It’s a mess of overlapping pieces. Within the UK even there are (among countless others) the Welsh, the Scots, the Northern Irish, the English, the Cornish, the Manx; West Country, Estuary, Northern, Southern; the four compass points of London and all the home countries. North or south of the river can divide families.
Europe’s variety is what makes this continent so dear to me. While at times the myriad of regional identities can seem fragmentary (and has often furthered nationalist agenda and authoritarian regimes), the in-out divisions of Europe are a Venn diagram with sparkling intersections.
Two millennia of fighting over territory can explain a lot of Europe’s bizarre geography. But there is also a tradition of populations wandering across poorly defined borders and of an undirected migration. (The English are Norman, the French descended from Germanic Franks; what to make of the Spanish-descended population in Ireland or the Italian-Swiss?). Europe has ended up with arbitrary and often futile claims to identities. But also colourful bursts of pride in a state, a city, a language or a vague personal history.
For a few months, my girlfriend lived with a girl from the Basque Country. Split across France and Spain and with a language and culture far removed from their two home states, the Basques have a good case for independence. (But their compatriots in Cataluña were the ones to recently elect a pro-independence government).
Balancing sovereignty with the intimacy our crowded continent breeds between neighbours isn’t easy. How can the English (or any of their neighbours) truly mock the French without knowing them? (Think sibling rivaliry).
Flanders and Wallonia are torn between two countries in a different way. One half, Dutch-speaking; the other, French. (Both lay claim to Brussels).
Having spent a night in Aachen and having visited its Christmas market (dabbling in its mulled wine along the way), we caught a train to Leuven. It was a flying visit to the home of Stella Artois and two friends of my girlfriend.
We dutifully tried the local Stella (but I couldn’t taste much of a difference; apparently it travels better than Guinness) and some Belgian beers I hadn’t tried before.
Linguistically, I felt at a loss. It had been a long time since I had been somewhere with such an unfamiliar language. France and Spain had been my usual haunts but Italian also seemed only slightly out of control. I can’t hold a conversation in Geman but I can at least order food. In Flanders, I was once again mute.
I had forgotten how hard it can be to negotiate a new, remote language. Eating and moving around become harder. For me (and I hope not me alone), relying on English suddenly feels like a fragile tactic. I start to feel excluded and remote from those around me.
And yet, it’s an exciting, rewarding experience. Simple successes (buying a bus ticket or ordering a drink) become mighty victories. And of course small moments of acknowledgement can suddenly open the world you thought closed off. That’s a magical moment.
So it is for the various people and cultures of Europe. Yes, it can close people out. But when they mix and open to one another something special shines through.