< SWITCH ME >

It took a twelve hour flight, a box set of sushi and two years trekking around Asia for me to really see it. As I moved across time zones, it became clearer. As distances grew, it formed. Europe.

paint

Photo:  Jane Gardener
St. Patrick's Day 2008 in Brussels:
Anja Friedrichs jazzes up a guest

From afar, it seemed so easy. Nationalities blurred. No one really knew where Ireland was in any case. For most people it was simple - you were American or you were European. And suddenly, the complexities of defining myself as European faded. I was a European in Asia and my identity was sealed.

But what makes me, or any of us, European? Does defining oneself this way automatically suggest that I am pro-European Union, probably multilingual and naively idealistic? Has this new so called "Eurogeneration" blurred the lines between national and trans-national identity, and if so, is this a feeling that only belongs to the young, educated, "Erasmus generation", versed in the rhetoric of Europe's great thinkers and filled with enthusiasm for the Europe of tomorrow? Moreover, does this feeling somehow take from my own national identity or can it exist symbiotically? Now back in Europe and living in Brussels, the complexity of my European identity has resurfaced.

Coming from Ireland, the Europe of my childhood concerned the "continent". Europeans were the fashionable French and the fiery Italians, far removed from our rural island, where aunts and uncles still emigrated to America and television revolved around British children's programmes and Australian soaps. Europe was somewhere where the neighbours ventured to every summer, with a camping pass and a car full of screeching children. Where they spoke differently, ate later and used different money. We, on the other hand, stood apart. Still struggling with a post-colonial identity and strong in our traditions and beliefs, our outlook was, as the saying goes - "more Boston than Berlin".

Brussels

Photo: Jane Gardener
Brussels taken from the Tour Madou

But slowly, that Europe trickled into my Irish world. That this is due to the success of Ireland in the European Union is unquestionable. As the feeling of the Irish public grew pro-European Union in the nineties, with visible infrastructure and social changes taking place across the country, so did my knowledge. But it was more than just the EU. School classes in French opened up a living world of language and summer exchanges in Italy introduced me to a group of young people just like me. At sixteen, my first work experience was at the local European Parliament elections, where the bureaucratic world of Brussels suddenly felt tangible and realistic. As boarder controls relaxed and more Europeans came to work in the capital city and beyond Europe was no longer that foreign world across the seas, it now included all of us.

At 25, my mother had completed her studies in Ireland, and her bedside reading included the biography of the first Irish President's, DeValera's. Her second language was Irish, and her work as an air hostess allowed her to pack her cabin bag with Italian coffee and Belgian chocolates to bring home after a long day's work. For me at 25, my studies offered me the opportunity to spend a year studying politics in the Parisian campus of Sciences-po - a year where I learned to drink ouzo like a real Greek and cook Spanish omelettes to the required standard of my Catalan friends.  In my working life, I slip in and out of my second language, French, and it is Jean Monnet biography that sits bookmarked on my bedside table. Italian coffee and Belgian chocolate is not a foreign luxury imported from travelling friends, but an easy purchase in my corner shop. In six years, I have spent only two birthdays on my native soil.

Irish people
Photo: Jane Gardener
Franceso & Bernard get in the spirit

Today, it is normal to spend an evening drinking cherry beer with Lithuanian, British and Danish friends. It is normal to chat online with a fellow Erasmus graduate from Vienna about how her life is now and to travel to Berlin to be part of a birthday celebration. As a result, I feel part of a generation of young people that often consider themselves, or have been termed, the "eurogeneration". But I also acknowledge that this inclusion is a privilege. A privilege that has been afforded to me thanks to a long-term project of integration, the fruits of which still remain intangible for many. Considering myself European owes much to my personal interests and life choices, but this consideration has been facilitated by a European project that was founded on the core principle of peace but has today grown to encapsulate democracy, freedom of movement and a sustainable future.

Does all this suggest that the nation state is losing its grip? That the Eurogeneration represent the future of a pan-European society, united by similar goals and values? Is it possible to have both pride in our homelands and in Europe? My Irish friends and I often laugh at our exaggerated "Irishness" when we are abroad. We somehow celebrate St. Patrick's Day with extra vigour - drink more, party harder, and drown ourselves in green shamrocks in an effort to confirm our status as the party-hard nation. The Brussels social calendar is filled with these national events - Baltic Music Nights, Scandinavian Evenings and St. George's Day Celebrations. (Who even thinks to celebrate St. George's Day when in England?). We tease each other about national stereotypes and confirm our differences with our clothes, our work practices and our sense of humour.

It seems as much as our generation enjoys feeling part of a pan-European grouping, we seek to ensure that our national identities remain a priority. Many chose to rank their feelings. "I am Basque first, Spanish second and European third", a friend recently told me, echoing the sentiments of many of those I raised the issue with. For me it is not about rankings. I feel pride in my European identity when I sit around a table with a group of people from differing European backgrounds to discuss a common theme. I feel pride in being Irish when I know I can offer my national perspective to the debate, and that this view will be considered and respected. In essence that to me is what being European is all about - that we can enrich our lives by hearing each other's ideas and acting together on those differing views. Given our diverse backgrounds, the possibilities are endless.

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