2nd exchange

Dear Abdelkader,

I haven’t seen you in a while. Not literally – I have seen you on TV with those beautiful documentaries about books. Good tone: not know-it-all but driven by curiosity. Try to also cover some lesser known titles on occasion.  Or half-forgotten books. No one reads the stories of Hotz anymore. A shame.

Meanwhile changes raze through Europe. I don’t understand any of it anymore. Today I had a telephone day to arrange things. Dick wasn’t there; he was in Greece. Hans is on vacation in Spain. Maartje is at a convention in Berlin. Liesbeth is going to the Matisse exhibition in Paris and won’t be back in the office until Monday. Everyone is travelling. A weekend in Barcelona is the same for the 40-year-old of today, as the bus ride from Rhoon to Rotterdam was for my parents. At the same time I hear everyone complaining about Europe. That the Greeks can just take off, that they’ll only cost us fists full of money. Help Spain or Portugal? How did they come up with that idea? Merkel is alright, but then again it might all just go to the Krauts’ heads. Complaints Department for Eastern Europe? Now that can be defended: drunken Poles are harassing our women.

These opinions are all just so provincial and short-sighted that you begin to wonder what people actually see and hear when they travel. Are they just taking their preconceptions with them on vacation? At least the farmers in my village, who have not seen much more of the world than the backsides of their cows, talk respectfully about the French (‘they make great cheese’) and the Danes (‘their butter is better than ours’). Wilders wants to bring back the guilder and Marine Le Pen the franc. Have they forgotten those hours long spent waiting at borders? Exchanging currencies: wasting energy on something that only makes the banks happy. 

The worst is that it’s not only frustrated little people that believe these ideas. I was sitting around the table at home with some usually quite thoughtful friends and quoted a German writer. They looked at me as if they heard thunder coming from Koln and asked: ‘You still read German?’ Last year, these same people could not sing the praises of Berlin loud enough. Now that was the city of the future – that’s where you have to be! But to read a German book: no way! Now no offence, but stupidity is enjoying high times. Yes, we should go visit places, but please don’t think about knowing anything about these places.

But sometimes one comes across the opposite. Last month for three hours I had to answer questions from twenty history teachers who were making a trip to Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. I didn’t have to read from Baltic Souls because they already had it memorised. They asked quality questions. The only thing was that the average age of these teachers was over 60 and most were already retired.

With younger people I always sense some disdain around the subject of Europe. If they read, they read Jonathan Franzen and not Miklós Bánffy whose They Were Counted goes a hundred times deeper than Freedom. It’s as if they don’t want to know anything about Europe anymore.

But anyway, France now has Hollande as president. He named a former German teacher as prime minister. Manuel Valls, who was Spanish until age 17, is also going to be part of the government. Perhaps the French are pointing us the way forward for Europe. They’ve done this before in history with the Enlightenment. I am slowly craving for more meaning, vision, erudition and a thinking that crosses borders. How’s that with you?

Kind regards,


Dear Jan,

You took the words right out of my mouth, or as the Dutch say, heart. I printed it out so I could read it again by the window overlooking the street I live in, Churchilllaan. My street is named after the man who helped stop absolute evil. He was also the first statesman, who just after the war, spoke about a European union that would work to avoid war and conflict in the future. On the rubble of WWII, he did not present this coming together as a frivolous utopia but as a bitter necessity – never again. So Mr Churchill, if you raised from the grave what would you say about all the stunts being pulled by today’s leaders? Would you grin and bear it? Or would light a cleansing fire with your big, fat, macho cigar?

Today, as the summer light fills the Churchilllaan, dark clouds gather over the idea of Europe. People are in panic. Many Dutch are secretly choosing Berlin over Paris. You know why, Jan? Because in Berlin a coffee costs one and half euros and in Paris it’s double. It’s the economy, stupid.

I find it a shame that we live in a borderless region for only one reason, linked to the current atmosphere of ressentiment. Borders physically make you feel that there are truly distinct worlds. Before, if you went to East Berlin, you saw how it could also be. Worse, more communist, grey – different. And once back in West Berlin, you would witness the pumped-up mass capitalism. Both reflected the results of choices made by people.

By getting rid of borders and letting the economies grow together, differences decline. As European integration moves forward, the people are left behind feeling hollow and empty. It feels as if there’s nothing more to choose for. The Hegelian synthesis is so complete, it suffocates. Try to find reassurance in that, Jan.

People are craving differences – high peaks and low valleys – and want to view the abyss because only then is catharsis possible. From the sameness of our zone, no consciousness can grow. In this moment everyone rates themselves as an accountant. But perhaps this is just a necessary stage – and we will be liberated from it.

The Netherlands is slowly becoming a nation of 16 million economists marching to the beat of populist drummers using the Greeks as scapegoat. If it wasn’t the Greeks, it would be the Spanish or Portuguese. After all these southerners have always been a bit suspect ever since the Spanish Fury headed north so long ago.

But do these millions of economists know that the Greek economy is only two per cent of the total? Do they know that we help things even less by continuing to borrow money at the lowest interest in history? These things are difficult to explain to those with a household expense notebook for a heart, a piggybank for a liver and a sewer of inflation for large intestines.

You and I are the same: Europe is an experience, a trip, and, yes, also sometimes a burden. It’s a heap of intellectual mumbo-jumbo drowned in a rich and romantic béarnaise sauce. You and I share the same spectacles. When someone says Greece, we think of Pindaros. When Greece is mention in The Hague, people shout ‘Oh, Oh, Cherso’.

A couple of days ago in Athens, these spectacles were slapped off my face. The city felt bitter. Healthcare seemed already on the way out as I observed countless sets of bad teeth. Athens is decomposing, with the rats from Camus’ The Plague already taking over. The rot of crisis is most apparent on the famed Street of 3 September. Here the city’s better boutiques were once topped with residents of well-to-do bankers, business people and government officials. People lived their bourgeois lives exactly as they did in Roman Prati or do in our own Concertgebouw neighbourhood.

Now the street resembles an opera singer with whopping cough. A third of the buildings have been boarded over, many more are about to collapse. There’s a sense of confusion and hopelessness. People mumble: ‘It’s turning into a Beirut where everyone will fight everyone else.’ I lived in Beirut and I can say that Athens feels even more hopeless. A city on the edge of civil war.

Europe is empathy, Jan. To put yourself in the position of others. To plunge yourself in the history, traditions and art of a culture until it becomes your own culture. It’s also way of relating with each other. And now the opposite is happening. Good manners are no longer required when talking with strangers. It’s simple for too many: the Greek are not worth our empathy.

Luckily, while my Greek friends and I were working through a few kilos of lamb chops in an Elias tavern, a certain bard worked to reassure me. ‘We are the land of the Peloponnesian War. It almost destroyed our culture completely. There were deep divisions. Our leaders made the stupidest mistakes. But now, 2500 years later, we’re still here!’

It’s silly I know, Jan, but I am reassured by such vague, Homeric reflections. When history is busy teaching us a lesson, there’s little to do but eat, drink and talk about our shared history. But perhaps as an outsider from a totally different culture, I have the luxury of naivety.

Just as with you, I see a growing need for dialogue. Of course a group of oldies wants to listen to your every word. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not deny it: there is something rotten in the state of Europe. Why are we supporting these colossal banks? Or more directly: Why did Europe shift from supporting the idea of equality for all citizens, to giving primary rights to financial institutions? So that those dumb Greeks – organisers of the Olympic Games – can rot in hell thanks to games played by French banks? Perhaps Europe is no longer aware of what’s happening to itself. Perhaps we should be more like the Ancient Greeks and just accept our fate. We don’t have any other choice.  Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage just pales when compared to We and Europe.

But then I arrive to a place that the EU was formulated to avoid. A place of despair, fatalism and passivity. The same feelings that were on the same path that led to the rationalisations, causing military expansion and genocide ad absurdum.

I left the tavern and walked down the Street of 3rd September, back to my hotel. In the distance I saw Acropolis surrounded by construction cranes, as if they were protecting it from the threats of our crazy times.