Walking Through Europe
It was 2015, I was several years younger and the world was more open than it perhaps is now. My parents had saved enough money from their shared income to plan a holiday in Egypt. This was back in that strange dark age where travel agencies were larger in number and remained un-bankrupted after several class-action lawsuits. Also, the only pandemic we had to worry about was that of the zombies-in-fiction industry. May QuickRoomBooking and The Walking Dead rest in peace, by the way.
Flying to Egypt from an airport in my home country of Slovakia, which I would reach on wheels via cross-country road trip all the way from Cherbourg, France. What would follow after my father’s car touched French soil from the Irish ferry it departed is a long and arduous journey through the mainland. Involving stops at several border checkpoints, state-funded campsites and supermarkets, we slowly but surely navigated our way through every American libertarian’s nightmare; the Western European Schengen Zone.
Our shoddy Volvo which was wholly unprepared for such an outing had a habit of breaking down at the worst occasions. Me, my sister and our parents were left stranded at various locations across Europe for indeterminate periods of time. Somewhat like Allied soldiers who were given the wrong set of maps when sent to storm Berlin.
Hours could go by before the not-so-trusty motor we were relying on decided to wake up and do what we paid it to do. What to do with all of this time, you may ask? My choices were split between disinterestedly playing the License Plate Game with a leering family member or a walk to explore a newer frontier. Demonstrating the Faustian spirit of a pioneer, I chose the latter and prayed to God I didn’t bump into a bear or the occasional Romanian hitchhiker.
I walked everywhere, more than a day’s worth of hours when totaled at the end of our journey. No phone, no music, and no podcasts with which to keep me company. In survival mode, I was advised to preserve my phone battery and use it only in case of emergencies. And so, I had only my own thoughts and the soundtrack of continental European summer aiding me on my walks.
I saw overcrowded highways resembling Mecca in July. I saw old prostitutes powdering their faces on streets which churches overlooked. I also saw Frenchmen who refused to speak a word of the English tongue. I saw Germans who looked about as eager to destroy Europe as they ever have been throughout their history.
And as I walked, I no doubt encountered others walking with and towards me. We gradually made our way through the Greco-Celtic Southern periphery of France, past Belgium to Germany before finally arriving in Slovakia via the Austrian border. Due to the sheer size of France and Germany in contrast to little Belgium and Austria, I did most of my walking in the two former countries. It was my sum of walking through the two EU power bloc states that I realised how different people were purely depending on their walking patterns.
The Extroverted, Slow Walkers of France
France treated me to many pedestrians of both sexes walking idly and solitarily through their packed avenues. It’s safe to say they took their time, and despite the fact that local businesses closed surprisingly early, they did not seem to be in any rush to catch them. As a matter of fact, I cannot, for the life of me, recall seeing anyone running. In Ireland, everybody either runs or walks fast, presumably to rush home from the bad weather. But with the sun making its presence well known on the bronzed visages of the locals, there was really no need for that here, so it seemed.
Perhaps it had something to do with the places we visited being more rural and thus not as technologically savvy, but I also can’t bring to memory any obsessive use of phones, or tablets or laptops in public (yes, I’ve seen people doing that). For a moment, it seemed like I had been transported back into post-war France, which was graced with the good luck of not possessing technology that would later allow TikTok to exist.
Germany, Home of Introverted Marathon Runners
After spending entire days enjoying a beautiful culturally regressed Europe, I found myself plonked into the heart of Germany. A somewhat dangerous place for a Slav to be in, depending on what the political climate is like at the time. In sharp contrast to France’s sloths for citizens, I was treated to scurrying German pedestrians walking so fast that they could probably outpace an old Chevrolet driving through the French country. Eyes always locked on some screen and never in front of them, I had a distinct feeling they did this often because they intuitively knew when and where to move when faced with an obstacle in their path.
While vestiges of French lay hampered in the back of my mind from having studied it badly in school, I knew nothing of the German language. Curiously, the phrase I remembered best at the time was “SCHNELLER”, which is used to hurry someone along. Very fitting, given the general mood of the locals and how they went about their promenades.
Even if I had known German, it would no doubt have been royally wasted on me and my time here. The country was replete with people who were disinterested in communication, and they would signal this by either remaining silent around others or carrying earphones. Probably listening to Rammstein, no doubt.
Not to mention that there were few of them around anyway. Perhaps they had all buggered off to whichever North African coastal state was offering holiday packages for the summer. As I walked through desolate German streets, I realised that somewhere right now, a territorial German tourist was waking up extra early at a resort, busy placing towels down on the best sunbeds.
Europe, Land of Contrasts
This “permanently preoccupied” way of being for the Germans stood in stark contrast to the French art of aging men with exposed guts, standing in a place and staring at the landscape around them for minutes on end. And so it begs the question; what does it say about the contrast between how these two different groups of people walk through life in contemporary Europe?
Europe is a comparatively small continent in terms of sheer land size. Considerably more so if one chooses to divorce it from the British Isles, which are inarguably cut off from all the commotion on the mainland by way of an archipelago, and arguably separated culturally.
The continent diminishes in size even more still if the gargantuan swathes of Russia and its easternmost territories are removed from the picture, many contesting that it is a separate civilisation entirely, such as Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovksy often denotes in his speeches.
He is ranked among the foremost opposition to sitting President Vladimir Putin, otherwise known in this instance as “the other Vladimir”. During a roundtable discussion on Russian national television, Zhirinovsky contested that Russia is its own civilisation, bypassing the West-East cultural divide, attesting that in Russia, “West and East are one in the same”.
And so, if we are really selective and draw back the curtains on what Europe really is, we are left with a region which is second only to Australia in the title of “smallest continent in the world”. It is then comparatively impressive that such a small mass of land can produce so much diversity, in all *walks* of life.
The Protestant Work Ethic
This is where I return to the subject at hand; walking. And more specifically, how the difference in the referred walking patterns can highlight the socio-economic and cultural divide between Southern Europe (which is classifiably Mediterranean in custom) and Northern Europe, which is Nordic. Southern Europe is predominantly Catholic as regards religiosity, with its Northern counterpart swearing faith to Protestantism.
In 1905, German sociologist Max Weber composed the now-infamous book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism“. In it, he argued that the sudden and compounding success of capitalism in the West (and primarily across Northwestern Europe) could be explained by one thing; Protestantism.
More specifically, by the Protestant religion’s views on labor and how it relates to the divine doctrine as laid out by God. To the Protestant, self-confidence was an indicator of being predestined for Heaven, and material success in life was seen as a metric for self-confidence. After all, it can be said that you don’t get wealthy without being at least a tad bit too self-assured about your place in the world.
Countries which adopted Protestantism (such as the United States, Britain, Germany as well as the entire Scandinavian bloc), would soon come to dominate world affairs and develop high-functioning economies. American social democrats such as Bernie Sanders can’t get enough of Denmark.
This further added to his theory that economic prosperity and the development of Protestantism were inextricably linked, and that belying this link was the strong work ethic that Protestantism encouraged. People wanted to know they were predestined for Heaven, and to that end they did everything they could to achieve material success so as to evidence this fact. No breaks, no time off, no play. Do it efficiently but do it fast. Protestantism was all about doing as much work as possible, as a means of reaching God.
Are Mediterraneans Just Lazy?
Catholicism, by contrast, does not uphold the idea of predestination as Protestantism does. This, in addition to matters of iconophilia and biblical interpretation, is what sets the two practices of Christianity apart from one another.
This then contrasts strongly to the “Siesta” culture observed across Southern Europe. The word “siesta” itself is of Spanish origin, and describes a period of rest in the middle of the day, typically after lunch. Citizens may take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or two to rest from work. It also helps describe the unchanged cultural mindset of the Mediterranean, which is this; you work so you may live, and not the other way around.
If my derisions about Germans being a bunch of robots in human suits is the standard negative stereotype associated with Northwestern Europeans, then their Southern brothers have the exact opposite reputation. Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and Balkan Slavs are commonly generalised as being “lazy”, and baring a general bad work ethic when compared to their regional neighbours past the Alpine range.
Much of these stereotypes are fairly modern, and are borne out of statistics which display Northwestern European nation-states as top contributors to the collective EU fund, with Mediterranean and Balkan states being top beneficiaries of EU funding to lift them from economic downturn, the main example being Greece. Which, for all intents and purposes, is considered to be the redheaded stepchild of the European Union. A title formerly held by the UK before that whole funny business with Farage happened.
Historically, the perception of Northwestern Europeans being hard workers with Mediterraneans being lazy is actually reversed. We know what unkind words Romans like Caesar and Cicero had to say about the inhabitants of the British Isles when they invaded the islands, and Greek historian Strabo actually recorded an interesting cultural exchange between Romans and Vettonians, a Celtic people who inhabited a region of modern-day Spain. A testament about walking patterns, incidentally enough!
Although yes, it might be true. Mediterraneans may be to European discourse what long-haired, guitar-playing cousins without jobs are to family reunions. And then there is the Protestant Nord, decked out in a suit and bragging about his new position at Switzerland’s leading IT firm. Using such an example, it is worth asking the question of what ultimately makes for a more content life? Is it financial security at the cost of a more rigid social life, or drinking with friends until morning, but knowing that you may not have a penny to your name when the sun comes up to greet you?
Walking fast but sacrificing leisure. Taking it slow but appreciating your surroundings. Listening to Rammstein while on walks. Not listening to anything. Benedictines or Calvinists. Something about the duality of man indeed.