An entertaining exploration of the truth behind European stereotypes

 

BRIDGET HOURICANreviews Don’t Mention the WarsBY Tony Connelly New Island 385pp, €17.99

‘DO NOT discuss German history, no matter how fascinated you may be by the subject” – Enterprise Ireland’s earnest advice to Irish companies exporting to Germany reprises Fawlty Towers’ most famous sketch, “Don’t mention the war”.

We’re supposed to be suspicious of stereotypes – “a simplified conception based on prior assumptions” is one definition, but if the same information underpins a sit-com and a business advice paper, aren’t we dealing with something more solid than assumptions?

I went to a European School in Brussels which had 10 nationality streams. The experience was intended to turn us into good Europeans, and it did – adolescent hormones encouraged cross-pollination – but we never stopped observing along national lines: the French and Spanish were rotten linguists; if the Italians had put the effort into studying that they did into cheating, they’d have been Einstein; the Mediterraneans had the most chic, but only the English punks and German anarchists dressed radically.

Why? The curriculum, nervous about mentioning the war(s), didn’t encourage exploration.

RTÉ’s Europe correspondent Tony Connelly has plunged straight in: are all French waiters rude, Germans innately bellicose, Swedes depressed, Spaniards obsessed with death? He visits each country, placing himself in the front line. In Paris he’s served in a swanky restaurant; in Spain he attends a bullfight; in Sweden he looks at a skyscraper where none of the windows opens (to prevent suicide).

He tests the stereotype, generally finding there’s no smoke without fire but neither is there a raging furnace.

French waiters don’t rely on tips so aren’t servile, but they go through rigorous college training (which can last nine years) so are always professional. Since stereotyping is often just another word for custom, Connelly reaches back into history for explanations – if Germans are archetypal nudists, it’s partly because East German authorities tolerated naturist clubs in order to annoy the Catholic Church.

The more familiar you are with a country, the more, not less, stereotypes you’ll have about it.

Those old love-hate neighbours, the English and the French, swap stereotypes as chefs do recipes (interestingly the French stereotype of the Brits as a nation of eccentrics is nothing like Irish typecasting of the English, proving that stereotypes are in the eye of the beholder).

Holding numerous stereotypes is an admission of shared interest. We don’t make assumptions about far-away countries of which we know nothing – stereotypes on Maltese, Kyrgyzs or Mauritanians anyone?

Connelly charts 10 EU countries and achieves a good balance between countries we know well – Spain, Italy, France – and ones we probably don’t – Hungary, Denmark, Czech Republic. His book may prove most useful as an introduction to new member states. For instance, in Budapest the question “How are you?” is rarely met by an automatic “fine” – your respondent will tell you exactly how she is and it won’t be good. If you read Connelly, you’ll know why and knowing why is an antidote to prejudice.

Is the ultimate aim of the EU to eradicate or celebrate stereotypes? The European project always seems to me to pull in opposite directions, between homogeneity and variation.

On the one hand, we use the same currency, shop everywhere in Marks & Spencer and increasingly converse in a lingua franca (English); on the other hand, money is poured into shoring up minority languages and protecting regional distinctions.

Can we have it both ways? A melting pot and vive la différence? I’m not sure and I don’t know if Brussels is. How will Connelly’s stereotypes look in a hundred years time?


Bridget Hourican is a freelance journalist and historian