Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.

The wog is always further south

As a migrant to Australia, I discovered a new word: ‘wog’. The word, I learned, refers to “Southern Europeans” or “south eastern Europeans”. In Australia, that’s Italians and Greeks mainly, and potentially the Lebanese, Spaniards, Croatians, Serbians and Macedonians.

On the Wikipedia page about wogs, there is an English quote saying, “The wogs begin at Calais”. The border of civilisation ends with us. I noted the same thing through my early years.

People in northern France, where I grew up, thought of the Southern French as lazy oily garlicky dark-skinned sloths who parade around in convertible cars.

My father’s family comes from this oily southern France, but civilisation, in their eyes, ends just a bit further. They’re reliable, but the Italians, though pleasant, are unreliable, lazy, flashy, etc.

My grandmother, on my mother’s, is from northern Italy. Emilia-Romagna: fat, rich, middle-class Italy, where they put egg in the pasta, and pork in everything. I remember telling her I was going to Naples, and she would say “oh, Naples, oh, this is different. This is a different place altogether. We’re from Parma.” She was the daughter of a metal worker, cast away from Italy for his involvement in anarchist movement. But she had an extreme snobbism and superiority, towards the South Italian ‘wogs’

One of my dearest friends in Paris is Herakles, from the island of Zakinthos or Zante. This was a Venetian seaport, like Corfu, and never a part of the Ottoman Empire. One day, we were walking along the port, and pointing out at the sea, he would tell me: this is Peloponnesus, they were Turkish out there. He went to Athens for university, and his friend from the island, they would call the locals “barbarians”, and mock their Turkish sounding music.

So prejudice will make us perceive whoever lives across the border as somehow the first barbarians – and ‘us’ as the bulwarks of civilisation.