15. Europe Is A Beautiful Mess

The world is a complicated place.  Europe is a fine example of how human existence in large groups is anything but simple.  Even quick look at Europe’s history will reveal that collaboration and cooperation haven’t always been at the top of the list of things to do with neighbors for those in power. For most if its history, the name of the game in Europe has been dominate your neighbor and take their stuff (I’m not entirely convinced that we’ve actually moved on…). This led to countless wars, many of which we’re all familiar with. It’s also this very power struggle that led to the preservation of a very rich and profound diversity. Until recently, defending one’s home and ways of life was a matter of life and death.

european diversity
A simplified version of European diversity. I guess that the guy on the ladder in the Ukraine is the responsible artist here… (here’s the actual source: http://one-europe.info/united-in-diversity-one-europe-one-culture)

After the last major European disagreement (WWII), some forward-thinking Europeans started tossing around ideas like ‘don’t try to kill everyone’. Their first step towards this lofty goal was to regulate steel throughout all of Europe because that is what armies were built from. The idea being that they could keep an eye on who was building armies and then not give them the materials needed to do so. This was in the 1950’s and since then cooperation grew into what we know now as the European Union.

It seems like a good plan.  Stop killing each other and talk about stuff. If it were only that simple.  First of all, there are many people who are dead-set on hating all things not themselves, and the EU severely restricts their ability to inflict harm on everything different.  Luckily these guys are (for now) in the minority. There are also many that fear collaboration will ultimately destroy the hundreds of rich, local cultures that have evolved for thousands of years according to their own necessities.  Many worry that the EU will pave a road to the assimilation of the diversity into one mono-euro-culture. Europeans don’t want to become Americans (…as an American, I don’t think that they need to worry, but that’s my own humble opinion).

Americans, or at least rational Americans, are always proud of their diversity. This is not the same as than the more European sentiment of being proud to be different.  If America is a melting pot, then Europe is a tapas bar. In America everyone is mixed together into one massive, patriotic soup, while the Europeans are a spread of small, elaborate snacks made with loads of different ingredients and placed side-by-side on the bar, pledging allegiance only to the small plate on which they reside.  The tapas are all looking judgmentally at one-another.  Of course, this is just a metaphor.  America is not perfectly melded and Europeans do share many common traits.

In it’s short history, the USA does have a better record of successfully collaborating with itself.  We’ll see if it lasts for a thousand more years. It’s probably more accurate to compare pre-Columbian North-American political cooperation with the EU than is it to compare it to the contemporary US.  It was only way later that the native Americans didn’t really get a chance to represent themselves and collaborate with the US.

Back to Europe though.  What fascinates me is how extremely different things are from one town to another let alone nation to nation.  I can say that I have a pretty good grasp on Siena and I’m understanding more about Amsterdam at this point. Within the European context it’s hard to imagine two places with less in common than Siena and Amsterdam. Siena clings to its thousand-year-old heritage as if there is no other option. Amsterdam seems to cling only to options and innovation. Their histories are completely different.  Siena was at the height of it’s glory in the 1200’s and Amsterdam was a murky, cold swamp with a few castaways.  Then later in the 1600’s the people in Amsterdam were sailing all over the world, while the Sienese were content with going absolutely no further than their own walls.  While available native produce is not wildly different, people in Siena have profoundly explored their culinary tradition in search of perfection and they still haven’t claimed victory. People in Amsterdam are similar to Americans in that the majority of the population doesn’t know the limits and potential of the local food system and they’ll just eat whatever. Language-wise, Dutch and Italian are just about as similar beer and wine.

What’s even crazier to me is that you could say that Venice, for it’s history, is much more similar to Amsterdam than it is to Siena, and Venice and Siena are in the same country.  The closer you get to the local cultures in European cities the more the profound differences become evident. Each city and town have their own long histories that often contrast with the rest of the nation in which they find themselves. So when you think about trying to get everyone to come to the same table and make decisions, it’s easy to lose hope.

If you think that 28 recognised languages in the EU is difficult, just look at all of the dialects in Italy (incomprehensible compared to standard Italian)…. then multiply this by the number of EU member states.

There are 28 different languages recognised by the EU, and for many that’s not enough.  If languages are a reflection of one culture’s interpretation of the world, then I think that recognising these differences is the first step towards any collaboration.  Translation becomes fundamental, but ultimately is not perfect. Think that if a Polish member of parliament has really good ideas, but only speaks Polish, that doesn’t mean that his/her ideas are less important.  Even the expression of ideas requires a lot of collaboration.

The European examples of diversity and the efforts made to preserve diversity are rather remarkable if you ask me. So much of what we’re taught about diversity in the US (so, the diversity that I grew up with) has to do with skin color and unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of thought given to what lies beneath the surface. How ridiculous is it that anyone speaking Spanish in the US is assumed to be from Mexico?  The majority of South America speaks Spanish, not to mention the people from… Spain…  It should really come as no surprise to anyone that lumping people together based on skin color or religion is a pretty misrepresentative way of categorisation.  Maybe we’re just too young to fully understand our own cultural diversity.

Parliament in Brussels. On the lower level is where everyone yells at each other. The booths up-top are for those who translate the yelling.

Last week I took a group of students to visit the E.U. Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Yes, the same place that’s been all over the news for its role as a target for terrorism and simultaneously home to all of the terrorists. Understandably, many dropped out of the trip as they didn’t feel comfortable in such a situation. It’s impossible to say that anything is 100% safe. If you want to be scared, it’s easy to look at the news and freak out. As real and scary as the terrorist attacks are, it’s important to weigh the negative with the positive and not fall deep into a hole of fear that’s hard to climb out of. Think about it this way: I’m not afraid at all to go home to Denver, Colorado despite the tragically common and senseless attacks on people in public places like hospitals, theaters, and schools. Those aren’t referred to as terrorist attacks and they’re not easy to frame in an “Us vs. Them” scenario. I know that the vast majority of people in Colorado are peaceful people and so I guess that I don’t pay too much mind to the risk. I still love going home.  The same is the case in Europe right now. There are some delusional people out there, but thankfully they are nowhere near the majority.

This was my second trip with students to Brussels with students. I’ve learned a lot about the EU and also that I can do a decent job of making up enough French to pass as someone who’s just really confused.  What was most striking this time was to think about how the very city where all of this cooperation goes down every day, is the same place that has effectively isolated an entire community to the point that they feel that their best option is terrorism.  The media and all of those people who feel the need to hate what’s different blame the terrorism on the outsiders.  The refugees escaping a war.  It’s easy to blame them.  The terrorists grew up in Brussels though, and it’s a lot harder to blame yourself.


In the end, happy to be there.

I won’t lie.  The idea of going to Belgium was a bit scary, but I’m glad I was able to go to Brussels and reflect on this particular moment in history against the backdrop of the EU parliament that represents the answer: cooperation.


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