Europe is now a place where diversity is celebrated. Where it has become the cornerstone of a developing common identity. Sometimes this is hard to understand. Sometimes it is hard work. But sometimes, it just comes naturally.
Two weekends, and two very different European experiences, made me remember an email conversation I had with an American friend in early 2002. Much like many of his countrymen and especially his colleagues within the Washington Beltway, he never really understood what happened in Western Europe after 1945, despite all the effort he put into it by writing foreign policy analyses and eventually even going to the LSE instead of an American university for a post graduate programme. He once summarized his main problem in a question –
“My question is that normally when identities form there is at least some level of an other that the identity uses to distinguish who is outside that identity or maybe who that identity is opposed to, in this case who is that identity?”
While he is ideologically firmly positioned as far away from Robert Kagan as Michael Moore is from Karl Rove, it’s not too difficult to figure what his point is. His troubles alluded to me how difficult it must be for governments of nations states who are still intellectually locked up in the rationality myth of zero sum strategic competition to think “European”.
Maybe the idea of a nascent European identity based on cherishing diversity – not a common outsider – is impossible to explain ? “Unless you feel, naught will you ever gain”.
Those who do feel will recognize it, even when it disguises as a 3-hour-long poetry reading in fifteen different languages that even the publicly subsidized elite tv-station 3sat decided to hide entirely from the public by broadcasting it from 1-4 on a Friday night. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the translation workshop “Poetry of the Neighbours – Poets translated by Poets”, which started out regionally but has silently become an internationally appreciated event.
Sure, listening to Bulgarian, Gaelic, and Norwegian poems last Friday night, I was at times closer than I would ever publicly admit to Bjoern Staerk’s submission that
“nothing beautiful or sensible should ever be written in Norwegian, if it could be written in English.”
But these are occasional lapses. I want (the appropriate amount of) Gaelic poems on German tv – that’s the diversity I treasure, the diversity that enriches our lives. Yes, sometimes this means hard work. Sometimes it means listening to poetry in languages no one in the audience will understand. But sometimes, it just comes naturally.
Last weekend, I went to a local cinema to watch a home video on the silver screen. Well, it wasn’t exactly a home video, it was a French movie, but it could as well have been. And not just for me – or for John, Chris, Sofie, Roberta and others who are good friends now but who were strangers when we all met one Thursday evening in Paris for our first Erasmus exchange programme party. I could have been a home video for about 110,000 European students more each year.
“L’Auberge Espagnole“, emphatically tells the coming of age story, the life and love issues of a couple of young Europeans on their Erasmus exchange year in Barcelona. It is a film full of clichés, featuring French administrational hell as well as the young Brit who one day greets his sister’s German flatmate with a cheerful “Heil Hitler” and the eternal misunderstandings about the English pronunciation of the word most commonly used in French with reference to a university – “la fac”. But let me assure you – these are not just clichés – a penny for each time I had to explain that a “fac-otel” is actually a hall of residence, not some swinger-club, and I would be a rich man already.
“L’Auberge Espagnole” is a coming of age film not just for the flatmates – and not simply because more and more young Europeans have had the opportunity to spend an important part of their life together abroad. It is a coming of age film because it recognizes that there is something like a European identity growing out of these experiences as much as out of the efforts of poets who meet to read between the lines of other cultures, challenge Wittgenstein and thus expand our own limits of comprehension and empathy.
I know, these may be the necessary elements for an explanation of the developing European identity so difficult to understand for some. They are hardly sufficient. So, knowing that there is something out there, in the end, it is probably Goethe all over again – “Here now I stand, poor fool, and see I’m just as wise as formerly.”