The first time I remember seeing padlocks on a bridge was in Paris, on the Pont Des Arts, which straddles the Seine close by Notre Dame. When I got there I was amazed, this bridge was covered in thousands and thousands of padlocks. It didn’t take long to figure out what they were there for and since then I’ve seen bridges in Rome & in Frankfurt, in London, Athens, Naples and God knows how many other places that are also covered in padlocks.
To be honest it kind of fascinates me, these metallic mementos left by lovers. That’s maybe because I’ve no padlock on a bridge myself, though I’m in two minds about it to be honest, on one hand thinking that locking up anything doesn’t really work, things are better left open and free; on the other hand wondering what it would be like sharing a padlock with someone else, two names together on a bridge somewhere, it also has it’s appeal.
And so I tend to dawdle when I cross a bridge with padlocks, I pause to read names & dates, I peruse the most splendid padlocks, the most battered or the most rusty and all the way I wonder about the stories that each and every lock might tell, of where those lovers might be now, if they are still lovers, if relationships blossomed or bombed or brought babies.
Each padlock is a public display of affection – a love story that at the same time remains intimate, only for the two who’s names are written. Then the lock is secured to a bridge, the key thrown in the water, it symbolises two lovers together, seemingly forever.
The thing is though that we are all human and therefore each in our own ways gloriously imperfect, relationships can get messy, they can go wrong and I can’t help but wonder on how many of those bridges jilted lovers come late at night with hacksaws to remove the locks that went wrong, or of the philandering padlockeers who’ve locks on many bridges with many lovers names?
I’d heard somewhere that the padlock phenomenon started in Paris, but the truth is somewhat different. It begins just over a hundred years ago in a small town in Serbia with a boy & a girl, The Boys name was Relja, The Girls Nada. They were to coin an old fashioned term sweethearts, in the first decade of the 20th Century. The two of them were engaged and planning their wedding when events entirely beyond their control overtook them.
A bloke named Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to The Austro-Hungarian Empire was assasinated tipping Serbia, The Balkans and Europe as a whole into the First World War.
Serbia joined France & England against Germany & Austria. Relja signed up in the Serb Army to fight for his country. To begin with things went well, the Serbs whopped the massively greater forces of the Hapsburgs, but then The Germans & Bulgarians joined Austria and routed the Serbs. Rather than face defeat & potential annihilation 400,000 Serbs headed south to regroup in Greece. They did so across some of the wildest country in Europe in the depths of Winter. Half of them died on the way, frozen to death, or of starvation or disease or in combat. The remainder were evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu, 10,000 more died there of sickness.
Any war is vile by nature, to put this into perspective in World War 1 The UK lost the equivalent 2% of its population. Serbia lost nearer 20% of it’s people.
Somehow Relja survived the journey and made it to Corfu, but pinned down he was destined to spend the remainder of the war with his fellow countrymen on the Island.
Then in time so the story goes he met a Corfiot girl, fell for her & never returned home to Nada or to Serbia.
Nada did not recover from the loss of her fiancee. She died alone and far too early. There’s no record that I could find about how Relja’s life panned out. I’d like to think that at least one of them ended up happy, maybe he lived to be ninety nine and had seventeen children and there are hundreds of his descendants running around Corfu, who knows, but back in Serbia Nadas fate became a cautionary tale for other young women in her home town. For good luck couples would put a padlock with their name and that of their lovers inscribed on the bridge where Nada & Relja would meet for dates back in the day, so that they would never be parted.
Some years later a Serb poet’s story about the two of them & the padlocks was published, it spread far beyond the town and far beyond Serbia.
There’s a little plaque next to the bridge, on it a photo of a couple, maybe it is the two of them, maybe not, does it really matter?
Maybe the story is true maybe its made up, again does it really matter? Any and every love affair is just a story and it is only truly real for the two people it’s about.
A century later the story that began on a little bridge in a little town in the backwaters of the Balkans with two young people has rippled across the World. In 2015 Paris Council removed 45 tonnes of padlocks from The Pont Des Arts bridge, other bridges around the world have had to have the same treatment. In many cases the phenomenon is seen as a plague, as bad for infrastructure, as an eyesore, but then again its also a reminder, that amongst all the horrible shit out there that in so many places there are folks in love and that can’t be bad.