Trying to be European - Monocolumn | Monocle


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28 October 2011

Being a European, if you are one (and I am one), is something we should be proud of I suppose. Europe has a flag after all, blue with a circle of gold stars and we all belong to the European family. It all sounds great doesn’t it, sharing and caring for each other in a wonderful cultural pot pourri – and yet there’s something not quite right, isn’t there? We don’t all seem to be getting on very well at all.

Even Frau Merkel is ganging up with Monsieur Sarkozy, having a giggle against Senor Berlusconi. Mr Cameron has been told by Sarko to mind his own business and as for Papa Papandreou – well.

If you think about it, 100 years is nothing in the general scheme of things, compared to, say, the age of civilisation. It was 100 years ago, give or take a few years, when we were all at each other’s throats. A mad man shot Archduke Ferdinand and World War 1 had begun. Hate, horror, human suffering on an unimaginable scale. Four long years of that then 20 years of Charleston, champagne, and being all friendly with each other. Twenty years later – we did it all over again – four more long years of terror, strife and destruction.

Fast forward to the fifties and sixties – the Brits, according to Harold Macmillan had never had it so good, the French were off to St Tropez, Sacha Distel sang of the ‘Good Life’, the Swedes wizzed down to Spain, where the Costas suddenly became the place to be. Germans began to bag the deckchairs in Magaluf, Mykonos became frightfully gay. We were all bumping into one another again, this time with a ‘Ciao’ and a chit chat, those old days of conflict long forgotten. Vive l’entente cordiale, la dolce vita was available for all the fun-loving Euro-travellers, with a pocketful of pesetas stashed in the dashboard.

Brussels became HQ, Mr Heath signed the UK into the club and we all looked forward to happier days. Mr Reagan pleaded to Mr Gorbachev “Tear down this wall”, and blow me down he did just that and we were off. Freedom reigned. Life was about to get a whole lot sweeter as the Trabants were abandoned on the road to fair play and fortune and Thatcher and Mitterand met in the middle of the newly drilled Channel Tunnel. For the first time since Neanderthal man the Brits were connected to the continent. Like it or lump it.

For me – I not only liked it, I adored it. Having lived for years in the deserts of the Middle East I longed for fields and forests, long drives through mountains and valleys, crossing rivers exploring new cities, discovering hidden palaces, museums, castles and treasures of the past. I was born British but I felt I wanted to be more a European.

Fired with enthusiasm for a place in the great European adventure I decided to take up residence somewhere in one of the new member countries. I settled on Bulgaria, then yet to join up but on the short-list. In between reading news bulletins on a night shift I browsed properties in the south near Macedonia and with just a click of the mouse, parting with cash the equivalent of a decent second hand car, I was the owner of Kelly Heights, Vratsa, near Kyustendil on the Thracian way at the foot of the Osogovo mountains. I tried for five years to enjoy being there, going backwards and forwards, battling with the impossible language, dealing with Cyrillic signs and lugubrious middlemen, longing for another life. Yes another life. Even within the promised land of the new Europe the average wage was still a mere few hundred euros a month, the standard of life was poor, those little designer boutiques never appeared. The country was awash with Eurocash from Brussels but it was disappearing fast and not into the pockets of those poor people.

At the same time, others were losing shedloads of lolly on the financial markets, a global crisis was emerging. We were all getting too greedy – materialism had become the mantra, and we were all about to suffer. Cracks appeared in the continental bonhomie – Sarko sneered, Blair escaped just in time leaving the bumptious Berlusconi to face the euro music.

Even though we were all carrying that floppy maroon passport stating that we were all European, a hologram allowing us to pass freely without hindrance between our sister nations, none of us had actually put European as our nationality on forms, we hadn’t sung the Euro anthem at football matches or been tested to prove our eligibility to be a European. How many of us know all the member states’ names? Their capitals? Speak at least two of their languages?

Maybe it’s time for us all to “calm down dear” – and go back to our back yards, We all seemed to be in too much rush to do well, to make a fast euro, stealing leisure moments at the shopping mall or the multiplex, ears and eyes hardly away from the iPhone. However, we are all lucky to live during such an amazing period, able to share each other’s cultures and learn more from our neighbours, enriching our lives if we seize the opportunity.

I still plan on being a mainland European one day and I think I’ve found the best spot. Just ‘entre nous’ this country, smack in the middle of Europe is a little haven. Having had its fair share of turmoil of the years it has now settled down to be a steady little peach of prosperity. It has beautiful mountains and lakes, even a little coastline, hardly bigger than a beach, good food and wine and charming people. It’s Slovenia. You hardly ever hear anything in the news about Slovenia, even its president prefers to govern from his modest home in the woods where he goes to find peace alone. Walking is a wonder in the countryside and it’s only a stone’s throw from Venice. What more could you want. It’s the only airport I know where there’s a bar outside where you can people watch over a beer before you go through to fly away.

If you don’t hear me on Monocle any more and I’ve disappeared off the airwaves you’ll know where to find me – an Englishman giving Europe another try, sipping a glass or two of wine, sitting in the peaceful eye of the European storm.


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