In these fraught times with so much talk of borders, walls and divisions, it feels more important than ever to read widely. As someone who basically grew up in a bookstore, I have made it my lifelong goal to do this. However, when I reflect on my reading habits, I am struck by just how overrepresented Anglophone writers are in the list of books that I have read.
According to Goodreads, I read sixty-two books last year and just nine of those were books that had originally been published in a language other than English. While that figure is quite low, it still pales in comparison to the national US average. In the US, just 3% of the books sold across the country are works in translation. This number is considerably higher in Europe. However, it remains the case that certain voices are grossly overrepresented. This is why I have decided to challenge myself to read books from each of the 28 EU member states over the course of this year and share with you my musings and recommendations.
Since I am currently studying in Strasbourg, I thought it apt to start with some French literature. I will shy away from discussing the classics that you have all probably already heard of and would like to offer you four recommendations of contemporary works that have been translated into English.Continue reading “A Literary Tour of Europe: France”→
After the United Kingdom has left the European Union, it could very well be that English will cease to be an official language for the European Union, or so Danuta Hübner, head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, warned in a press conference. She explained that, “every EU country has the right to notify one official language. The Irish have Gaelic and the Maltese have notified Maltese, so you only have the UK notifying English.” This would mean that, “if we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English.” Although this might at first seem like a rather extreme measure, when you think about it, it really isn’t.
In the world today, English, in all its variations, occupies an undeniably central place. From the offices of multinational corporations, to university classes and research teams, to local marketplaces and cafes like the one I’m sitting in. In a town in the middle of Denmark, my cafe table numbers Danes, Spaniards, and Germans – guess how we’re communicating?
When it comes to English, communication is precisely the point. English is a means of communication in the globalized world. According to the Harvard Business Review, business today speaks English. Even when a company in Germany is dealing with another German company, there is no guarantee that the employees will be German speakers. If you visit an industrial farm in Denmark, the working language isn’t Danish – it’s English. The presence and importance of English as the working language globally is so apparent thatfour out of five Europeans consider English the language worth learning for the future. English today is not the property of its native speakers, it is the lingua franca of the world. English transcends cultures and borders, and the assertion that the EU should drop English as one of its working languages is therefore highly problematic.
In 1992, forty years after the European Union was established, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the notion of a “European citizen”.
It did not go well. Not only did this new term awaken mistrust between the peoples of the EU’s different Member States, it even caused such considerable internal controversy states such as Denmark that the European Council had to release a statement in order to confirm that “citizenship of the Union is a political and legal concept which is entirely different from national citizenship (…)”. In the same year, the European Commission sought ways to create common EU symbols but faced strong resistance from the Member States. A good example of this was the Commission’s proposals to have athletes from all Member States appear as one delegation during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, a proposal which was fully roundly by governments.
Now, 1992 seems a long time ago, and surely, one would think, that after more than twenty years, with a generation already born as European citizens coming into adulthood, this term would have to be something warm and familiar, something, we cherish as much as our nationality.
But, for most, it is not.
In the European Union’s web portal, it is still stated that “EU citizenship is additional to and does not replace national citizenship.” Eurosceptics keep arguing that to overcome nationality is impossible, and those who think otherwise are to be regarded as utopian fantasts. With Brexit, it feels like the utopian idea of a one strong, united Europe is slowly drifting away. More and more people from the Member States reject the idea of an ever-closer Europe, often out of fear that their state might lose its sovereignty under the pressure of common policies. On this note, one might even argue that it is the lack of trust and general indifference among the Europeans that is the main reason why the European Union is facing such problems now.
A survey conducted by TNS political & social at the request of the European Commission in 2015 shows that there still are people in the Member States – fortunately, not too many, and the share of them is declining – that do not even fully understand the term “European citizen” and the mystery hidden within the term . In 2015, 13 % of the respondents stated that they have never even heard the term “citizens of the European Union”, while 35 % of respondents said that they have heard about it, but do not know what it means exactly.
Maybe this is the reason why, when looking at the statistical data from 2015, over 30 % of the Europeans admit not feeling like a European citizen. In addition, 38 % of all Europeans admitted that they not only do not feel like a European citizen, they actually see themselves as exclusively a member of their nation. This, again, might be the reason why European citizens distance themselves from European affairs – this can be seen in all its “glory” when looking at the 2014 European Parliamentary election where only 42.6% of all people holding European citizenship voted. 42.6%! Not only it is that the lowest turnout since the first European elections in 1979, it also makes one think – what happened?
It is not like the idea is not being promoted. There are different levels of Erasmus programme available to encourage exploring other Member States, there are European days, information centres in every country, videos, information campaigns and the homepage run by the European Commission – europa.eu– can be accessed in every single official EU language. But somehow, the notion does not reach its target. It seems that on the way from Brussels to our homes, the information gets lost and never really reaches us, the citizens of the European Union.
So what does it mean to be a European citizen?
Let’s put it in an everyday perspective.
To be a European citizen means that you can finish your dinner with your Spanish family, and carry on your night with drinking a nice, cold bottle of German beer, maybe snacking on some French macaroons while watching Downton Abbey and texting with your best friend from Bulgaria. It means that you can say “Hello” in at least five languages, and your “bad” words collection is enormous thanks to your friends from Italy, Estonia and Greece.
Being a European citizen means you can spontaneously buy some low cost airplane tickets and have a nice weekend whether up in the snowy mountains, deep into mysterious forests or sunbathing in the sunny beaches, regardless whether you are from Latvia, Portugal or Slovenia.
On a more serious note, it means that you can make your voice heard by a petition, or a letter, or even by becoming a candidate for Parliamentary elections and you have the fundamental right not to be discriminated whether by race, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation. It means that, as long as you stay within the borders of the Union, you are never “illegal” and you can work and live abroad, and are always protected by the diplomatic and consular authorities in another twenty-seven countries, excluding your homeland. Being a European Citizen means that under certain conditions, if you feel that the national court of your homeland has ruled unfairly, you can bring the country to Court of Justice and fight for your truth.
To have the fortune to be a European citizen means that you have the rare opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world in new ways again and again, and yet – stay true to your own nationality.
That is what being a European citizen means. Simple as that.
Elizabete Marija Skrastinais new to The Euroculturer. Keep up with her latest stories by following The Euroculturer on Facebook or by subscribing to our newsletter.
‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is a coinage generally referred to a small patch of landmass on the bank of river Hooghly in the Indian province of Bengal, where a number of European national groups, such as the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Danes and the Armenians, had once settled, in order to carry out their trade and colonial ventures. The setting up of these trade settlements and their indulging in colonial rivalry dates back to late sixteenth century. Although the area became more and more homogenised as Britain rose to dominance in and around this region, the French held their last bastion, Chandernagore, right up until 1952, when this town was handed over to the Republic of India.
Since then for almost half a century there has been little, if any, interest from these different European ‘national’ communities in the region, mostly because there was no immediate necessity on their part to do so. There were indeed a few archaeological remains of the bygone era, scattered around in Dutch Chinsurah or Danish Serampore. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took unfocused measures to preserve some of the prominent remains such as the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah or the Danish one in Serampore. However, it was neither the priority of, nor feasible for, the ASI to physically maintain every single tangible ‘heritage artefact’ belonging to the Dutch, Portuguese or Danish settlers in the region. The French case has been unique. French Chandernagore has been the only place that succeeded in maintaining its both tangible and intangible Frenchness. The façade of Frenchness on its architecture has been one aspect of this. It could sustain certain other features as well. Chandernagore’s French museum, which is housed at the erstwhile residence of French governor, attracted tourists for a long period of time. Chandernagore’s College still boasts of its department of French language and literature, although it has rechristened itself in recent years to remove the name of a former French Governor of India, Joseph-François Marquis Dupleix (1697 – 1763). Now the college has adopted the name of a local hero rather than a colonial figure- Kanailal Dutta, a Bengali revolutionary fighting against the British Empire,. Up until the time when the common European framework of language learning (we usually know it as A1-C2 system) and the global networks like Allinace Française conquered the French-teaching industry in India, Institut de Chandernagor religiously offered French tutelage to its Bengali pupils and had its own accreditation system named certificat d’études primaires, or ‘certificat’ in local Bengali parlance. There has been, sadly, no Portuguese, Dutch or Danish cultural centre of similar repute in the formerly held territories. There have also been instances in the 1990s of PhD students of history in that region, dropping their plan of researching Dutch settlement in Chinsurah primarily because of the dearth of any place in the entirety of Eastern India that offer Dutch language courses.
Here comes the questions as to how and why did everything change in recent years? The last few years of twentieth century saw a major upheaval in the interest shown by Europe in this patch of ‘Little Europe’. 1999 marked the four hundred years of the establishment of the Basilica of Holy-Rosary in Portuguese-held territory of Bandel, considered to be the second oldest surviving Christian church in India. A major renovation and reconstruction project was carried out with a lump sum coming from the Holy See. This, in a way, changed the course of the wave, and more and more European powers started coming in with a renewed interest in their Indian past. The Dutch followed suit. Different parties with their individual interests came ashore. The Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in India took keen interest and invested a substantial amount of money in order to document the Dutch remains in Bengal. A conservation architectural firm, ATA (Aishwarya Tipnis Architects) has been appointed to do an extensive survey in the region, and come up with plans to engage contemporary populace of Chinsurah with both the tangible and the intangible remnants of Dutchness in their town.
ATA, along with a number of personnel from the Presidency University, Calcutta, tried to offer newer directions for conservation. At the end of this a multi-disciplinary project was meant to be on the table, focussing on creating a digital archive for shared cultural heritage of the erstwhile Dutch Chinsurah. These initiatives involvedthe physical mapping of remaining tombstones in the historic Dutch cemetery, and digitally showcasing the mapping on a digital platform wherein the visitor can actually click on the location of a single tombstone and be redirected to a lot of stories for that era of Dutch rule. A lot of students from the Presidency University, under the leadership of Souvik Mukherjee, a professor of English literature and one of the key figures interested in digital humanities in India, worked day in and day out deciphering the almost washed out Dutch inscriptions on the tombstones. They simultaneously spent time in the archives, going back to the historical narratives around those people whose tombstones they were trying to read. All these findings came together to form a single online platform. By clicking on a location in today’s Chinsurah, one could navigate from one temporal frame to another, from an inscription on a dilapidated tombstone of an erstwhile Dutch governor to a digitally organised visual representation of the lifestyle he could have led in eighteenth century Dutch Chinsurah. One mouse click after another can now lead us to endless possibilities for knitting together a number of otherwise disconnected tales from the Dutch past.
At the same time Bauke van der Pol, a Dutch anthropologist, was trying to unearth the hidden narrative of Dutch presence in India. This has culminated in his book, De VOC in India: Nederlands erfgoed in Gujarat, Malabar, Coromandel en Bengalen. These two projects – one narrating the tale of the fringes of the Dutch Empire, and another documenting with the tools of Digital Humanities the remnants of that past scattered across present-day Chinsurah – came to mingle at a dingle juncture, when in 2014 Presidency University simultaneously launched van der Pol’s book and the website of ‘Dutch in Chinsurah’.
The French Embassy has commissioned a similar approach to conservation. This project ran until 2012 and received support from the Embassy of France in India and the foundation Vieilles Maisons Françaises (VMF), and was executed by the same architectural firm involved in Dutch Chinsurah, ATA. Although it was not exactly like what the Dutch initiative tried to pursue, it has its own charm as well. Apart from documenting the French architectural heritage and presenting the findings on an online platform, ATA organised workshops with children to encourage them draw comic strips about the French past, and hosted a French cookery show.
The Danes, as usual, were not lagging behind. The‘Serampore Initiative’, a project initiated by the National Museum of Denmark in 2008 with the purpose of documenting and preserving cultural heritage from the Danish period in Frederichsnagore (today Serampore), is among the largest conservation projects taken in recent years by any European nation outside Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. Apart from the funding from the Danish Ministry of Culture andthe local population, it could also garner interest from other quarters of Danish society and life, and could therefore secure funding from a Danish philanthropic organisation, Realdania. As a result of this initiative- taken as an Indo-Danish joint architectural venture- the dilapidated church of St. Olav has undergone a major facelift, resulting in its reopening after being declared abandoned and unsafe in 2013. This year the totally renovated St. Olav’s has again been consecrated to the parish of Serampore. The Danish Tavern, the residence of the Danish governor and the riverfront in the Danish style are now being restored.
As far as this narrative of restoration goes it appears like a pretty and tranquil tale of European powers suddenly remembering their bygone past and investing a huge sum of money in the conservation and the restoration of their heritage. A closer scrutiny would, however, prove otherwise. The path towards the conservation of heritage can always lead to certain uncomfortable questions being asked, like whose heritage is it, and why at this point in time it has suddenly come under the umbrella term of heritage? Since, with the exception of Chandernagore, most of these settlements did not have a unilineal colonial narrative attached to them, defining what ‘true’ heritage is, in certain towns, gives rise to a lot of itchy smirks. Should the conservation recently carried out in the name of restoring Dutch heritage in Chinsurah prior to its British annexation in 1825 totally neglect layer after layer of British ‘heritage’ laid there over the next one hundred years? How should a conservationist deal with the alterations the Anglican establishment had once made to the erstwhile Danish Protestant Church of Serampore?
Even these problematic questions are sometimes overshadowed by even trickier questions of entitlement and participation. Who is indeed entitled to stake a claim to a physical space inhabited by people who by no means feel interested in the colonial narratives of these European powers? Although it did not always appear like an old-school colonial rivalry between major European powers of early modern times, the way one conservation project taken up in one town by a modern European nation immediately gets rivalled by another one in an adjacent town might raise one’s eyebrow. There seems to be justifiable reservations from other quarters as well, the most prominent being from the local historians. These are the people who often devoted their life sustaining in the public the interest in this patch of ‘Little Europe’. For almost half a century, up until the first decade of the twenty-first century, these individual endeavours kept the awareness alive. How do they feel when governmental bodies armed with professional architectural firms start expressing renewed interest in conserving the heritage or generating historical awareness in the region? ‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is again at the crossroads. It is in a unique situation in its contemporaneity, where different national communities from Europe are again chiselling in its physical territory, not as the colonial intruder but as the conservationists. The future of the ‘Little Europe in Bengal’, and its ties with Europe would definitely be subject to its various approaches to conservation, and simultaneously the love-hate relationship of the local populace with those approaches.
Whenever I tried eating Dutch spice cake, Ontbijtkoek, during my semester in Groningen or Swedish cinnamon buns, Kanelbullar, during my time in Uppsala I couldn’t but wonder at the long history of Europe’s culinary tryst with spices. It is these spices that allured Europeans to cross difficult terrains and set sail to distant shores. The fascination with spices made a group of Europeans take part in maritime trade across the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were the first, the Dutch were not far behind, followed by the French and pursued by the Brits. Spice trade gradually gave way to trade in cotton, followed by Europe’s stake in the global slave trade and the mobility of indentured labourers. However, the nature of trade and the interaction in the early modern era between European traders and local communities in various littorals around the Indian Ocean were much different from what they came to look like in the days of high colonialism. In most of cases during sixteenth and seventeenth century, the European maritime powers could only access a few places nearer the sea, not the continental hinterland lying beyond it.
Our narrative is about such a patch of landmass known as the lower Gangetic basin of Bengal, where the Ganges, one of the mightiest rivers in Asia meets the Bay of Bengal. For strategic reasons the mouth of the Gangetic delta, the largest of its kind in the world, allured maritime traders throughout the early modern era. Land-based trading communities, such as the Turks and the Armenians in the India of that time were met with seafarers like Portuguese and Dutch traders. Conflicting interests controlled their destinies; and Gangetic Bengal became what would later be known as the potboilers of wandering traders and changing communities. Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of British India till 1911, and the second city of the vast British Empire, grew out of this unique story of conflict and reconciliation. However, this was never a unidirectional and easy narrative, for multiple political actors from Europe flocked into a tiny patch of landmass and made this region a unique exception in an otherwise homogenous story of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.
Long time before the Brits got involved in lower Gangetic Bengal, the Portuguese were busy operating their riverine ports of Hooghly and Bandel, some forty kilometres upstream on the river Hooghly (Ganges) from what would later become Calcutta. This dates back to mid sixteenth century CE. As the navigability of the river decreased with time the Dutch East India Company settled some three-four kilometres south of Portuguese Bandel. The Armenians got their fair share within Dutch territories, allowing them to operate Armenian Orthodox churches in the region. The French East India Company settled in farther South, nearer the sea, in a place they named Chandernagore, managing to keep it under their hold until 1952, five more years after India gained its independence from the British Empire. Greeks were in the next town called Bhadreswar, and the Danish were busy with the next town, Serampore, the only Danish colony in eastern India. With the decreasing navigability of river and a want to have a British fortress in an advantageous position closer to the sea, British Calcutta was founded some twenty kilometres south of Danish Serampore. To make this long story short, the essence of it is that for almost two centuries in this small patch of land on the bank of river Hooghly, hardly forty kilometres in length, there were trading posts or proto-colonies of so many European communities that it was not surprising for later historians to refer to this tiny area as ‘Little Europe’, way before Brussels got its theme park of the same name.
These small towns, which now make up the northern suburbs of the metropolis of Calcutta, were once very distinct from each other in their respective culture and architecture. Portuguese Bandel boasted its culinary distinctiveness, as it provided modern Bengal with Bandel cheese, a Portuguese variant of cottage cheese and were responsible for the invention of Bengal’s national sweetmeat, Rasagolla. Dutch Chinsurah was an amazingly fortified city with a fort named Fort Gustavus. French colonialists were so invested with their Petite France in Chandernagore that they remodelled the Gangetic riverbank with French-styled promenades. The Danes followed suit. The church of St. Olav in the heart of Serampore and the Danish cemetery were distinct from the British architecture of Calcutta.
One might notice that although the different ‘national’ actors were competing with each other for more than two centuries in a tiny space like this, the political structures gradually became homogenised, as it was seemingly impossible to practice exclusivity within the otherwise British surroundings. Brits were late in reaching the shore; but following the saying that slow and steady wins the race, Brits were the ones who remained in pursuit of colonial power and eventually got hold of most of these other European trading posts in exchange for something or the other. The Dutch East India Company left Chinsurah in 1825 in exchange for complete hold over Java in Indonesia. Brits gave up their stake in the Dutch East Indies, modern Indonesia, and occupied Chinsurah; the Dutch fortress got demolished and with the dismantled Dutch material they made a British Chinsurah. However, the civil institutions conceived during the final days of Dutch rule over Chinsurah remained as a bizarre mix of Dutch, British and indigenous Bengali customs. Hooghly Collegiate School, established in 1812 and the oldest European styled school in Eastern India bears testimony to this rare Dutch-English-Bengali conjunct.
Danish Serampore’s fate was a bit different, mostly because of the Christian missionaries. Since the late eighteenth century Danish Serampore had become a melting pot of missionaries coming from different European backgrounds, eventually making it a prominent centre of scholarship and printing. Whether or not all these activities were Danish or English or Scottish does not make the narrative less fuzzy and complex. Panchanan Karmakar, a master craftsman from Danish Serampore, assisted Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and Charles Wilkins, two Englishmen coming to serve the British East India Company; and together they made possible the first ever moveable typefaces for Bangla script. With this Danish-English axis in the background there came out the first ever book in Bangla printed with those moveable typefaces. A Grammar of Bengal Language by an Englishman Nathaniel Brassey Halhed was printed in 1778 in Hooghly, the erstwhile Portuguese port next to Dutch Chinsurah.
Chandernagore, ‘la petite France en Inde’ for the French colonials, was perhaps the only place that passionately resisted, for more than three centuries, the cultural influence the English could exert from its surroundings. Chandernagore, along with a few other French towns like Pondicherry in the south of India, remained a symbolic and ideal space of what could have been a French-influenced Indian subcontinent, had the British not defeated them in the Indian extensions of the Napoleonic wars. Chandernagore continued to be a French town up until 1952, making it a safe haven for French architecture and culture to flourish. It was the only town in eastern India to have a school-curriculum with French as the medium of instruction. Generations of Bengalis in Chandernagore were taught in Bangla and French, with little or no English interference whatsoever.
In a nutshell, this small patch of land, affectionately called ‘Little Europe in Bengal’ garnered among generations of Bengalis a sense of Europe in its totality. This awareness of an ‘other’ Europe, a Europe outside the immediacies of British colonial interests, kept fascinating the Bengali psyche for a rather long time. Bengali revolutionaries who were struggling against the British Empire often took refuge in these non-British territories so as to avoid arrest, eventually taking French ships to flee to the mainland of Europe, the Continent in British parlance. This, in turn, gave rise to a different pattern of mobility that was quite different from usual colonial mobility within the metropolis and the margins of a single empire. Little Europe’s legacy transcends those otherwise homogenous patterns of binaries. Just like the theme-park in Brussels, this Little Europe had also tried casting the idea and image of Europe in a multi-national and pluri-cultural mould. The narrative, however, does not end there. Permeating its historical specificity etched in a distant past, Little Europe has again started attracting various European nation states to have a closer look at the somewhat forgotten territories they had once occupied. The early twenty-first century has brought back Dutch historians to Chinsurah, allowing them to have a closer look at their forgotten Dutch-Bengal style of painting and architecture. Danes, as usual, are not far behind. The National Museum of Denmark, under a project named ‘Serampore Initiative’, has plunged into one of the biggest urban conservation projects in recent times, taken by a European state outside Europe’s territorial outreach. These renewed national interests are manifold, involving more and more historical nuances to unearth and contemporary narratives to explore. Little Europe continues to be an incessant point of convergence between Europe and South Asia.