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European identity? The (almost complete) failure of an empirical test

18 May 2008
Published in Attualità, Fiori
by Giuseppe Matteo Vaccaro Incisa

Manila, sickness the 29th of April 2008

As far as I can remember, I have always been a convinced supporter of the European Union. Even when this implied, for Italy as for many other countries, the amazing rise of prices following the introduction of the Euro; or when, doing a stage in the Commission, I realized the incredible waste of public money and the astonishing amass of unproductive (and poorly-paid) bureaucracy living in it; despite the constant attempts of France to see and use it as if it is a kind of organic extension of the ‘Hexagone’; regardless of the failure of the referendums for the approval of its painfully-mastodontic Constitution; and even now that, not refraining from acquiring new competencies out of fanciful interpretations of the Treaties’ wording – thought to mean completely different things – suffers of a quite consistent lack of capacity to manage efficiently even those undisputed.

Half Italian and half French, I committed (and still regret) the enormous mistake to think that if I was able to accept all this, there was little that could not be accepted by ‘those others’ European colleagues. Moreover – and most importantly -, if I was able to decline my nationalism in favor of a more ‘mature’ sense of European identity, why people from the rest of the continent shouldn’t do the same? (British obviously excluded).
Such personal vision of things clashed miserably this last week.

After some thirty-hours of fly-stop&jet-lag – plus other four of bumping-jeep and slow-motion-boat away from Manila airport –, I finally reached my destination: dragged out in the middle of the jungle, in a tiny island in the middle of the Philippines Sea, I could now see the resort where two good friends of mine decided to get married. The main characters of this exotic tale are, of course, not autochthones (come on, it would have been way too easy!): the bride is Greek, the groom Danish.

Besides the reasons that brought about a hundred Europeans to assist to a wedding of colleagues on the other side of the world – which could be a good story anyway -, there is something else probably more appropriate to talk about. Let me try to give you the picture.

The crowd that decided to be part of the event was almost equivalent in terms of ‘quantity’. Half of it was Greek, the other half Scandinavian – without considering some irrelevant intrusions such as mine, that one of a Croatian, and an American. What had me impressed first has been that, despite most of them had arrived many days earlier than me (got there just the day before the ‘I do’ part), everything I could see was more about to resemble – say – two different dishes than a modern fusion-pot. Keeping the metaphor, two dishes made of completely different ingredients and out of different cooking. You know, those kinds of platters you really can’t match out of a single meal – ok, maybe now I’m exaggerating a little.
Anyhow, quite soon I also had the chance to understand some of the reasons why this was happening.

By one side, the ‘angels’. Despite not very much into reinvigorating stereotypes, those Scandinavian guys were all indisputably tall, blond, blue-eyed and lovely-smiling, kind of mildly levitating around the intricate jungle-resort. Not the warmest folks, sure say. Easy it was to perceive the delicate though intensive ‘social-scan’ you were put through, before deciding if being conceded of the angelical word.
Perhaps because all ‘coupled’, everyone showed a quite individual attitude. People could get together for dinner time, waterskiing or a small chat, but before and after then everyone managed its own time mostly independently.

By the other side, the Greeks. First, all singles. Then, again not to reinvigorate southern-European stereotypes but how not to notice the constant presence of something to eat or to drink around, in their hands or on the table – any table, anytime. The table, then, the real and main character for almost any kind of activity – from actually eating to organizing anything, relaxing, talking, discussing or just spending time, staying all together (in the Philippines, with around 35 degrees Celsius and 140 per cent of humidity).
But here I hadn’t just ‘Greeks’. I had Cretans – a quite peculiar kind of Greeks, as I had to discover. Fashion-victim and ever-perfect make-up girls, muscular&shaved-bodied guys (and those who were not into the gym-mania were big enough not to need any anyway), this people has been as amazingly warm in welcoming the new arrival (i.e. me) as remarkably fast in closing itself after a formidable barrier: the one and only use of the Greek language. A ‘guilt’ strengthened by the fact that almost every one of them was able to speak good English and those weaker with it were good in Italian or French. Still, no matter the presence of people from other countries (not even the groom, actually), they would always keep on speaking of their own business, in their own language. Some reprimanding-fake-coughing ignored, the sensation of being left aside the conversation started soon, unsurprisingly. Only exceptions? The ground of ‘Greece vs. international clashes’ (what else?). Still, besides – quite obviously – better not to mention the word ‘Macedonia’ with any Greek (which I did, of course, with fairly disastrous results), those Cretan-guys showed me something hard enough to understand. During my short stay I had, in fact, not a few instances of a peculiar kind of Minoan-centrism. Generally speaking, Greek people are usually very proud of their country – with good reasons, of course. Mostly, these reasons are close enough to some of those that allow Italians to be proud of their own country: great history, great minds, great remembers of both. Still, this couldn’t help me not to feel something wrong when one of them – a 27 years old insurance agent – plainly verbalized: ‘I don’t travel that much. This is my first time out of Europe. In the end, my friend, the whole world is coming to Crete, why should I ever leave it?’. Proud support immediately came from another – a lawyer, who got his degree in Italy to come back and exercise the profession in… Heraklio*. I was somewhat daunted. If they were thinking something like that, what was I supposed to think, then? Never to trespass the signal ‘end of Florence’? Forgetting to ever sort out the 8éme arrondissement? Following this ‘Cretan-reasoning’, I was committing a quite consistent offense to myself by leaving my countries, not being satisfied with their rich culture and keep on travelling around the world. ‘My friend’ – the insurance agent unquestionably analyzed – ‘it is evident you have some restlessness and anxiety to heal’.

Back to the nordic side, on the language aspect immediate relief came from the fact that none of the Scandinavians ever dared to talk in Danish or Norwegian in front of somebody that could not understand. Very respectfully, not even between them. With some exceptions, of course.
In fact, here comes a sort of mismatching comparison I would have probably not guessed doing before being at this event. Apparently at least, younger generations of Scandinavians are highly cosmopolitan. They transmit a mature sense of ‘Europeanity’ – the one I feel too, that consideration that there is no alternative solution to the European Union for any of its actual or future members, and that we’re all ‘Europeans’, besides and before our national identity. Nordic-elder-generations, though, showed to be remarkably – and quite embarrassingly – driven by a number of stereotypes at first I believed jokes without taste. Sadly worse, they weren’t. This people are actually still convinced that Southern Europe is a land at best good for tourism. Not enough, for that kind of tourism that resemble more a safari in Africa than a vacation in just another part of the same continent. Prejudices as terrible streets and disgraceful traffic (…), laziness and unproductiveness (!), non-drinkable water (?), diffused misery (?!) or fears for being seized (?!?) plainly flowed out of their mouths (and sometimes you regret having received an education that forces you not to respond in adequate terms to older people). A tough economical-superiority prejudice was evident towards any country not belonging from the hyper-rich&productive ‘north’.
On the Greek side, here comes a ‘reversion of terms’ quite awkward, too. On this front, for instance, while from the elders it was easy to perceive a sense of respect for – say – what has been for more than 30 years the only southern European country with a weight on the world scenario, the young Greeks showed a much more disenchanted vision, using that (terrible) way of speech ‘Italians and Greeks: one face, one race’ just to read it in the way of a nowadays supposed equivalence of the two countries. Towards any non-Greek (or, better, non-Cretan), a slight sense of ‘cultural superiority’ was left mildly rolling on the floor. Sometimes this ’self-sufficiency’ resulted kind of nasty. And actually misplaced. Not few the times in which the terms of reference for the northern colleagues have been not the warmest. Nor the most appropriate.

Of course there were some moments of aggregation. Another Danish-Greek affair even managed to born, actually. Even though, those were definitely too rare sparkles over a quite bleak scenario: the two groups lived their vacations mostly separately, keeping their indifferences, complexes and prejudices throughout the whole stay – and probably more.

Vive l’Union Européenne.

4 Responses to “European identity? The (almost complete) failure of an empirical test”

  1. Riccardo says:

    Articolo ottimo, come sempre.
    E’urioso come gli stereotipi tra Nord e Sud siano costanti, anche con differenziali di latitudine decisamente minori, e, a volte, senza uscire da uno stesso Paese.
    Ed è frustrante rendersi conto del fatto che l’Europa non contenga ancora (quasi) nessun europeo. Una decina di anni or sono andavano di moda varie teorie sulla fine dello Stato, con annesse utopie federaliste, regionaliste, anarchiche etc, a seconda dell’orizzonte temporale/ideologico/geografico. Beh, probabilmente il buon vecchio StatoNazione ha ancora qualcosa da dire, almeno come catalizzatore di sentimenti genuini (al di la dei giudizi di valore) di appartenenza.
    Come sempre, Vive la Realpolitik.

  2. Guicciardo says:

    Ridiamoci su per un momento:
    Nella campagna inglese, vicino a Colchester mi capita di ascoltare le parole di un ragazzo che rivolto ad amici sentenzia: ‘ L’Italia è indietro, non hanno i frigoriferi e nemmeno le macchine!’ ….Oltre lo stereotipo e la battuta…

    Dall’immerso tropicale la tua analisi ci giunge ancora più chiara, viva e reale.

  3. MICHEL says:

    Un articolo davvero interessante. Che mi fa riflettere molto. Grazie.

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