Jun 2008

You're welcome Michael

Upon hearing the news of the “No” vote, Michael Greenwell has graciously said “Thank you Ireland“. As I think has become clear, though, I’m rather ambivalent about the whole thing. Rejecting the treaty was emphatically the right thing to do, don’t get me wrong. My ‘X’ went in the correct box. But the question of what happens next is a pretty durn perplexing one.

See, here’s my thing… I’m a European.

I don’t mean that in a mundane geographical sense. It’s something I actually feel, and quite deeply too. I’m aware that this makes me somewhat unusual, but it’s just a direct consequence of my personal experience. During my life I’ve lived throughout Europe and called three other continents home at different times, as well as working for a spell on a fifth. If Europe and Europeans have something that genuinely unites them, then I would humbly suggest that I’m probably one of the people in a position to have spotted it.

And they do.

Obviously when you move around a lot, this is something you get to thinking about. As far as my experience of Europe goes, in my life I’ve lived in Greece, Ireland, Spain, England and Germany (for a 5 month project, but it involved dealing quite closely with German businessmen, local government and workers so I got fairly immersed during my short stay). Now, just for a moment I want you to consider how different those cultures all are. London to Athens. Cork to Berlin. Madrid to Dublin. And from personal experience… they are indeed very different. But despite this, they all share something intangible that you only notice is missing when you live in Cairo or — perhaps most intriguingly — Chicago, or when your local supermarket and dry-cleaners have a Sao Paolo address.

I can’t tell you what that “something” is. It doesn’t have a name. It is whatever property is possessed by a place that prevents the onset of culture shock. It runs far deeper than mere “familiarity”. For me… call it European-ness.

Culture shock, in case you’ve never felt it, is defined as “that sudden sense of vertigo experienced when you think ‘shit! that’s different over here’ more than seven times on each of two consecutive days”. It is quickly followed by a total loss in your own confidence to complete even the most simple and apparently mundane of tasks, and becomes chronic culture shock the moment the terrified rhetorical question “is this my home now?” crosses your mind. Chronic culture shock can involve severe agoraphobia and a worrying urge to watch BBC costume dramas on video.

Don’t get me wrong though, it’s completely temporary and is usually overcome when you discover something apparently trivial but nonetheless extremely pleasing about the place that makes you think “that is utterly fantastic… why don’t we do it that way back home?” After which point it lessens and eventually becomes a vague ambient exoticness that lingers in the strange voices on the radio and the way people move their hands when they greet one another.

I mean, without a doubt, some of the very best memories of my life are of the time I spent in Egypt; probably the place I felt most alien when I first arrived, but which I eventually fell in love with. And I am deeply smitten with Brazillian culture… the music, the people, the sound of the language, the landscape, the mango… oh god, the mango… South America is just fantastic. On the other hand, North America didn’t agree with me at all, which I found quite bewildering given how much American culture we’re all exposed to (New York is one of my favourite places in the world for a short visit, but living in Texas and later spending a year in Chicago damn near drove me insane).

None of which — by the way — and I think I’ve been pretty explicit that this is merely personal experience and observation, is meant to be taken as some kind of weird European “We’re Number One!” chant. Or a kind of eurocentric xenophobia. Far from it. Europe is screwed up in more ways than I care to mention. Maybe even more so than other places (and here I think specifically of South America, which has it’s own set of different problems of course, but there’s a certain attitude to the people which suggests that, in the long term, they may do better at dealing with theirs than we’ll do with ours). Certainly while experiencing the immediate effects of culture shock, a person is — in the most literal sense — xenophobic; scared witless by the alien-ness of the place they find themself. But that’s just an emotional / psychological reaction to a moment of extreme stress.

Have you ever left a party… a bit worse for wear… and decided that you can’t be arsed to wait for the night bus because your place is just about within walking distance. You’ve got your buzz on, and a couple of cans of beer to keep you company and you start hiking. At some point, vaguely frazzled by what seems like hours of walking (including that one estate that seemed dodgy and freaked you out a bit) you turn a corner and you see a familiar landmark… the shop you walk to when you run out of bread, and a momentary sensation steals over you. That’s the very same sensation I felt when I returned from Chicago to London… from Egypt to Greece.

Because of all this. Because I experience a very specific sense of dislocation in North Africa et al, but not anywhere in Europe; because of this, I’d go so far as to say that I feel more European than I feel Irish. Certainly I can’t say I feel any more “at home” in Dublin than I did in London (or even in Athens, despite the myriad massive and obvious differences).

What am I trying to say here? I guess I’m just saying that it saddens me that I had to vote against the Lisbon Treaty and I don’t feel any sense of jubilation whatsoever that “we won”. As comically surreal as the referendum was, I’m in no mood to celebrate. See, I wish it had been a document I could have supported. I really do. Elsewhere I’ve read the argument that the major failure of the Lisbon Treaty was it didn’t recognise the vast differences between the nations of Europe and instead proposes a one size fits all solution to the problem of how we organise our collective affairs.

There may well be something to that, and as I pointed out earlier, Europe is indeed a collection of very different cultures. I’m most definitely not suggesting that contrary to clear evidence we possess a single pan-European culture. Not at all; just that all these different cultures share common aspects and attitudes (as well as a geographical proximity) that make close cooperation possible and potentially very fruitful. So when nosemonkey writes:

Europe is not made up of one united people; we are many peoples with much shared history and culture, but with plenty that also divides us in terms of hopes, dreams and aspirations

while I can’t disagree with the strict wording of the statement, I feel compelled to disagree with its spirit. It’s been my experience that 90% of what divides Europeans is history. If anything it’s our “hopes, dreams and aspirations” that unite us.

Posted in: Opinion