[29 January 2003]
In 1998, the town of Briey (France) woke up one morning to discover a slew of garden gnomes hanging by their necks from a bridge. The “mass suicide” of the gnomes was engineered by the notorious Garden Gnome Liberation Front, which had also left a note beside the dangling figures: “When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration.”
A year earlier, the organization’s leader was handed a prison sentence as a result of his role in the suspicious disappearance of a hundred garden gnomes. Following the mass suicide, the group resurfaced a few years later in an effort to sabotage the gnome exhibit in Paris, stealing 20 gnomes in the middle of the night, and setting them free in the wild. The organization warned yet again that garden gnomes no longer be “ridiculed”, and that they should be returned to their “natural habitat” (forests). Distraught gnome-owners who, as French police have reported, are extremely “attached to their garden gnomes”, have been terrorized by the disappearance of the cute garden decorations, and live in fear of having their gnomes kidnapped.
Before you write this off as yet another French idiosyncrasy or a peculiar gnome fetish, consider the considerable news reports (CNN and the BBC to name a couple) that the group has merited, and the serious debates amongst French intellectuals about the “gnome phenomenon”. The bottom line is, frankly, that leading intellectuals have analyzed the “terrorists” behavior as an attack on the bourgeoisie, and the poor old garden gnomes as status symbols of the bourgeois classes, and no other conversation garners as much chit chat and enjoyment amongst not only the French, but most Europeans, as the plight of the frowned-upon bourgeoisie.
The gnome phenomenon also reared its ugly head in the States, when a few years ago, a recently married couple kidnapped a garden gnome from the lawn of a wealthy neighbor and took it along on their honeymoon. They then proceeded to send pictures of said gnome in various poses in front of the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge, and so on to its owners. After the honeymoon ended, the gnome mysteriously reappeared on its owners’ lawn. How (dare I say?) bourgeois of them.
Around this time of year, as multitudes of tourists flock to Europe in search of history and good times, the Europeans brace themselves for those oh, so unknowing and abrasive tourists who flock the continent from December all the way through the end of summer with their Berlitz translators, travelers’ checks, and well-established bourgeois stereotypes.
Europe, however, is in the midst of identity crisis. Plans of a “united Europe” are proceeding with full force, and the recent arrival of the “Euro” marked the continent’s official unity (economically speaking, at least). But the question remains: Can individual European nations ever truly merge to form one Europe? How can the French, the British, the Germans, the Italians, et al, ever possibly meld in this huge melting pot? Article F of the Maastricht Treaty states that the “union shall respect the individual identities of its member states”. Having said that, the problems are numerous. Europe, given its many different facets, can’t possibly merge as one; if anything, critics argue that as plans proceed rapidly for an across-the-board European identity, the backlash that member nations are going to become even more nationalistic is going to pose a huge obstacle to the continent’s cultural unification process.
Which brings us to the issue of typecasting, of which Europeans have had considerable experience. As much as they typecast themselves and quibble about their own identities, they are in total agreement about their assessment of Americans, whom they regard as wealthy, rude, nouveau riche and elbow-shoving bullies that are hell-bent on establishing world order (and whom the Europeans are willing to milk for every hard-earned dollar). Waves of pro-American sympathy which surfaced after the 9/11 attacks have gradually been replaced with growing disdain as a result of European disapproval of American retaliations against Afghanistan and the current Bush stance on Iraq. Some things, it seems, never change.
It’s an ironic (or perhaps, expected) sentiment, though, given the serious “Americanization” of Europe that has taken place in the past decade (from McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Gap stores on every other corner, to American shows and musicians dominating television programs and the airwaves). In the midst of the economical unification hullabaloo, Europe’s cultural unity has become the thorn in the backside of unification proponents who are trying to loosen the grips of the member states’ steadfast hold on their individual identities. Despite theoretical and intellectual analyzing, the reality is pretty basic. In a nutshell (and with a grain of salt), let’s address the character of a few nations, and the pros and cons that they offer the “United States of Europe” (pardon the pun):
Great Britain: Alright, stop right there. Great Britain (comprised of English, Scots, Welsh, and the Northern Irish) has enough troubles forging a single British identity, let alone blending in with the rest of Europe, whom they off-handedly refer to as the “Continent”. Generally regarded by the rest of Europe as prim, proper, prudish, conservative, and unusually devoted to their heavily-populated island, the British are perceived as potential trouble-makers who are touting the status of their language (English is the most popular second language in the world) as a reason for superiority.
Pros: The British add a colorful, albeit bloody, history; inherent wit and humor; a pretty cool music scene; scandalous royalty; and Ozzy Osbourne.
Cons: British cuisine; Prime Minister Tony Blair suffering from the delusion that he’s American; scandalous royalty; the Northern Ireland conflict; Oasis.
France: The French exude a certain class and je ne sais quois to the rest of Europe. Paris is still the reigning beauty amongst European cities, replete with some of the most important art galleries in the world secured in its diverse neighborhoods. However, coupled with these great artistic accomplishments, comes a somewhat snooty attitude that has miffed a number of Europeans.
Pros: Class; respectable arts institutions; a groovy accent; amazing food; a never-ending stream of “intellectuals” who can converse about anything under the sun, particularly American imperialism and the bourgeoisie.
Cons: Garden Gnome Liberation Front; Maurice Chevalier films.
Italy: The idlers of Europe are revered for their la dolce vita, “let the good times roll” philosophy, good looks, excellent coffee, and unparalleled fashion sense. However, the Romans also are notorious for allowing la dolce vita to get in the way of hard work, which has also led to serious government scandals.
Pros: Fashion know-how; cappuccinos; al fresco cafes; romance; Roberto Benigni.
Cons: The Italian lire (i.e., inflation); government scandals; bizarre game-show hosts; the Cosa Nostra (Mafia).
Ireland: The Irish, a fond and cheerful addition to the European community, are slowly progressing as one of the most important countries in the Union Dublin is rapidly establishing itself as a significant business center, while Ireland’s other cities still enjoy a reputation for charm and quaintness.
Pros: The typical Irish charm; drunken poets; great beer.
Cons: Hatred of the English; bar fights; Catholic prudery.
Germany: The “sensible” Europeans were once voted (along with the English) as one of Europe’s most glum people. At the forefront of the European unification process, the Germans are coping with their own unification issues as East and West Germany merged into one, and they still try to wield off a dark and morbid history.
Pros: Common sense; frugality; great beer; Berlin.
Cons: A dark, disturbing history; lack of humor; Volkswagens; Frankfurt.
The Netherlands: The Dutch are amongst the most popular Europeans, known for their kindness, simplicity and, well, less-than-restrictive social codes of conduct. These particular social mores are an important aspect of the cultural unification debate as Europeans debate if and how various issues, such as the Dutch permissiveness regarding prostitution and hashish use, should be regulated.
Pros: Permissive drug rules; tulips; Gouda cheese
Cons: Permissive drug rules; Amsterdam.
Alright, so these analyses are basic and stereotypical, but they bring about an important question: Can each European nation truly forgo its inbred national identity and adhere to a new set of rules? Most likely, no. The French will always prefer wine to beer; the Italians will never adhere to the Germans’ no-nonsense ethics; and it’s difficult to imagine the Dutch curbing their free-wheeling ways and so much the better for them. Europe has, and will continue, to unite in many ways, but national identities will undoubtedly remain firmly intact.
Which brings us back to the gnomes. Despite Europeans’ eagerness to preserve their respective independence, it’s important to note that the website for the Gnome Liberation Army lists links to gnome liberation activities in the UK, Belgium, and Italy, in liaison with their French compatriots. This is the reality, folks: It seems that Europe is uniting after all, gnome by gnome. Amen.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/taghizadeh030129/