I continue to be simultaneously amused and befuddled by European tribalism – that strange notion, asserted in both extreme and subtle fashions, that each of the little countries in that part of the world is quintessentially different the other (yes, Germany is a little country too). People of the same ethnic group living in largely the same landscape are prepared to assert vigorously that they are fundamentally different from neighbours, of the same group and in the same landscape, who live a bicycle ride away.

Recently I was reminded of one of the clearest manifestations of that tribalism: the idea that those islands off the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass are fundamentally different from the rest of Europe. This would have to be the oddest thing I have ever heard. No, let’s be polite about this: it’s complete crap.


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.

One of the curious things about being in East Berlin while the EU staggers to financial collapse is to watch the various manifestations of European tribalism at work. Small countries; small minds. Now It’s England’s turn, with Dave the Prat telling the rest of Europe to get stuffed, and thereby feeding a frenzy of that old anti-continental spite. But what is weird about all this is the way the English pundits speak of ‘Europe’ as something apart from themselves. It’s ‘Europe’s’ problem, they say, and we want nothing to do with it. But since when is England not part of Europe? Is it the massive body of water separating that small island from the rest of Europe? Then you’d have to include Cyprus and substantial parts of Denmark. Is it the case that the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions were not really European? Or that the English language has no relation to its Germanic base? Or is it yet another version of European tribalism, now manifested as English exceptionalism? Maybe it’s none of this and Dave the Prat is really an unwitting agent of the Chinese waiting for the Euro to collapse.

One of the weird things you notice about many people in Europe or those who have moved elsewhere is what can only be called a strange type of tribalism. You know the picture: Germans are neat and tidy, if somewhat authoritarian; the Dutch are stingey, even more than the Scots; the English are repressed and don’t wash; the French are arrogant; Italians are corrupt; Greeks are lazy; Turks are losers; Serbs are thugs; Russians are alcoholics; Finns are quiet and carry knives; Swedes are ‘easy’; Arabs are dirty terrorists who oppress women; Australians are primitive and uncultured and the country has roos on every street and doesn’t have ATMs, etc (add others).

At another level, you usually find in everyday conversation that a person is identified by their country of origin: ‘the German across the street’; ‘that Chinese women at the shop’; ‘you mean that Turkish man?’ And on it goes.

Why? Given that I come from a family of European background, I have grown up with this in some way or another. I would suggest that it has to do with the fact that Europe is this weird collection of tiny countries, with myriad languages and ethnic groups – tribes really. (Forget that fact that it impossible to find a pure Dane or Dutch person or Spaniard …) So the way you map the world is in terms of ‘national’ identifiers. As soon as you can name a person’s background, you have him or her pegged into a certain behaviour – as if one’s place of birth has a direct bearing on one’s psychological makeup.

I came across this at a different level in a debate in Bulgaria last year. The others in the group wanted to argue that the definition of a ‘nation’ is ‘one ethnic group’ and ‘one language’. That position quickly becomes unstuck in, say, Canada or even Belgium, let alone an immigration nation like Australia. But they held to it. I was reminded of the debate in Russia before the Revolution and afterwards concerning the ‘national question’, which was tied up with language and ethnic identity. But why was it a ‘national’ question? Same reason, since nation, language and ethnic identity seemed to be inseparable.

How to make sense of this skewed perspective on the world? Apart from the primitiveness of a European perspective on the world, I keep being reminded of Igor Diakonov’s observation in his Paths of History. Viewed from a global perspective, European history and attitudes comprise a huge anomaly that has somehow been asserted as a norm. Maybe it’s time we recognised the anomaly for what it is.