I ask this question as one who has a foot in Europe and a foot in Australia – in terms of ancestry, personal life, religion, and writing. I spend a reasonable amount of time in both, and definitely know how to enjoy myself in either place. But what is it about Europe?
To begin with, I suggest it is the thinly veiled barbarism of Europe that I find so attractive, a backwardness camouflaged as civilisation. It shows up at all sorts of levels. If you pay attention to the way people carry their bodies, to the way they walk and stand, how they are in the world, then a distinct awkwardness begins to show. Clothes seem like a recent encumbrance, frequent washing is still an imposition. Think of the peasant who has unexpectedly fallen into some money.
Second, there’s a deep-seated tribalism that masquerades as cosmopolitanism. People from the same ethnic group, in the same countryside, unaccountably hold long antagonisms to each other. Norwegians and Danes, Dutch and Germans, Serbs and Croats, Macedonians and Bulgarians … the list is almost endless. This tribalism is appealing in a curious way, like visiting a relic from the past.
Both the backwardness and tribalism manifest themselves in that rather amusing European habit of international arrogance. One can only admire the sheer bravado of assuming the superiority of European culture, politics, medicine, technology, scholarship. But it makes sense when one realises how recent this empty superiority is. No wonder those of more ancient civilisations – such as China or Australia – smile knowingly and shake their heads when encountering such Euro-arrogance.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect is the way Europeans are so often completely thrown by places like Australia. Expectations and preconceptions are not met; codes of living are scrambled; judgements are made hastily; not a few respond defensively and become Australophobes. I think here of a professor from those soggy isles on the western fringe of Europe who loudly proclaims – in good colonialist fashion – that the place is an absolute shithole and that he has come here both to bring enlightenment and to get out as quickly as possible. Or of the immigrant who is afraid of the bush and has not been outside a city for more than twenty years. Or of the wife who is unable to settle and demands a return “home” after thirty years, or simply walks out because she is unable to adjust. Much earlier, I have encountered it in the “explorer” journals, as the colonists desperately tried to map and claim and make sense of the place – usually to no avail.
It is not merely the easy point that Australia is home to the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, making Europe look like a recent upstart. More has to do with the extraordinarily subtle production and negotiation of space. This is geographical, mental, and psychic. Obviously, it shows up in big skies, fierce light, vast seas, subtle seasons, and so on. It appears in the fear that so many Europeans have felt and feel in Australia: no wonder the settlers hugged the shoreline; no wonder the animals and bush fill them with trepidation (of course, we like to tell tall tales of everyday dangers). But it also shows up in the way people’s bodies negotiate that space, giving each other plenty of room. Intellectually, there’s an almost intangible sense of openness, room to develop thoughts that are not constrained by the worn-out and mind-numbing structures of Atlantic places.
So it is always thoroughly engaging to see how visitors and new arrivals manage that space. Europeans always seem to struggle, unless they have always craved that very different and complex production of space. My father was one of these. The litmus test here is New Zealand: if someone from Europe feels at home in those two islands across the Tasman, then it is because the smallness and manageability of the space resonates. If New Zealand is a let-down, then they have already begun to feel their way in Australia. But I have noticed (and one of my daughters verifies this), that people from eastern Asia somehow “get” Australia in a way that others don’t. For anyone who has spent time in Indonesia, the two places feel similar on the skin. And the many that come from China, for all sorts of reasons, seem to take to Australia in a way that I still find fascinating. I suspect the experience is mutual.
As for me, I look forward to my next dose of European barbarism and tribalism, and seeing how the next batch manages this place.