I Am of Europe
I was born in and grew up in Cork, in Ireland, a hospitable if self-centred port city with its face open to the south. The docks were the dreaming places of my childhood – I was in thrall to the fascination of banana ships in from Ecuador, coal ships from Poland, grain ships, timber ships, great ships with mixed cargoes, battered small coasters that seemed somehow hesitant and inconsequent – they came and they went on the tide, their flags tattered or gallant and crisp, cracking in the wind off the river, they came bearing news and goods from the world outside, most of them with caked salt of the broad Atlantic dulling their paintwork. I loved the bustle and clatter of loading and unloading, the comings and goings of men in swarms, the swing of a crane arm blotting the sun for an instant, the revving of trucks and lorries, the chatter in strange tongues of crewmen, polished and dapper, heading up town, the slow knowing drawl of the dockers, the awkward, stilted, English of officers trying to keep order.
It was all intimation and promise from elsewhere, and in a small provincial city with its arms open to the wide ocean, the tug of elsewhere was always there, a slight unpredictable jolt of electricity that would startle the heart regularly, often when least expected.
So, picture that boy at thirteen or fourteen, straddling his bicycle, one foot on the ground, tucked unobtrusively out of the way in case someone would order him off – in those days all adults reserved an unquestioned right to order children about, none more so than men absorbed in their own world of work – of course he's enthralled, half swept away in cloudy dreams, but he's thinking, always thinking.
He sees the red and yellow of Spain with the crest at the centre, and he's thinking Flight of the Earls, Dark Rosaleen, hidalgos strutting the streets of Córdoba, cloaked Muslim men and veiled women in the streets of Granada. He's reciting the names of cities, a savoured litany – and, just about, he has heard of Franco, Falange, faith and fatherland, the dark history of the Republic undermined.
He sees the Bleu Blanc Rouge, though he doesn't yet have that term, and he's thinking of the tricolour that inspired our own, Wolfe Tone and the fleet at Bantry, the guillotine, wine, Notre Dame and the Eiffel tower, great tilted vineyards and narrow, shabby, and smoky Parisian alleys.
Each flag triggers a jumble of associations, opens a door into the well-stocked lumber room of chaotic, voracious, reading where fragments of story, snatches of half-remembered histories and novels, pile towards the door of his waking mind like so many crates toppling towards the light.
Later, much later, in the sifting and sorting that travel will bring and ordain, he will learn that in these exotic far-off places, people have real and full lives, are born and are schooled and live and work and die in complete unawareness of, indifference to, himself, his people, and his country.
He will learn that to speak French in France is to speak in a mother tongue, that it is not a quixotic and arbitrary refusal or inability to speak in English. He will, for a moment, be ashamed of himself, that such an obvious thought had not yet occurred to him, but he will focus on the valuable lesson, that language conditioning is deep conditioning in ways that are not always obvious.
He will learn that Germany is not the bombed-into-rubble wasteland the English comics offered him in his childhood, that German is not the bastard pidgin of those comics, that Berlin is a green and sprawling city, not the dense urban mass he imagines. Well, to be fair to that young man, this will not come to him as a surprise, but he will be surprised to discover how deep-buried such foolishness can be. How for all the sophistication a well-read young man can muster, primitive simplicities have a long half-life in the dark.
He will see the broad expanse of the Tagus as a living majestic waterway, the living-world manifestation of a schoolroom line scrawled on the outline map of Portugal. Ditto the Seine, the Rhine, the Danube, the Guadalquivir ...
He will learn how infinite are the varieties of bread, what real coffee tastes like, how impoverished was the cuisine of his childhood. He will learn how the body and its repertoire of expressions and gestures expand, deepen, inflect, and colour the spoken word. And he will have, over and over again, that cognitive-stutter experience of hearing, in the flow of other languages, isolated words that are somehow familiar – in Italian, Spanish, Greek, and French, for instance – and it will dawn on him with a soft shock that English is, after all, a European language, that it draws on the word hoards of Latin, Greek, and German for much of its noun stock, and many of its verbs.
He will, in short, discover that what was for him a nebulous elsewhere of infinite and undefined, indefinable, possibilities, is very much the material, linguistic, spiritual, and intellectual here-and-now reality of millions of others – and cognate in a myriad ways with his own insular inheritance. Inhabited by real people, as real as his family, friends, neighbours, and enemies. And real in the same way to themselves as he is to himself.
He is essentially a monoglot, although he has good Irish. He assumes, as people everywhere assume, that the language of heart and homeplace is the natural and primal, the obvious, proper language of the world. He cannot speak to these sailors, dawdling down gangways, stopping to light their cigarettes, looking about them with idle curiosity or with boredom, real or feigned. He cannot speak to them, so they are not quite real to him. They have come to his place, so he seems to himself more real than they are, yet he has an idea, some idea at any rate, that they, too, must have homes of their own, as absolute to them as his is to him, that were he in their home place he would be a stranger in his turn. How should he fully conceive of what that would feel like?
Yet, when he firsts steps off a boat at Cherbourg, first flies into Lisbon, into Nice, Madrid, Berlin, Athens, not many years older than he is when we find him here, pensive and cloud-rapt on the docks of Cork, he will discover himself obscurely, tentatively, at home.
(He will not feel this when, aged eighteen he lands in New York. All the American books and movies he has read and watched, and they will be many by then, will not help him to anything remotely like the sense of home he will feel in the great European cities. The wide beaches of Cape May will feel slightly alien in ways that Frangokastello in Crete or Trá Béal Bán in Kerry will not feel alien. But that, as they say, is another story.)
2 Continental Vignettes
I arrived in Paris for the first time, hitch-hiking from Le Mans that day, from near Brest the day before that, on the night François Mitterand was declared President. The driver, on learning it was my first time in the city, detoured via the Arc de Triomphe before swinging through across to deposit my friend and me on the Avenue de la République where we had the use of an attic flat. A chambre de bonne as I learned to call it, savouring the feel of the words in my mouth. There was a great party in the Place de la République, red flags and red roses everywhere, music into the small hours of the morning. I remember, at 2am, swigging alternately from a Kronenbourg and a balloon of cheap cognac, explaining the finer points of resistance politics in Ireland to a pair of Lebanese nurses, twin sisters, who were alarmingly well-informed on the arcane nuances of left sectarianism in our small island. I remember the CRS in groups of four, idling through the crowds, in short-sleeved shirts, tieless, greeting people amicably – to the sceptical astonishment of many, the bitter cynicism of some.
And I remember next morning queueing at a boulangerie, the pavements still damp from being watered overnight, inhaling the heady aromas of bread and pastries and thinking, idly enough, I was born for this. No bother.
Largo de Chiado, Lisbon, sipping coffee among the neatly dressed courtly old men of letters in A Brasileira. Heraklion, Crete, strolling through the meat market, racks of dressed rabbits to the left and right, returning the nods of the butchers, catching a sudden smile from some bent old woman shuffling past. Athens, Plaka, standing aside to let a boisterous gang of American students swagger past, catching the lifted eyebrow of a shopkeeper, tilting our chins in that “what would you expect” gesture, unforced complicit distinction between “us” and “them”.
Café life, trattoria life, taverna life, life on the streets late into the summer night, narrow canyons of shade through the white cities in the heat of midday.
Spring rain in a French village on a Sunday night, everything shuttered, the houses behind their metal fences, the bar tabacs, restaurants, the poste, the garages, all somehow both furtive and melancholy.
Ionissos, off Chios, a small island where the great shipping magnates have their summer villas. A beautiful but shuttered and somehow paranoid place, we sense it even as we are stepping ashore. The taverna owner brings breakfast, apologises that he does not have Guinness – his way of letting us know he hears we are Irish. Unthinking, loyal citizen of Cork that I am, I tell him I would prefer Murphy's in any case. A smile breaks on his face: "Ah, Cork, yes, let me see, yes, Lighthouse on the right, fort on the left, big Cathedral ahead, left, right, left again. We tie up near City Hall. Yes, Phoenix, lovely pub, very good the Murphy's". The navigation spot on, all these years later. He beams at this happy memory from his seagoing days, and all day I will be thinking of him, the years at sea, a cook perhaps, saving his money, saving, saving, until he makes it home at last, and opens his dream taverna. The blue and white barred flag, the cross in the top left quadrant, I see it stand clear in the fading light of dockside memory. How little I knew then of the dreams of men.
The Meltemi on Ikaria scudding short black waves into the harbour of Agios Kirikos, setting the small boats rocking, unsettling the old men at their perpetual games of tavli, sending us home early and reluctant after dinner, cold and out of sorts. Like everyone else. Next morning, in the quiet after the wind has gone over, strolling through Therma, bread in a blue plastic bag dangling from your hand, stopping here and there to chat to an acquaintance, perhaps sit and take a coffee with a friend by the flat blue sea ... Like everyone else.
3 Not more real, not less real
The imagined Europe of my childhood came out of books, of course, and this Europe in books was filtered through the imaginations of all those who wrote the books – what they included, what they left out, what they made up. I recognised those national flags because my Children's Encyclopedia carried colour plate illustrations that caught my imagination. Of course Baudelaire's Paris is neither the city in its totality, nor yet is it the city I imagined or would subsequently discover for myself. It is not de Beauvoir's Paris, nor Foucault's, but it is in some sense both theirs and mine. The Athens of Solon, Seferis, Anghelaki-Rooke, or Ritsos is not Athens in its totality, nor is it simply the ur-city to which I refer my beloved Greek myths, but it lives in my heart shot through with their colours, their hopes and fears, their mortality which is so like mine but is not mine. Just so, the Dublin in which I now live is the city of Mangan, Joyce, Meehan, Boland, and many others, and when I say I live here I am aware that I am in part living in and through their imaginations. As the Cork that nurtured me was imagined into being by the dead and the living generations, found voice in the imaginations of O'Connor, Ó Faoláin, and Ó Ríordáin.
We build composites of place in order to feel at home, perhaps more explicitly we build our own idea of home out of composites, out of images, phrases, songs, and books that somehow engage our imaginations. The same principle holds true of our need and compulsion to build an elsewhere that draws us away from home into a more expansive domain of freedom. It so happens that both my home and my elsewhere are found in the densely layered Europe that countless millions have built, imagined, torn down, and built again, are building and altering still, in a permanent flux of past, present, and what is to come.
The European languages, literatures, songs, and stories are in cross-dialogue with each other in a common frame of reference, and this is the frame of being that we have inherited, as both heritage and responsibility. That this heritage and responsibility mean we must deal with our various histories of conquest and exploitation, inside and outside our continent, goes, I hope, without saying. It is, indeed, a political and moral imperative as well as a glorious opportunity for the life-giving imagination.
In the end, this: I did not ask to be born, nor did I choose the place of my birth. I found myself on earth, human, in Cork, in Ireland, and all other options being both absurd and wilfully foolish, I accepted this. In the same spirit of acquiescence and acceptance, I say of myself, bending an ancient Irish poem to my purposes, I am of Europe.
 The Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, abbreviated CRS, are the general reserve of the French National Police.