One day I realized that Belgium was geographically closer to Norway than it was to Spain.
I was shocked. Culturally, I felt much closer to the Spanish than I did to the Norwegians.
In my head, “Norway” was far.
I don’t consider them close. I don’t consider them part of my culture.
That’s when I realized that Europe was made of different cultural and mental clusters inside which the common European evolved.
Because Europe is too big to be considered in its entirety. It is so diverse that it can’t be reduced to just “Europe”.
Saying “Europe is great” is as relevant as saying “Earth is great!”
Few people make the effort to really appreciate its diversity because there’s too much of it. The French don’t go on holiday where the Slovakians go.
Said otherwise: you can group people, countries, and regions in a lot of different ways! It becomes much easier to understand Europe, who likes whom, and how cultures differ across territories.
So I looked at all of these ways and decided to outline one of them here.
Before we go ahead, we need to acknowledge this one barrier that still splits the continent in half.
1. The Spectre of Communism
I still haven’t managed to say *what* gives away the information that a country was at some point under Russian communism.
Is it the fact that the streets are cleaner? That the customer service sucks? That I feel weirdly good and relaxed when I go there?
I don’t know. But the divide between what we, in the west, call “the West” (no communism) and “the East” (communism) still exists. Big time.
Try to go from Tallinn to Helsinki or from Vienna to Bratislava. You will not only see the difference, but you will feel it.
The atmosphere and the “energy” instantly change.
One part has a painful past that the other never knew.
That’s our first division level.
When you ask me to describe what I see when I think of “the West”, I see non-communist Europe + the US.
I am closer to the US than I am to Poland by education and culture.
But I am much closer to Poland by choice (more on that later).
Germany is in blue on the map because it was split in half and still is today.
I have a hard time considering Germany as a real “Western country”. It doesn’t feel Western when I go there.
NB: I didn’t include what used to be Yougoslavia in red because Yougoslavia wasn’t the communist hell that the USSR was under Stalin. Tito was one of the few leaders that spoke to both sides, and he was beloved by his people.
2. The Cultural Level
The level that really interested me was the cultural level.
We have eight big groups, and three unique cases.
1. The English-Speaking Group in Dark Blue.
Believe it or not, but I don’t really make the difference between the UK and Ireland. They both speak English, can’t handle Belgian beers, and university is super expensive.
Regarding the UK specifically, it has never been “European” in the continental sense of things.
Understand: they’ve always done what they wanted to do. They have always played it solo.
For example, they never did daylight saving time. They drive on the left, they don’t have any constitution, never had the euro, and they were far ahead of everyone else when it came to catering to the needs of those with specific diets (gluten, lactose intolerance, etc).
It’s also a country under American influence like no other country in Europe is.
I never thought that the English-speaking group was really part of Europe, neither culturally nor politically. They look too much like Americans. They do too many things together.
The US got most of its culture from the Irish and the British, for example.
Going to London was stepping into a brand new world for me.
Despite that the UK was instrumental in the decision to make Belgium an independent country, they remained culturally and mentally “far” from the continent.
Brexit wasn’t too much of a shock. It was more a return to how things ought to be in the first place.
Even though we learn British history and culture really well, we just don’t feel connected to them.
2. The Roman Empire in Orange.
The Roman Empire is the name I gave to the group speaking Latin languages:
- Switzerland and Belgium as satellites (although both of these countries have a huge population of Germanic ancestry, but their culture is indubitably Latin).
The Roman Empire is where life and food are the best.
The southern part of the Roman Empire is also where it’s difficult to find a job, so most of these people move to colder countries and spend their days criticizing it once they get there (“weather is much better in Spain”; “people are much nicer in Italy”; “food tastes better in Portugal” etc).
When I ask these people why they don’t go back home since “it’s much better”, I always get the same answer: “there are no jobs”.
Culturally, these six countries are very close to each other.
Emphasis on the family, lots of different types of bread, lots of tomatoes, wine, and they have what’s commonly called the “aperitif”.
The aperitif is a cultural practice whereas you eat amuse-bouche and drink alcohol in the living room with your family before eating at the table.
When I think about Europe or about “the west”, these six countries first come to mind. The rest isn’t really “Europe”. It’s “extended Europe”.
People in these six countries go to each other’s countries on holidays or for Erasmus; they learn each other’s languages and history; and they watch each other’s news.
They’re also oriented westward and southward. In our minds, Scandinavia and Russia are far, really far away. No one really cares when a distressed Estonia comes to Brussels to plead for Nato reinforcements.
Given the fact we have Poland and Germany in between, Russia just sounds too far for us to care.
We’re much more focused and acquainted with African and North-African cultures, and we’re glued to the Americans too (heritage of WWII) but it’s slowly changing with time.
3. The Teutons: Germany, Luxembourg, and Austria in Dark Green.
The Germans should have been a group of their own because Austria, due to being the Austro-Hungarian Empire for such a long time, is too different culturally from the Germans (Austria could have been incorporated with Hungary but I deemed it best to put Hungary in the Visegrád group).
The thing about German-speaking countries (but mainly Germany) is that few Belgians ever go there.
I am not kidding.
The perception that we have of Germany is that it’s a giant factory producing cars and canned food, and that there is nothing to see, visit, learn, or taste.
Luxembourg is a tax-haven micro-nation with disagreeable people where foreigners from neighboring countries go to buy cheap alcohol, cheap gas, and work to earn a monstrous salary.
Nobody takes them seriously.
I may sound harsh, but the point of this article is to understand how cultures evolve and perceive each other.
Austria is a bit more attractive, but you might as well go to Switzerland where you can at least speak French.
These are the cultural cliches going around in Belgium, and I strongly believed them until I had the chance to visit Germany after a series of unfortunate events.
Now that I have traveled to Berlin, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Munich, and Aachen, I can actually confirm that indeed, there isn’t much to see that would be relevant to Belgian people.
I never understood why anyone would visit or move to Germany before I visited Germany.
Now I understand it even less.
Germany has this “central European” vibe when you walk around cities.
You understand you’re in another world when you read about Russia in museums.
4. Scandinavia in Light Blue.
Everything is perfect there. They have a lot of money, they’re smart, they work hard, nothing bad is happening so we never speak about them.
Best we can do is try to emulate them. But do we really want to be so stiffed and measured?
Scandinavia (which wrongly includes Finland in people’s mind) is the place where the government is honest and makes sure everything goes well.
It’s also crazy expensive and cold. In our mind, it’s far and it’s a completely different culture, so we don’t really bother.
That’s the cliche.
Now the reality is a little bit more complex.
Real Scandinavia is Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These countries have a tight history together, and their languages are similar.
They mainly remained there throughout history. They’ve been on conquest, but eastward, not southward.
The Swedes and the Danish went to the Baltic for example, but that’s about it.
Scandinavians have a very egalitarian society, are practical, individualistic but community-minded, don’t make dramas like the Italians, speak good English, and work hard.
I have included Finland in the group because despite being a totally different ethnic group, Finnish culture has more in common with its three neighbors than it has with Russia (who occupied it).
The Finnish learn Swedish at school because some Finnish people don’t speak Finnish (those on the west coast) and Swedish is an official language.
They also have a complex of inferiority to the Swedish.
The strength of their welfare state come from the fact that they (except for Denmark) have a monopoly on alcohol, a monopoly on gambling (Finland and Norway), high VAT, and high taxes in general.
5. The Slavs: It’s Getting Complicated
The Slavs are the other big group.
They’re indicated in red on the map.
I have decided though not to speak about them together because I don’t see the point.
Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Yugoslavia split into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia (and don’t you dare try telling them they’re all the same).
Russia may have a more relevant history with Prussia (Germany) or Finland than it does with Bulgarians, despite the fact that Bulgarians are like Russians, Slavic.
So, what do they all share? Genetics. And the language.
But they have different politics, cultures, and histories.
And they don’t like each other.
With the Slavs, it’s a bit like with the Jews and the Arabs.
Same people, different mindset, lots of hate.
So we’ll make up different groups instead.
6. The Visegrád Group, in Grey.
The Visegrád group is the group I am the most enthusiastic about as these four countries make up my favorite part of Europe.
I was fortunate to live in Poland, and Hungary is one of my favorite countries in the world.
They’ve come under fire recently due to their refusal to follow policies imposed by Western EU countries.
We must however step into their shoes to understand where they’re coming from.
The Visegrád group has been invaded and destroyed several times by Germans coming from the West, and Russians from the East.
It’s difficult to say which group was more violent than the other as both have unleashed a considerable amount of suffering.
When they became free, they joined the EU which, at the time, stood for similar values than the US in the 1950s, namely: family, conservatism, hard work, strong army, national identity, capitalism, and freedom.
The recent cultural and political value shift operated by the West of the EU did not please them.
Because it’s a return to the USSR practices back to a time when Moscow imposed socialist policies on the Visegrád countries that didn’t want to implement them.
And this is where you see the real fracture between those that lived under communism and know what dictatorship looks like, and those that did not (and do not).
It’s no wonder that the Western elite in Brussels (particularly the French and Germans) have trouble distinguishing imposition from negotiation.
They have imposed far stronger liberty restrictions during the health crisis than former communist countries did because the former didn’t know exactly what they were doing; but the latter did.
After being imposed these policies by the EU Commission (and refusing to follow them), the Visegrád countries operated a natural shift to the right, like what we’ve seen in Poland and Hungary.
While the West of the EU seeks to move towards further geo-politico-economic integration, Visegrád (and the Baltic) seeks to preserve their national unity after almost a century of identity destruction operated by the communists.
There is a certain sense of order and pride in the Visegrád countries that don’t really exist in the Roman Empire, victim of too much cynicism.
While on paper, the West is much richer, you’ll see far less poverty in the streets of Warsaw or Budapest than you will in the streets of Brussels, Paris, Berlin, or Madrid.
These countries have strong economic growth and low debt, and great education.
You will hardly find kinder people than the Hungarians. The Polish are one of the smartest and hardest-working people I have ever met. They have a love for their country and know their history well. They speak several languages and have ambition.
They want to build stuff. It’s refreshing to have a discussion with them!
7. The Baltic Countries (in Yellow and Light Green for Estonia)
I only included Lithuania and Latvia because Estonia is a unique case.
The Baltic countries have a difficult history. They have been invaded by Russians, Polish, Germans, Danish, etc.
The Russian occupation was particularly violent and traumatic. You can still see the scarce by walking around Riga, the most inhospitable city in Europe.
The problem with the Baltic is that it’s difficult to group them. The only thing they have in common is geography.
Lithuanians, for example, are warm and smart people. They’re blond too. Guys have this distinct round Lithuanian face. They have great food and a great culture overall.
Historically, Lithuania was the last place in Europe to become Christian, making the shift from paganism at the beginning of the 15th century. They fought hard to preserve their pagan traditions but eventually lost and were incorporated into the Polish Empire.
They remained Catholic to this day.
Latvia became Catholic before Lithuania but remains more pagan today than Lithuania (they’ve kept a few traditions, like hugging oak trees, for example, and some tales).
They’ve also made this movie they’re very proud of called “the Pagan King”.
Besides that, Latvia is a difficult country to live in (and visit). The weather is awful, people aren’t friendly, and cities are as depressing as Charleroi. The level of corruption is off the roof, the food is bland, and the cost of living is super high.
Language-wise, Latvian and Lithuanian resemble each other, but that’s about all these two countries share.
Neither of them is Slavic. They’re Baltic people.
While I would gladly move to Lithuania, I avoid Latvia almost as much as I avoid Germany.
7. The Outliers
There are three outliers.
The Netherlands speak Dutch, but they were part of Spain for a very long time (they still pledge allegiance to the Spanish king in their anthem).
As a result, they have inherited a few cultural artifacts from Latin cultures.
You can’t group them with the Germans because they’re too different. They share a few similarities with the Belgians and the British, but besides that, they’re a group of their own.
It’s a small country, but they still came up with 25% of all things ever invented.
Greece is much closer to the Turks and the Persians than they are to France or Spain, which highlights how big Europe truly is (the Roman Empire went until the Persian Gulf, what is Irak today).
First of all, they have their own alphabet while the rest of the continent speaks and writes in Latin.
Then their history is much more oriented eastward than westward.
I once suggested to my Iranian friend to visit Greece, but he rebuffed saying that “it’s pretty similar to Iran”.
I was shocked. For me, Iran is far across the globe, while Greece is still part of “Europe”.
But this isn’t correct. Iran is closer than you think.
The Greeks themselves may have more shared cultural practices with the Iranians than they do with the Belgians.
Quite of a unique case. If I had to group them with other countries, I’d likely associate them with Turkey and Bulgaria due to food, even though they’re three very different people (Slavs, Greeks, and Turks).
Estonia cannot be included in the cultural group of the Baltic countries for several reasons.
First, they’re not religious at all like Latvia and Lithuania. While Catholicism officially arrived in the 13th century, it never really…flourished.
Then, their language has nothing to do with Latvian and Lithuanian: Estonian is a Uralic language, not a Baltic one. The Uralic people came from somewhere in Eastern Europe, then moved to Hungary, Estonia, and Finland.
Hence, Estonia is much closer culturally to Finland than it is to Latvia.
But the Estonians aren’t enthusiastic enough to be included in the Scandinavian group.
Estonia features some highly “Western” characteristics. Tech-wise, it’s the most developed country in the world.
There is no corruption in Estonia. It’s one of the hardest countries in the world to launder money in. No one uses cash anymore.
People are dynamic business-wise, they love saunas (like the Finnish), and they have remained pagan at heart. They’re nicer than the Latvians even though they don’t talk much.
8. Those I Cannot Speak of
Romania and Bulgaria: I have only spent a few hours in Romania, and am not super acquainted with the history or culture of Bulgaria.
All I know is that their language is really close to Russian, while Romanian is derived from Latin.
While Bulgaria is supposedly the inventor of yogurt, I found Greek yogurt to be 100 times better.
I cannot speak well of former Yugoslavian countries either. I have spent quite some time there but not enough to really understand them.
I can’t speak of Belarus, Russia, Moldova, or Ukraine either.
There isn’t any hard science in this article.
It’s an account of what I have learned and how I contextualize Europe.
The continent is built like a puzzle.
Belgium shares traits with the Netherlands which share traits with the British which share traits with the Scandinavians.
The geographical map of Europe is misleading. It’d be more interesting to look at it from a regional perspective. The Dutch from the south have more in common with Belgians than with the Dutch from Amsterdam, for example.
So please next time you want to say how great somewhere in Europe is, avoid speaking of it as “Europe”.
Some places in Europe are amazing (Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Spain, Portugal…). Some aren’t (Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg).
Europe is not “one thing.”
It’s important to highlight it.
For more articles, head to auresnotes.com.
Photo by Jakob Braun on Unsplash.
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