What is a country like?

It is one thing to go somewhere for a holiday, another to study or do business there, different again to settle abroad. What we take in is also shaped by our expectations. Since the time of the Grand Tour, when young gentlemen went off to the continent to see something of the wide world and acquire a bit of polish, we northern Europeans have had a special place in our hearts for the sunnier countries towards the Mediterranean. Goethe’s Roman Elegies capture the collision between visiting the ancient seat of classical culture and the flesh and blood encounter with different manners and customs, more unbuttoned and spontaneous perhaps: tapping out hexameters on his mistress’s back. But that is the perspective of the Sommerfrischler, with a home to go back to. What is a country actually like? The answer can’t be the view from a place. An objective analysis must be based on a country as a set of institutions. For example, it says something about a country if the police systematically shoot street children. Such an analysis is also likely to be critical. Just as patriotism is mere ideological ectoplasm, the warm glow of drinking red wine in Tuscany doesn’t count. It is both impolite and impolitic to find fault with one’s hosts, though. Dissidence — the only true patriotism, because it is not partial — starts at home. But “ubi domus, ibi patria”.

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