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In love with Europe

“I like Germany,” says the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, “ ... it’s a world that is the opposite of ours ... I don’t admire Germany. I just like to go there from time to time to see how matter is tamed and organised.” In truth, the Germans are no more efficient at organising and taming matter than are the French or the Dutch or the Swedes (which is to say, perhaps, that they are quite efficient). What impresses me as much as taming ‑ speaking as someone who doesn’t know his granite from his limestone, his bracken from his scrub ‑ is naming. Indeed I’m all in favour of leaving quite a lot of matter untamed, but it would be nice to know what everything is called, what everything is made of. Here is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in Castelvetrano near Trapani in western Sicily, on April 21st, 1787. He knows.

From Alcamo up to Castelvetrano one approaches the limestone mountains over gravel hills. Between the steep barren mountains lie broad upland valleys – the ground is all cultivated, but there are scarcely any trees. The extensive alluvial deposits which form the gravel hills indicate by their alignment the course of the currents in the primeval ocean. The soil is well mixed and, owing to its sand content, more friable. Salemi lay to our right, an hour’s ride away. We crossed hills where the limestone was overlaid with beds of gypsum, and the composition of the soil improved still further. The foreground was all hills; far away to the west we could see the sea. We came upon fig trees in bud and, to our delight, great masses of flowers, which had formed colonies on the broad road and kept repeating themselves, one large multicoloured patch following closely on the last. Beautiful bindweeds, hibisci, rose-mallows and a great variety of clovers predominated by turns, interspersed with allium and bushes of goat’s rue. We wound our way back on horseback, crossing and recrossing narrow paths. Russet-coloured cattle grazed here and there, small but well-built and with small, graceful horns.

In a recent article in Le Monde (April 8th) German sociologist and philosopher Ulrich Beck sets out his views of the kind of Europe we need (we’ll undoubtedly be getting a lot of this kind of thing fairly soon here too from our European Parliament candidates and their house intellectuals). The piece is titled “Oui à l’Europe des citronniers!” (Yes to the Europe of the lemon trees!), a reference to a poem (later set to music) by Goethe known as Kennst du das Land? which, full of longing (Sehnsucht), is a good example of northern romanticisation of the perceived charms of the south. These charms still have their appeal, and are more immediately accessible today than they were for Goethe: from Klagenfurt in Austria to beautiful Grado on the Adriatic is a mere two-hour drive roaring down the fast lane on the motorway in one's Audi. The Austrians leave their houses, shivering just a little, after a good breakfast on a Friday morning and are sitting at an outside table on the Viale del Sole by one o’clock, sipping Friulian wine and gorging on the small fishes of the lagoon. The waiters are very polite.

Do you know the land where the lemon-trees grow,
In darkened leaves the gold-oranges glow,
A soft wind blows from the pure blue sky,
The myrtle stands mute, and the bay tree high?
Do you know it well?                  It’s there I’d be gone,
To be there with you, O, my beloved one!

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunklen Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,
Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,
Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht,
Kennst du es wohl?
Dahin! Dahin
Möcht' ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, zieh'n.

Beck dreams of a new Europe, much different from the troubled and depressed place we seem to inhabit today, which will be healed by joie de vivre, Mediterranean weather, beauty, wine, hope, regionalism, savoir vivre and of course lemons. Did I say wine? Could this work? Who knows? One can say with some certainty that it has never been tried.

The obsession with debt which Beck finds to be sadly characteristic of his fellow Germans has been “a grey and detestable mask” on this joyful, cosmopolitan Europe. One might perhaps say that

if the Germans had learned from the players of pétanque (bowls or boules) they would never have plunged the world into the Second World War. Or if Chancellor Angela Merkel had been a devotee of pétanque she would never have tried to convert the Mediterranean countries to the virtues of such a very Protestant health cure for their economies. And if Putin had been born on the shores of the Mediterranean and had played pétanque from childhood he would never have had the totally mad idea of annexing Ukraine!

One might indeed say any of these things but what connection would they have to the reality in which we live and which we must hope, in some manner – to borrow Andrzej Stasiuk’s terms – to organise and tame? But then Professor Beck, politically, it seems, an ally of the idealistic, but it seems rather globalist, European federalists (Delors, Cohn-Bendit, Verhofstadt etc) is introduced by Le Monde as a sociologue and philosophe – academic disciplines the point of whose prognoses I often have great difficulty in grasping. He is certainly not a politologue, and still less an historien.

I think it unlikely that Europe can be healed by the Mediterranean. First of all, for the reason that the Mediterranean might feel (does feel, to a considerable extent ‑ the question of with what justification we will put aside for now) that it is Europe that has made it ill. Second, one can be intrigued and charmed by Europe’s oldest cultures, their traditions and their considerable material relics. But that will not necessarily make us Europeans. Remember that couple in the Piazza del Populo in Arezzo, she with her Sunday Telegraph, he with his perfectly pressed chinos, bickering over the price of the Chianti and braying loudly – in English of course ‑ to the unfortunate waiter. Tuscany every year. But Europeans? I don’t think so.