Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/33 posted by hidden europe on

The West is inscribed on our imagination. It is where we watch the sunset, and thus the cardinal point that ushers in the evening, bringing promise of rest and sleep. And yet the West means other things too. For generations of Americans, the West told of a promising new dawn and a land of opportunity. Wild it may have been, but the settling of the West was a process that helped shape American identity. The pioneer past is even today a strong thread in the fabric of American history and culture. Urbane east coasters who may never have seen the Rockies still know the stories of the settlers and prospectors who helped colonise the land beyond the Mississippi. Shift to Russia and the concept of the West has always had mixed overtones.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

The West is inscribed on our imagination. It is where we watch the sunset, and thus the cardinal point that ushers in the evening, bringing promise of rest and sleep. And yet the West means other things too. For generations of Americans, the West told of a promising new dawn and a land of opportunity. Wild it may have been, but the settling of the West was a process that helped shape American identity. The pioneer past is even today a strong thread in the fabric of American history and culture. Urbane east coasters who may never have seen the Rockies still know the stories of the settlers and prospectors who helped colonise the land beyond the Mississippi.

Shift to Russia and the concept of the West has always had mixed overtones. The Russian poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921) nicely captured a deep-seated ambiguity when he wrote of Russia gazing west "with hatred and with love." Russia has constructed a religion that foregrounds patience and fortitude. Viewed through the haze of incense, perception muted by long Orthodox litanies, the West is a place too full of energy and aggression, not blessed with enough patience. Chess, we should remember, is pre-eminently a contest in patience.

Home in on Ireland, and the West is fabled territory. Ireland is at her most Irish where the hills of Connemara and Kerry touch the Atlantic. Even families which have lived in Dublin for generations proclaim their western roots. The very idea of the West thus becomes a trope in Ireland, and devotees of noble Irish traditions are not satisfied with merely reaching the west coast. No, they go further, convinced that Irish essence might be at its most concentrated in the Aran Islands - only there to find that tourism has stained the pure linen veil of unblemished nationhood.

For many residents of western Europe, the West is the end of the road. Finisterre or Land's End. That was part of the magic of the Great Western Railway. There was a hint of romance in any departure from London's Paddington Station. Okay, your itinerary today might be as prosaic as ours often is: a short hop on a local train to Didcot or Oxford. But this was the station that every day saw the departure of the Cornish Riviera Express. As indeed it still does. It is a train that leads to holidays and adventure. The train recalls all that is best about the West.

So the clocks have changed across Europe. The evenings draw in. Tomorrow brings November, a still and silent month of damp leaves. The dark lake of night fills western skies even before we conclude our daily work in the scriptorium. It's a good season to head West. We'll let you know what lies over the western horizon.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.