Good-fellowship in the Middle East can be a bit unnerving. You’d best get used to being gripped, hugged and even nuzzled. I was taken aback the first time I saw two fully armed militiamen walking down the street holding hands. Large amounts of Arak [local spirits] aid in acclimatization. The sense of affection and solidarity is comforting, actually, when you realize how many of the men throwing their arms around you have pistols in the waistbands of their pants. A Mercedesful of gunmen kept watch on the road.

P.J. O’Rourke, Holidays in Hell (A Ramble Through Lebanon – October 1984)

The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. Worlds are precious.”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

When Bill Bryson first visited the UK in 1973, he was struck by the English character; everything was closed (it was after 9pm on a Sunday), people were unhelpful due to the inconvenience of having to explain the bleeding obvious to someone, an outsider f’chrissakes, when they were supposed to be relaxing at home. Don’t you know we’ve got work or school in the morning and Sunday is by far the most miserable day of the week. That pain is most acutely felt at approximately 9pm. He also noticed the superhuman tolerance we show, in politeness, in queuing up, in our general ‘we just get on with it despite the despair’ attitude. We can be such a sulky lot but we do it ever so quietly and unassumingly.

One thing my wife is always proud of is the fact that when an ambulance approaches on the roads, everyone drives out of the way. Nobody tries to outrun it or cut it up. We have an empathy that shows in a quiet, respectful manner.

National character. We all have them. Some parts positive, some parts you simply can’t understand.

Sniffing around Europe at some of the recent news and a mouldy, old musk fills the nostrils. In Austria, they came close to voting in another far-right Nationalist, Norbert Hofer. This isn’t the first time they’ve done so. Previously, they have voted in Jorg Haider, a member of the Austrian Freedom Party. A man who considered the Nazi concentration camps, as “punishment camps”, who didn’t consider the old Nazis still alive, as mere criminals (as he described the neo-Nazis), but as people of good character. Austria didn’t undergo a thorough process of denazification following WWII. The toxic legacy of the Nazis still veers to and fro surfacing from time to time. The flotsam and jetsam of history.

The issues of glorification, or perhaps less glorification and more lionisation of the old Nazis in Austria is a genteel type of dirty nostalgia. Much more overt in their far right-wing tendencies are parties such as Jobbik in Hungary, the street thugs of Golden Dawn in Greece and some of the other members of this burgeoning and deeply concerning populism. Poland, once the land of Lech Walesa and Solidarity, has turned to far-right populism; from one extreme to another – they simply cannot find balance currently.

What cheesy national character could we have ascribed to the European nations in 1973, that decade of stereotypes and awful tastes. France – Dramatic. Germans – Efficient. Swiss – Standoffish. Spanish – Sultry. Danes – Drunk. English – Sulky. Scots – Dour.

Some of these stereotypical views persist. In describing the German national football team, the most used word on television is always efficient. It’s even efficiently used in an efficient manner. Spend a sunny afternoon in Copenhagen and don’t you tell me the Danes can’t take their ale.

We, in Europe, are a family. Who doesn’t have a member of their family who is sulky, or who is dramatic? We don’t necessarily get on, our faults are grating; but we never stop being a family. Clearly, someone needs to give Hungary and the like a clip around the ear and be told to grow up. Austria – wash your hands before coming to dinner.

In the Life & Times of Michael K, by J. M. Coetzee; Michael, the eponymous hero, tries to take his mother home from the city, back to the farm of her youth before she dies. She’s unwell and cannot walk, so Michael pushes her in a wheelbarrow. Unfortunately, this being Apartheid South Africa and Michael and his mother being of colour; his attempts are nigh-on fruitless. His mother dies on the way and Michael takes to living off the land, off pumpkins and fresh water. It’s a wonderful, emotional book on the importance and significance of family, told against such a backdrop of difficulties.

Our family extends well beyond Europe into the rest of the World. If Worlds are precious, as Sagan quite rightly points out: “the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion (1033, a one followed by 33 zeros)” if we were randomly placed in the universe. Then surely, the family that inhabit this house should be equally as dear to us.

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