Two years ago today, I got off a Lufthansa flight from LAX to Munich and passed through Schengenland customs. I had originally been scheduled to fly on September 12, from San Francisco to Brussels via Frankfurt, but when it became plain that no one was going to be flying on September 12th, I called Lufthansa and changed my flight before the rush. After five hours in LAX getting past security (I had a very scruffy beard and a well-worn passport full of Asian entry stamps, so I got picked for a “special” screening) and ten hours in the air, I passed through customs in Munich, getting nothing but the most cursory glace at my Canadian passport and Belgian student visa from the Bundespolizei, even though it was barely a week after September 11. There was no passport check at all when I landed in Brussels.
My biggest surprise in moving to Flanders was how easy it is to get by here. Language doesn’t constitute a huge barrier either to school or to employment. My landlord doesn’t speak English, but he is old enough that he speaks fluent French, so my lease is actually in that language. I think finding an apartment is the only thing I’ve done here where I couldn’t use English.
There are a lot of non-natives living in Belgium who primarily use English, many of them are also non-native English speakers. There are so many that I’m beginning to think they form a sort of “Euroanglo” culture that merits some study. It is a culture that has adopted largely continental norms, but that still speaks English and has a set of common cultural references taken largely from the anglophone world.
These are people who will tell you far it is from one place to another in kilometres, but who remember what TV show Bo and Luke Duke were on or can name at least two actors who’ve played Doctor Who. They usually cook local food and prefer to shop at the weekly market instead of Carrefour, but they might also make burritos now and then. The easiest way to recognise them is when they use a local term in English for some distinctive institution – here in Belgium, if they know what a “night shop” or a “nachtwinkel” is, that’s a good sign that they’re Euroanglo.
This hybrid culture strikes me as interesting because in most places where English is widely spoken, it is so much the dominant culture that you see almost no recognisable influence from outside the anglophone world. I find it fascinating to see what happens in places where English is a minority or immmigrant language. I saw something like this in Montreal, where many long term resident anglophones – especially the young and the anglos who live in the centre and east ends of the city – now have a very distinct culture, quite different from the rest of Canada and from their francophone neighbours.
What has happened in Quebec and what I think is happening in Belgium is quite different from the classical pattern of immigrant and minority integration. Thanks to TV and the ‘Net, there is no need to ever really cut your ties with the old country if the old country is a wealthy English-speaking state. I get CNN and BBC on cable, and Flemish and Dutch TV broadcast quite a lot of English language programming. I have about as much access to American news here as I did in California. Euroanglos don’t seem to feel any pressure to change their identity to align themselves with their neighbours, and there are enough of them that an entire network of English-language institutions and social services keeps them from ever having to feel left out because they live here. I’ve never really seen anything comparable in the English speaking world. You can live in some parts of the US in Spanish, but if you do, you will still feel plenty of pressure to integrate into Anglo-American culture. You don’t feel much pressure to integrate in Flanders.
I’m curious what happens to second generation Euroanglos.
The thing that makes all this possible is something I usually take a dim view of: nativism. Many Europeans seem to regard their national identity as something they are born with, not something that can be acquired. However, at least in Belgium, people don’t seem to feel bothered by the idea that their neighbours might not be Belgian. You don’t have to be native to live here and to enjoy substantial equality in the eyes of the people around you. I think European tolerance of alternative communities derives at least in part from this sort of nativism.
Belgium is not a paradise of tolerance. No one seems to mind having German or French neighbours, but clearly not everyone in Belgium feels the same way about people from the Middle-East or Africa. I am very disappointed by how many Europeans limit their tolerance on what appear to me to be purely racial grounds.
However, despite my poor opinion of nativism in general, I am beginning to think that the kind of tolerant multi-culturalism found within the EU is a better model for the future than cultural integrationism. Multilingualism and multiculturalism are increasingly the norm within states, and I don’t see anything likely to change that in the forseeable future. Finding ways to keep diverse societies functioning is a better project for the future than reinforcing the nation-state.
That is the source of my optimism about the EU, an optimism I hold despite the all too apparent flaws in really existing European society and European governments.