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One Europe: The Dream of Unity : Culture : Coat of Many Colors Shares Common Thread : A singular heritage has given a diverse Continent similar views on everything from food to sex.

February 04, 1992|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — The 12 European partners marching toward unity are as different as fast bowlers and picadors, autobahns and feta cheese.

They deliberate in nine official languages, write in two alphabets (Latin and Greek) and drive on both sides of the road (stay on the left in Britain and Ireland).

Singularities are greater than commonalities. The 12 perforce share a commitment to democratic government and some version of market economics, but their union is more of head than heart. Their kinship is that of members of the same guild rather than of the same family.

In the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, a European professor could travel from country to country, university to university, delivering the same lecture in the same language--Latin. Not many people were educated then, but those who were shared the same intellectual foundation, the same religion and similar philosophical concepts, Bologna to Bath to Berlin.

Now, at a time of continental unity, some Europeans complain that all they seem to have in common anymore is what the Yankees have sold them. "The only pan-European culture is the American culture," scolded a French TV anchorwoman not long ago.

Mais attendez s'il vous plait.

Just wait a minute.

True, Europeans slaver for Coke, queue for McDonald's and Hollywood glitz, copy puerile TV quiz shows and Disney World. Young Europeans groove on MTV and go into hock for Timberlands (hiking shoes) and Levi's.

But there is more to European culture than derivative Americanisms of the global village. In fact, there are powerful and deep common threads that unite Europeans in their diversities--and stamp them a different breed from Americans.

"We are owners and patent-holders of a common heritage which inspires other continents. Hundreds of thousands of people, billions throughout the world, are influenced by our culture, are attuned to our culture," noted French President Francois Mitterrand, one of those who worry about the erosion of a European heritage he considers the essential "mortar" of continental unity.

Shared European traits are sometimes muted by the shrinking electronic world. Their intensity varies, country to country. But they are plainly writ; not denizens of sociologists' lairs, but essential threads in the woof and warp of daily life, classroom to dining room to bedroom.

Basics like food, for example. For Europeans, food is ceremony, not fuel. Biergarten or trattoria, Athens taverna or Barcelona tapas bar, the distinctiveness and quality of the food is as important as the socializing that is an integral part of its consumption. West Europeans read the same health warnings as Americans, but you'd never know it from the groaning boards of butter and bacon at Frankfurt hotel breakfasts. Mere cholesterol will never drive a Frenchman or an Italian from cheese or keep a Brit from clotted cream.

Then there's sex. Europeans--except for the British--don't think that sex is dirty. They reject American puritanism with incomprehension; any beach is topless if any woman bather thinks it is a good idea. No one on the continental side of the English Channel will ever understand why Gary Hart could not run for president.

There is a distinctive European self-image and a European world view, the product of a turbulent history of invasions and conquests; of grandiose treaties and violent revolutions whose end results have been to reinforce national identities while at the same time extending a continental heritage.

There are contradictions in both. Europe was the producer, director, principal actor and anguished stage of two wars this century that marked the most terrible organized bloodletting in world history. Yet casual violence in Europe today is minimal by American standards: The per capita homicide rate is 20 times higher in the United States than in England, where the bobbies still go unarmed. More people are murdered in New York each year than in all of Mafia-plagued Italy, population 58 million.

Among the icons that transcend European national frontiers is Rome, the Continent's first and perhaps most powerful unifying symbol. Roman ruins proudly linger, from Yorkshire in England to Diyarbakir in Turkey.

Even today, when Rome is a provincial city compared with Paris or London, it is still more than simply the Italian capital. Rome was the mother first of cultural, then of religious unity in Europe. It gave the Continent a common law, language and alphabet. To this day, virtually every country in Europe has an academy in Rome to which it sends bright young scholars to explore the shared continental past.

Among Europeans, there is an innate awareness of history that Americans lack. In Europe, the stones speak, engrossing witnesses to centuries of great savagery and occasional splendor. At Rome's Campidoglio, Michelangelo built atop the work of medieval architects who built atop the work of the Romans before them.

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