Riga’s State Gymnasium No.1 is one of the most prestigious schools in the Baltics. Poets, captains of industry and prime ministers feature on its alumni list and only the most precocious of young minds are permitted to study here.
Today, a chilly March afternoon, some 70 of its final-year pupils between the age of 17 and 18 are insulated from the flint-coloured sky outside by the neoclassical interior of the school’s main hall. Boys in impossibly tight black jeans at the back snigger and administer dead arms to one another. Couples flirt in the middle, and bookish students sit keenly in the front. You wouldn’t say the atmosphere is electric: Latvia’s future finest are here at the behest of their teachers (on a school holiday, no less) to listen to what is likely to be a boring talk.
Except it isn’t. Two casually dressed men in their mid-thirties move to the empty space at the front. “Europe is in danger,” says Vincent-Immanuel Herr. “But we believe that personal connections are key to its future.”
Herr and partner Martin Speer (pictured, above) are a German political activist duo known as Herr & Speer. Since 2015 they have been running a campaign called #FreeInterrail. The idea is that 18-year-old Europeans are given a free Interrail Pass – the ticket that gives holders unlimited rail travel throughout Europe – for a two-month period.
Last year the European Commission listened to Herr and Steer and ran two pilots to gauge interest; 180,000 people applied and 30,000 free tickets were handed out. The EU has proposed €700m for the project for seven years from 2021 and if the sum is ratified, 1.5 million passes would be issued in that period.
Herr & Speer think that if young people travel more, there is a better chance of healing the divisions currently widening across Europe. After an hour of debate, a teacher calls for Herr & Speer to wrap up the session, which they do with a mass selfie, though a handful of spirited students linger in the hall to ask Herr & Speer about Brexit, Christopher Hitchens and, briefly, God.
After the talk the two Germans seem buoyed by the tone of the debate they’ve encountered. The issues that are facing Europe are complex and entrenched but Herr & Speer seem confident that their initiative will prove to be a success. For them, the future of the EU will stand or fall on our ability to empathise with one another. “In 20 years, when you ask any EU citizen what they did on their Interrail, we want everyone to have a story,” says Speer. “It should be a shared culture.”
Chirping birds, melting snow and shovels full of steaming hot asphalt. It’s spring in Toronto and, on a bright March morning, the city’s pothole fillers sit waiting at the corner of Ossington Avenue and College Street, just west of monocle’s bureau. The streetlight turns red and one worker, dressed in a hardhat and reflective vest, darts into the road, calmly raking smooth the recently poured asphalt. Before the light turns green he’s already scooted off to another of the endless craters dotting the city’s streets.
Every year since 2015, Toronto has filled about 225,000 potholes, which form when water seeps into cracks in the road before freezing and expanding. Canada is a peaceful nation but here potholes are attacked with all the strategy of a military campaign. Cities launch crater-filling “blitzes” and repair crews patrol streets in search of offending potholes. This year Toronto earmarked about ca$5m (€3.3m) for their eradication, yet it never seems to be enough. The city received 20,000 pothole-related complaints in 2018.
Few things rankle Canadians like potholes. Vigilantes have taken to filling them themselves and news outlets report on the deepest, most dangerous craters. In February one Montréal pothole garnered CBC’s attention for spawning a roadside graveyard of hubcaps – and brisk business for a nearby mechanic.
But this is Canada, which has given the world insulin, basketball and the paint-roller (you’re welcome). The country is also investing billions in artificial intelligence and space exploration, while on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, Sidewalk Labs, Google’s sister company, is dreaming up the globe’s “neighbourhood of the future”. So let’s hope somebody can come up with a solution for the springtime tradition of bumpy roads and whiplash.