Tales from a travelling companion

Article published on July 30, 2003
community published
Article published on July 30, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

How a tedious journey can lead to a stimulating comparison of cultures and can suggest an idea: creating an Erasmus exchange programme between Europe and Latin America.

On Sunday 13th July, as I boarded the plane that was taking me back from Madrid to Bogota, I cast a sleepy and distracted eye over the person sitting next to me, my casual travelling companion for 10 incredibly dull hours, and hoped that she wouldn’t talk too much because I was tired, had a lot on my mind and little desire to make small talk. It was a vain hope; it is impossible for a Colombian sitting next to you not to make some comment or other five minutes after you’ve sat down. Signora Lucia had been in Germany and Spain and was now returning to Cali in Columbia and was looking forward to seeing her sons. During one month in Europe she had also managed to meet a man who she had promised to marry but visas, bureaucracy, work problems and obviously her desire to see her children again were taking her home to return who knows when to her lover in the Old Continent.

Signora Lucia talked about Europe in a way I had already heard from various Colombians: the indifferent individualism of Europeans compared with the welcome and curiosity of Colombians. I actually had to admit that she was right.

When I arrived in Columbia I didn’t know anyone but after two days I had already been dancing, tried to learn salsa, the ‘merengue’, and the ‘vallenato’ (with disastrous results). I had already taken my first beautiful ‘borrachera da ron Medellin’, I had eaten ‘bandeja paisa’, strolled around the city centre, and received invitations, attention and advice from everyone I had met in the office. Rarely have I met such nice and sincerely welcoming people as the Colombians.

And, in contrast, what impression do Colombians often take away of Europeans? That nobody paid any attention to them and everyone was preoccupied with their own affairs. They are amazed by the lack of a sense of family, by the fact that we do everything alone (we go to the doctors alone, even to the cinema alone), that we don’t marry and children – for heaven’s sake – are not even mentioned.

Now, without wishing to fall into the trap of stereotypes and generalisations that are useless anyway and that partly apply to me because I am European, it has made me think that, all things considered, Signora Lucia and her compatriots are not entirely wrong. In what way? In that ours is indeed an individualistic culture: Which fundamental values we defend and which ones we clutch at when there is something to prove or preserve? Freedom (for the individual), free will (for the individual), equality and non-discrimination (in individual rights). Our society and our culture – in history, philosophy and political science – is founded on a process where the individual is increasingly recognised as the centre of various social, political and economic phenomenon. Single people understand that for their (single) good it is better to remain within in society than atomised outside it who knows where and therefore they unite and create rules that protect them (personally) in order to avoid the opposition.

In South American cultures, in contrast, it is often a sense of community and sharing that prevails; solidarity and, why not, dependency through the community structure underpin daily actions and activities, especially in the more isolated and indigenous areas. The Dutchman Frans van der Hoff, who was based near to the indigenous farmers of Tehuantepec in Mexico, said of them: “For them, life is always, in good and bad ways, imbued with collectivity: it’s in their soul” (1). He continues, stating how a sense of hospitality has developed near the Indians: there is always someone to welcome a stranger who knocks at the door. Within this deep respect for hospitality and solidarity is a strong element of reciprocity: the Indians also expect to be welcomed where necessary. They have based their own community on this and have withstood the adversity of their history and environment. Therefore, what impression does a European metropolis give to people whose tradition comes from an experience of community and reciprocity? I believe that Europe and the EU can be perceived more as a closed door than an open one compared to a culture that can generally be defined as Latin and with which, especially in some countries, we entertain a good relationship and a certain closeness.

Consider entry visas. We Europeans can face difficulty in some countries but on the whole we get the permit even if we have to put up with some bureaucracy. But this is not reciprocated: the mass of documents, detours and waiting times that a Colombian has to put up with, provided that he leaves unharmed and does not give up coming to Europe altogether, are dreadful. And this is the case even if you come as a tourist, even if a friend has decided to invite you to Paris, Rome or Madrid. Europe seems to be an impregnable fortress and Europeans are its wardens: prejudice starts here. Putting to one side the reasons for this policy, if the EU really wants to assume a different role from the USA in terms of its relationship with Latin America, I think that it must include a set of equal and open cultural interactions; an Erasmus exchange programme between European and Latin American universities could be an effective tool.

The system would have to include a set of funds and study bursaries that would give access to the term or year abroad not only to the upper classes who already study in the USA, but also to all or nearly all the students who want to widen their experience of a different system and to share the similarities and differences of our cultures. People talk a lot about economic integration, opening up markets, the construction of areas of free trade, and political agreements. However, culture is probably (when it doesn’t become fundamentalist and isolationist) the easiest cross-over point and allows an exchange and growth of people who come into contact with each other since individualism or a greater communitary spirit are only one of thousands of impressions that one country can offer to those who visit and since, especially when the visit is based on a real sense of exchange and reception, differences can become easier to understand and do not remain barriers.

However, as every day difference are not better or worse than one another, it should not be so difficult to dilute them through solidarity, warmth, culture and tales from another country, even if some things do remain strange or incomprehensible. In the same way, our individualism, if it stays the same, might not appear so horrible if it were easier for people to integrate into the system and to participate in the institutions. If it were easier for people to get inside Europe and really witness a multicultural society instead of watching through the window.

(1) Nico Roozen, Frans van der Hoff ‘Max Havelaar. The adventure of fair and integral commerce’. Milan, 2003, p29.