European Stereotypes Revisited – update from a small peninsula
Greetings from the peninsula.
It’s a hot weekend here in Iberia.
And rather than go out and get sunburned, I figured I’d revisit an old theme here on the blog.
See, a few years ago – ten, actually – I wrote an article about American ignorance.
A then-popular TV series called How I Met Your Mother had just run an episode in which a character named Ted flashes back to a youthful adventure in Spain, and the writers got virtually everything wrong.
On his trip, young Ted dances a tango, sees a mariachi band, and stands in front of a laughably inaccurate map of Spain, in a scene that lasts all of 24 seconds.
(At one point he’s standing in what looks to be Parc Güell here in Barcelona, and he participates in the Running of the Bulls as well. So it’s not 100% wrong. Just 90%. Also, according to this video, the producers received so many complaints that the scene was changed to tell about a trip to Mexico for the DVD release of the series.)
Anyway, the Spanish were in a tizzy, for a couple of days, as tends to happen any time they’re mentioned in the international media.
It wasn’t quite a Jamie-Oliver-puts-chorizo-in-paella-level diplomatic incident, but close.
In those days, I was spending the evenings giving English classes in Madrid, and some students would use it as an opportunity to question me about various aspects of American culture.
For example: “Why are all you Americans so ignorant? Do you really think that Mexico, Argentina and Spain are the same thing?”
Well, I didn’t think that.
But apparently the writers of a show I never watched were now representing all Americans, and so was I. And I had to respond for their mistakes.
The next class I brought in a photocopied US map with all the state names removed, handed it out, and asked everyone where my home state of Arizona was. None of them got within 1000 miles.
I guess ignorance cuts both ways.
Europeans stereotypes: are they true?
I’ve thought a lot about Europeans and Americans in the years since then.
A few months later I wrote about Euro Rednecks, in an article called Are Europeans More Civilized than Americans?
In short: no, they’re not.
See, I’d just been to some small towns in Spain and Italy and found that “Europe” wasn’t quite living up to the stereotypes we Americans usually had about it.
You know. There’s the Europe in Woody Allen films, where fabulously wealthy Americans think nothing of buying 8000€ antique chairs to ship home, and travel with a box of diamond necklaces worth more than most Spanish houses. In that version of Europe, all the locals have diplomatic connections and season tickets to the opera, and your average person is just jetting off to spend a year studying oil painting with a Florentine master. So glamorous!
Unfortunately, old Woody leaves out the other nine tenths of the story: the Europe of moldy walk-up flats, dismal industrial parks, refugee trash pickers, roadside brothels and octogenarians with incomprehensible accents making moonshine in their garages.
Yes, Europe. A land of contrasts. With its capital cities full of palaces and fabulous art museums like the Louvre and the Prado, and the lonely provinces where you’ll find towns with one dusty church, and the local entertainment is either an afternoon at the bar or petting the town pig.
The people in those towns don’t spend a lot of time making cultural pilgrimages to the Louvre. I bet most of them have never been to a large museum – actually, I bet most people anywhere have never been to a museum of any kind, except as part of a school trip.
And really, who cares?
Life is not a test of obscure cultural knowledge, and if you think it should be, you’re probably an elitist asshole.
Euro-stereotypes in the land of Brexit
A few years after my first forays into small-town Europe, the Brexit referendum went down, and I wrote about the revenge of the Euro Rednecks.
I don’t know any British people who were in favor of Brexit, so I just assumed that whole thing was a bunch of old people nostalgic for the pre-mass-immigration UK they’d grown up in, plus some innocent country folk who didn’t know any better.
Now, I’m guessing that the issue is a bit deeper. But it took me a couple of years to get past the black-and-white worldview that the leftist media loves to shove down everyone’s throats: here’s the right way to think, and anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid and evil. Got it?
Well, no. Respectfully, sirs, I don’t got it.
The modern UK, incidentally, is not a Hugh Grant rom-com where everyone’s fantastically wealthy and white – I’ve been on London buses where I was the only person (including the driver) who spoke English at a high level, and in neighborhoods that (except for the freezing weather) might as well be India.
Check out writing by Douglas Murray or Theodore Dalrymple, for example. They make some pretty good points about the decline of Europe, the UK and the West in the age we live in. It’s depressing and uncomfortable to read, but their arguments rarely strike me as being untrue.
(Whether or not Brexit was a good idea, or just a bizarre populist meme that got out of hand is – of course – a completely separate question, which I don’t have much of an opinion about.)
Europe: high brow socialist paradise?
Europe has a public image which is quite sophisticated and high brow.
I think the average American, if he thinks about Europe at all, imagines it as a sort of socialist utopia with good food, good wine, great art and architecture – a place where nobody works too hard, and they really know how to live the good life.
Is all that true? Well, up to a certain point.
The “socialist utopia” stereotype probably deserves an article of its own – some countries are more unequal than others, and these days “socialism” just tends to mean high taxes and a large welfare state.
Plus, I doubt the official economic numbers do much to take into account the large number of people scraping by in the underground economy.
And people from the more socialist areas like Germany, Austria and Scandinavia – people who have been subsidized every day of their lives to an extent that would shock your average American – are still more than capable of complaining about how unfair their whole system is.
What about the rest of those stereotypes?
Well, there’s good food and great architecture in a lot of places around the “continent”.
But it varies, of course, from one place to the other.
(Barcelona is famous for the modernist stuff, but go a bit out of town and you’ll see some buildings that are truly awful – you know, the public housing buildings that real people actually live in. And talking about food, the most typical thing across Europe seems to be kebabs.)
The shorter work week probably applies to a few office workers in a few countries – it’s hardly a majority. And “the good life” is easier to live if you’re on vacation. People in Europe do tend to have longer holidays, but still, everyone I know would love an extra month or two off.
Finally, I should mention that most people, in most places, don’t care too much about “fine art”.
So it’s a mixed bag.
These days, anyway, I’m wondering if it’s reasonable to call Europe “it” in singular at all. The European Union has 27 countries, and – depending on how you define “Europe” that number only increases.
Outside the EU, there’s the UK, Switzerland, Norway, and several countries in Eastern Europe. And the difference between these countries is not trivial – it’s not like comparing US states.
Spain: more than just mariachis and tango
All of this to say that yes, Spain is a country, in Europe. But more specifically, Spain is Spain, a single, smallish country that may or may not live up to your stereotypes about the whole “continent”.
(And technically, Europe is just a few peninsulas on coming off the west of Asia, and continents are a meaningless social construct – but let’s not get into that today.)
Also, I miss the days when I could just write an article about a few broad stereotypes and call it a day: top 7 things you should know about dating Spanish girls, for example.
These days, I’m tired of clickbait.
But ten years later, I still get comments on my original American Ignorance article. The more intelligent ones are about the fact that Spain had quite a bit of influence on early US history – as a great power alongside the UK and France, the Spanish were involved in the Revolutionary War in ways we don’t usually give them credit for.
Once again, I knew nothing about this – mostly because my education back home seemed more focused on crushing my spirit through a decade and a half of boredom than it was on teaching me about European history during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Call me ignorant if you want. All I can say is that I’m sorry for not, as a teenager, exercising more control over the curriculum at my high school.
But back to the big question.
Are European people just as ignorant as Americans?
Maybe. I’m not sure.
At this point everyone’s seen the videos where they stop randomers on the streets of New York (wherever that is) and ask them obvious geography questions.
Turns out that if you stand in a heavily-trafficked area and ask around, you can find people who don’t know anything about anything – and who are willing to say so on camera.
But is that really representative of Americans as a whole?
I doubt it.
And you can get people in Spain to be similarly dumb on camera as well. Check out this guy Charlyokei for more about that…
Is naming countries you’ve never been to on a map a valid indicator of intelligence?
I have my doubts.
Honestly, I think most people are pretty ignorant about history and geography – even their own. And why wouldn’t they be?
You don’t need to know about the underlying causes of the French Revolution to work as a taxi driver in Paris. And – imagine here that you’re visiting Europe for the first time – you really don’t need to know the difference between a Baroque and a Gothic cathedral to spend a lazy summer drinking wine, admiring the nice buildings, and sleeping with the locals.
In other words, most people know what they need to know to do their jobs, and live their lives. Maybe they know more about fashion, or football, than about architecture, art and philosophy.
Does that mean they’re ignorant?
Time to bone up on your geography?
Modern transport tends to make a lot of geography just disappear.
Zip across a bridge and then through a tunnel in the AVE, and you’re blissfully unaware of the whole “fording a river and then climbing to a mountain pass” ordeal you’re missing out on. You can just chill as the countryside flies by – you’re probably more worried about the fact that Renfe still can’t make onboard Wi-Fi work.
And even in an urban environment, you don’t really need to know where you are anymore. You have GPS, don’t you? And the names of places? Well, those are just names. No need to create real associations.
Case in point: Madrid and Barcelona are full of streets named after important historical figures.
So. Who was Antón Martín? Who was Serrano? Or Claudio Coello? Or O’Donnell? Or Argüelles?
Here in Barcelona: Who was Lesseps? Or Verdaguer? Or Alfonso X?
I have a vague idea about a few of them. King Alfonso X, nicknamed “El Sabio”. From the look of him in this one statue I saw, down in El Puerto de Santa María, I’d guess he was around in the Middle Ages.
So I know that much, see?
Anyway, I doubt one Spaniard in a hundred could give you real biographical information about any of those names.
And does it matter?
Back to apple pie and baseball
Anyway, my rousing conclusion here: high-brow culture is totally overrated, most people in Europe are just as dumb as people anywhere else…
And if you’re personally offended by that statement, I can almost guarantee it’s because you’re one of the dumb ones.
Also, pop culture like How I Met Your Mother isn’t going to educate anybody, either. Pop culture is just there to capture your attention long enough so that some big pharma company can put advertisements in front of you.
The only thing I can say, after all this time, is that people in Europe tend to see a variety of American movies and TV shows, so at least they imagine they know a lot about American culture.
Then, they’re a bit offended when we know little or nothing about theirs. So, on the behalf all my compatriots, I apologize.
Now, back to real life… It’s summer, and I’m a good American, so I’m off to eat an apple pie and watch baseball. Or something else that’s comfortably stereotypical.
Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.
P.S. If you liked this, you’ll probably like my more specific article about Spanish stereotypes. You know the ones: all the lazy, passionate, bullfighting / constant party vibes are in there. Have fun!