"Alonso Quijano, European"
I'm writing these lines in Munich, in the south of the country that, according to the Goethe-Institut's survey, represents the future of Europe like no other. I just saw some young Turks protesting Erdogan on Karlsplatz, waving German and Turkish flags and holding up pictures of Kemal Atatürk. Not far away, on Sendlinger Strasse, I happened upon four men in Red Army uniforms singing Russian songs, one of them playing along on the accordion. This city is awash with both Porsches and bicycles, which seems unusual, at least to a Spaniard. Here, vehicles with astronomical fuel needs bumble on alongside others that couldn't possibly be more climate-friendly. On campaign posters for the Bavarian state elections, the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens rants against poorly paid temporary employment. The Social Democrats' own posters, on the other hand, feature vows to keep their word. And the Christian Social Union of Bavaria goes on to refuse fixed percentages of women on executive boards and the like.
Please allow me to indulge in describing these impressions I gathered during my walk through a German city on an early summer day of clouds and sunny spells; I believe that each one of these impressions has something to say about Europe, this nebulous entity headed by Germany (if we adhere to the survey): from the symbolic presence of countries knocking on the European Union's doors or making their neighbourly existence known all too well to the expression of ruthless contradictions that characterize us Europeans in so many important aspects.
The survey, whether one takes it at face value or not (surely it is of no great statistical significance, as the ratio of participants shows: mostly Germans, whereas the number of people from the UK, Ireland and Portugal, to name but a few, is absurdly low), largely confirms facts that we already knew of or, at least, already assumed to be valid. However, it does hold the odd surprise, which may be worth commenting on. As the present author was requested to take a Spanish viewpoint, first and foremost, it is his duty and privilege to proclaim Spain's greatest success: the noble Alonso Quijano, better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha, was voted most fascinating European literary figure of all times. This honour, evidently justified and well-merited, confirms a twofold conviction the present commentator has held for some time now: first, that the language Don Quijote was written in is (both in a spiritual and, as long as it benefits us, in an economic context,) the greatest good that Spain possesses and second, that the greatest Spaniard of all time – granted, the gap between him and the second greatest is both a sizeable one and equal to the accumulated sum of terrible rulers fate has cursed us with to the present day – is, without a doubt, good old Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a one-armed veteran, by the way.
This bout of patriotic extolling (which I hope you will forgive me – we Spaniards have been markedly lacking in appropriate occasions these days) is followed by a reflection about Europe: the proclamation of "quixotic" beliefs by the European people – or at least by those involved in the survey – arouses a deep and fulfilling sense of contentment, but at the same time engenders a certain unwholesome sensation impossible to overlook. On the one hand, by honouring Cervantes's figure, Europe is acknowledging its Classical forebears, those Greeks and Romans who remain unduly unmentioned in the survey (as if the history of the European continent had begun the day before yesterday), whose works Cervantes, like all men of letters of his time, had deeply read and grappled with so as to found his own reflections on this grand heritage. This is clearly apparent at many points in the epic ridiculing the intrepid nobleman. Not all is lost, as long as we continue to uphold the connection with the man who succeeded in capturing and transmitting our shared cultural heritage in that great monument to beauty, human dignity and intelligence.
On the other hand, we Europeans have a quixotic tendency about us, in the most deprecating sense of the word; that is, we are full of noble ideals, but lacking in the astuteness and strategy to transfer these to our actions. This dichotomy, more symbolic than it is effective in the classic tale, valid though it may be for a literary figure, is bound to prove perilous in a real world community – even more so as ours is a globalized and merciless world. The yawning gap between fundamental ideas and the actual state of affairs is both predestined to cast Europe as a flawed and incoherent venture, and to make us powerless in the face of those who have their priorities clearly before them in thought and action and are willing to unflinchingly carry them out. Europe ponders, proclaims and banters, and at times, one is driven to despondency faced with how little and how poorly Europe acts.
Considering the other points of the survey – apart from the evidently most significant fact – a Spanish view affords us a mixed cup of sentiments. We are flattered to account for not only the greatest literary figure, but also the second most popular artist (trailing the unattainable Leonardo da Vinci): Pablo Picasso. And that's not all: Dalí is among the top ten as well. Surprisingly, however, neither Goya nor Velázquez receive an honourable mention – another bit of cultural heritage we have evidently failed to market.
Spain's relevance in architecture is also worth mentioning, thanks to Antoni Gaudí, a real creative prodigy, whose brainchild, the Sagrada Familia, is the only memorable building that got Spain into the top ten and presumably is also to thank for Barcelona's spot among the chosen few of the list – Barcelona, and not Madrid. That last remark is geared towards the Spanish, not Europeans. As I live in both Barcelona and Madrid and know the fortes and shortcomings of both cities, I can assure you that they aren't really all that different. They resemble each other in the attractions and boons they afford both their visitors and citizens. In this case, my message should be to Madrid's mayor: beyond our borders, she isn't marketing our city as well, or rather, she is not marketing what is most valuable, as she should. We will see whether the sought-for Olympic Games pose a chance to correct this error or whether they will prove to be nothing but a trick to get our minds on what it is most important (and thus to further distract us).
Disappointment is mostly due to the sports department: for us Spaniards, athletes are much more important than for other Europeans (interestingly enough, tennis players are most prominent, though almighty football may dominate the media). And considering the culinary branch: all the Michelin Stars our great cooks have garnered have surely inflated our sense of self-esteem, but Europeans seek better cooking in France or Italy. Anyone who has travelled extensively in the three countries, however, will know this is untrue. Perhaps this message should go out to the miserable gastronomy of our tourist regions, where efforts must surely be made to reinvigorate the Spanish culinary reputation. It simply cannot be that a run-down tavern in a remote Spanish village serves the most delicious cooking whereas the tourist-packed beaches, upon which our good standing rests, offer only the flimsiest of excuses for grub.
Our language proffers similar disappointments: Europeans still believe that both German and French are more important, and it is hard to say whether this result is due to contorted perception on their part (Spanish is the second most used language on the web, and that's a verifiable fact open to little interpretation) or is a further warning signal that we Spanish are failing at marketing what is most valuable to us. Although the institution charged with its promotion, the Instituto Cervantes, has recently been improving by a good margin, our endeavours need to be redressed and intensified.
Most hurtful to Spain, that most pro-European of nations, is the fact that we have not even made it onto the list of EU states upon which the future of our union most depends, whereas Greece, mother of us all, deservedly appears. Being shoved aside to the fringe of continental irrelevance plunges anyone who belongs at heart to the nation that had a stint as hub of the world and now, having relinquished that position, has contributed so much to the construction of Europe (and could continue contributing), into unquenchable melancholy. We are being forced to account for continuous inferior exploitation of our great potential and the prestige our nation holds, and also for the efforts we Spanish have exemplified solely in the past to prevail amongst another, whereas nowadays, we do nothing but paddle listlessly towards a common fate.
Nor is this sudden shifting of weight towards Germany a good sign, a nation more than fifty percent of participants believe to be at the centre of Europe (even if we apply caution, seeing as this survey was carried out by a German institute and answered predominately by German nationals). A union seeking to make its voice heard globally cannot centre on a single absolute champion or hegemon excluding most other member states from the process of decision. If California, Illinois or New York had all effective power in the USA, for instance, reducing all other states to mere underlings, the US could not have reached all that they have indeed attained over centuries. It is blaringly evident that we should ponder this. Germany's economic and political leadership, along with its cultural heritage, which we both marvel at and depend upon, can surely be used in a much more rewarding manner – more rewarding for both Europe and Germany itself.
And how's this for a paradoxical closer: on this continent, the inhabitants of which see democracy as their greatest achievement (although in some countries, Skype may frankly lay claim to this position), the presidents of the two highest executive authorities can still not be elected by the common citizen.