Three weeks ago I was on a sun lounger in Italy, trying to remember how to say ‘beer’ in another language. It was quiet, bar the odd splash in the pool, and there was nothing to do except read. Today I am sat at my desk in London, where it is nowhere near as hot or peaceful, and I’m longing for someone to come round with a tray and an order pad.
Like most people at this time of the year, now that I am back from my holiday it seems hard to imagine that the other place, that very different place, still exists. And, yet in Europe, difference is close; a short train journey can take you from London to Paris in two or so hours and, suddenly, the language, the culture, the way to do everything changes.
This contrast, this juxtaposition, of so many different countries close together is what makes Europe so special to me. If I drove across America for two months, I would see many varied landscapes, but the culture, if not the climate, would be mostly the same. And I would encounter, at least officially, only one or two languages.
‘This juxtaposition of so many different countries close together is what makes Europe so special.’
But driving across Europe in order to visit 13 different capitals, I will cross 23 countries and need to use at least that many languages. I know that, mostly, I will be relying on my mother tongue, because in Italy I barely spoke before the waiter or receptionist jumped in to help me with their excellent English. Yet, as someone who loves learning, there is a thrill to formulating new words and sounds, to trying to make yourself understood, even when I fail to do so.
Surviving on holiday, however, is a lower level of challenge to the one that faces me in a few weeks’ time, when I will need to know how to negotiate garages, ferries and, I’m certain, breakdowns. I am fluent in French, and can make the right noises in Spanish, but I haven’t a clue about Finnish or Estonian and can’t interpret a single letter of Greek. Which will make road signs rather interesting. When I’m driving alone in Romania, not knowing the word for fan belt might not feel like such a wonderful experience.
And if I feel that, with my years of tertiary education and living abroad, what is travelling in a different language like for those who have not been taught to engage with other countries, where people speak words they can’t understand? The headline might be that they are not interested, that they think other places aren’t worth their time, but perhaps behind that headline is something else: a fear of the unknown as well as a fear of not knowing, a fear that the different is really truly incomprehensible and therefore to be avoided.
Perhaps this is one of the many things that has made leaving Europe so clearly desirable for some people. After all, with Britain’s appalling record on teaching languages, there are many in this country who might feel challenged in non-Anglophone countries. I have met plenty. At all stages of my education, whether studying for an O-level or an evening class, people have said ‘why bother, if everyone else speaks English?’
This attitude has seeped into our education system; thirteen years ago learning a language in school from 11 to 16 stopped being compulsory and now not only are students choosing other subjects instead but also language learning is considered ‘high-risk’, further reducing the numbers signing up.
What’s more, when we do teach them, at least in most of the state sector, we start teaching them too late. Whereas the Danes, the Germans, the Finns all take it for granted that languages are important, and teach them from a young age when a pupil is most receptive to the language-learning process, British governments have never acted on the research that says children should learn a foreign language as soon as they start school until they finish.
If, as predicted, the Brexit crisis collapses our economy and makes us a small, much-diminished island, perhaps we need to reconsider our approach to education, especially our education about the rest of the world. Because we are part of that world and being part of it, whether simply travelling through it for a brief holiday, engaging with it through learning a language, or meeting people from another country is a great joy. But it is also who we are, who we have always been. We are an amalgam of cultures, not a monoculture.
I was reminded of this on my recent holiday, when I visited Pompeii for the first time. Our guide was an archaeologist and at the start of the tour he stood us next to a wall, not a particularly interesting wall I thought, and described what we could see. This, he said, is not just one wall; it is three, three layers of history. Europe is a huge lasagne and here we can see why: the large blocks at the bottom were put in place by the Greeks, above them there are remains of Etruscan buildings and above that the Roman walls.
‘A lasagne with one layer is not lasagne.’
These layers, these different supports and connections, are exactly why Europe is so brilliant, so historically rich, so heterogeneous. At the moment, Britain seems to be refusing to acknowledge that history, that richness. But, if a country does not encourage and enable its citizens to see themselves as living amongst others, as being one of many layers, as being part of a global picture, then it is no surprise if some of those citizens insist on separation not collaboration. The outcome of that is not strength, or success, but isolation and limitation. After all, a lasagne with one layer is not lasagne; it loses its identity, its flavour, completely.