american melting pot

A phenomenally well-travelled lady doctor in Upstate New York once told me, disparagingly, that millions of American families at Florida’s Epcot Center spend more money to visit there, and to frequent its ersatz Spanish bodega, than it would have cost them to go to Spain and enjoy the real thing. She may be right.

Those Americans who travel abroad for pleasure, especially beyond neighbouring Canada and Mexico, are usually on a tight schedule due to holidays which are much shorter than in other wealthy countries, and face often-dauntingly high costs, unless they are simultaneously retired and rich. Naturally, this limits their options.

I will avoid making any cheap shots, already presented in the 1970s comedy film on American package tours to Europe, “If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium,” because it seems so unfair. 

While I’ve never been within fifty paces of a budget American tour group, American tourists whom I meet in Europe usually did their homework vigorously. Armed with multiple guidebooks, they worked out their itineraries with near-surgical precision and industrial efficiency, choosing the best that a European country has to offer. If they err, it is usually by subjecting themselves to impossibly gruelling schedules in order to take it all in.

Such energetic brevity is probably wise, time-efficient and cost-effective. But understandably, they can hardly “do” every Paris picture-gallery, scout out Monet’s garden at Giverny, find Van Gogh’s sunflower patch, work in a visit to a vineyard and have much time left in which to make many friends with Europeans (whom they may not know beforehand), nor to dig too deeply into the less flamboyant aspects of Europe’s many cultures. No shame there.

Yet interesting insights are missed, unless one has continental languages and/or very analytical European friends. I enjoyed the latter for a few days in Brussels among a Dutch gentleman-scholar and his Danish fiancé who works high up in the European Commission bureaucracy.

Beyond the Habsburg churches of the Holy Roman Empire, good food, brilliant beer, and the joy of being with dear friends, I was treated to a fascinating glimpse into the mad impracticality of a centralised, more unified Europe; and I acquired it without ever leaving one, relatively small, European country.

american melting pot

Tiny Belgium is split in half between two cultures and languages at astonishing loggerheads, and beyond its boundaries lay similar animosities.

To start with, my host explained, from the top fifth of France and northward, ignoring passports, the indigenous people are Germano-Vikings. Chiefly Danes or Germans or Dutch, they tend to be big, tall, hard-working and blonde; they drink beer; and they are indefatigable nature-lovers and exercisers, forever skating on canals, hiking or bicycling to work or through forests.

At the upper end of France are the Normans who are the same people; and their families, living in pretty villages around the Normandy Beaches and the chateau of Alexis de Tocqueville, are far more likely to fly the ancient Norman flag, the flag of William the Conqueror, than to hoist the French tricoleur. English friends, who eventually bought a cottage there, first paid court to a Norman grande dame next door, asking if she minded having English neighbours. “Mon cher!” she laughed, “at least you are not Parisians!” Normans will drink wine from the rest of France, but there they draw the line.

Go south of Normandy and people become fundamentally Mediterranean (although there is a small Celtic cul-de-sac to the west). Like Francophone Belgians, they are shorter, darker, and given less to exercise than to guzzling wine in their gardens while gossiping or intellectualising in ways that confound the more taciturn and industrious northern people.

Belgium is split about 60-40 between the indigenous, Dutch-speaking, Germano-Viking, Flemings and quite Mediterranean, more recently arrived, Francophone Walloons (from a Roman word for outsider, my host explained, akin to their name for the Welsh who were outside of Roman Britain). Both are Catholics, but the similarities end there. Intermarriage is rare. The two groups even celebrate Belgian independence on different days.

The Flemish usually aspire to work ancestral farms or to run small businesses; the Walloons long to be functionaires, or civil servants with lifetime sinecures.

In Belgium, each group got its wish. Every overmanned museum or government office is packed with Walloon bureaucrats, and you can tell that they are Francophones before they open their mouths. Their homes and flats will be stocked with wine, without a bottle of delicious beer in sight, and one doubts that they would own a pair of walking boots.

Walloon womenfolk dress more stylishly, as do their French sisters, while even dressed-up Flemish matrons, wearing a discrete string of pearls, have a practical air reminding me of my own Midwestern aunts; even the wealthier Flemish ladies, one assumes, still darn their socks.

The Walloon ticket-takers and desk-jockeys will speak to anyone but only in French; but they freeze up if addressed in Dutch even though both are Belgian national languages. My host, a foreigner there but also a proud Dutchman, often addresses them in Dutch just to see them sniff and squirm.

Just to be difficult, I learnt to thank the Walloon functionaries in Dutch, but then to apologise, in French paradoxically, for being unable to speak French. Since French is far more widely-spoken there by visitors than is Dutch, their reactions were, shall we say, amusing. Indeed if anyone wishes to take a European holiday somewhere in which he can annoy French speakers, one could do worse than to learn a few Dutch phrases and visit Belgium.

The Flemish usually speak English almost as happily as Dutch, but will speak French only under duress.

Hostilities are such that I asked my host about Brussels billboards advertising a popular German eau-de-cologne (from Cologne indeed) which was written in English, but in neither of Belgium’s two national languages. It was a clever compromise, he explained, since Walloons would not buy the product were it advertised in Dutch, nor would Flemings purchase it were it promoted in French. It is almost, but not quite, as if a Texan billboard, circumventing the mutual animosities of Spanish-speakers and English-speakers, advertised in Eskimo or maybe Chinese.

Belgium’s somewhat poorer but more industrious Flemish are not free from ethnic rivalry either. We drove past a handsome Belgian farm in Waterloo, on the internal, linguistic boundary. It had recently been acquired, from French owners, by a Flemish farming family who had daubed the late-medieval, stone outbuildings with partisan ethnic slogans, stopping just short of “no Frogs allowed.” Elsewhere, ancient, yellow, Flemish banners proclaim pride but also a desire for independence from their French-speaking countrymen.

Little, twentieth-century, commuter housing estates in greater Waterloo, not far from Brussels, are just as segregated among Francophones and Dutch-speakers as 1950s American communities were divided by race. But America’s racial divide may be fully overcome centuries before Belgium’s Francophone ticket-punchers stop sneering at Dutch-speakers.                                                                                                                        

Year after year, discussions accelerate on splitting Belgium in half. The only stumbling block seems to be who gets the capitol, Brussels, which mints money from the European Union; for it is predominantly run by Walloons even though it is within the realm of the Flemish.

Such rivalries occur to equal or lesser extents within most countries of continental Europe. Ask the industrious Catalans what they think of the other Spaniards (“lazy bums” is a reasonable summary), while their fellow Iberians regard them as ornery, haughty and overly-fastidious. Italy’s northerners and southerners regard one another with similar, ill-disguised disdain. It may take a few beers, but Bavarians will eventually hint at what they think of other Germans and vice versa, and it ain’t flattering.

Once in Kabul, a puckish Swiss-German with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told me why he loved Afghans. “They are just like people from my home in Zurich,” he explained. “The villagers up the hill hate the people down the hill and, believe me, it is reciprocated.”

Yet even I was surprised at how my charming, educated and well-travelled Danish hostess, working long within the European Commission for EU unity, regards the Germans in the current financial mess.

No expert on the matter, I assume that the Germans cannot afford to bail out every bankrupt country in Europe, and they know that, while their courts forbid surrendering financial sovereignty to the EU without a vote to amend their constitution.

It sounds reasonable enough to me, but paraphrasing her she said no, it is all conquest and hegemony – what the damn krauts couldn’t do with tanks they want to do with banks. Furthermore, the square-headed barbarians work far too hard and long, producing brilliant, high-quality products that shame the rest of Europe when they should be kicking back like their neighbours. (She admitted that Danes harbour misgivings over losing land to Germany in the mid-nineteenth century Schleswig-Holstein Affair).

So, famously taciturn, modest and even-tempered Danes; even Danes who work for European integration, hold such unfair and hostile views that it is no wonder what Europe’s more volatile peoples think of one another!

There may be three lessons here. First, that Europe’s ancient enmities will surely defeat any short-term, integrationist ideology; bookies can choose between thousands of years of fact versus a pipe-dream of two generations.

Second, anyone who longs for an officially polyglot America needs to have his head examined.

Third, while American Exceptionalism is abused by any number of greedy scoundrels and bullies, the American melting pot is indeed a rare, but not a unique, exception.

The whole Anglosphere, from Britain to North America to the Antipodes, has historically welcomed outsiders, including Britain’s support to the Protestant French Huguenots in the seventeenth century, to Ugandan Asians in the late twentieth, to Asians in Australia and Canada today.

America is surely the biggest and most famous melting-pot, deserving some kudos bordering on exceptionalism, but Brazil is another fine and enormous example (with greater racial harmony, indeed).

But the point here is that melting-pots are few, and seem to work best where there are wide-open frontiers to settle.

The only exception that I can think of offhand is Britain, which in historical slow-motion is a melting-pot itself, comprised over 1500 years of indigenous Celts, then Anglo-Saxon invaders from Germany, Denmark and the Low Countries, then Vikings, then Normans who were genetically indistinguishable from Anglo-Saxons, then small European refugee groups such as Huguenots. They were chiefly northern Europeans, mostly similar to modern Normans or Flemish, but at the time the differences must have seemed vast. And it is too early to tell if Britain’s great numbers of non-European immigrants, who arrived in the latter half of the twentieth century, will assimilate or not.

The indisputable message however, particularly for America’s stridently militaristic missionaries, is that few places can become melting-pots or even lay aside local grudges; and that the world’s former Yugoslavias, and smaller places besides, will remain riven like Belgium rather than ever be transmuted into some Wilsonian pipe-dream of becoming little Americas.

So, as Candide decided to do, cultivate your own garden.

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