Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travel confuses the mind.


Musings of a cultural magpie, part 2.

They say that travel broadens the mind. Sometimes, I think it just confuses it.
Over the years, I have been a house-guest of perhaps half a dozen French people, sometimes for a week or more at a stretch. I have visited the homes of a good many others, not to mention some of their schools and workplaces – and have hosted a similar number in return.

Hardly a representative sample of a populous nation, of course, but perhaps rather more than average for a Brit. It’s hardly surprising that those people were all quite different in both personalities and life-styles, just as individuals are anywhere – and yet my dominant memory of them, collectively, is their overwhelming Frenchness.

I had similar experiences in Germany, with the added complication of being nowhere near as competent a German-speaker as a French. Luckily, my hosts all spoke good English, and the same is true of Switzerland, where I have the most enduring friendships. Once the language issue is minimised, you can progress.

I recall the timidity with which I first made such connections, something that has fortunately lessened over the years. While this was doubtlessly partly a matter of personality, I suspect that neither is it an unusual experience. Anxieties perhaps hinge most obviously on language and food, tinged with a less-focused fear of making an unintended faux-pas. At a deeper level again, I was aware of a self-imposed sense of being an “ambassador” for my country. It ought to be possible for people just to be people, no matter where they come from!

But for all that the British may carry the extra baggage of their self-perceived ‘apartness’, I doubt that such anxieties are a one-way affair; indeed the comments and behaviours of those who have stayed with me suggested as much. To some extent, it is a simple matter of unfamiliarity.

What this perhaps betrays is the fact that national identities still matter; that despite several decades of intensifying integration between the nations of Europe, we have yet to cast off those national characters and become some kind of bland, homogenous Euro-citizen, the kind of thing of Eurosceptics’ worst nightmares.

I think the cultural dissonance that we experience on such occasions is entirely natural, and nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes sense to try to overcome it. In fact, it is just as possible to experience similar feelings in an unfamiliar part of one’s own country, or with people whom one does not know well. All the nationality issue does is raise pre-existing stakes somewhat. Yet despite that, when travelling around one’s own country one is not, I think, struck firstly by its homogeneity. From the ‘inside’, such things are taken for granted, one notices subtle differences more quickly – and it takes something exceptionally symbolic to prompt the “so English” response. I’m pretty sure that the same phenomenon applies elsewhere: we just take our own cultures for granted.

Yet our tendency to “other” people is more difficult to overcome than we like to think. There is evidence to suggest that it is a natural survival instinct, and such things are not easily over-ridden: it takes a great deal of work to remove all illiberal thoughts. Even though I am entirely comfortable in the countries that I mentioned earlier, and despite the fact that I know some places and people in those countries better than plenty in my own, it can still be difficult to get beyond that first-level sense of ‘otherness’, even when it is a wholly positive experience.

I still tend to think of Swiss friends, French friends, German friends – not just friends; I expect it is reciprocal. In recent years, I have made progress in this respect. Some of my Swiss friends, in particular, are now so familiar that the nationality issue has (almost) disappeared, and I just think of them as discrete individuals like any other – until they say or do something that re-emphasises their otherness… Can it ever disappear completely?

But it has taken a lot of years and shared experience to get to that point. With people I know less well, it is less easy to do; again, I suggest this is quite normal, and not only an international problem. (I sometimes wonder what lies behind the public bonhomie of EU leaders’ meetings: do they really share so much that the national differences are secondary?)

The same is true of places: those that I return to year in year out have eventually become just places (almost) like any other where I spend part of my life. When we are in Basel, it is almost impossible not to flit between three countries just in order to function. Our friends live within about ten minutes’ drive of both France and Germany; their son went to school in ‘another’ country; they own a second home in Germany – about a hour’s drive away. Eventually, you start forgetting which country you are in – certainly between Germany and Switzerland; France is a little more ‘different’ – and that difference therefore perhaps intrudes more. (I wonder, though if that is true for the Swiss and Germans too: I don’t think I would ever mistake Scotland or Ireland for England, for all that we share so much…)

I suppose it would be possible to criticise all of the forgoing quite heavily. It could be a purely personal difficulty, that many people don’t experience at all. But I somehow doubt it: my feelings are born from many years of deliberately confronting the issue. I remember just how (needlessly) intimidating my early trips to other countries were – and I can see the journey I have travelled. Much evidence suggests that the bulk of the British population, at least, is still in the starting blocks. I don’t think an annual foreign holiday comes anywhere near adequately addressing it: you have to access local people and places for a start – and you have to keep going back.

I suppose that it could even be seen as a form of racism: the confession of a limited mind that can’t escape its own constraints. Perhaps – but it is not for the want of trying. It is born of decades of experience – and I suspect that anyone who claims it isn’t remotely that difficult really hasn’t thought about it very deeply. The more I understand these issues, the more complex and intractable they can seem…

Where does this leave us in terms of our own national identity? I ended part one by saying that I don’t like much of what I see of my own nation’s modern identity. I find little there that I wish to “own” – which is why I have gone looking elsewhere for something that is meaningful to me.

Yet I suspect that we can’t ever fully escape the culture into which we were born. Emigrating to another country might be a valiant attempt – but the extent to which one can ever really become someone else is doubtful. Despite citizenship tests, taking another nationality is fundamentally a legal and financial matter; I doubt if that act alone ever really changes one’s mindset very much. I suspect that people who live abroad are ultimately destined to be perpetual outsiders, perhaps eventually in their native lands too. They risk becoming – dare I say – “citizens of nowhere”. Perhaps that is why many are so sensitive about the label ‘ex-pat’?

So, much as I love my perceptions of certain other countries, I remain highly suspicious that they are anything more than romantic stereotypes, born of one’s inescapable tendency to generalise. Neither am I convinced that fleeing a country in which I feel almost as much a foreigner as anywhere else, would actually solve anything. The daily routines might change; familiarity would definitely increase – but would that experience destroy precisely what I appreciate about those places as an outsider? Would greater familiarity just breed contempt of what I previously admired?

There is, however, no law that says one should only be influenced by one’s birth-nation, no matter how nationalists might want it that way. People have been inspired by what they encountered abroad for centuries: it was the whole raison d’être of the Grand Tour. Somewhere along the way, we can cross a rubicon from infatuation to genuine adoption. Part of that no doubt involves getting past infatuation and moving onto marriage. By doing that we both remove “foreignness” and simultaneously make ourselves a little more cosmopolitan. Now that panettone, for example, is eaten throughout Europe, is it now less Italian – or are those doing the eating a little more Italian? (And what happens when we Brits do what we always do and adulterate it, or turn it into bread-and-butter pudding?)

I think one thing is certain: this is neither a quick nor easy process: extending one’s cultural horizons beyond one’s national ones can set up all sorts of conflicts. Maybe this is, too, what the much-derided “Little Englanders” are afraid of. Perhaps it is all the worse because of the relative weakness of their home culture?

Facing it can be a challenging proposition – but especially so for those who rarely venture (in their heads, if not their bodies) beyond their own little island.

(Final part to follow)

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