by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - May 17, 2010) Lilacs -- my favorite flowers -- are blooming in Belgium this spring. They are lavender and white and they are as fragrant and as intoxicating as any lilacs I have smelled anywhere. Today, I have been walking across the Belgian countryside, about 30 minutes by car from Brussels, and the lilacs, as well as the beautiful landscape, have prompted me to write down my impressions and reflections about the crisis of identity in Europe that has been brought on in large part by recent events in Greece that have shaken the entire continent.
The Euro, it seems, may not continue forever to be the currency for Greece, and Europe may be in store for rough times economically and politically. Moreover, many Europeans are determined to defend themselves against perceived outsiders and to forbid, for example, the wearing of the burqua and the niqab, traditional garb for many women from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries. Jean-François Copé, the French National Assembly leader, has said that people who wear them are "lacking in identity," "not identifiable," and also "avoiding responsibility." Of course, from the point of view of some, though certainly not all Muslims, the burqua and the niqab provide an important sense of identity.
My walk on this day in spring took me through fields freshly plowed, across valleys, and to the top of gentle hills with spectacular views. I know the countryside well. I lived in Belgium and taught at the University of Antwerp and the University of Gent in the 1980s. But it is still surprising to me that there are working farms here, green fields, and blooming lilacs where armies once clashed, soldiers died, and civilians were not exempt from the atrocities of war.
I'm historically minded and the past usually impinges on the present as I experience it. I can't think of Flanders without also thinking of the wars that ravaged Europe in the twentieth century. Still, it's hard to imagine military conflicts as devastating as World War I and World War II sweeping across this landscape again. There is so much invested in peace, and too much at stake for nations to bomb one another as they once did.
Brussels, the capital of Belgium, provides the headquarters for NATO, and the home for dozens and dozens of multinational corporations. "Eurocrats" -- as my friends call them with a sneer -- work side by side in buildings of glass and steel, and their salaries and their status depend on continuing peace. Brussels has the appearance of a well-run, tranquil city with good signage, disciplined police, and strong family ties.
But here, as elsewhere in Europe, appearances can be deceiving. The social, economic and political tremors that originate at the periphery of Europe are felt in Brussels, near the center of Europe. Upheavals in Greece, Spain, and Portugal shake financial and political institutions in Belgium, Germany, France, and in England. It strikes me, as I walk across the countryside, that Europe is a tightly wound ball of yarn and that when a single thread comes unraveled at one end, the whole ball of yarn is affected.
Indeed, Europe seems in danger of becoming increasingly undone after years and years of aiming to be a unified community. On the whole, however, my Belgian friends do not share my alarm. They aren't predicting open unrest, massive strikes, and the failure of governments to govern, perhaps because they know Europe better than I do, or perhaps because they're too close to the situation at hand to see what's actually happening. They have witnessed immense changes in Europe in their own lifetimes: the creation and the destruction of the Berlin Wall; the insurrections of 1968 and the return to a kind of normalcy. In a way, they've become inured to crisis.
At a crowded Spanish restaurant, a former professor tells me, over tapas, that the Catholic Church is as entrenched as it has been for decades, though there are, month after month, new revelations about priests sexually abusing children, sometimes even children in their own families. "The church has vast properties, immense wealth, and its fingers are in nearly every aspect of European political life," he tells me. "The schools run by the Church provide students with the best available education in Belgium and parents who are not Catholic or even religious send their sons and daughters to Catholic schools. Right now, the church aims to take young Moslems and convert them into good Catholics, and through their children to lure parents into the fold."
My closest Belgian friends send their son and daughter to a Catholic school, which I visited and found as well equipped and as technologically advanced as any private American high school. The students must take a class called "Religion," though most of them don't take it seriously. Text messaging is apparently more rampant in the Religion class than in any other.
I also visited a college in Antwerp and gave a lecture to about 50 students, both men and women, on the subject of "the self" and "personal identity" in American literature from the Puritans through Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to Norman Mailer, the author of Advertisements for Myself. Belgian students tend to be interested in all things American; they are also especially interested in questions of personal and cultural identity now because traditional European identities have been undermined, some of them feel, and because all across the continent there is discussion and debate about what it means to be a European, and how far boundaries of the self might be stretched.
The students at the college in Antwerp, most of whom are Belgian natives -- there was one Brazilian woman -- posed challenging questions. "Why do we have to have an identity?" a 20-something-year-old asked me. Another wanted to know what the difference was between a society that emphasized roles and another society that emphasized stories about itself. I suggested that roles could be confining and that stories, or narratives, allowed for more freedom. Roles were often imposed from outside. Stories came from inside. The question of European identity hangs over all of Europe like a doubled-edged sword, and students wonder who will decide questions about dress and language, and how much longer traditional European identity will continue.
Once upon a time, I would have said that the United States increasingly defines Europe for Europeans. This time, as on other visits, I certainly saw advertisements in English for American movies and advertisements for products that feature Hollywood stars. But today, the presence of American movies and movie stars seems such a commonplace that it's hardly worth mentioning. I can't help but describe Charlize Theron, however, who appears in an ad for Dior perfume looking like the goddess Aphrodite, with ample cleavage and full breasts. Provocative ads like these that appear on almost every street corner and in almost every magazine suggest in part why some Moslem men and women, too, might want to cover the faces and the bodies of females.
In Brussels itself and in the surrounding towns and villages, there is considerable wealth, and also reminders of the Belgian Empire under King Leopold II, who made the Congo into his own private preserve. In Antwerp, what struck me most of all was the wealth: new office buildings and apartments, new sleek restaurants, remodeled museums, and busy cafés, though I also saw vacancies and many "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs. I know there is unemployment here and poverty but they do a good job of concealing themselves.
"Where does the money come from?" I asked my guide. He replied, "There's a lot of black market money in Antwerp, a lot of money laundering, and financial speculating. Much of the art world is supported by money from the criminal element. That was the case in Balzac's time, and it's still true. Behind every great fortune there's usually a great crime." On the subject of the Greek crisis and the crisis of the Euro another friend explained, "Northern Europeans, and the English have been looting Greek art for thousands of years; the British museum is packed with ancient Greek treasures and when the Germans and other northern Europeans go to Greece on vacation, the Greeks cook for them, clean their rooms, and wait on them hand and foot. I think Europe owes the Greeks a great deal." (Just as I was putting the finishing touches to this piece came news -- in The New York Times -- that European leaders had reached an agreement to provide $1 trillion to stop the debt crisis. Capitalism has shown its resiliency once again, but it also seems likely that more crises lie ahead, and that the barricades that went up in Greece might go up in other European countries.)
At the end of my long walk across the fields of Flanders, I stopped with a Flemish friend on a paved road at the edge of a village. My friend pointed to a sign in front of a mailbox that was directed to the postman and written in Dutch. He translated for me. "Do not place letters in the box. Birds are nesting here and there are 12 eggs ready to hatch." The farmer came out to greet us. Dressed in blue overalls and boots, he explained that he was born right there, 60 years ago, and that his grandparents had lived and farmed on the same land. He had several greenhouses and grew grapes. He also raised chickens and defended them against the foxes in the neighborhood. Some of his relatives, he explained, emigrated to the United States and settled in Wisconsin.
That farmer, who spoke English, as well as Dutch, and his wife, who wanted to know where I came from and why I was visiting, struck me as representatives of a Europe that is fast disappearing. I know that there are men and women like them in France, Italy, and Germany. They are on the margins of modern-day Europe, and as far away from the "Eurocrats" as one can be in Europe and still reside within the boundaries of Europe. I hope that Europeans like the couple I met in the rolling hills and with the blooming lilac bushes do not disappear.
I like to think that if they mean to protect the birds nesting, unconventionally, in their mailbox, they would also want to protect immigrants who have made homes for themselves where immigrants have never lived before. All former European empires, Belgium included, now face exiles and fugitives from the world that was once colonized. The past has come back with a bang.
"There's a real time-bomb ticking here, and it's not the time-bombs of terrorists," a Belgian who works for an international medical organization told me. "We're going to have to address the issues posed by immigrants, and by the world of poverty, disease, and environmental disasters just beyond our borders, or it's going to come back and bite us with a vengeance."
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. (back)