Abdelkader Benali and Jan Brokken have started a fierce and heated direct exchange, sparked off by Jan with an outcry on the sadness of the discourse on Europe. Here's their conversation in 5 parts.
Last week I saw the film, The Artist, by French director Hazanavicius (already a name that could fill a novella). The story is deliciously simple. A silent movie star refuses to crossover to the talkies and thereby loses his position through stubbornness. He even rejects the helping hand of an up-and-coming starlet doing well in the new medium and who also happens to worship him. But he ends up down and out and almost dying in a pyre of burning film rolls. A tragedy is barely averted until our fallen hero finally accepts the love of his successful admirer, and together they become a dance duo and make film furore. Ginger and Fred, Redux. The film is black-and-white and without a line of spoken dialogue. For 90 minutes, we the viewers watch breathlessly to a modern silent film. What I found the most special was how even though the star completely rejected the new innovations, he retained my sympathy. Here, a cliché was broken through: the idea that humans should embrace all new technology as quickly as possible. That the world is there to be improved. Adjusted. The hero said no and it was a no that came out of an existential emergency.
Only at the end, is the true tragedy of our anti-hero revealed.
Let me just say that this ending revolves around the question of being a foreigner. In this case, someone who does not speak the language and must therefore mask this fact as much as possible. You often see this with people whose first language is not English when they try to have a conversation: increased body language, mimicking, grinning, belly laughing and eye rolling. It all becomes a bit more dramatic to avoid that feeling of powerlessness. We become more mime artists than smoothly moving actors.
Nation-forming lives off illusions. The shared language creates the illusion of unity wherein we can share our movements. By not understanding Greek, it makes us immune to the suffering they experience from the financial crisis. Now we look at our southern part as if it’s a silent movie. We see the gestures but miss the words. Imagine if we did have a shared language and that we could talk via Skype to Greeks, Italians and Portuguese. All our northern myths would go up in smoke. The European project always avoided the idea of a shared language out of fear of one language dominating. The idea that all of civilization would speak French is just not very appealing over in London. So we were not allowed to understand our southern neighbours. And now that they are in an emergency, we don’t want to understand them. The solution is for primary school students in Western Europe to learn at least one South European language (Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish) and for those in the southern part to learn one North European language (Dutch, German, Danish). English would be mandatory for all. Only then will sound finally fuse with images.
You took the words right out of my mouth. The Artist is a beautiful film. After it finished, I kept sitting and mused about the importance of the Word. Last month I was at an international writers’ conference. As is usual these days, the discussion was organised around three themes – ‘Dream and Reality’, ‘The Outsider’ and ‘Home’ – and we all had a chance to give a short response. There were 15 of us: writers from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Brazil. Women, men. Moslim, Christian, atheist. Majorities, minorities – the writer from Turkey was Kurdish. I was one of the last to speak. Not a surprise: male, white, blue eyes and not the youngest. Dutch is also no longer an advantage ever since a certain political party rose to influence. I had to wait a long time before I could have my say. So I listened closely. But it was only during the second round I really noticed something: all the writers spoke perfect English. And their short and concise statements were all made with the same American accent. It was if their sentences were written by Barack Obama’s speechwriter. How can this be, I wondered? The Lebanese, a loud and colourful young lady in tight leather pants, eventually spat out the answer: ‘That’s how we learned it in Beirut at the International School!’
I was reminded of my years in Curacao. The better off – locals, Americans, Venezuelans, Cubans, French, Argentinians and very many Dutch – all sent their children to the International School. For 15 000 dollars a year each, they received an excellent education from American teachers. Since many of my friends had their children at the International School, I often attended school festivities around Christmas or Thanksgivings. The children put on plays, made music (country music) and danced – in the best American tradition and under the banner of the American flag. The evening would end with cheese cake and cola.
Most of my writers’ group were raised and educated in this way. Whether black, brown, yellow, white or somewhere in between, did not matter. Many write in English. The Nigerian writer, now living in Washington, could no longer even speak his native language. ‘But I can understand my mother,’ he said. It was the same for the Malaysian writer.
Is this the world of tomorrow? The new literature?
‘Where is your home?’ was asked for the final round. ‘Where I die,’ said the Lebanese writer resolutely. Where did she want to die? ‘In the arms of the man I love’. Nice thought. But a platitude. The only writer with a different tone was the Iraqi. He sought refuge across Asia before finally ending up in the Netherlands. Six years in an internment camp, with the last two near Zwolle. He spoke a comic mixture of English and Dutch. It made him utterly authentic.
I was reminded of the time we first met, Abdel, at the literature festival in Asti. Over dinner I heard you speak Moroccan with your wife. When Jan Geurt Gaarlandt and I reminded you of Rotterdam, we all began speaking with rolling r’s. Later in the convent’s courtyard, you were interviewed using flamboyant Italian. No fake American, no sameness. You were just you: a Dutch Moroccan who feels at home in Italy.
For me, you are the world of tomorrow, Abdelkader. I actually speak French at home with my wife. She also loved The Artist. And laughed about how the most beautiful film about Hollywood was made by a Frenchman.
I haven’t seen you in a while. Not literally – I have seen you on TV with those beautiful documentaries about books. Good tone: not know-it-all but driven by curiosity. Try to also cover some lesser known titles on occasion. Or half-forgotten books. No one reads the stories of Hotz anymore. A shame.
Meanwhile changes raze through Europe. I don’t understand any of it anymore. Today I had a telephone day to arrange things. Dick wasn’t there; he was in Greece. Hans is on vacation in Spain. Maartje is at a convention in Berlin. Liesbeth is going to the Matisse exhibition in Paris and won’t be back in the office until Monday. Everyone is travelling. A weekend in Barcelona is the same for the 40-year-old of today, as the bus ride from Rhoon to Rotterdam was for my parents. At the same time I hear everyone complaining about Europe. That the Greeks can just take off, that they’ll only cost us fists full of money. Help Spain or Portugal? How did they come up with that idea? Merkel is alright, but then again it might all just go to the Krauts’ heads. Complaints Department for Eastern Europe? Now that can be defended: drunken Poles are harassing our women.
These opinions are all just so provincial and short-sighted that you begin to wonder what people actually see and hear when they travel. Are they just taking their preconceptions with them on vacation? At least the farmers in my village, who have not seen much more of the world than the backsides of their cows, talk respectfully about the French (‘they make great cheese’) and the Danes (‘their butter is better than ours’). Wilders wants to bring back the guilder and Marine Le Pen the franc. Have they forgotten those hours long spent waiting at borders? Exchanging currencies: wasting energy on something that only makes the banks happy.
The worst is that it’s not only frustrated little people that believe these ideas. I was sitting around the table at home with some usually quite thoughtful friends and quoted a German writer. They looked at me as if they heard thunder coming from Koln and asked: ‘You still read German?’ Last year, these same people could not sing the praises of Berlin loud enough. Now that was the city of the future – that’s where you have to be! But to read a German book: no way! Now no offence, but stupidity is enjoying high times. Yes, we should go visit places, but please don’t think about knowing anything about these places.
But sometimes one comes across the opposite. Last month for three hours I had to answer questions from twenty history teachers who were making a trip to Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. I didn’t have to read from Baltic Souls because they already had it memorised. They asked quality questions. The only thing was that the average age of these teachers was over 60 and most were already retired.
With younger people I always sense some disdain around the subject of Europe. If they read, they read Jonathan Franzen and not Miklós Bánffy whose They Were Counted goes a hundred times deeper than Freedom. It’s as if they don’t want to know anything about Europe anymore.
But anyway, France now has Hollande as president. He named a former German teacher as prime minister. Manuel Valls, who was Spanish until age 17, is also going to be part of the government. Perhaps the French are pointing us the way forward for Europe. They’ve done this before in history with the Enlightenment. I am slowly craving for more meaning, vision, erudition and a thinking that crosses borders. How’s that with you?
You took the words right out of my mouth, or as the Dutch say, heart. I printed it out so I could read it again by the window overlooking the street I live in, Churchilllaan. My street is named after the man who helped stop absolute evil. He was also the first statesman, who just after the war, spoke about a European union that would work to avoid war and conflict in the future. On the rubble of WWII, he did not present this coming together as a frivolous utopia but as a bitter necessity – never again. So Mr Churchill, if you raised from the grave what would you say about all the stunts being pulled by today’s leaders? Would you grin and bear it? Or would light a cleansing fire with your big, fat, macho cigar?
Today, as the summer light fills the Churchilllaan, dark clouds gather over the idea of Europe. People are in panic. Many Dutch are secretly choosing Berlin over Paris. You know why, Jan? Because in Berlin a coffee costs one and half euros and in Paris it’s double. It’s the economy, stupid.
I find it a shame that we live in a borderless region for only one reason, linked to the current atmosphere of ressentiment. Borders physically make you feel that there are truly distinct worlds. Before, if you went to East Berlin, you saw how it could also be. Worse, more communist, grey – different. And once back in West Berlin, you would witness the pumped-up mass capitalism. Both reflected the results of choices made by people.
By getting rid of borders and letting the economies grow together, differences decline. As European integration moves forward, the people are left behind feeling hollow and empty. It feels as if there’s nothing more to choose for. The Hegelian synthesis is so complete, it suffocates. Try to find reassurance in that, Jan.
People are craving differences – high peaks and low valleys – and want to view the abyss because only then is catharsis possible. From the sameness of our zone, no consciousness can grow. In this moment everyone rates themselves as an accountant. But perhaps this is just a necessary stage – and we will be liberated from it.
The Netherlands is slowly becoming a nation of 16 million economists marching to the beat of populist drummers using the Greeks as scapegoat. If it wasn’t the Greeks, it would be the Spanish or Portuguese. After all these southerners have always been a bit suspect ever since the Spanish Fury headed north so long ago.
But do these millions of economists know that the Greek economy is only two per cent of the total? Do they know that we help things even less by continuing to borrow money at the lowest interest in history? These things are difficult to explain to those with a household expense notebook for a heart, a piggybank for a liver and a sewer of inflation for large intestines.
You and I are the same: Europe is an experience, a trip, and, yes, also sometimes a burden. It’s a heap of intellectual mumbo-jumbo drowned in a rich and romantic béarnaise sauce. You and I share the same spectacles. When someone says Greece, we think of Pindaros. When Greece is mention in The Hague, people shout ‘Oh, Oh, Cherso’.
A couple of days ago in Athens, these spectacles were slapped off my face. The city felt bitter. Healthcare seemed already on the way out as I observed countless sets of bad teeth. Athens is decomposing, with the rats from Camus’ The Plague already taking over. The rot of crisis is most apparent on the famed Street of 3 September. Here the city’s better boutiques were once topped with residents of well-to-do bankers, business people and government officials. People lived their bourgeois lives exactly as they did in Roman Prati or do in our own Concertgebouw neighbourhood.
Now the street resembles an opera singer with whopping cough. A third of the buildings have been boarded over, many more are about to collapse. There’s a sense of confusion and hopelessness. People mumble: ‘It’s turning into a Beirut where everyone will fight everyone else.’ I lived in Beirut and I can say that Athens feels even more hopeless. A city on the edge of civil war.
Europe is empathy, Jan. To put yourself in the position of others. To plunge yourself in the history, traditions and art of a culture until it becomes your own culture. It’s also way of relating with each other. And now the opposite is happening. Good manners are no longer required when talking with strangers. It’s simple for too many: the Greek are not worth our empathy.
Luckily, while my Greek friends and I were working through a few kilos of lamb chops in an Elias tavern, a certain bard worked to reassure me. ‘We are the land of the Peloponnesian War. It almost destroyed our culture completely. There were deep divisions. Our leaders made the stupidest mistakes. But now, 2500 years later, we’re still here!’
It’s silly I know, Jan, but I am reassured by such vague, Homeric reflections. When history is busy teaching us a lesson, there’s little to do but eat, drink and talk about our shared history. But perhaps as an outsider from a totally different culture, I have the luxury of naivety.
Just as with you, I see a growing need for dialogue. Of course a group of oldies wants to listen to your every word. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not deny it: there is something rotten in the state of Europe. Why are we supporting these colossal banks? Or more directly: Why did Europe shift from supporting the idea of equality for all citizens, to giving primary rights to financial institutions? So that those dumb Greeks – organisers of the Olympic Games – can rot in hell thanks to games played by French banks? Perhaps Europe is no longer aware of what’s happening to itself. Perhaps we should be more like the Ancient Greeks and just accept our fate. We don’t have any other choice. Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage just pales when compared to We and Europe.
But then I arrive to a place that the EU was formulated to avoid. A place of despair, fatalism and passivity. The same feelings that were on the same path that led to the rationalisations, causing military expansion and genocide ad absurdum.
I left the tavern and walked down the Street of 3rd September, back to my hotel. In the distance I saw Acropolis surrounded by construction cranes, as if they were protecting it from the threats of our crazy times.
Please understand me. I very much support differences, and I detest the idea of a uniform Europe – which is anyway just a concept produced by bureaucrats without imagination. The idea behind the formation of a European Union is both genius and dubious. Churchill, who you mentioned, and the other great leaders of the 20th century – De Gaulle, Adenhauer – proposed a common market as a way to break the cycle of destructive wars. With this they saved generations from much blood, sweat and tears. However their successors thought to make Europe a copy of the US, and it’s this misstep that we are dealing with today. America is much more of a unity than Europe. Sure there are differences in the US – between west, east, north, south and its expansive middle – but these differences are nothing compared to the 50 or 60 contrasts one encounters in Europe. Even in a tiny country like the Netherlands, Frisians and Limburgers have little in common – and it’s the same between the new Dutch of Amsterdam’s Diamant neighbourhood and the old Dutch of Staphorst! A Milanese lives, thinks and feels very differently than a Sicilian. If we want to save Europe, we must accentuate these differences. The principle of 1+1=2 may work for the world of finances, but you can’t force a man or woman from Andalusia to think and feel like someone from Estonia or Latvia.
I completely understand your regrets about disappearing borders, but there will always be borders, Abdelkader! Between communities, cultures, religions, languages and mentalities. And thank God for that! Nationalism is only despicable when it becomes a political tool feeding fears and hate and ending with war, death and decay. But on a cultural level, there’s nothing wrong with stressing one’s uniqueness. Last week I was standing in front of a Van Gogh landscape, a recent acquisition of the Van Gogh Museum, and mumbled to myself ‘Now that’s my country’. There was a willow, a road, a ditch, a polder and, in the distance, a factory’s smokestack. Almost nothing – yet I could smell it. For a Pole, Chopin is much more than just a composer of mazurkas, nocturnes and polonaises. He elicits a feeling that a Pole cannot describe in words – which likely comes from the way he fused purity with the lyrical. But I can also turn this around: I watched the European Song Festival. Soulless. All those little stars mimicking each other, is just another form of uniformity...
Besides the Europe of economists, another Europe must come of age: one of writers, poets, artists, composers and musicians. Right now they are in the margins – partially because that’s where they feel the safest. But it’s high time they showed more initiative. You said that you feel like an old-fashioned romantic when writing about the crisis in Greece and despairingly looking towards Homer and Kafavis. But no, Abdelkader, I rate you with the new avant-garde. The beauty of Europe is not her history. After my publisher Emile Brugman read the manuscript for Baltic Souls, he said ‘I’m slowly becoming ashamed of being European – what a beastly mess we’ve made of it.’ No, the most impressive thing about Europe is your Kafavis or my Pessoa. I do know that the power held by banks will not be tamed by a couple of majestic lines of poetry from a Portuguese misanthrope. But at least it provides counterbalance. So let’s get prepare for the worst and start our own crusade of the mind.
I was saddened to hear that your trip to Greece left you with the impression that Athens was worse off than Beirut. Is it really so bad? I find that shocking. Perhaps you should visit Warsaw, Tallinn or Riga where they still believe in the future. Or Prague. If you go to Prague, read Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiří Weil beforehand. I know you are a great admirer of Kafka, but – I’ll try to be diplomatic here – Weil surpasses him when it comes to absurdity. There’s also no other book that’s more Czech. We should be happy with all those regional differences. We should cherish and champion them with pride.
Hope all is well, Abdelkader. I’m leaving for a couple of months to finish my new book. But I am staying in Europe!
All the best,
Here we are worrying about Europe and the clashes and misunderstandings between its northern and southern mentalities, with The Hague, Berlin and Helsinki on one hand, and Athens, Rome, Madrid and Lisbon on the other. But meanwhile this world is slipping, like an eel from our hands, into irrelevance.
I arrived in Avignon on the night before the opening of its festival. I must shamefully admit that I had never been there before, perhaps because I’ve always preferred film, visual arts and music over theatre. I’ve also always been annoyed with those painfully long newspaper pieces that covered the festival. I imagined it as a coterie of Parisian snobs under a Mediterranean sun. Why would they let in normal folk like me? But yes, it remains a special city and so it was finally time to see it for myself.
The weather did not cooperate. One day it would be 37 degrees and windless, and the next day it would be 18 and pouring rain. And so it alternated for five days. In a museum I did see Modigliani’s last portrait of a female. She was so well captured that I after spending an hour staring I felt as if I had been to bed with her. Another museum, le Petit Palais, had shockingly good 15th century Italian art, with its cherry-on-top a Madonna by Botticelli with very sultry lips. While Botticelli carefully followed all the rules of religious art, he always managed to give his work some kind of naughty or indecent twist. I love it when artists quietly play with what is allowed and what isn’t.
But anyway, Abdelkader, this is not what I wanted to write to you about. I need to tell you about my restaurant visit. I believe there are two important benchmarks when it comes to regional cultures: the music and the kitchen. In Avignon I built things up very nicely: the first night I had a quick bite to acclimatise, the second night I enjoyed the offerings of a young and up-and-coming chef (the restaurant was named after its street number: 75), the third night I had a classic Provençale meal in a one-star restaurant (La Fourchette), and the last night I went to a local eating temple with two Michelin stars and two Gault & Millau chef caps. This restaurant was named after its chef/owner, Christian Etienne. Such a name makes it easy to remember but I did keep wondering which first name actually came first, Etienne or Christian. But with the restaurant located right beside the Palais des Papes, it could do no wrong.
Each summer Christian Etienne builds a seven-course menu around one ingredient: the tomato. Not only does the ice cream feature candied tomato, but the accompanying bread is shaded in tomato red. Of course one has to pay for all of his delicious creations. A menu costs 60 euros and a bottle of Côte du Rhône costs 40 (naturally a Chateauneuf du Pape would fit the surroundings the best, but that costs over double). But anyway, I will stop exposing my thrifty Dutchness. You yourself also like to indulge when it comes to food, and in this you are absolutely correct. Especially when you are in a place you don’t visit every day – such as a high terrace stuck to the side of a pope’s palace.
I had reserved our table when I was still in the Netherlands because I was worried it would be full of Parisians. You know how they hate tourists, so I made sure not to dress like one: with no Bermuda shorts, no t-shirt, no Nikes, no camera (not even a tiny digital one) and no strange little hat. I wore a decent Boss short-sleeved shirt and dark linen pants.
Due to the extreme heat, only the terrace was open. I had booked for 8.30 which is quite early for the Midi. I was with my lady and we were the last to be seated. The whole terrace was packed. When I ordered the aperitif and began to look around, I noticed that Marietje and I were the only Europeans.
‘A lot of Asians,’ I observed to the waiter when he came to take our order.
‘Thank God, sir!’
‘Why do we have to thank God for that?’
‘Otherwise we would have long gone bankrupt, sir. No French, Italian, German or Belgian can still pay 300 euro for a meal. But for Our Cousins, this is not a problem.’
Nos Neveus – that’s what’s he called the Chinese, which I found quite sweet. In French, they differentiate between cousin and neveu, with cousin being a distant cousin and neveu being the son of your brother or sister.
Our Cousins were feasting as if it was all free. They were washing it down with bottles of Châteauneuf du Pape, along with a cola to quench the thirst. They’d first take a sip of cola before taking a sip of holy nectar – and then following this up with another quick sip of cola. Nasty. They showed little interest in the food itself. It was all about the ambience. But they did photograph each course to show how the Europeans did their best for Their Cousins.
In the middle of the terrace on a round table, there was a Chinese man, who could not have been older than 30, along with his wife, and their three-year-old daughter sitting in a high chair. He wore ultra-short pants, Nikes and a cream-white Liverpool football shirt with on its back a big number 18 and the player’s name: Kuyt. Since he was sitting right in front of me, I spent the whole night staring at Kuyt.
Kuyt was a rather dominant type. He could not sit still. He got up regularly to lift his daughter from her stool. He would then want to sit down again so he would put her back – with her screaming in protest. Kuyt required the constant help of a waiter, whether it was to rescue the napkin that had fallen into the tomato dish, to answer the demand for a substitute entrée since his wife could not stomach parsley, or to deal with Kuyt’s kid knocking over her third bottle of mineral water (she thought it so much fun, so why deny her the pleasure?). Kuyt was so incredibly present that I began to hate Kuyt. In fact, he stole me of my appetite.
As it goes with good chef-cooks, Christian Etienne was quick to notice this situation. He came by every 10 minutes to check if his guests were satisfied. I was obviously not. He asked if there was anything he could do to make things right. ‘Yes, you can give Kuyt a good kick in the ass, similar to those you see on English football fields,’ I said.
Alas, he could not grant my wish. But I understood.
‘It’s our clientele, sir. Over the border in Milan, Turin, Venetia and Florence, it’s exactly the same. We could not continue without these boys. And I say “boys” on purpose. Have you noticed their ages?’
Yes. If I had had children, these boys would be younger than my children. Plus these boys are multi-multi-multi-millionaires.
Christian Etienne bought me off with a huge goblet of Châteauneuf du Pape. And I began thinking about how you and I are working ourselves up over Europe and writing passionate statements about how things should change on this old continent. But in fact it’s already been taken over by the Chinese who, just to tease us, wear Liverpool shirts and pretend that they are our very own Kuyt.
In short, Abdelkader, we must aim our arrows at those playing the songs that we are already dancing to. It does not make any difference if we come from Amsterdam, Paris, Rabat or Jerusalem. I believe that even our friend Wilders is not aware that Brussels is already a long passed station. The real story is about Beijing and Seoul. Sure Wilders can say that the Netherlands should step out of the EU, but can he casually state that the Netherlands should happily disengage itself from the whole world? In the world, it’s Our Cousins – with an 18 on their backs – who are defining the future.
I must now travel onward, Abdelkader. I’ll keep you up-to-date.
All the best,
I recognise that cousin. It’s me. I share the eagerness of those Chinese who want to eat their way through European culture. I’m also guilty of washing down foie gras with some Cola Light, and of the desire to sit down in a real restaurant with real wine glasses and real cutlery.
Some people have a criminal record. I have a culinary past.
For example as a child, I prepared my own French dishes by frying a big slab of entrecote until it was soft and falling apart. I would then add some mushrooms, let it all bubble in the brown sauce and then, as the cherry on top, add the fattiest piece of Roquefort cheese I could find. Anything to do with meat, brown sauces and mushrooms was French to me.
Playing chef. Those new smells that wafted through the kitchen made me feel as if I was busy with some kind of alchemical process. Through the melting and boiling of substances I was changing the world itself. Cooking is pure esoteric. By visiting that French restaurant, those Chinese were deluded into thinking they were world citizens – and what stories they will return home with!
And because I did this – a bit of stirring in the pan, making my own sauce – I also became a bit French. I believe that every Egyptian who deep-fries a frikandel should be automatically given Dutch nationality.
My little dish tasted like nothing. But I did not expect a miracle. It was enough to get lost in its creation.
Cooking changes who we are. Those who get inspired in the kitchen and start cooking, leave society’s constrictions behind them. They become artists. And those who eat the results become appreciators of the arts. It’s a ritual to be shared with enthusiasm. Full and content, people can then go their separate ways. Until the next exhibition! One of the reasons why there’s still always such an awfully claustrophobic atmosphere around arts and culture in the Netherlands, is because they don’t serve oysters and pop open some champagne after the show. For theatres wrestling with the Zeitgeist, I will say it again: include a tasty meal voucher with your tickets. To make it through a piece by the Austrian Jelinek, people need to enter the theatre with a full belly. The French understand this; their restaurants always offer reasonably priced set menus during any big festival.
To return to my thing with cooking in the kitchen.
My motivation was the desire to join (supposed) high culture – which includes cuisine. To help get me there I began to read Proust who, not coincidentally, begins by eating a madeleine which in turn triggers all these memories of a night kiss once desired. One of the most beautiful scenes in Ulysses, by that lapsed Irishman James Joyce, is the Jew Leopold Bloom’s inner monologue about the pleasures of offal as he walking to and from the butcher. In Lisbon, Bernardo Reis, a.k.a. Fernando Pessoa, studied the blackened banana that was on display in a market stall. Indeed, food runs like an intestine through European literature.
Whoever says there is no link between identity, national kitchens and memory deserves to be scolded. Food is one of the few products of culture that gives its users – both the eaters and the cooks – the feeling that they are taking part in something sublime. It’s a universal art. Cooking programmes are merely the continuation of alchemical rituals. Making mud pies out of mud. Bringing together seemingly disparate parts into a whole that suggests these ingredients were always meant to be together. Paella, bouillabaisse, hodgepodge.
One describes Sardinian worm cheese as heavenly and not that it’s particularly Italian. Enjoying food gives us a feeling of satisfaction because it gives us escape – the taste buds sends a mega ton of wonderful messages to the brain until we feel airborne. We are gone for a moment. It’s as if an angel pissed on your tongue. However by then, the food is already on its way to hell, the stomach. Humans are their own Divine Comedy.
For this experience we are willing to drive a few thousand kilometres out of our way. Even from Shanghai. One never goes to a restaurant; one always goes out of the way for one.
For the Chinese it must be double trouble and therefore doubly attractive. They have to deal with a large language barrier, just as we would in China. So whenever I see a Chinese in Europe in search of salvation, I mostly see myself in China in search of salvation.
The French language speaks little or nothing to them, yet they are impressed by all that it has produced. Last summer I was standing among the ruins of Maccu Piccu looking at all the unbelievable things produced by the Incas. Unfortunately my view was obscured by a young Chinese lady – no older than 16 – hopelessly spoiled by her millionaire parents who wanted a photo of her at any cost. She was crying and whining in a way that would put a Montessori school girl from Bloemendaal to shame. I noticed how she cried and whined like American girls do in sitcoms. There was nothing Chinese about it. She was also crying and whining in American-English and not Mandarin. But what I want to point out to you Jan, which is also a continuation of your sharp observations, is that she had to be on the photo with her fat and expensive Louis Vuitton purse in her small mouse-like hands. The photo was meant to document the purse and not Maccu Piccu, the Incas or any architectural wonders. It was about the purse being in a faraway, exotic location. After all, she did not drag this thing all the way from Paris – likely bought in a shop where a gigantic bodyguard stands as if he is guarding a haram of virgins – for nothing. Consumerism is a project. I cannot deny that I wanted to give her a little push so she’d end up a few meters away recovering among the grazing llamas. That purse, that food – it summarises a culture. It carries a culture. It fits a culture.
And I do exactly the same. Tell me to go somewhere where they are cooking the Holy Grail and you’ll find me there within a couple of days. The first thing I do whenever I am traveling across Italy and entering a new town is visit a bookshop. It’s not to see if they have the latest Veronesi or to buy a newspaper. I go to the cooking section; I leaf through travel guides and I read which restaurants are in the area. What’s on offer? Once I find a couple – quickly remember, not to forget! – I immediately calm down.
I always believed that one was only worthy of European culture once one had licked a plate clean there. And to think I thought I was unique.
To speak with one voice. How does this work?
Last week I think I had a glimpse of how it’s possible. Perhaps it was afata morgana or a simple illusion, but it did happen – and without any outside pressure.
While opinion-makers, Euro-sceptics and nationalists talk about the dissolution of the shared Euro, the Imagining Europe festival at the Balie in Amsterdam consciously chose for the opposite direction. The ideas that were shared there became so intimately intertwined that by the end of the night, I no longer knew which idea came from where.
For a week, the Balie became a miniature Tower of Babel. Artists, thinkers and debaters were squeezed so tightly into this cultural shoebox that there was no other direction to go but towards each other. Thinking power and virtuosity were unified. And the calm, almost serene, way intellectuals can turn complex connections into words became almost erotic in its tangibility. ‘Yes!’ thought my inner on-demand nostalgist. ‘This is what Paris in the fifties must have been like – but then without cigarettes!’ Perhaps this is what the 19th-century Italian nationalist Mazzini meant when he spoke of his dream for a future world government: ‘The call for international commitment connects all people.’
It was a great night if only for the fact that I was surrounded by people who regarded Europe as a given and not as criminal or the cause of all suffering. We’ve had over sixty years of relative peace – with our nadir being the shame of Yugoslavia’s wars when all of Europe’s idealism proved incapable of making a fist.
I believe one can learn more from eavesdropping during such an impromptu gathering, than from reading ten editorials in Le Monde. Some people had just flown in from a crisis region, others had been ripped away from their writing tables (I recognised their crazed expressions), yet others were in search of a subject, a theme or an ideal, and yet others were just wandering around in a haze unable to make any connections as they encountered one surprise after another. From Minsk to Ankara, from Birmingham to Damascus – if the European map was defined by these interactions and not by Brussels, then this continent would be a true community and not a mere trading zone.
One would expect that such an array of strange birds engaging in open debate would create an unintelligible cacophony. However the opposite occurred. Propelled by the winds of urgency, we instinctively found each other. Dialogue ex nihilio.
The invited speakers embodied the utopian vision of a Europe acting as a good example for the world. This strong drive came from the public itself: utopians, idealists, dreamers, ‘Luftmenschen’ and those from troubled homelands who could only dream of Europe’s peace. If there had been a Euro-sceptic in the room with a couple of sharp questions, the bubble would have burst. If such words as ‘bureaucratic juggernaut’, ‘Srebrenica’ or ‘Greece’ had been used, the mood would have turned. But isn’t every ideal that’s not protected and supported by an army, a police force, censorship, a parliamentary majority and/or a newspaper magnate, as vulnerable and fragile as morning dew on snowdrops? Let’s be that morning dew!
There was a plea from the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh (perhaps you know him from his fist-thick novels) to Europe’s leaders to go beyond economic and cultural exchanges and include healthcare and climate as part of their quest for sustained peace. In contrast to languages, political moods and food, climate doesn’t stop at any border. It’s a global phenomenon that links everything with everything, at least that is how I understood this – and yes, I know I am not saying anything new here.
In his sweeping reading, Amitav explained why Europe should take the lead and not China or the US. The Yankees are too busy retaining what they have, while the Chinese are too busy with getting what they want. In addition, the Chinese are still so caught up in their learning process that one should not expect much from them – eggs get broken in the making of an omelette. So it comes down to Europe who has heaps of experience when it comes to crisis management. I noted all this in my mental notebook. It was strange that it took a man who divides his time between Brooklyn in the US and Goa in India, to hold up this mirror for us. It was also strange how no one in the room thought this situation to be strange. I liked that.
It was a pithy reading, both clear and stimulating. However the snake in the grass remains the difficultness for the EU, with its image problems, to come out as a fighter. As advertising veterans describe it: a brand without an image will spark no movement…
Also, for an organisation to exist it should not be detached from society’s problems even from such a universal one as climate change. In other words, if the European bond has been so weakened by the financial crisis, how can it deal with a more abstract theme such as climate change?
And then there were these countless encounters between people from EU’s bordering regions at the Balie. I never thought I would regard Syria as part of this region until I witnessed the duo performance of Eric Vloeimans and Kinan Azmeh. The seamless sounds of the Orient and the Occident coming together acted as a perky declaration of war against today’s polarisation.
My friends brought news of intellectual hunger, war and corruption. Like travellers who keep going until they reach the North Pole so they can plant their flag next to those who had come before, these troubled travellers ended up in Amsterdam to plant their flag. It was as if the Balie was the last stronghold and they were expecting much more than they wanted to admit – or so I gathered from their sense of urgency. ‘Please Europe,’ they seemed to beg, ‘play the role on today’s world stage that you were destined to fulfil. Let these words of unity, peace and stability mean something more than dead words.’ Their views were in extreme contrast to the shaky one-liners spouted by our uptight polder politicians. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast: in the Balie where the flame of an idealistic Europe was being relit, while outside a cold, sceptical and harsh wind was blowing.
I met a Turkish journalist who, just before we were introduced, was explaining to a Bulgarian how Turkey would react to Syrian attacks. Throughout the evening cross-references were made. More than ever, the European intellectual represents the spider where all the strands of the web meet – strands that are being continually blasted by political and social winds. These restless time travellers are looking forward into the future. Twenty years isn’t worth counting and distances are being measured in time zones and not kilometres. This is also Europe.
So what’s Europe’s role for our current realities? To be the world’s fortune teller and utopian is perhaps too free from obligations. And yet for me, the Indian writer Ghosh struck a sensitive chord within me and this chord resonated around the Balie and certainly found itself in the discussions around the bar later. In his strong speech, he linked climate change with migration flows. Drought forces people to move. Europe will continue to take on these climate refugees as long as Europe is not experiencing climate change’s most drastic effects. Meanwhile Europe gets fuller. It’s a fantasy to think we can avoid the crowds. The world has decided to meddle with Europe...
And Jan, I believe you were unable, like myself, to suppress a grin when you heard that Europe had received a Nobel Prize. For a moment, Oslo became the ventriloquist for the old lady's secret dreams.
Sincere greetings Jan! Wherever you may be.
You assumed well, Abdel. Indeed, I could not suppress a smile when I heard that Europe got the Noble Prize. At almost the same time, the euro-scepticism of the Netherlands seemed to evaporate. And less than a month later, we got a new minister for foreign affairs. I once attended a talk by Frans Timmermans that jolted me out of two of my preconceptions: a) that Dutch politicians are unable to give quality speeches, and b) that Dutch politicians have no clue about European culture. Meanwhile, Obama was re-elected and the world looks much better now than when we began our letter exchange.
I would have very much liked to be at those Balie debates. The zeal with which you wrote about it even overtrumped your usual enthusiasm. It made me wish that I witnessed this virtuosity of these intellectuals as they transformed the most complex connections into words. I usually prefer reading over listening but this I would have liked to have experienced. I was on a long journey with a book on my lap: Travels without John. It’s a rare and invigorating book that allows you to travel and think along with Geert Mak as he continually contrasts American realities with its Dream. It’s fascinating literature that consistently documents those points in history when the American Dream turned into a nightmare and why.
While reading, I often made parallels with our discussions about Europe. Thanks to Wilders and Roemer, Europe’s image had become grey and grubby. ‘Brussels’ started to sound tired, bureaucratic, petty and obsessed with its own small personal interests; as if it’s the capital of a continent without energy, vision or a future – a zone entering its final days. But if you travel around Europe, it’s not so bad. Some regions have been hard hit by the economic crisis, but even in Spain I did not see what Geert Mak saw in large parts of the US: desperate poverty and total degradation.
Mak follows the footsteps of John Steinbeck who after his months of traveling in 1960 noted: ‘I saw very little real poverty; I mean the grinding terrifying poorness of the Thirties. That at least was real and tangible. No, it was a sickness, a kind of wasting disease. There were wishes but no needs. And underneath it all the building energy like gasses in a corpse. When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result.’
When Geert Mak arrives in Detroit, he’s back in the Thirties. ‘Detroit seemed to be asleep on 7 October 2010 when we drove in. It was if it was 8.30 on a Sunday morning, instead of 11.30 on a Thursday morning. That’s the disaster that has struck this city. It’s become a modern ghost town, the postmodern Chernobyl of the United States.’ Only concrete structures remain in Detroit, which is mostly a wooden city outside its centre. ‘There are countless ruins of 19th- and 20th-century schools, offices and factories. They are collapsed, pocked with burn holes and with trees growing out of the windows and door frames. Office buildings are surrounded by wooden constructions to protect passers-by from falling debris. In a once glorious theatre, with a stage where Frank Sinatra and other giants once stood, there are now parked cars.’
Based on all the grim election talk, one would expect the same sad hopelessness on display in Greece and large parts of Southern Europe. But I think a strange contrast is developing between the backside of the American Dream and the front side of European reality. Mak’s book makes clear that the American Dream cannot be killed off. People have been forced to give up everything: job, steady income, home and way of life. But they keep holding onto the myth. The first thing that Obama did was breathe new life into this myth when he began his victory speech with the words: ‘The best is yet to come.’ Reality clings to utopia like desert to grassy fields. Mak drives through thousands of kilometres of desolation. Not only industrial cities but also large swathes of countryside have gone up in smoke. Farms have collapsed, fields have gone wild and villages are empty except for a single house with some gathered hippies. In late autumn Montana, Mak can’t even find a motel anymore, just the occasional gambling palace.
I watched the news in four different European countries and it was all sombre. The euro sinks, investments shrink, car manufacturers are moving to cheaper countries, unemployment rises, real estate sales remain docile and purchasing power plummets. All true. But are we just talking our way into the grave? In his best Martin Luther King voice, Obama proclaimed that ‘America is more than the sum of its citizens’. Everyone swooned. Meanwhile, if you’re reading Geert Mak, you come to the conclusion that America is the sum of incredible amounts of misery.
Last week, I spoke to two entrepreneurs who had just returned from a trade show in Eastern Europe. They had been particularly impressed by the pavilions from Estonia and Latvia. These designs were clear, fresh and futuristic; made from classical elements such as wood and glass and reflecting a calm faith in the future. In short, they were ‘the best is yet to come’ made solid.
For us in Europe, the dream is half – or completely – tucked into the reality. Perhaps we writers, poets, thinkers, filmmakers, composers should more clearly formulate the European dream with words, images and sounds. But then perhaps we will only truly drive ourselves into the ground. Just as with the Americans who in four years will likely have to admit that while Obama’s slogan was all well and good, with house, city and wallet the best has still not arrived. Perhaps, the real dream does not need to be formulated as long as it comes true without too much fanfare.
Warm regards, Abdelkader. I am slowly coming closer to the homeland.