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Smaranda Vultur

The Image of Good European

            The practice of life-story type interview in a region of Romania with an important intercultural tradition that is still alive – such as the Banat region – is useful also for exploring the dynamics of individual and collective identities. If there are significant variables from one ethnic community to another* as far as the priorities and the hierarchy of the reference frameworks in the process of defining the self and the other are concerned, there is a certain agreement upon an ideal sample of the self-image of each community, that can be superposed – within certain limits – on an idealised projection of a regional stereotype. This is what we can call the image of a “good Banat inhabitant”. What connection could be established between this product of collective imagery, in which a common life experience with a few moments of conflict – though non-violent – is valorised in its positive aspects and transformed into a both identity and moral reference point on the one hand, and the image of a “good European” on the other? Obviously, in the autobiographical stories we archived**, the two identity reference points are rarely put in a direct and explicit relation, although one can easily notice important overlapping between the desiderata (a set of norms and values) that the pro-European discourse proposes, in an attempt to define a European identity, and the way in which the Banat inhabitant’s regional identity is defined. Not accidentally, what allows this mirroring effect is tolerance, living in good terms with the neighbour, the lucrative opening towards “the other” in a competitive area, in which the latter’s superiority – recognised when necessary – is pragmatically valued, namely transformed into a high standard of desirable performances. In other words, it is the capacity to transform the experience of the different into one of self-enriching that seems to be the most important ability that places the “good Banat inhabitant” in the desirable proximity of the “good European”.
            More than that, in the flattering self-image built by the Banat Romanian in a regional framework, he sees himself different from the “simple Romanian” – as one of our interlocutors put it. The latter lacks the fertile experience of “living among nationalities” in order to be placed so well as the Banat inhabitant, in the competition to “raise to European standards”. The explanation belongs to the same interlocutor, a Romanian peasant from a village south of Banat, born in 1914, deported to Bărăgan (the south-eastern part of Romania) between 1951-1956, where he had met the local Romanians, just as he would meet the Moldavians later, as his son got married in Iași. The meeting with his fellow-countrymen from those parts of Romania helped him understand that the Banat Romanians are “otherwise”, and his account is adorned with a lot of picturesque details meant to point out the differences, and also with interesting explanations that he considers to be at the origin of those differences. Thus, the Banat Romanian is “more travelled”, therefore, more used to walking out of his space (he was used to selling his products in Vienna or even Rome, although through intermediaries, going to Iași, which is situated at the opposite part of the country just to meet his in-laws, is no big deal to him). This makes him feel more confident on the other’s territory (he stalks proudly, like a man who knows what he wants, he does not let himself intimidated by the social superiority of the in-laws, because he can oppose qualities on other plans), he is more skilled in organizing his own household and administering his estate – when he had it), because he has learned how to “steal by watching” what is the best at those with whom he has lived (the other nationalities). These nationalities are globally evoked, even though, in many of the numerous discourses similar to the one we chose to exemplify, a certain hierarchy is obvious; however, the closest to the ideal standard is the Banat Swabian (identified as the “German”).

            Another explanation for acquiring a better status than the “simple Romanians” is – according to our interlocutor – the fact of being situated in the western part of the country. In a symbolic allotment of the cardinal points, in very many discourses of memory, the West is associated with the features of civilisation in comparison with the more backward, if not even uncivilised, East. Again, we find here the mirroring effects with the discourse of self-defining the good European identity, in which the “integrated” often thinks of his relation with the “un-integrated” in the same terms; the experience of integration within the Soviet sphere of influence is, in the case of Romanians, (and I refer here to Romanians in general) a favouring factor for this type of negative symbolical investment (of the East).

            Another aspect invoked by the Banat inhabitant in order to establish the differences between him and the others is the ability to speak several languages. These are the languages of the different ethnics nearby, namely German, Serbian, Hungarian. This type of positive attitude regards both the opening towards communication with the other, and the politeness towards the other. It obviously represents a form of interculturality, which acquires an important symbolic dimension in the evoked context, a dimension through which the image of the good Banat inhabitant connects as if naturally with the one of the “the good European”.

            I would underline the fact that this discourse is largely the one of the older generation, as this is the best represented category in the oral history archive mentioned before. But here, the described model is interesting to us especially for its being a way to imagine a certain type of identity for the European. How does this European appear from the presentation above? As a person capable of living on several levels without feeling his/her identity “diluted” in any way, diminished or threatened. It is a person able to adapt, with an essentially pragmatic vocation.

            Another case I have met is that of T.H., who comes from a family in whose history the German origin combines with the Romanian, the Slovak and the Polish ones in only two generations’ time. This interlocutor asks himself: “What am I?”, and the rescuing answer is found in the exclamation – said nevertheless with a doubtful tone: “I am a European, aren’t I?”. This time, the European identity is imagined as a convergence of differences, absorbed and homogenised into a redemptive European identity that solves the conflict implied by opting for only one of the origins. This perspective is opposed to the ethnocentric one, arguing with it and finding the solution in an identity in which unity is the result of merging the differences. A superordinating term is covering this unity: Europeanness.

            However, it is conceived in a different manner compared to the way in which national identity is projected as a factor superordinated to ethnic identities in a contractual perspective. This happens because the individual thinks of himself as belonging to two communities simultaneously: the one represented by the ethnic group and the one to which he belongs as a citizen.

            Nevertheless, T.H.’s approach also differs from the ethnocentric nation based on the perfect overlapping with language or origin. Contrary to it, although he sees his own identity as a levelling factor of an initially plural identity offer, he considers the result to be a happy harmonisation of differences assumed as such. (What seems to be easy to accomplish at individual level [that is, because the European mental favours this perspective upon the person as a dynamic centre of reflection and actions] appears to be a utopia if we try to make this model a normative one for the European identity).

            This happens not only because it is in a permanent process of becoming, of changing. As Dominique Wolton shows in a study from L’esprit de l’Europe (ed. by Antoine Compagnon and Jacques Seebacher, Flammarion, Paris, 1993), one of the clichés in the European discourse sounds like this: “The richness of Europe stands in its diversity and the dialogue of its identities”. D. Wolton thinks that in the absence of a functional public European space, a phrase like this is wishful thinking. She shows that the event-based logic according to which the political building of Europe takes place is not adequate to the construction of a cultural identity as well. Appropriation as a cultural model for the European identity of national identity would suppose the existence of common values, a common language and a re-defining of the relation interior-exterior (so, to integrate otherness and keep it precisely because it is indispensable in defining the identity). Wolton considers that the dialogue between identities cannot be imagined other than one with actors identified as such, and for the time being, these actors are the nations. From this point of view, the solution of representing Europeanness as a superordinated factor in the rationalist and more pragmatic spirit, as Habermas proposes, seems more like a desideratum than a practical solution to Wolton. He shows that, for the moment, it is preferable to keep the frontiers and the cultural frames in which identities are still being built in the open, because if Europe aims at the dialogue between differences, it should first preserve them and keep the relations between them alive (there should be neither a domination report, of course, not one of neutralising homogenisation). In Wolton’s opinion, in essence, the process of building a European cultural identity is slow, implying negotiation between tradition and modernisation. It cannot be governed by the elite voluntarism, which proves effective in the administrative-financial construction, as well as in the political or economic one. The risk of such ignorance is that it may cause to appear serious breaks especially because their potential is obstructed.

            I have made this digression in order to show the difficulties in finding a convenient model in configuring a European identity from a practical point of view (I have not approached the model of family community called on in phrases like “the great European family”).

            In relation to this exploring, everyone seems free to think in his or her own way of what European identity is or what it could be, by projecting in it what he/she has learned to be useful or valued from the experience of everyday living next to “the other”.

            Thus, a student who answered the question “What does being a European mean to you?” makes it clear that, before stating to be European, one should mention to be Romanian first. However, as she does not see how the relation between the two identity levels should be dealt with, she eventually decides that respecting and loving the neighbour in a Christian spirit could be a way of defining the European identity. Another student answered the same question like that: “It is nice to present yourself as a European (regarding the non-Europeans), but it is not as nice to present yourself as a Romanian (in other words, not as prestigious)”. He underlined the idea that the relation between the two identities is not necessarily one of strict inclusion and direct logical continuity. Being a Romanian European does not symbolically represent – in his opinion – the same as being a European just like that.

            There is an obvious discrepancy between the image of non-problematic and complex free translation from the “good Banat inhabitant” to the “good European” that our interlocutors born in the first quarter of the 20th century proposed on the one hand, to the reluctance and doubts of the young generation of today on the other hand. Should we relate it to the measure of the historical time in which the generations from the beginning and those from the end of the century were formed, or is it an expression of the way in which Europe itself has re-defined in this interval, proposing another image of the self and basing on other types of consensus?

Text published in François Ruegg, Rudolf Poledna, Calin Rus ( Eds.) Interculturalism and Discrimination in Romania  Policies, Practices, Identities and Representations.Lit Verlag Berlin 2006, pp. 309 – 313.

* We have dealt especially with Romanians, Germans, Hungarians, Serbs, Jews and Bulgarians.
** Cf. the Third Europe Foundation’s archive.