I have a skewed sense of time. I think we all do. Time and history are reflections of where we grew up, and reveal values that we hold close.
For instance, when taking a walking tour of Ghent this week, the guide explained that this building was from the 16th century, or that the building over there is from the 13th century. It amazed me that the United States wasn’t even conceived of when many of these buildings were built. I think this made me understand a seemingly obvious revelation.
Europe is old. I mean really old.
Of course it is, right? I already knew that cities have been built on top of other cities for thousands of years, and that it is commonplace to have buildings dating back to the middle ages. But it wasn’t until I was actually standing in front of some of these buildings, or something like Madonna and Child, that the history seemed to truly come alive. I could almost sense the entirety of the history that hangs over Europe like a heavy cloak. It tinges every part of life here, adding a little color to every conversation, twinkling in the eye of every European I meet here.
In many ways, the United States still feels fresh and new. There are places out west where people go to grab a ‘bigger piece of sky’. There is still the feeling that if you are unhappy with your East Coast, suit-and-tie job, you can explore. Most places feel young, going back only a few generations. Some places it feels like there is no history, and that you are the first person to step on that patch of land.
So I guess the point that I am trying to make is the importance of geography and history in shaping culture. Because of how big the US is, with great swaths of countryside, there is still a feeling of bigness and emptiness, and possibilities of untamed wilds. Europe doesn’t really have that feeling. It is more similar to the feeling of an old, lived in house. Every path has been trod, and when you sit you feel like you are sitting with an old friend instead of being alone in a wilderness.
This has an effect on the people as well. For example, Belgium has a long history of being conquered by other nations. The French, the Spanish, the Dutch, Germans and Luxembourg have all at one point or another held control of the Belgian territory. Because Belgium has always been the battlefield of Europe, it never really developed a sense of national identity, which can be seen today through the Dutch-French language divide and the lack of general national pride.
In many places in Europe, the drinking age is much lower than in the United States. In Belgium, the age is 16. This is because before water was safe to drink, the safest drink was beer. Our tour guide in Ghent said that when children began to get their adult teeth, it was time for them to switch to beer. Again, because of their history, there is not a negative stigma attached to beer. Therefore, beer is much more acceptable for younger people to drink. When a person buys beer in the states, he is supposed to feel ashamed, and he is given a brown paper sack to hide it in so he can sneak away like a thief. There is a negative stigma attached to alcohol that dates back to the Great Awakenings and abolition movements.
I also think that the history of Europe will ultimately prove to be the greatest challenge to the EU. The human race has proved to have a long memory, and the development of different cultures and traditions is fundamentally keeping Europe separated. The other day I spoke with some Belgians on the subject of Turkey’s application to the EU. They universally agreed that it shouldn’t happen. Not because of a weak economy, human rights abuses were not even mentioned. They did not think Turkey should join because they weren’t European enough.
They had this idea of Us vs. Them. Turkey was different, not based in Christianity, and certainly played an adversarial role during much of the middle ages. They were this dreaded other. An oddity, a curiosity, a barbarian, certainly not European. These attitudes still affect how Turkey is perceived today.
History is very much alive, and it has real impacts on the culture and policies of Europeans. And not just recent history, post WWII or otherwise. Some of the fears to European integration reflect deep-seated and long-held anxieties that date back millennia.