Importance of protecting cultural diversity

Tales from a Brussels bar
Protecting cultural diversity - Hopital de OrbigoAn interesting topic came up on Monday evening last week. Outside temperatures had risen by at least eight degrees in the previous two days, and Brussels was showing the first welcome signs of spring. 

So we gathered that night at the bar in sunnier mood than usual. The Liverpool – Portsmouth match was rapidly becoming something of a goal procession, when Lanno suddenly launched into a bitter condemnation of the Brussels bureaucracy’s insistence on supporting what he called dying languages.

“Did you know that the EU spends millions on translating documents into Irish which nobody ever reads!” he said (I should mention that Lanno is Irish himself). “We all read them in English anyway.”

I wondered who had rattled his cage that day. The football lacked interest it was true, but what had brought this subject up? Before I had the chance to ask him however, he was away.

“What is the point of protecting these languages at European level?” he insisted. “I mean, translating all these European documents into Irish is just a sop to a few politicians. It’s not important in Ireland itself.”

That was news to me, I thought. What about the Gaeltocht and places like the Aran Islands? I remembered one particular bar on Inishmaan where I’d been unable to get a pint of Guinness because I’d ordered it in English.

But I had no time to reflect further. “After all, one time you needed Irish to get a job as a civil servant in Ireland,” Lanno continued. “But not any more – the only people who need Irish to get a job in Ireland now are the teachers.”

Spanish Rewin came in at that point. He’d been half-watching the game but evidently decided that this subject offered more entertainment. “You have to protect the lesser-known European languages,” he said, mildly. “In Spain for example you’d upset both the Catalans and the Basques if you didn’t.”

Lanno had been warming to his theme, but was taken aback by this new departure in the discussion. “You mean to say that all European documents have to be translated into Catalan and Basque as well?” he demanded.

Rewin wasn’t too sure about that, but decided to stick up for the principle. “You might complain about the cost,” he said, “but you wouldn’t like it if Irish was to disappear altogether, would you?”

“Of course not,” Lanno conceded. “I just think that some of the actions taken to protect what’s called ‘our cultural heritage’ are simply a sop to certain politicians and the minority groups they represent! What they’re doing is not helping the languages – what they’re doing is bribing the electorate!”

There was a fine-sounding phrase I thought. And it seemed everyone else thought so too, as we were all momentarily silent. Rewin opened his mouth to reply, then closed it without speaking.

Wise move, I thought, studying the beer in the bottom of my glass. What could you say to a statement like that in Brussels? Plus ca change.

But the silence was short-lived; Rewin was undeterred. “After all,” he said, pushing his hair back from his eyes, “one of Europe’s great strengths is our cultural diversity, surely. It’s part of all of us, part of what we are. That’s something that is worth recognising.”

Lanno looked dubious. “I don’t have a problem with protecting cultural diversity,” he said, “what I’d like to know is what benefit that is when I go down the pub!”

“You can say it spices up our lives,” returned Rewin. “I mean, look at this beer for example,” he said, holding up his glass. “There’s the flavour, and the colour as well. There’s a cultural tradition right here.” We agreed; this was a telling point.

“And you learn to recognise different cultures,” he continued. “Why you can never catch the eye of a waiter on the Grand Place for example. It’s part of their culture – to show customers that their presence is not important, merely incidental to the greater scheme of things.“

No-one seemed quite sure of what the greater scheme of things actually was, so we all nodded solemnly.

“Or it can be people’s clothes, for example,” Rewin said. “How people dress can determine your reaction to them.”

My thoughts drifted pleasurably to dress codes at Les Folies Bergère, but I woke up suddenly when a loud burst of singing and stamping broke out behind me. I turned around to be confronted by the sight of a large, hairy and naked Scotsman capering around the floor to wild applause from his fellows.

I shuddered, thinking yes, and how they undress can determine your reaction to them as well. Rewin was right, I thought, as I downed my beer and prepared to leave. You need to be able to recognise different cultures, if only so you know to stay well away from them.

© Philip Hunt, 2010.

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