Random thoughts and images from a short time on The Continent

I wrote some notes on my way back to Aotearoa after a month travelling in Europe as it seemed like a good time to reflect on the experience and some things I want to focus on as a result of spending this brief time in that part of the world. I try to avoid unhelpful comparisons, but I think it’s important to identify where good stuff exists and learn from it.

I feel a bit guilty, not just about the carbon emissions from our flights (we travelled across Europe by rail, more on that below) but also because we avoided Covid the whole time despite being in crowded public places nearly every day (I took a CO2 monitor that was useful for determining when a face mask would be a good idea) while Covid was peaking in Aotearoa again – and we also avoided the wettest summer in recent memory at home, to enjoy our first white Christmas in some very beautiful places! 

Lake Thunersee, Switzerland

For context, it was a fleeting visit mostly in major cities. We spent a few days in London, Paris, Interlaken, Bern, Munich, Prague, Vienna, Florence, and Rome. I didn’t do an OE in my 20s like many young Kiwis do, as working holidays most often based in the UK. But every decade, my wife Tarsh and I have been lucky enough to do a month or so overseas. In 2000 it was Nepal, in 2014 it was other parts of Asia with the kids and this time it was Europe with a good friend. 

I have had a few brief trips to Europe previously – one was a few days in the UK and France about 20 years ago, more recently I had several business trips in 2018-2020 to the UK, The Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, North Macedonia and Italy. This time we stayed mostly in hotels and Air BnBs, visited a few friends, had a few business meetings, and enjoyed a few tourist experiences (mostly the low/no cost ones). So, this was a really privileged European experience, and in many ways totally superficial, creating quite distorted perceptions of the place and people. 

Frozen fountain, Paris.

With those disclaimers and qualifiers, I was really impressed with three themes I witnessed during my time on the Continent (I think we’ll leave the UK out of Europe for now). There are many things that I think Aotearoa does better than Europe, perhaps I’ll cover them another time, but the three things I was most impressed with left me feeling like there are aspects of European culture that Aotearoa could learn from. 

I’m hoping the title of this blog post provides a low-level trigger for those of us who have tried hard to help Aotearoa move beyond the Eurocentrism that modern New Zealand was founded on and is largely still based around. I think one of the issues (for better and worse) we have as a relatively isolated group of islands in the South Pacific, is the geographic and cultural isolation from other societies. We have immigrants who bring their rich cultures and ways of being but they usually take a backseat to the dominant cultures of Pākehā New Zealand. Of course, like Australia, we have an over-abundance of North American and British culture imposed through entertainment and news media, largely a legacy of our colonial history that ties Aotearoa to Great Britain and other ‘European’ dominated ex-colonies of the British Commonwealth. 

Dead man on horse. Camden/Bloomsbury, London.

Aotearoa is also a relatively young country in terms of human habitation and culture – and New Zealand even younger. I remember hearing historian Jamie Belich claiming this made our history much more interesting, because we’ve had rapid change over a short period of time. To a large extent, Professor Belich was right – but like most (or is it just many?) people, I also think ancient cultures and their contemporary communities are super interesting. The opportunity to see, touch, hear and, to some extent, taste and smell human creations made thousands of years ago totally blows my mind.

Technological innovation, social organisation and environmental management contributed so greatly to the rise and fall of European empires over the last two millennia and also to their rapacious appetite for expansion, exploitation, and extraction within Europe and around the world. While Europe is still involved in many cutting-edge developments in technology, social organisation, and environmental protection – global leadership, economic power and military hegemony has shifted over the last century to the Americas, Asia and the Middle East. 

Old money still exists in Europe, the centuries of looting and enslaving the rest of the world has a long tail of material benefit for many European families and institutions. But the region also has a sense of decay, the treasures and monuments of Roman antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and even into 19th and 20th Century cultural, social and political movements, are incredible but repackaged for the consumption of tourists, perhaps ironically reinforce the idea that Europe is well past its heyday. 

The re-emergence of the ultra-right and nationalism, not just as fringe elements, but controlling the political landscape in many European countries is the most obvious example of the rot setting in as progressive social programmes and immigration policies have failed to maintain the kind of inclusion, equity and tolerance the EU prided itself on in the latter part of last century. Homelessness, drug addiction, pollution and gun violence are not just North American problems – and the recent cost of living crisis, energy crisis and war in Ukraine are amplifying the challenges European citizens and their leaders have faced for decades.

Altar of the Fatherland in Rome was started 50 years before Mussolini used it.
It really needs a fascist leader to make rousing speeches from the balcony – what the hell else could it possibly be used for?!

Despite the current challenges, historic atrocities, and a bleak immediate future for much of Europe – like all societies, they have some truly exceptional traditions, values, and ways of dealing with the past, present and future that others, especially Aotearoa, could learn a lot from. Apart from the awesome public transport systems (particularly electric trains, cycle-centrism and walkable cities), these are the top three things I think Aotearoa could think about emulating and adapting in our unique context:  

1. Dealing with Ugly Histories Honestly 

Aotearoa has a few problems with our history. There’s a small crowd with convenient amnesia and denialism that historical events and processes have any real significance today; another group contest the revisionist histories that most have accepted as more accurate and useful understandings of the past – these are those who try to say Māori can’t criticise Pākehā because Māori committed atrocities of their own; and then there are those who see pre-colonial times through rose-tinted lenses where Māori lived in a utopian fantasy world of harmonious relationships with the natural environment, everyone was treated fairly, Māori maintained optimal physical, mental and spiritual health and there was little violence and inequality – and Pākehā society and other European cultures have little if anything of value to offer Māori today. All these perspectives are problematic and unhelpful, hopefully for obvious reasons – if not, let me know.

Lisa Reihana’s digital artwork ‘In Pursuit of Venus [infected]’ on display at the national museum in Vienna

Popular European history, at least since the Romans, seems to have been at least two thousand years of continuous bloodshed, usually in the name of the Christian God or at least the Church, including its various schisms and associated aristocracies. I’m sure there were periods of sustained peace and relative prosperity for the peasants and common folk in different parts of the continent at different times over those two millennia, but there was also a succession of violent regimes, whole dynasties and centuries of brutal repression by real world tyrants and their emissaries who did the dirty work for the relevant king, pope or ideologue.

Some of the great structures of Rome still stand after two thousand years and the beautiful basilicas, bridges and battlements are treasured by tourists and locals alike; they are reminders of who built them – both the commissioners and the slaves and indentured labourers always required to construct significant public works. And it’s not just ancient history – mass graves, killing fields, torture sites and concentration camps used by the fascists, communists and ethno-religious regimes in the last century are also the agricultural land, municipal waterways, town squares and public parks of Europe. 

Old Town Square, Prague – site of Nazi parades, Communist rallies, Bohemian riots, revolutions and executions.

The decedents of the protagonists, antagonists and victims of these horrors usually still live nearby. Like Aotearoa, some citizens prefer not to talk about the past, it is too painful and/or shameful, others view one side or another through those rose-tinted glasses and others contest the official and unofficial versions of what happened, who was to blame and what the ongoing consequences and injustices are. 

By most accounts Germany has made exceptional and ongoing efforts to confront subsequent generations with the terror inflicted by the Nazi regime, with the goal of ensuring it never happens again. Given the increasing prominence of neo-Nazis and the ultra-right in German politics, critics would say the official efforts and civil society have only been partially successful. The point is the Germans haven’t shied away from the ugly history, and successive governments, in East and West and then the unified Germany, have committed significant resources to dealing with the legacy of Nazism. Arguably places like AustriaItaly and Spain have had a less committed response to dealing with the legacy of fascism in their country and have seen the re-emergence of neo-fascists being elected to office.

A specific example of constructive historicism I experienced was in Prague at the Museum of Communism. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the museum – other than it would likely be an effort to portray the period in Czech history in a wholly positive or wholly negative light – and probably of low quality in terms of displays and commentary. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong about those assumptions. 

The museum is on the edge of the Old Town in Prague in a very modern building. The exhibition space is a series of numbered wall texts with images, physical objects and audio-visual resources used to tell the story in three parts: The Dream, The Reality, The Nightmare.  

It is structured in a simple arrangement as a chronology starting around the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918 following the fall of the Austria-Hungary empire at the end the First World War.

Without any real knowledge of the specific Czech experience of Communism and alignment with the Soviet Union, let alone being an expert, I thought the handling of the subject overall was done with depth, sensitivity, and integrity. The information recorded the inter-war period and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia by Britainand France at the Munich Conference in 1938, positive changes post-war Communism brought to what had been quite an unequal society (unless you were German or Hungarian, who were vilified and expelled after WWII), it highlighted some of the public benefits of social housing, education and health during the early years of Communism. It also told the story of heroes who had helped fight the Nazis to save the country, only to be demonised and disappeared by new regime after World War II.

The story became increasingly bleak covering many aspects of daily life under Communism, the challenges for everyday families after the devaluation of the currency in 1952, and deterioration of civil liberties and an eventually outright murderous government under de facto Soviet control. The exhibition ends with the increasing resistance to Communism from the late 1960s and the eventual peaceful revolution in 1989 that ended the Soviet Union, in many ways initiated and led by Václav Havel. The Czech poet and playwright served as the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 and then as the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003 and was the first democratically elected president of either country after the fall of Communism.

I would have liked to see the timeline continue with major events since the end of Communism in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a comparison of civil liberties, education and health under free market Capitalism and the environmental legacy of both eras that have caused large parts of the country to be uninhabitable because of pollution and exhaustive mining of uranium, precious metals, and other resources.  

So, it was a captivating multi-sensory experience that provided depth and detail I haven’t seen in museums and mobile story-telling in Aotearoa. Perhaps 20th Century history is easier to make engaging than 18th and 19th Century New Zealand, let alone pre-European life for our Māori tupuna – but perhaps we just need to try a bit harder too. Te Papa has some good content including unexpected aspects of everyday life in Aotearoa New Zealand, and provincial museums do their best with limited resources to tell important local stories in engaging exhibitions, but we can and must always do better in communicating ugly histories in constructive and creative ways. 

We also visited George Nuku’s massive exhibition “Oceans. Collections. Reflections.” at the Welt Museum in Vienna. The spaces juxtapose items from the museum collection and 19th Century Austria-Aotearoa engagements.

Imagine being Wiremu Toetoe Tumohe and Te Hemara Rerehau Parone who joined the Novara Expedition in 1859. The Novara Expedition was an expedition of the Austrian Navy, supported by Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian, which circumnavigated the globe between April 30, 1857 and August 30, 1859. And to think, the printing press donated by the Austrian royal family was used for Waikato Tainui to resist the British invasion.

The Austrian/Hungary/German history of research and collecting/stealing from Aotearoa is really interesting – and something the institution and government have been coming to terms with rectifying for some time. Nuku’s project is a profound play with those relationships and broader environmental, social, cultural and economic issues.

2. Valuing Quality, Beauty & Craft 

One of my biggest takeaways from Europe is a new appreciation for quality – kind of ironic given I was head of a company based almost solely on quality – quality management, quality control, quality audits. Regardless, I have found a love for quality – not quality as in expensive (though this is often the case), but rather a commitment to quality, and to beauty – often manifest through great craftspersonship. 

We have settled for mediocrity in just about everything in Aotearoa – our food, our objects, our relationships, even our politics. 

There’s certainly a commitment to quality in some outposts of Aotearoa – places like the workshops of carvers Lewis Gardiner and Rangi Kipa, the eateries of Cazador and Hiakai, the footwear of Soul Shoes and clothing like Kilt and Crane Brothers – and a big shoutout to our neighbour Maudi Dewes and others around Ruatorea working on local artisan foods!

I felt a great sense of disappointment that Aotearoa hasn’t really developed a regional food culture – there are regional wine specialties and some restaurants have made real commitments to locally sourced supplies – but we have few localised delicacies and dishes. At restaurants in Florence, we had the signature dishes and drinks from Tuscany, in France there are myriad local dishes particular to a town, a district or region and specific to different times of the year, Spain has Jamón ibérico

A region like Tairāwhiti has massive potential to celebrate local dishes that exist amongst locals and can be developed as more colourful versions for visitors – and some are starting this, but we need concerted efforts to support artisan food producers with products and dishes that differentiate regions around the country. It’s probably easier in areas with the highest tourist numbers, but we can start it amongst locals regardless of visitors.

Likewise, traditions of beautiful objects seem to have been largely lost in Aotearoa to the market of the mass-produced and its inherent environmental problems (based on commercial benefits) of built-in obsolescence. 

Restaurant, Florence

The suburban Parisian street we stayed in had a business making string instruments, a workshop for the repair of chandeliers and iron-work, a handmade clothing shop, a Greek deli, a bakery with a constant line outside and a shop dedicated to making the Jewish sweet bread Babka – above each shop were three storeys of apartments. Apartment living is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially those of us used to a quarter acre section, but it means the workers can live close to their workplace instead of making industry too geographically separate from the artists and craftspeople who work in them. 

In Bern we passed a workshop of those responsible for maintaining the ornaments of the cathedral above – oh for a workshop connected to each marae or hapū of kowhaiwhai artists, tukutuku weavers and whakairo carvers to keep the taonga of our marae in good order. But beyond educational institutions, what are our systems to support these keepers of the arts and crafts? Our residential and commercial buildings are pretty bland these days – I guess the Baroque and Art Nouveau movements were limited to a small proportion of cities and buildings, but they continue to provide meaningful employment for thousands of workers maintaining and repairing beautiful structures, ornaments and objects that I have reconsidered my attitude towards. 

Arts and crafts workshop below church, Bern, Switzerland.

I’ve been an avowed utilitarian for most of my adult life. Reading John Stuart Mill’s essay on Utilitarianism in my early twenties probably had some influence, but generally my commitment to social justice and egalitarianism has seen most decoration and fine crafts as luxuries and indulgences of the bourgeois that we should only consider again when we’ve made poverty history. I probably would have been a good Communist from this perspective – the stark barren simplicity of Brutalism (which, to be fair, has its own beauty) and to a lesser extent simplicity of much Modernist architecture and industrial design (which is also beautiful in its own way) suit my politics quite well. What I rediscovered in Europe was an appreciation for beauty and the importance of quality craft as a wonderful expression of human creativity. Seeing Albrecht Durer prints in a 13th Century convent in Prague took my breath away, as much as seeing a stunning tree painting by French artist François Larrieu or the Basquiat exhibition at the Albertine in Vienna. Asceticism has its place, so does aestheticism.

As an aside, my other big disappointment with Aotearoa and myself is our limited language competency. Again, our geographic isolation has meant most parents don’t see so much value in children learning anything beyond English, and a little Te Reo Māori and/or Mandarin. There’s some truth in that assessment, but it overlooks the value of multilingualism for appreciating different ways of seeing the world and human experience, it underplays the significance of language in cross-cultural, social and economic interactions – and it underestimates the capacity of our brains to do more than five or six subjects at school. Admittedly, teachers will say that many students are struggling to do the basics with the subjects they do have as formal education competes with entertainment platforms, social media and other priorities like paid employment and sports. Yet the majority of European young people grow up speaking at least 3-4 languages while balancing those other priorities.

3. Slow Society 

The third lesson Europe taught me is related to the second one – it’s something about quality in relationships. Perhaps a lot of these learnings are related to my age, I turned 50 in Europe, and it feels like I’m definitely in the second half of life with a growing appreciation for each day as a gift I shouldn’t take for granted from here on. 

The thing I hadn’t noticed before, but really stood out this time, was across Europe there is a tendency to have a decent break of at least a couple of hours, sometimes 3-5 hours in the afternoon. I remember a friend from Gisborne who spent six months in rural France talking about the phenomenon that we both found strange, but that he thought was quite healthy and provided opportunity to rest and connect with the self and others each day outside of the work environment. 

We figured ‘when in Rome’, so our daily routine on the holiday this time usually included breakfast and exercise, meetings or exploring in the morning, lunch, rest and reconvening late afternoon for evening drinks, a meal and robust discussions on the topic of the day. 

We were generally the first to eat lunch and dinner, locals across Europe seem to eat later than we are used to. And at restaurants and cafes you generally don’t get up to pay at the counter, you finish when you’re ready, wait to catch the eye of staff, which can take a few minutes, especially if they’re busy or not around, then wait for them to bring the bill, which they leave on the table, then wait a while longer for them to come back and ask how you’d like to pay, then wait for them to come back with an EFTPOS machine if you’re no paying by cash. This can be a bit frustrating if you’re in a hurry, but it also kind of enforces an expectation that eating out is intended to be a slow process, based on quality conversation and really enjoying the people and savouring the place, not a rushed functional experience of food in for energy out. I’m sure most healthy Kiwis do this, like the pub tradition in Great Britain, but I’m afraid it was another epiphany for this card-carrying Utilitarian. 

I know most European cities have jammed public transport and freeways as frantic as any in Japan or the US, but the prominence of transport routes that limit cars with cyclists, trams, buses and spaces dedicated to walking and now e-scooters must be refreshing for anyone coming from car-centric Aotearoa. I can’t help but think that transport modes that don’t segregate individuals and nuclear families into our tin boxes must be good investment in social capital for any community. 

It was probably related to where and when we were in Europe, a class and Christmas thing as much as anything inherently European – but I noticed men taking a lot more responsibility for childcare and being present with the family than I usually see in Aotearoa. So, I don’t want to make too much of this one, but it was something that I took note of and will keep reflecting on. It’s great to see initiatives like the project in Tairāwhiti exploring what it means to be a man in our community and culture these days. Redefining or at least being a little more explicit about what we expect of men as a society is problematic in our pluralistic, fluid cultural soup that is contemporary Aotearoa – but it’s also problematic to have no expectations or guidance for young people about what the adults value and think is healthy in intimate, family, friendship and community relationships. 

Having a few mechanisms built in to help society stay slower than otherwise unrestrained Capitalism might otherwise demand might have contributed in a small way to Europe losing out on being the technological and economic powerhouse of the world, but there could be some healthy benefits too. I’m not quite sure how real all this is, regardless, it feels like something worth pursuing – a bit like the practices of yoga and hygge that have recently been popularised more in the West. No doubt yoga, mindfulness and the like resonate with people previously avoiding the importance of being truly present, taking time to enjoy life and prioritising friendships and family instead of work or other commitments. Feels like something I’m keen to explore more and wonder if others in Aotearoa might need to too.

Stechelberg village in the mountains above Interlaken

So these are some of my lessons from Europe, nothing earth-shattering and not news to lots of people in Aotearoa, based on the shallowest understanding of European society (if it even exists since Thatcher) and a similarly limited appreciation for all the good things in Aotearoa that contradict the assumptions and characterisations I make of our own society. 

I had a couple of significant business meetings that created unexpected prospects for collaborations in Europe and the Middle East, so that made the trip worthwhile, but these personal practices and public values – ways of being – seem much more important than any business opportunity.

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