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One of the most beautiful things about Europe is its lack of hard borders. They’re even more porous when you travel by car, and the only sign that you’re in another country is the differing road quality and a sudden change of language. 

My partner and I leave Stockholm on a Thursday afternoon full of sweat and stress to find a place for everything we need for a month in 3.68 square metres of van. I’ve filled the glove-compartment with masks, hand sanitiser and all our travel documents: a passport each, identity cards just in case, and a passport for the dog too. There’s a cupboard full of Oatly, something that’s not so common in southern Europe. 

We set off with two big fears: 1) that the car, a 2004 Volkswagen Transporter, will break down, and 2) that we’ll be denied entry to a country because of pandemic restrictions. This makes every border crossing a victory deserving of a whoop, a high five, and little dance of joy. 

We’ve been preparing for this for over a year. He wants to surf proper Atlantic waves, and I’m just happy to see parts of southern Europe that aren’t the cities.

During the pandemic my partner spent all his free time (and a considerable chunk of his work-time, but don’t tell anyone) almost single-handedly converting a greasy hunk of metal into something capable of housing two adults and a dog for a month. 

After over a year of sawing, sanding, moaning, gluing, and crying, she was ready. 

Neither of us had left the country in over a year. The last trip we took across borders was to pick up my belongings in Copenhagen before I moved to Sweden officially in June 2020. 

On the way back from that trip, laden with plants and a bicycle and more boxes of books than I thought possible, we broke down in a nowhere-place in Småland (called Markaryd, but we don’t utter the name without touching wood superstitiously). The repairs took a week and cost over 16,000 kronor.

The van (we call her Berryl because she’s Berry-red) had broken down a couple of other times since, but with the right engine oil and a lot of YouTube tutorials and prayers, she seemed to be trundling down the E4 with the speed and grace of German engineering. 

Sweden is a long, long country. I tire quicker than I thought I would, considering I’m not the one driving. The dog takes up more space than he should in such a tiny front carriage; he splays out of the middle seat, spilling onto the handbrake and my lap. We’re going faster than the little blue triangle on the GPS can keep up with, but we still won’t get to the bottom of the country much before 2am. 

When we reach Denmark, we’re met with one of the hardest borders in Europe. The toll to cross the bridge (yep, that bridge) is high (€64 high) and before we make it onto Sjælland we encounter the Danish border police. They want our passports: my partner’s is Australian with a Swedish permanent residency card, I’m a Finnish citizen and former Danish resident, the dog is Swedish. This should all be fine. But they want a negative PCR test. 

We’ve both had our first shot of the Pfizer vaccine and have that on an EU Digital Covid certificate, but we’ve forgotten to get ourselves a negative PCR test. We know one shot isn’t enough to guarantee that we’ll be Covid-safe, but we figured that staying in a van is pretty much as low a risk as you can pose to anyone else during a pandemic.

2020 vs. 2021. Not pictured: a year of hard labour, two breakdowns, and countless trips to hardware stores. Photos: Michael Parker and Chiara Milford

This time, the border agent ushers us through. But we immediately head for a hyper-efficient walk-in testing centre in Taastrup. Eight to 18 hours later we find out that we’re negative.

By that time we’ve crossed into Germany, who don’t care as much about who drives into the country. There were queues of cars coming into Denmark, but none leaving. And just like that, beer becomes affordable again. 

Whenever I travel around western Europe, which has almost always been by train until now, I think about how this journey would have been impossible 80 years ago. How these seemingly arbitrary borders were fought for and negotiated with blood. And now we just drive past little starry signs that say The Netherlands and Belgium and France, with not a border agent or customs desk in sight. 

We drive in and out of torrential rain, which at one point starts leaking through the passenger door onto my arm and the sleeping dog. It could be worse, we keep saying, stuck in seemingly endless traffic around Hamburg. 

The Netherlands and Belgium go past in a flash of cows and fries and my terrible French. The only thing strange is that it feels strange to have to wear a mask inside service stations. We wonder why this hasn’t been the norm in Sweden too – it’s such an easy thing to do. 

Brexit and the pandemic mean that there are far fewer British tourists than you’d usually expect. 

When we get to the French border, we’re the only car with an ‘S’ for Sweden on our numberplate. We’ve come far, and I’m very proud. 

The weather improves the second we cross the border into France but that’s surely just coincidence. The tolls start just as the rain stops but we don’t mind because we’ve made it. 

The author at work outside home for the next month or so. Photo: Michael Parker

We made it 2,085 kilometres away from home to a small campsite in north western France, where I’m currently writing this. It’s not our end destination, not by a long way, but it’s somewhere we didn’t think we would be this time last week. 

The aim is Galicia, the western-most point of mainland Spain.

But let’s see how far the pandemic and the van let us go.  



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Remains found in Dublin adds intrigue to search for Robert Emmet’s grave

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Skeletal remains have been found at one of the locations identified as a possible last resting place of Robert Emmet who was executed on this day in 1803.

The remains were found during an excavation at the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter in Dublin.

The disappearance of the body of Robert Emmet is one of the great mysteries of Irish history.

Emmet was tried and then hanged for instigating the ill-fated 1803 rebellion. He became a symbol of Irish martyrdom for his speech from the dock in which he concluded: “Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

After he was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803, his head was displayed to the crowd by the hangman Thomas Galvin. The remains of Emmet’s body was taken to Bully’s Acre in the grounds of what is now the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and buried there.

When some of his friends went to reintern his remains from Bully’s Acre to St Michan’s Church in Church Street, a church associated with the United Irishmen, they found there was no body there, and so began a search which endures to this day.

Robert Emmet was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803.
Robert Emmet was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803.

His great-nephew Dr Thomas Addis Emmet requested an archaeological dig at the family vault in St Peter’s Church in Aungier Street to mark the centenary of Emmet’s death in 1903, but that proved to be unsuccessful.

Speculation

St Paul’s Church is another contender in the saga of Emmet’s remains. It was the parish church of Kilmainham Gaol’s doctor and effective governor Dr Edward Trevor.

In his book In the Footsteps of Robert Emmet, JJ Reynolds speculated that Trevor removed Emmet’s body and put it in an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Paul’s Church. This was to ensure that his grave would not become a shrine for Irish nationalism.

The church, which was the venue for the consecration of the philosopher George Berkeley as Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, has been converted into the Spade Enterprise Centre, a not-for-profit social enterprise unit.

The land where the skeletal remains were found is being turned into a shared kitchen for small business enterprises in the area.

The yard at the the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter, Dublin where skeletal remains were found.
The yard at the the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter, Dublin where skeletal remains were found.

Archaeologist Franc Miles said burials in the grounds were from 1702 to the 1860s. A extant set of burial records remain, but Emmet, if he really is buried there, would have no record.

Previous exhumations were carried out when the graveyard was closed in 1860s to make way for a school on the site.

“With all the evacuations, we were left with bits and pieces of body. There weren’t many full skeletons,” he said.

Mr Miles said it all the gravemarkers and stones were removed in the 1860s “so all you are left with really are bones.”

Mr Miles said it would be difficult if not impossible to identify Emmet’s remains even if they are buried in the grounds of St Paul’s Church.

His own “educated guess” is that Emmet’s body is still buried somewhere in Bully’s Acre.

As many of his supporters have said over the last two centuries: “Do not look for him. His grave is Ireland.”

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How the cost of renting an apartment in Copenhagen compares to other cities in Denmark

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With the arguable exception of second city Aarhus, Copenhagen is significantly more expensive to rent housing than anywhere else in Denmark.

But the extra cost in the capital depends on where else in Denmark you compare with, as well as the type of housing you rent.

Private or general housing?

First, it is important to note the difference between the two main types of rental housing in Denmark: private rentals and almene boliger (literally, ‘general housing’), a form of subsidised housing.

For almene boliger, local municipalities put up 10 percent of building costs and in return have the right to decide who is allocated one in four available apartments, enabling them to provide housing to municipal residents who need it. The housing therefore plays a role in the social housing provision.

This type of housing is normally managed by a boligforening or housing association. Rent goes towards costs of running the housing and to pay off the housing association’s loans, which means property owners aren’t profiting from rents and prices are controlled.

Aside from housing assigned by the municipality, almene boliger are open for anyone. However, to get one, you must get to the top of a waiting list, which you join by signing up with associations which operate housing in the city where you live (or want to live).

In Copenhagen or Aarhus, it can take years to get to the top of these lists, while in smaller cities you might get an offer in weeks or even days.

As such, many newcomers to Denmark must turn to the private rental market if they are living in one of the main cities.

READ ALSO: Deposits, complaints and registration: Five key things to know about renting in Denmark

Private housing: Copenhagen clearly pricier 

A study conducted by housing research centre Bolius in November 2020 found the cost of a 56 square-metre apartment in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district to be 8,536 kroner per month.

The study, which was based on data from 2019 and 2020 from rental platforms boliga.dk and boligportal.dk, shows the average monthly cost of non-limited private apartments on Nørrebro, compared with 16 other locations in Denmark.

The cost takes into account the cost of a deposit (normally three months’ rent) and adds it to the average cost of renting the housing for five years (thereby assuming none of the deposit is returned to the tenant).

In comparison to the price in Nørrebro, the study found rent in Hillerød north of Copenhagen to be slightly less (8,218 kroner) for a slightly larger apartment (65 square metres).

Moving further out from Copenhagen, costs begin to drop even more.

In Kalundborg on the west coast of Zealand, you can rent a 71-square-metre flat for 5,167 kroner per month. Næstved, a commuter town between Copenhagen and the Great Belt Bridge, comes in at 6,039 kroner for an apartment at 72 square metres.

The cheaper rents are consistent further to the west, exemplified in Jutland cities Aalborg (5,544 kroner for 62 square metres), Vejle (6.696 kroner for 84 square metres) and Esbjerg (4,399 kroner for 54 square metres).

Although Aarhus is not included in the study, third-largest city Odense is. Here, there is still a significant saving on Copenhagen, with 8,488 kroner, a similar rent to that in Nørrebro, getting you an apartment over 50 percent bigger at 82 square metres.

General (almene) housing: closer, but still higher in Greater Copenhagen

Rent prices for almene or subsidised housing were most recently analysed in a 2020 report by Landsbyggefonden (National Building Foundation), a support institution for the social housing sector.

According to that report, the rent for family housing (meaning housing not reserved for students or seniors) is “on average, approximately 100-200 kroner per square metre higher [per year, ed.] east of the Great Belt Bridge than west of it”.

Of the five administrative regions, average rent for family subsidised housing is highest in Greater Copenhagen at 906 kroner per square metre for a year’s rent.

The lowest rents can be found in South Denmark, where the yearly cost is 722 kroner per square metre.

Zealand is the region that comes closest to Copenhagen on the costs for this type of regular housing. Here, tenants can expect to pay 859 kroner per square metre in a year. The equivalent costs in Central Jutland and North Jutland and 778 kroner and 747 kroner respectively.

The study also places Greater Copenhagen as the most expensive region when rents are presented as the median monthly rent for family housing.

Here, the median values are split into five categories based on apartment size, with Copenhagen coming out as the most expensive region for each category.

For example, the median monthly rents for apartments between 50-60 square metres are as follows: 5,039 kroner (Greater Copenhagen); 4,913 kroner (Zealand); 4,541 kroner (Central Jutland); 4,388 kroner (North Jutland); 4,236 kroner (South Denmark). The national average is 4,667 kroner.

Sources: Domea, Bolius, Landsbyggefonden



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Officials pushed for State to buy direct provision centres from private firms

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The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.

The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.

The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.

The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.

The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.

“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.

The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.

The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.

“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.

The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.

‘Badly needed’

Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.

“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.

“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”

The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.

Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.

New centres

A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.

Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.

“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.


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