The Perfect European, not made in China as far as I can tell….(Scarborough photo)It’s always interesting to see how citizens of one country sometimes view the citizens of others. 

As a U.S. person, I can tell you that we certainly don’t have the market cornered on stereotypes and sweeping generalizations (New Yorkers are rude, Californians are weird, Southerners are gracious but ignorant, etc.)

I’ve also learned that if I call myself “an American,” that gets some Canadians upset since we’re all a part of the North American continent. Sigh.

One of my favorite household objects from our expat time in the Netherlands is a placemat.  At the top is the blue EU flag with the circle of gold stars, and the words, “The Perfect European Should Be….”  and the rest of it is goofy-looking cartoons depicting assorted stereotypes of different countries in Europe.

Some of the generalizations are not surprising:

** Crummy British food is lampooned with, ”The Perfect European Should Be….Cooking like a Brit” and the cartoon shows a chef with the menu on the wall behind reading boiled this and boiled that.  Yes, yes, I know that the culinary situation has improved in Britain, but I must say that the smooshy fried tomato in the typical English breakfast does not help rehabilitate perceptions.

**  The thrifty Dutch get, “The Perfect European Should Be….Generous as a Dutchman” with the cartoon showing a man whistling as he walks past a blind beggar.  Now that I’ve lived in the Netherlands, I can tell you that they are tight with a guilder (sorry; with a Euro.)  I can think of worse tendencies, though. 

**  The usual Irish insult, “The Perfect European Should Be….Sober as the Irish,” with the cartoon depicting pub revelers.

OK, not very interesting so far, but then there are some that I did not expect.  Apparently the Portuguese aren’t technically-savvy about computers, the Finns don’t talk much (then how do they run Nokia?) the Austrians are seen as impatient, the Danes are the Continent’s party boys, the Belgians are always on vacation and the Swedes are inflexible.

Where do they get this stuff?

I did see a reasonable amount of stereotyping among nationalities while working at a NATO headquarters; the Brits often ribbed the Germans about being too rigid, the Canadians were “nicer” versions of U.S. people, the U.S. people were teased as doctrinaire workaholics, the “old Europe” Western Europeans were sometimes rather snooty about the new Eastern European NATO members from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and pretty much everyone had some sort of insult relating to the French, especially the British. 

Since the French left NATO in a huff in the mid-1960s, they were never around to defend themselves.

The lesson of the cartoons is that when you really immerse yourself in a culture, usually only achieved by actually living in another country, you learn the most interesting things. 

When I would ask about the origins of European stereotypes, I would often hear a history lesson about some long-past battle or crisis or deflated national pride or perfidy.  Since I live in a nation that is only about 230 years old, it’s hard for me to get my head around flashpoints like the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, or the centuries-long conflict in Ireland between Protestant and Catholic.  There are even more recent points of irritation; many Brits are still quite peeved about how the French folded so quickly before the German onslaught in 1940.

All this, from a placemat. 

Technorati tags:  travel, Europe, stereotypes