Harmonising heritage: celebrating national identity in a European melting pot
May 27, 2024

Harmonising heritage: celebrating national identity in a European melting pot

As a non-EU citizen, stepping into Europe in your 20s feels like a dream come true. Among new faces, international friendships, and cultural exchanges, you absorb a wealth of historical, cultural, political, and economic knowledge in a single year that may surpass what you have learned in two decades. My journey began in Denmark, courtesy of the Erasmus Mundus Journalism programme. I then extended my Erasmus journey to the Czech Republic, and went further with various youth events and the Erasmus+ project.

This article recounts my personal journey in the EU, while celebrating my own national identity. Knowing that many of you may have shared similar experiences,  I encourage you to read on to discover and connect over our shared adventures.

Connection between Danish hygge and Azerbaijani respect

The most significant lesson that I gleaned from my 11-month journey was the concept of hygge, the Danish philosophy of embracing life’s simple pleasures. In Denmark, the second happiest country in the world, I discovered intriguing customs that underscored a deep appreciation for life, alongside a commitment to serious pursuits. Set against the serene backdrop of Aarhus, Danes’ profound trust and mutual respect fostered an atmosphere that seemed almost utopian. Danish humility and genuine concern for others, rooted in the principles of Janteloven – a code of conduct prevalent in Nordic countries – resonated deeply with me. Rules such as “Do not think you are anything special”, “Do not think you are as good as we are”, and “Do not think you are smarter than we are”, epitomised this ethos.

Denmark imparted to me the tranquil lifestyle of hygge and taught me how to approach connections with Azerbaijanis with reverence, despite the vast differences between the Western European country and Azerbaijan.

Exploring the connection between Czech and Azerbaijani post-communist history

Unlike Denmark, the Czech Republic, which is culturally similar to Azerbaijan with its post-communist history, was an intriguing experience, combining distance and sometimes warmth from its people. The best and worst part of living in Prague was navigating the chaotic situations in the touristy city while seeking out one’s own quiet safe zone, and eventually finding it. Here, residing among the architectural and artistic masterpieces along the roads leading from the Narodni Divadlo to the Dancing House felt like a dream. The unique atmosphere of the Czech Republic, home to legendary figures such as Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Alphonse Mucha, and Vaclav Havel, was instrumental in forging a meaningful connection with the country.

The Czech Republic also afforded me ample time and insight to reflect on and understand the history of Azerbaijan, its post-communist and post-Soviet past, and to observe the cultural ties with the Czech Republic.

Nostalgic reflections: recalling home while abroad

Politics and history are intertwined with our lives. Having spent two years in various international environments, and different countries – one in Western Europe and the other in Central Europe – it became almost second nature to establish connections with Azerbaijan or draw comparisons. Amidst the backdrop of these vastly different countries where I lived for months, observing people’s way of life, happiness, love, and family dynamics, it provided me with ample reason to reflect on and yearn for my homeland. Yet, the challenge remained: how could I maintain a sense of connection to my country while fully immersing myself in the integration process within the new culture?

Homesickness: modern problems require modern solutions

While I was having homesick moments, which were all too frequent, I found solace in the familiar rhythms of old Azerbaijani songs. Spotify, one of my virtual companions, proved invaluable in preserving this traditional connection through playlists like Partying with Old Azerbaijani Songs Because They’re Aristocratic, Falling in Love but with Old Azerbaijani Songs, and Depressed but in Azerbaijani.

In January 2023, I was delighted to share baklava, badambura, and gogal with my classmates in Denmark. It was a heartwarming experience to introduce them to these sweets, which are traditionally enjoyed during the Nowruz month, and to regale them with stories about their significance and ingredients. Their compliments on the flavours of these treats made the moment even sweeter.

Participation in Erasmus+ projects also played a significant role in my journey. Engaging with participants from diverse backgrounds, discussing various topics, and exchanging insights about each other’s countries were among the highlights of these projects. Notably, a portion of Erasmus+ projects was dedicated to Culture Nights, where there was a palpable eagerness to showcase the cultural exchange and integration in the best possible light. These evenings were filled with folk dances, traditional dishes, and a genuine desire to share the rich culture of different countries with participants from around the world.

I was fortunate to have classmates hailing from nearly 50 different nations, and through various projects, I had the opportunity to meet even more people from diverse backgrounds. In other words,  being abroad is an enriching experience for young people. As we strive to forge our identities, we can also find elements of our national identity while enjoying our time in Europe. Whether it is through attending classes, parties, cultural nights, or quiz nights, there are also opportunities to incorporate aspects of our own culture into our experiences abroad. When we are far from home and in the process of creating a new home in a country that was once unfamiliar, celebrating our national identity through traditional food, music, and customs can be both comforting and therapeutic

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