If the news has taught us anything over the last year, it’s that Europe remains an enigma. The question of what it truly means to be European must now have crossed the mind of every inhabitant of our fantastically diverse geopolitical puzzle. By just opening the newspaper, any reader can see contemporary re-runs of previous clashes of culture and conflicts of interest in what is arguably one of the most distinct continents on earth.
I recently travelled from Britain to Mongolia driving through Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, and then through the Middle East and Central Asia. Seeing these different parts of the world allowed me to glimpse our continent from another perspective first hand beyond the headlines and to contrast the current socio-political state of Europe with its neighbouring eastern cultures. Ultimately however, it highlighted the necessity of travel to obtain a better understanding of modern Europe.
My first deduction was the extent of Europe’s contrasting regional history and how different eras of the past have sculpted the rural and urban environment in a hugely diverse number of ways. For example, when from Western to Eastern Europe, it is clear that the geographical, cultural, social and economic boundaries of the Ancient Greek and Roman world still exist to a degree and are visible through the transition of language, culture, as well as food and drink. However, as is all too familiar in modern European politics, these historical and geographical differences are too often causes of conflict, rather than aspects to be celebrated as part of a broader continental heritage.
In contrast, the wonderful and, in many instances, often wrongly overlooked former satellite states of the USSR pose an interesting and indeed relevant juxtaposition to modern Europe. Here, contrary to the diversity of EU states, countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all bear a significant resemblance to one another and indeed thesuper state to which they formerly belonged. These countries, regardless of their totalitarian regimes and obvious immense gaps between rich and poor, all seem to share a similar pooled heritage and culture which make them slightly indistinct, geography aside. Anyfirst time visitor who has been to the former USSR territories would find it hard not to think that these countries, along with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, belong together, such are their cultural similarities. However, unlike Europe, the similarities and differences between these nations statesare rejoiced. There is an acknowledgement that they have all belonged to something bigger together in the past and embrace their shared history and associated cultural similarities. As such, I think that Europeans have a lot to learn and that as a continent we could hugely benefit from embracing our shared heritage, regardless of contemporary political differences.
Furthermore, my brief journey through Iran lent a further perspective on how Europe could be more cohesive. Here, it struck me powerfully that the unique and ancient Persian culture had remained and that there was a fierce pride in the country otherwise beset with internal political divisions and uncertainty over its role in the world. In particular, despite its forbidding reputation, hospitality towards strangers was a celebrated national value. My friends and I were constantly asked to join family meals and offered food and accommodation in the most open of manners putting to shame any pre-conceptions we may have had of this ancient people. They taught us to see the good in every situation, leading us to learn that the world is maybe only a scary place if you choose to see it that way. Albert Einstein famously said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” If my brief travels driving through some of the world’s most geopolitical hotspots, including even South Eastern Turkey shortly after the attempted coup and, briefly, Afghanistan, has taught me anything, it is that we can live in a friendly world if we so chose.
By way of a conclusion, Samuel Johnson reportedly said that: ‘the use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality and, instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are’. As such, I would argue that in our ever more connected world, anyone blessed with the opportunity should take the time to travel, preferably slowly, and to experience all Europe and beyond. Only then can you begin to contrast it to the rest of the world and to better comprehend its complexity. My own travels taught me that these insights of Johnson and Einstein are the surest ways to embrace European diversity and to ultimately understand what it means to be European. I now personally find the essence of Europe to be a commonly held set of liberal values, an openness to the outside world and an astute intellectual curiosity manifested in a plethora of ways. However, others will likely come to different conclusions such is the enigma of Europe and how difficult it is to fully comprehend.
Teaser Photo Courtesy of James Tufnell