The reason why I am writing this article in English is because I hope that it may be read by some people from beyond the borders of my own country.
There has been a lot of talking recently concerning the situation of the Eurozone, or the EU as a whole. It has become a trend to slag off this or that aspect of the European project (and this or that country), with very general sweeping statements that – to me at least – don’t seem to be doing justice to the complexity of the situation.
The form that this discussion has taken, appears to be that of an unresolvable cultural clash, for which the rigorous and laborius North has to put up with the lazyness and inefficiency of the South, and it is on this popular dichotomy that I would like to focus. Yesterday I read a provoquing article by Leonardo Coen, in which he portraied this north-south clash as a product of the envy and jealousy of the dim and sad north for the beauty, happyness and heritage of the south. These are very old clichés, that more often than not can be debunked after a nice trip to the other side, and I don’t personally ever buy into them, as to me the often-cited fact that Greece had Aristotle warning the people about the dangers of populism, when in Germany there were still only primitive tribal societies, is hardly a consolation for the current situation of Greece. Nor is it honourable that Greece has managed to incinerate the monstrous advantage it had on Northern Europe.
[Before I procede with my personal analysis let me add a DISCLAIMER: I am no economist, no sociologist, no anthropologist. I am a simple and humble wannabe-medievalist, and my opinion is just as good as anyone else’s, as long as we try to substantiate them, if not with hard facts, at least with logic. I am gonna make some harsh criticism on Northern Europe, and this is by no means because of an atavic hatred or frustration that I have towards this region, but because of my first-hand experience with it. I have dedicated the last 5 years of my life to the study of both English and Scandinavian studies, I am in love with Britain and Scandinavia, but I went past the phase in which Italy was crap and everything about my northern dreamland was star-spangled awsome. All I would like to try, now, is to be fair and objective.]
Though, as I said, I don’t buy into that idea expressed by Coen for which Northern Europe would be carrying out a vendetta against the nicer and culturally richer South, I do believe that there is (or at least there was) a large cultural disparity between these two areas, and this disparity has led to aberrant actions in the past; namely the attempts to assert Northern superiority and then supremacy through mythicisation and cultural re-invention. One of the reasons why, as someone in the Scandinavian field, I have a chip on my shoulder about the abuse of the word “viking”, and the obscene historical distortions and inaccuracies that it is often accompanied with, is because it often carries a strong connotation of romantic, mythical superiority, be it racial or cultural. It is a powerful myth, full of romanticised machismo, and it is used by people from all over the political spectrum to support crazy ideas or make them more attractive.
Some of these myths include the notion that Northern Europeans would have been noble savages, they valued honour, they were corageous and independent, they lived a tough life in a cold climate that made them hardy and powerful. And now the world is infested with racist idiots who try to reinvent and reenact history, selling themsleves as descendants of vikings, looking for support from the academia, and flooding the internet with the worst racist ideas.
This mythisation of the North has been carried out at the expenses of the South. Once a rich, diverse, majestic and fruitful land, that enable the greatest civilisations of antiquity to flourish and influence the world from millenia to come, the south has become a corrupt and decadent world, were civilisation has turned men into pussies, and were the more pleasant climate discourages people from working. Once a barren land that the Romans couldn’t be too bothered about, the North has become a beautifully pristine region, where the contamination of the horrible civilisation hasn’t managed to get, and thus offers itself as the best ancestral land for any sort of escapists who are looking for simplicity, and possibly some alleged ancestry that would make them feel racially and/or culturally superior to other human beings. If this is indeed true, I would like it if anyone could explain why a place like Milan (which admittedly doesn’t have particularly nice winters, as it shows the same average temperatures as Copenhagen in that period), basically a furnace in the summer, is one of the four economic engines of Europe, or why Iceland has so many pointless public holidays and limited opening times for offices and shops, or why the Greeks work the longest working hours in Europe while Scandinavia has the shortest.
It is something that runs quite often as a subtext in conversations: the fact that you come from a cold place must necessarily mean that you grew up in conditions that made you tougher, more laborious, and just generally “better”. I met several southern Europeans who jumped up to tell their new American aquaintances that the place they come from has super-cold winter periods and they get a lot of snow – which is basically what I did a few lines above for Milan. This is ridiculous, and even perverted as it is intrinsically attached to the aberrant theories of climatic determinism. If it were true that the cold makes people industrious, the question arises on why civilisation started in the Near and Middle East, and not in Scandinavia or Siberia, where it reached thousands of years later. And to be frank, the lazyness and laidback-ness I found here in Iceland surpasses the worst examples I ever encountered back in Italy by a long shot. Germans do not work more than Spaniards, Scandinavians don’t work harder than Greeks. They just make a huge scene about it, as they are culturally encouraged to show off how hard-working they are. Something that I find pretty much pathetic is the way we use the word “work” in English to describe the activity of “studying”, in fact “school” etymologically means exactly the opposite of working: its meaning being something like “leisure, rest”. Not that studying can in any way be considered leisure in the modern sense, but it is interesting that the only way to make such an activity seem important would be to call it “work”.
One of the most widely circulating myths about Italy is that boys and girls stay at home for long, they are mummy-boys, they are not independent, and this is humiliating and shameful. Northern European kids, especially those from Britain, are particularly proud of having moved out as soon as they turned 18, and they are equally proud of the fact that their parents would have kicked them out anyway: it means that they are from a cultural background that breeds men and not pussies…if only that were true! What is left unsaid is that these kids often get very generous student loans, which in many case will not even be paid back, while in Italy we don’t really have the concept of student loans. For us it is an honour for the family to make the kids study, and parents feel it is their duty to remove the financial obstacles on the way to an academic degree. This doesn’t mean that the Italians are complety incapable to survive without their parents, though . Quite the opposite in fact. From my experience, many of these so-called independent Northerners are very disorganised and dirty people, who keep their place as a pig sty, who are incapable of cooking anything other than instant noodles, and who lead a kind of life that it would be euphemistic to define as degenerate. Staying with Italian parents means to be constantly told that you have to tidy up this, clean that, immediately put back that thing (nice and clean!) after you are done with it so that it’s good and ready for the next time you need it, wash your dishes and not let them pile up…this may appear as common sense to many of you, but it isn’t what you encounter if you happen to share a kitchen in a dorm with some other “independent” Northeners. Yes, idiots are from all over the galaxy, of course this isn’t exclusive or unique of Northern Europe, my point is that kids don’t suddenly turn mature and civilised if you kick them out of the house early.
It seems like one of the big problems that Germany has tried to solve in Greece, wpuld be the way-too-generous (at least in the eyes of Germany) pension system. This again show the complete lack of understanding on Germany’s account, and the total lack of respect for cultural differences. Beware, I am not one of those who believe that every single cultural aspect should be treated with equal rispect, as I think it is my right to point out when some cultural form is barbaric, counter-productive, or simply stupid. However, in this case, what Germany seems to have done has been to look at how pensions appeared too high and subsequently decide to encourage (force?) Greece to lower them. What they forgot to take note of, is that these old people, apparently scrounging on the system, are not some of those selfish Northern European parents, who hide behind the excuse that they want to make their children grow by kicking them out; no, these Greek pensioners are parents and grandparents that virtually always use the savings from their pensions to help their children pay a mortgage, their grandchildren pay their studies and so on. It is a whole different form of social organisation, and it has a very old history. Yes it is all well and good if in Northern Europe they use their money to go on holidays for the rest of their lives and think their responsibilities fell once their kids turned 18. It’s certainly much easier to do that when the state can be so generous, but we have a different opinion on that, and I think it should be respected. The fact that unlike many of my North-American mates I don’t have 50.000$ debts on my shoulder, despite having a degree from a good University and working at a second one, makes my family feel proud and accomplished, and one day it will be the same for me with my children.
In fact, quite interestingly, for the Italian law, parental duty does not cease once the children become legally adult. There are a number of laws and rulings of the supreme court that clarify the details, but generally, if parents can afford to support their children through their University studies, they are meant to do so. Quite sensibly, the support is denied – in a manner that appears to be recognised by the supreme court – when the child is slacking and, for example, not taking all of his exams, or taking too many years to graduate; this is often the deal: “You want to study, it is your aspiration, and as a parent I will do whatever I can to help you, but if you don’t help yourself by studying hard and if you bring mediocre results, I will stop helping you”. This seems only fair to me. However, please feel free to think that I am an idiot and a mummy-boy from a backward social context. I certainly cannot change your mind if it is set. I am not deluded, and I won’t ask to not be judged on this matter, I know very well that it is not possible to ask to not be judged for something that is deemed wrong or stupid by the other. I am personally quite happy to carry on thinking that this myth of the grown-up and independent Northern kid is only a very clever excuse for parents to get shot of responsibilities as soon as they can. And I don’t feel any less independent than they are.
Despite the economic crisis, if we ignore the case of Greece, which is pretty tragic, it seems like the general level of happyness and satisfaction with life is still higher in Southern Europe. Denmark and Iceland may come out as the happiest countries on earth in international rankings, but the abuse of anti-depressants in the former, and the spectacle of human misery that you see every saturday night walking downtown in the latter, wouldn’t really give you the impression that these places are so happy as they claim to be. There seems to be a profound atavic malaise that is regurgitated in a very sick way once the tight ties of social control are loosened. Though the situation has been changing (because you know, Northerners are superior so they mus be imitated in everything) I am quite please to have been brought up in a country where getting drunk is socially unacceptable. Of course when I live in the UK, or here in Iceland, I have to put up with people boasting that “OH MY GOD WE WERE SOOO DRUNK! I WAS SOOOO DRUNK THAT I DID THIS!”. In Italy if you get drunk you try to hide it. It’s pretty bad: unhealthy, expensive, you become a retard, and may constitute a danger for those around you. There are nicer ways of having fun. In the North it seems like being drunk is a good excuse for doing anything, in Italy that would be an aggravating factor: you consciously put yourself into a situation where you could have become harmful for others. Of course “vikings” were great drinkers, and we should imitate them: it’s another one of those thing that racially superior people do. Never mind that the Greek and the Romans had annual drunken festivals and orgies and that in the Havamál Óðinn recommends to the Scandinavin man to avoid drinking in eccess.
The parallels with old Germanic people, however, is only brought up when it is convenient to do so, in fact no one ever points the finger against the disgraceful way in which those laborious, industrious and civilised Northern Europeans flood southern Europe in the summer in a much worse manner than that of the Barbarians 1600 years ago. They get wasted, they take all the drugs on the market, they destroy, they shag around and share chlamydia and so on. A few months ago a gang of Dutch tourists raided rome and damaged a fountain by Bernini in the famous piazza di Spagna, the deeds of the English in the Greek islands and those of the Scandinavians in Spain are too widely known to be worth recalling. These polite and extremely respectful Northerners clearly aren’t too happy with their life up North, if they feel the need to unleash the beast within once they land in Southern Europe. I find it bewildering that people think of the Southern Europeans as loud when the decibel released by a small pack of wasted Danes or English could cover the noise of a Neapolitan patron saint fair. I would go as far as suggesting that maybe the Northerners still have something to learn in terms of how life should be lived.
Now for the apologies: I realise that this rant may have crossed several lines and touched some sensitive button, but I felt it was necessary to have some impact on the readers, and stimulate thought. Of course I love Northern Europe, I will say it again, but this does not mean I don’t see it’s profound problems. Nor does the fact that I haven’t slagged off Southern Europe equally in this article means that I see no faults in it: quite the opposite, but this was a reaction against what I perceive as an unfair treatment of the half of the continent in which the western civilisation as we know it was born.
To conclude, I want to stress that there is hope: Umberto Eco already noted this in a talk at the European parliament, and it is the fact that no matter how we may get on each other’s nerves, all the people of this continent share an immesurable amount of history, core values, philosophical and spirtual concepts, that 1500 years of national myths have not be able to hide. Thus, especially when we arr in an international situation, we are bound to feel more communality with fellow Europeans, rather than with people from other continents, even if these people speak our same language and the other Europeans around don’t. There would be much more sense of proximity between, say, me and and an English person, rather than between this person and an American, particularly when it comes to discussing certain hot issues like gun control, welfare state, climate change and lifestyle (as a general rule of course: I have American friends who are very critical of several aspects of their country and would prefer it to be more like Europe, and I also know Europeans who would like Europe to become more like America. I am just generalising).
The big and small differences in attitude, mentality and everyday life are what makes us interesting, but are also neglectable compared to what we share. The borders of Europe have changed a lot: my hometown, for example, has been part of Gaul, the Roman Empire, the Ostrogothic Kingdom, the Lombard Kingdom, the Carolingian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, Austria-Hungary and finally the kingdom of Italy, the cultural waves that affected the continent swept my region just as much as any other, and I find it very hard to ignore this just because I am being confronted by a very annoying German. Knowing my history, the fact that I have lived in different parts of this continent, and the many friends I have from all around it, really make it impossible for me to not identify as European, and this is by no means a result of the political union I was born and grew up in. The European identity has been a thing in the mind of several major European figures since the middle ages. The differences that we see in each other are real, and they are the very reason why this continent has always been a beacon of new ideas (not always good, admittedly), but I believe that a more profound sense of sharing, together with a willingness to collaborate, will be the way to build a better future. We need not keep being a place that produces great cultural explosions in the periods of relative peace inbetween major bloody conflicts.