Friday, October 3, 2008
Taking the grand tour of Europe
Welcome to my class of the Finishing school for Ladies. I was quite honoured when Elizabeth and Emma allowed me to be part of their finishing school project. A finishing school assumed that the basics of education and good manners were already in place. It was the task for the school however to give everything a nice sheen, a good bit of polish by adding elegant or practical accomplishments as well as a certain style.
It used to be a tradition for young men and women who could afford it to finish their education by going overseas to Europe and make a 'grand tour'. This way, they would see the picturesque places, some of the worlds wonders and get a 'continental sheen of refinement' that comes from having seen different things, and hopefully adapted the best of that to the new life they were about to begin as adults.
A wonderful description of how such a voyage could go can be found in Louise Alcott's "good wives" where Amy goes abroad to discover the old world. By design as well as necessity, a grand tour only showed some highlights of different countries, a subjective selection of what was best and beautiful.
In my 'grand tour' I will try to do the same. With only a few posts to outline Europe, clarify some subjects and introduce some interesting concepts, there is no choice but to be utterly and completely selective. My selections will of course be biased, based on what I know, what I have experienced myself and what I think would be worth while to mention.
But before we start our grand tour tomorrow, let us first stand still for a moment at the question what Europe actually is. I am always puzzled by advertisements that tell you that this or that purse is "European" style. I think from the American perspective it is almost inevitable to see the continent mostly as a counterbalance for America, one big country with different states, but still a whole. The line between identities in Europe is much stronger. Neither in Spain, nor in Belgium or Danmark will people identify themselves firstly as European (except perhaps three or four political activists). Their first identity will be to their country, with European as a big and vague, very loose binding of those nationalities. What Europe is, even the Europeans have not yet been able to define. And then I have not even mentioned the European Union, an umbrella government that is increasingly influencing decisions of national governments but that few people actually feel a bond with.
Europe is best described as a crazy quilt with many different fabrics and colours. The cultural, geographical, historical and organisational differences between countries can be mind boggling. Entire wars were fought in parts of Europe that did not affect others. Religions differ, as well as governmental organisations, monarchies as well as republics, countries with large agricultural populations and countries where less than one percent is involved in working the land.
If there is anything I would like you to remember from this introduction to the grand tour, it is that there is no "European Style". Spanish style is utterly different from Dutch style in both fashion and mentality.
A second thing I would like you to remember is never, ever, ever to believe any portrayal of Europe in a mainstream movie. I can not start to describe the smoke that came out of my eyes at watching the teenage movies: "the prince and me" in which they made a mockery of Denmark or "What a girl wants" in which they did the same with Great Brittain, not even to mention Batman returns in which two young women aparently decide to take too close an interest in a restaurants water feature. When the maitre d' informs Bruce Wayne that the fountain is not intended for swimming and that his companions are not wearing a bathing suit, he grins it off with a charming: "they are European" as if nude swimming in a restaurant fountain is as common there as bread for breakfast. I am well aware that those movies are not intended as educational material, but for people who rarely get the chance to travel, it leaves an impression which is hard to get rid of, of a continent that balances between pompous and hedonistic.
I hope that this 'grand tour' will leave you with a different impression of Europe, an incredibly diverse continent with great sides and less great sides and one that has a lot to offer in history, art, mentality, and daily life solutions.
Until tomorrow, there is no homework!
Be loved and blessed and till then!