The past is another country, you take a plane to get there

I was in Cyprus last week for a software carpentry workshop

The country feels poorer than their GDP per capita (GDPpc) would indicate. At least in part, this is because the GPDpc measures current income, but what we feel is the wealth (in the houses, the cars, the city infrastructure), which requires several years of income to accumulate.

In fact, in Nicosia, this process was visible. Houses seemed be either dilapidated or freshly renewed. Even with the crisis, it’ll look very different in 10 years. It’ll feel more like Lisbon feels nowadays [1].

Here are two images taken in the centre of Nicosia, one of a recently restored area, another of a dilated one [2].

A house falling apart in the centre of town

A restored area in Nicosia



Some people who live in a different country from where their grandparents lived sometimes feel a need to go “search for their roots”. To some extent this is a self-fulfilling fiction, which comes from the same romantic ideas that there is some special in place or blood: even if there isn’t anything there, the fact that we think there is, makes us behave in a certain way and it becomes true [3].

However, there is something beyond the romantic mistake, namely that understanding the environment in which your family grew up can give you understanding why they behave in certain ways. Knowing where they are coming from [4] can give you insight about why they behave like they do.

I live in between Southern Germany and Luxembourg. In the 1800s, many left this area to go look for a better life in America. However, nowadays, it’d be difficult to understand why. Luxembourg is the richest state in the EU, and one of the places that feels more American to me [5]. It is not the poor, subsistence-farming, harsh-winters place your ancestors fled. Visiting Luxembourg is not visiting the place your ancestors left, it is visiting a completely different place that is at the same location [6].

Knowing the past is naturally important to understanding the present. The nouveau rich attitudes of the Luxembourgians [7] or the Swabian housewife myth (which so upsets Southern Europe) both stem from a half remembered poverty. But we do not directly visit this past in modern Luxembourg, the city with the highest number of Michelin stars (expensive restaurants) per capita.


To travel in space is to travel in time. When I visit Nicosia or Beira, I am visiting the recent past of Portugal. When walking these countries, vague childhood memories come back, and I can see a society which was already disappearing when I was growing up in Portugal. In Nicosia, I learn about my heritage more than I can learn in today’s Portugal.

The past is a foreign country. No really, the past is a foreign country, you can take a plane to get there [8].


In Cyprus, political correctness is still not a thing. Here’s a cup where I was served Cypriot coffee:

A cup of coffee with a stereotypical colonial servant

A politically incorrect cup of coffee

[1] Portugal itself has not had much economic growth since 2001, but from 2001 to 2010, we could see large changes in the look & feel of many cities. In the same way, I expect that while Cyprus is in crisis and income is stagnant, wealth may be accumulating.
[2] As bit of a joke, I took a photo from a restored area in the Turkish part, while the dilapidated one in the Greek area. There was less difference between the two zones than I expected.
[3] This was mocked in one of the better episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David, whose portrait of stereotypical neurotic Jewishness is a major aspect of the show, “discovers” he was actually a Christian adopted at birth. Therefore, he changes his whole personality to be the Larry David stereotype of the Christian. During the episode, he figures out it was all a mistake and thus goes back to being himself.
[4] It’s not a coincidence that “I know where you are coming from” is a metaphorical expression for “I understand you”.
[5] I often say that “Luxembourg is what the Americans think they are, but are not.” It’s a cosmopolitan society with a free-market low-tax economy and, generally, a culture of being direct and straight-forward when interacting with others (while being pleasant and polite). America is more of these things than, say France, but less of these things than Luxembourg.
[6] The past is a different place, they do things differently there.
[7] My favorite Luxembourgian image is little booths selling grilled sausage on bread, served with expensive Champagne in plastic flutes. I find it endearing.
[8] Yes, technology does change things. Everybody has a smart phone now on which they check facebook. And, yes, culture matters. But I’m a Marxist, so I see a large two-way link between culture and economics. So developmental stage correlates with many things we think of as culture.

One thought on “The past is another country, you take a plane to get there

  1. Pingback: 2014 in Review | Meta Rabbit

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