Catching up with the neighbours.

August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

We are all prone to be infected by it. The dream of leaving; the paradoxical paralysis of “Should I stay or should I go.” As Phillip Larkin put it:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there…

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness… 

Even though my days of being stubbly with goodness are more reflective of a blunt bic rather than any sense of adventure there is still a seductiveness in just taking off. Not that I feel any grievance about where and how I live. In truth, my biggest complaint is that the Netherlands is primarily a coffee drinking nation. Perhaps for that reason a decent, basic tea bag is a miracle to discover even in the biggest supermarket. Sure, if you want camomile, fruits of the forest, or indeed any sort of obscure fruit (the kind that would have taken the late Anita Roddick months of exploration in the Amazonian forests) that disguises itself as tea, the shelves are groaning with them. But when it comes to Twinings Everyday or PG Tips the shelves are mute.

Writing that line evokes a childhood memory of visiting a zoo and watching chimpanzees have a tea party. Whatever happened to the old PG Tips ad where the Tips chimp family shared afternoon tea? Perhaps the RSPCA clamped down. Or more likely the fact that the chimps were both so like us and yet disconcertingly different that we became uncomfortable with their anthropomorphic antics. And they are very like us. Depending on the method of calculation, humans and chimps share between 96% and 99% of genes. But they are also very unlike us in, for example, their genetic diversity. Human beings are extraordinarily alike whereas chimpanzees have more genetic difference between two families living on opposite sides of a Congolese valley than exists across the whole human race.

Chimpanzees are, however, alike humans in another way. Unlike other non-human primates which rarely if ever interact with other troops of the same species, chimpanzees will on occasion interact with other troops. This may even result in exchanges of members although it can also result in genocide! So notwithstanding the shameful asymmetrical tea supplies, one of the good things about living where I do is how easy it is to jump in the car and just take off (stubbly with goodness) to visit the next tribe on the other side of the valley. And so it was a couple of weeks ago when we decided to take a drive through the Baltics and into Finland.

It had been a few years since I’d been through most of the countries we visited so it was nice to see old places and the ways they had changed over the years. Berlin is an old favourite and after visiting the profoundly moving Holocaust memorial on Cora-Berliner-Straße we noticed that a new US embassy had opened  opposite,  running through from the memorial to Pariser Platz. The embassy must occupy the most prestigious spot in Berlin. Also the most symbolic as it is in the corner of the previous Russian zone of East Berlin, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. If there is one place in the world to remind Putin who “won” the cold war, the Americans chose the exact spot in Berlin. Of course just along the road from the US embassy, on Wilhelmstraße, lays the smaller, less impressive British embassy.

It’s not just Germany that has changed. The last time I went through Poland and the Baltics was the transition time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the joining by those nations of the European Union. Since 2004 (their accession to the EU) the modernisation and the investment in infrastructure has been phenomenal. They are still culturally recognisable as the same counties but almost unrecognisable in terms of freedom and affluence. Odd little artefacts underline the developments. Twenty year old border-posts, now rapidly running to decay, line the borders of the Baltic states. No doubt opened to mark their post-Soviet borders, they became anachronisms on becoming part of the Schengen agreement in 2007. With the exception of the UK, nowadays pretty much anywhere in the EU if you want to visit your neighbours you don’t worry about borders, you just get in your car and drive. As you travel, whatever you discover the one thing hard not to recognise is that (unlike Chimps) our neighbours are remarkable like us. Sure, there are national stereotypes (I can still see the embarrassment on the Finnish waitress’s face when she accidentally smiled at us!) but somehow cultural and linguistic differences seem to have done little to curb the enthusiasm for a collective vision of Europe.

And then there is the UK. A month after the UK voted for Brexit we drove through Europe and almost without exception when people heard us talking English they asked us about Brexit. The universal response was “Why?” Followed by “How could you be so stupid?” Everywhere there was genuine puzzlement. Many Europeans have the same gripes about bureaucratic bound Brussels and indeed concerns about immigration as the Brits but even in the face of that they are amazed that the UK could take such a blatantly short sighted, inward looking and patently self-destructive action as leaving the EU. On the ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm we shared an amiable dinner table with a Swedish woman and her sixteen year old grand-daughter who were coming back from a weekend shopping in Finland. Again their bemusement was marked, they just could not understand why the British, whose culture they admired and whose language they spoke perfectly, could be so blatantly stupid to believe they were better off going it alone in the world.

What marked these conversations for me was my acute sense of embarrassment. How do you explain to a Finn (perhaps one of the most nationalistic and fiercely independent countries in the world) that whereas they believe that their national self interest is best served through cooperation with Estonia et al, the Brits believe their superiority sets them apart and they will do better to go it alone. The Germans work with the French, the Dutch with the Belgians and so on. In contrast the Brits say “Bugger it, we are better off without them, we’re British.” I guess with Brexit the UK can move towards its national destiny of Morris Dancing and tax avoidance, leaving behind the EU as it gets on with the drudgery of building trans-continental motorways, making cars and wind turbines, and living in peace with each other. Even chimps know better. Like all primates, chimps instinctively know the value of forming alliances through the grooming process. Such behaviour moves family members up the hierarchy and promotes group cohesion thereby enhancing both productivity and safety, easing the way to visiting your neighbours on the other side of the valley without fear of genocide…or straight bananas.

So as Phillip Larkin suggests in the Poetry of Departures, it may seem exciting to just chuck it all in, damning the others and going it alone. But as Larkin concludes, it would be exhilarating

If it weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backward


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