Island Monkeys and a Hidden
As we neared Budapest, I felt like I’d been the subject of an experiment depriving human beings of sunlight, fresh air and basic comfort. Well maybe I exaggerate with retrospect. I’d got my ‘coach legs’ the previous year on an A-Level tour of Eastern Europe, when marathon crossings of entire countries were punctuated by marathon wodka sessions. As some of us hallucinated, some of us copulated and others passed out head-first into toilet bowls, I’m sure something trite like you can take the kids out of England but you can’t take the England out of the kids crossed the minds of our teachers. On the same trip I was berated by a fellow student for giving the price of a sausage (about 8p in English money) to a child-beggar. “You’ll only encourage them to be lazy,” she scoffed, as if people dress in rags and contract skin diseases because it’s easier than getting a job. It turned out that her sole purpose for travelling 650 miles across the continent was to buy a Levi’s T-shirt she could easily have bought in Portsmouth City Centre.
Whether it is an English trait to behave abroad exactly as you would at home I don’t know. My experiences are bagatelles when compared to Club 18-30, when Spanish communities were invaded by English idiots and forced to lay on English beer, English fish and chips and English music.
I hoped I took a different approach to Ms Levi. I was interested in the history of the region, especially the tumultuous Cold War period, and tried my hardest to see things from the standpoint of Eastern Europeans. I came to respect and admire the people of Prague and Krakow and the former East Berlin; they had emerged optimistic from a long dark night of authoritarianism.
When my three friends and I staggered out of that coach in Budapest we encountered the best and worst of attitudes to foreigners. We were greeted by a spivvy, slick-haired taxi driver wearing Aviators and looking like an extra from Grand Theft Auto Vice City, ready to extort shopkeepers and shoot cops. In our lethargy we foolishly got in his car and explained what hotel we needed to get to. When we found ourselves cruising through the countryside it became clear that the driver had absolutely no idea where he was going … and the meter was racing like a Telethon total. We were finally dropped off in a field and forced to part with a third of our collective budget. This was bad. Half-dead from the coach trip and the Mediterranean heat. Ripped off and stranded Christ knows where.
After some walking we spotted a woman washing a car outside a plush house. We asked her where roughly in Hungary we had ended up and how on earth we might get to our hotel.
She looked troubled and said, in pretty good English, “You see this hill? We are this side of the hill. The hotel is right over that side of the hill.”
Amazingly, and I will never forget this act of generosity, she not only gave us cold drinks but drove us all the way to the hotel. I tried to imagine an equivalent scenario in Portsmouth, us as Hungarian visitors. We probably would have been told to fuck off.
For a long while I believed the EU to be the solution to xenophobia. Just as the mounting presence of black and brown faces on British streets have made the Alf Garnett position untenable, I thought greater exposure to other Europeans would stop us hating them so much.
But people are losing faith in this artificial Union. Positive social measures such as the minimum wage have been outbalanced by corporate imperatives – ‘integration’ has simply made it easier for business to exploit and expropriate. After all, the EU evolved from a Franco-German trade agreement over coal and steel in 1950. The autocracy of the Commission and the manner in which failed politicos are booted there (Kinnock, Patten, Mandelson?) should concern anyone who believes in democracy. Eurocrats hypocritically denounce corruption in the Third World while ignoring the corruption on their own doorstep.
A European Union along cultural and social lines, designed for the good of European people rather than small sections of those people, is far more desirable.
As a teenager whenever I met French, Germans or Dutch of my own age there was a supranational understanding between us. We liked the same music, we wore the same clothes, we ate the same food, we had similar progressive outlooks on politics and society. You might call this globalisation but it runs deeper into the fabric of our respective languages and cultures. And deeper still is a common human reason which can allow you to empathise with strangers miles away from your home town or offer lifts to desperate foreigners.
First published in Fog in Channel…, 2009.