European cultural identity (how I realised I’m European)

European Culture, European Cultural Identity in Venice

I grew up in a small village in the south of Germany. I lived there for 18 years and never realised I’m European.

I’m sure many of you European readers feel the same way. In fact, that’s one big problem the EU has (more on the differences and connections between the EU and Europe later). People don’t have a sense of belonging to the EU, to Europe. They feel like they belong to their country or region.

Enter (or rather “exit”) the United Kingdom. Glad this joke is off the table in the first section of the post 🙂

But that’s a shame because I do believe there is so much that unites us.

Is there even such a thing as a European Cultural Identity? I believe there is.

So here are my steps on the way to realising I’m European and discovering the European cultural identity:

Discovering European culture

1. Leaving Europe

It was not until I went to New Zealand for six months in 2014, that I noticed people seeing me as European, rather than German. They said I look European, which I have never quite understood. Over 70% of the New Zealand population are of European descent – do they look so different from me?

They also seemed to have an idea of what “being European” means. I didn’t.

Following the confusion was stage 2:

2. Asking myself – “What makes Europe European?”

At this point, we should clarify some terminology.

Europe = Geographical term that describes the continent reaching from the North Atlantic Ocean (Portugal/Spain) to the Caucasus and Ural mountains. This includes part of Russia, Iceland, and also the British Isles.

“Europe” as often used by people from the UK = Continental Europe.

European Union (EU) = Political union between 28 European states. The EU does not include Norway, Switzerland, and some south-eastern European countries (like Serbia).

Schengen Agreement = A political agreement between 26 European countries that have abandoned border controls. This does include the non-EU countries Norway and Switzerland. It does not, however, include the (still-)EU United Kingdom and Ireland (I know, it’s complicated).

I will write about geographical Europe here. Of course, there are certain European states, like Russia, Iceland or the UK that are significantly different in terms of culture, history and beliefs. But most of the following points still apply to them.

So, let’s jump right in. What does it mean to be European, I asked myself.

These are the different points I discovered:

Everything is ancient…

Europe and its culture are freaking old. I only understood that when going to New Zealand, a country that was established only 200 years ago.

The first civilisations in Greece formed 2700 BC – so nearly 5000 years ago!

European cities are home to magnificent old buildings. Museums are full of ancient art and artefacts. Traditions have passed through generations for hundreds of years.

But of course, other parts of the world are ancient. Take China, Egypt or Syria. So what else distinguishes Europe from the rest of the world?

European Culture Florence Italy Tuscany Cathedral
Florence, Italy

The variety of cultures in a small space…

The reason it’s so hard to define a common European cultural identity is that Europe consists of many completely different identities – in a relatively small space. But at the same time, that’s what defines us, isn’t it – diversity and variety?

I grew up in the south-east of Bavaria, Germany. We could drive to the Czech Republic in about half an hour, go on a road trip to Austria or Italy for a long weekend and take a six-hour train ride from Munich to Paris. And all those places are so different from each other.

Which brings us to the next point that sets Europe apart:

The EU and the Schengen Agreement…
The fact that we can drive from Germany to Austria without even noticing we’re over the border is unique to Europe – to the European Union. In fact, the only way you realise you are in Austria is a text message saying “Wilkommen in Österreich”.

The Schengen Agreement is something that especially people from my generation don’t want to live without anymore. No border controls, no visas, pure freedom of movement. It definitely contributes to feeling like we are one big country – one big culture.

Gandalf Schengen meme - You shall not...ok, it's Schengen. You may pass.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the political side here. Only so much – there might be problems with the way the EU government runs things, with how it’s set up, how elections work. But it is an institution that unites us, and that does a lot for European culture (European Heritage label, Erasmus etc.).

In a poll on Instagram, I asked my followers “What is Europe to you?” One answer was “freedom”. The terms Europe and the EU are often used interchangeably, which shows how interwoven they are. The EU and the freedom it gives its citizens (including refugees) is undoubtedly a huge contributor to the European cultural identity.

It has most definitely contributed to:

The intellectual output…

The people of Europe have devised a unique intellectual heritage. The Greeks laid the foundation for a modern democracy, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers guided to enlightenment, and Michelangelo created some of the most fabulous art on the planet.

But Europe’s production of art and intellectual output still goes on today. Take the flourishing European movie scene for example. European productions tend to have a more realistic style – especially compared to big Hollywood blockbusters. They are also more open about topics like sex, and some have a distinctive humour that is unique to European films. I’m thinking of Blue Is The Warmest Colour or A Very English Scandal here.

There is an increasing pro-European/EU sentiment in today’s pop-culture. One example is the Austrian band Bilderbuch‘s song “Europa 22” or German satirist Jan Böhmermann’s “United States of Europe” video.

3. Realising I’m European

After my trip to New Zealand, there was this picture in my mind of what Europe is. But the realisation that I am European came step by step. Gradually I became aware of things I do, I believe in, I find self-evident.

  • I found it self-evident that every city has an old-town in its centre.
  • I think it’s weird not being able to reach the next country in a few hours and pass the border without stopping.
  • I’m used to going to the museum and seeing at least one Monet, Van Gogh or Raphael.
  • I take it for granted a country has a fair legal system and citizens that are free. (Of course, I’m not stupid – I knew that’s not the case everywhere before I left Europe. But the problems that come with it only truly sink in when you spend some time in those places – Asia in my case.)

By leaving home/Europe, I realised who I am a little more. I also learned that it’s cool and a special privilege to be European. You could maybe say, I became proud to be European.

I hope that more people will discover the European cultural identity. It would solve so many problems Europe and the EU have at the moment. We are not so different from each other after all!

Hi from Leah

On this blog, I regularly write about travel tips, different cultures and much more. If you liked this article, check out my post about New Zealand culture. Also, you can join me on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.

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