Covid lockdowns have left us needing to find connections more than ever, and Europe Talks offers a unique chance to converse with someone from a different European country.
Run with Zeit Online in Germany, the project puts you together on a video call with someone from any one of 30 nations.
To join, all you need to do is answer a few brief questions and our Europe Talks algorithm will do the rest. You’ll be matched with someone who thinks differently about the world as well as being from another European country. You then arrange your own meet-up by video call – and if you want to, you can tell us how you got on.
Last year, as the UK reached the end of the EU transition period, we reached out to our nearest neighbours to pair 20,000 people across Europe, including 4,000 from the UK.
This year, the number of media partners taking part in the project has doubled to 30.
To join, see mirror.co.uk/europetalks
To kickstart Europe Talks 2021, we tracked down two of the people who made the most powerful contribution to ET2020 – frontline doctors Roberto Cosentini, an ICU director from Lombardy, Italy, and London junior doctor Shaan Sahota.
When they met over Zoom a year ago, they bonded instantly over their traumatic experiences of treating ICU Covid patients.
“It was such a privilege,” says Shaan, 32.
“To hear this man that I have no connection with but who has this parallel experience, to hear what got it him through and how hard he’d found it, was very powerful.”
Speaking between shifts at the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, in Bergamo, northern Italy, Roberto, 62, explained how Europe Talks had helped him.
He said: “Sharing experience is something that belongs to our job and makes us feel useful not only for patients but also for our colleagues, it’s fundamental.
“Even though we knew almost nothing about the disease, we treated patients.
“People felt they were being cared for.”
A year on, and things are still busy but less fraught for both medics. After caring for Covid patients through the UK’s second and third waves of the pandemic, Shaan, of Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow, North West London, is about to start studying for a tropical medicine diploma, allowing her to work as an international volunteer.
She wrote a play that drew on her experience of looking after Covid patients, Under the Mask, which was performed earlier this year in London. She remembers finding Roberto’s words inspirational.
Shaan said: “It was important for me to hear how overwhelming it was for someone of that level of expertise in the emergency department. How he felt having this sense of responsibility, ‘We have to teach the world what we’re learning’ but also just his recounting on a personal level of what they did to keep morale up.
“I had not heard that, the idea they thanked each other, that was really moving.”
Over in Bergamo, things are quieter, with a couple rather than hundreds of admissions a day. Still, Roberto thinks Italy is entering a fourth wave of the pandemic.
Like Shaan, he managed to take a break over summer and spend time with the family he had been separated from. And both medics say they are finally feeling more optimistic about the future of public health.
Speaking from Bangkok where she is visiting her actor partner, Shaan says: “I went back in for the terrible wave we had in January. That was quite intense.
“We had more treatment, it was all geared up faster, it was less upsetting and confusing.
“But it was hard, a lot of people died, and everyone was running on empty.
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“The vaccine has really transformed things. Even though numbers were going up in June and July, it wasn’t translating into as many people being really sick. It feels like the world is coming back.” Getting ready to head back to the ward, Roberto adds: “I think it will fade away, at least in Italy, where we’re going to vaccinate even more people.
“Unless there will be some new, strong and virulent strain that will become resistant to vaccination, Covid will fade away within one year.”
We also checked in on our two youngest participants from last year – British schoolgirl Rachael Chun, 13, and Spanish counterpart Sara Martinez Quevedo, 11.
They discovered a shared love of books and frustration at being trapped in their tower-block homes in lockdown. Rachael, from Birmingham, says: “Things are better now – it’s much more like before. We went camping to Somerset in the summer.
“Meeting Sara was a really good experience. We live in different places but a lot of the things that were happening to me were happening to her too. I’m glad she’s doing OK.”
For Sara, who lives in Madrid, the last year has been about returning to “normal”. After some localised lockdowns at Christmas, she’s been able to play outside with friends.
During the summer Spaniards were able to travel again so she enjoyed time away with her family in France and Portugal, and other parts of Spain. Now she is booked in to be vaccinated in January and smiles as she looks back on her chat with Rachael.
Sara said: “We shared experiences and I really liked knowing how things were going somewhere else, in England. I liked meeting her and talking. It was very nice just to meet new people, especially someone in a different country. We had a lot of things in common.”
Last year our furthest match was a postman from Portugal’s Azores islands and a young Greek woman.
The greatest differences between the answers given were between Bulgaria and Switzerland, while the smallest were between Belgium and Portugal.
Reaching out to a European stranger might sound daunting but the overwhelming feedback from participants was that people who signed up for Europe Talks had their courage rewarded many times over.
This year, we hope Europe Talks brings many more connections, with the next meetings planned for December 12.
We have left the EU but there are new relationships to explore with our neighbours.