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Monday, 30 April 2012

The way we are: 10 days in Northern Europe (10 μέρες στην Βόρεια Ευρώπη)

Holidays are not easy for my family to take. For family reasons, we don't like leaving our home at Christmas and Easter. Summer holidays are superfluous - we live near the some of the best beaches in the world, in a place with some of the best weather in the world. If we take a summer holiday, it will be at the end of summer, namely in mainland Greece. The only time left to holiday abroad is in the cooler months. This is how we found ourselves in Northern Europe just a few days ago.

Even though I spent many years living in a country that uses the same 'left' driving system as the UK, I still find it hard to adjust myself to using it when I go to London.
I backpacked through Western Europe twenty years ago on my own. This kind of trip was considered a rite of passage to New Zealanders, usually referred to as the big OE (overseas experience). It was quite an exhilarating experience for me at the time, leaving an isolated sparsely populated bi-cultural but generally monolingual country and coming to an over-populated multi-cultural multi-lingual continent just a little larger than the size of Australia and New Zealand put together, which had embarked on a massive unification project: the Berlin wall had only just come down less than two years before my visit, East and West Europe were blending into each other, and the continent was seeing a move away from the divisions of World War Two, which had kept it divided for so long. I recall a happy smiling hopeful Europe, cherishing her diversity at the same time as thriving on it. Each country was seen as a separate cultural - and more importantly, equal - part of a collective whole.

We couldn't understand why so many store fronts seemed vacant, disused and/or tampered with (eg broken windows, boarded glass) in Brussels - the economic crisis is not limited to Southern Europe.
Twenty years later, Europe finds herself in the midst of an identity crisis. Her members have been divided into the industrious north and the lazy south; where this does not fit in with the data, the labels have simply been reworded as the money-makers and the spenders. Divisive feelings pervade throughout the continent, with her extremities feeling a sense of not being wanted or not being needed, while many simply feel neglected

On a sunny Sunday in Amsterdam, it felt as if there were more bicycles than people on the road. They seemed to get in my way all the time, and I'm pretty sure I got into theirs too.
Without realising it at the time that I was planning the trip (in mid-summer, to ensure the cheapest prices), I was actually about to embark on a similar kind of OE, with a sense of reconnoitring, to gain further insight into the European project (or should I say experiment, as some may believe). This time, I wasn't alone: I was with my family, which includes a range of ages from 10 to 55, and completely different experiences and knowledge of Europe. It's not easy to pretend we are the same when we aren't really. Europe isn't a melting pot. She's full of people who all move in different ways. They can all see their differences, but they can't accept them. No one wants to admit that their way of doing things is not the best one, so they all just continue astutely to move in their own way, the way they've been raised in, trying not to collide with the others.

Europe's history weighs heavily on her present. It can't be ignored. The Berlin Wall sounds like a ridiculous concept now, but it was a daily reality of living terror only two decades ago.
Using our Greek identity cards (the children are still on passports), we started our trip by flying into London where we stayed for three nights at the home of a relative, moving on to a one-day stopover in Brussels, a four-day tour around various parts of the Netherlands where we stayed at a friend's house, and a two-day city break in Berlin, before returning home after ten days of international travel, although it didn't feel like international travel to me: Europe feels more like one country full of people with vastly different mindsets.


Left: My presents to my friends and family (freshly picked oranges, lemons, avocados and herbs not pictured). Right: A suitcase full of new tastes to try when we arrived back home (German sausages, Chinese pork and Dutch cheese not pictured).

My family learnt a lot about each other during those ten days we spent away from home. My husband now understands where his wife gets her law-abiding sense from (after paying for excess weight on the easyJet flight between Amsterdam and Berlin), while I now appreciate my husband's spontaneity when he finds himself in close proximity to winged creatures (he acts like he's carrying a hunter's gun - I know I'll never starve with a man like that by my side). But my children can't understand why their parents were so interested in a wall that no longer exists or why it was there in the first place. Their father's knowledge of history is very good, so he tried to explain it to them with a story about the Americans and the Russians.

"But what does America and Russia have to do with Germany, baba?" they kept asking.

"It shows how the whole world is connected with each other," he cleverly replied to them.

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