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We had a friend from Russia staying over the weekend. “It’s so nice to be back in Europe again,” he said as we met him from the train in Berlin after his overnight journey from Kaliningrad.
His comment made us ponder European geography. Kaliningrad is just 330 miles from Berlin and it is most certainly not part of Asia. Yet, many Russians do routinely speak of “traveling to Europe” even though they live in regions of Russia which are undeniably part of Europe. Our Kaliningrad friend could travel several hundred miles east from his home city and still be well within European Russia. Asia is a long way distant.
Keeping your distance
Russia’s psychological distance from Europe is mirrored in British attitudes too. “I’m not sure I can afford to go to Europe this summer,” wrote a friend from London, a turn of phase that suggested that London is not in Europe at all.
A dash of misunderstanding
We all have our personal psychogeography—the mental map that tells a particular story of how places we cherish relate to the wider world. And those psychogeographies sometimes reflect the legacy of long-lost empires or some misunderstanding of other identities.
Brits often assume that all Germans are Prussian. And England’s dominance within the United Kingdom means that many Germans will talk of “going to England” when in fact they are going to Wales for a vacation.
The Netherlands are much misunderstood with the name of one part of the country, Holland, being taken to refer to the entire country. The provinces of Nord-Holland and Zuid-Holland together constitute less than one seventh of the area of the Netherlands. Within the last few years, even the authorities in the Netherlands have given up on this battle. In two areas of life—soccer and tourism—they have realised that the term “Holland” has brand appeal in the international arena, so no surprise that outside the Netherlands many of us get confused over “the Holland Question.”
Stepping on someone’s toes
Of course, most of the time such geographical confusion is pretty harmless, though your host in the Dutch provinces of Friesland or Brabant—both parts of the Netherlands that have a very strong sense of regional identity—may wonder why you keep saying how much you like Holland.
But there are occasions when deficiencies in psychogeography can land you in hot water. At a conference in Tallinn a delegate asked about life “when this was part of Russia.” The Estonian hosts were quick to point out that Estonia had never been part of Russia in the post-war order. It was part of the Soviet Union, but not part of Russia. The two are not the same.