Last year, my kids discovered Eurovision. For months they combed Youtube for different versions of the finalists’ songs. All their living-room dance parties were Europop. They absorbed untold levels of visual kitsch, peaking with line-dancing sugar cones (thanks, Moldova). The eldest became an intolerable bore about which countries nominated the same act for both the 2020 edition that was abruptly canceled as the pandemic slammed Europe and the 2021 relaunch, live from Rotterdam. They delved back through the past decade of performances, memorizing arcana as they went, such as who has more lifetime wins than Sweden (only Ireland!), which tiny countries routinely punch above their weight and which populous ones repeatedly slink away with zero points from their fellow nations’ judges.
Among their favorite singers was Sweden’s entrant Tusse who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo at five. They were captivated by Eden Alene, the talented Ethiopian-Jewish sylph with Rapunzel hair. But they remained perplexed by her country of Israel’s participation. Even more so, Australia’s inclusion.
The winners’ circle came down to a top five that included the grim, otherworldly, folktronic Ukrainians Go_A (their favorite), Switzerland’s Gjon’s Tears, a singer whose parents are Kosovan and Albanian, France’s Barbara Pravi who is genetically a mix of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish, as well as Serbian and Iranian and the eventual winners from Italy, whose Danish name Måneskin comes courtesy of the group’s half-Danish bassist.
Being European (or of any specific European nationality) in 2021, it would appear, was not unlike my kids’ experience of being American in 2021. Primarily, a matter of culture and geography. Precious little to do with genetics… at most maybe the tangential question of how many generations back your forebears have been European citizens or identified as a particular European nationality.
But Eurovision is only 65. Europe’s borders and European-ness itself have been up for debate and definition for a solid three thousand years. What, over that time has it meant to be European? And fraught questions of geography and culture aside, what, if anything, essentially defines a European genetically today, now that we can sift, base pair by base pair, through any European citizen’s genome?
The labels we pin on maps can be divided between concrete physical features and at times inscrutable, but instrumentally useful, human constructs. No one quibbles over the demarcation between Eurasia and the continents of the New World; the Bering Strait’s location isn’t up for debate. On the other hand, where Europe ends and Asia begins has long been more a matter of taste and historical happenstance. The term itself for the lands to the west and north of the Aegean, lent by Greek mythology’s princess Europa, is already attested over 2,500 years ago. The philosopher Anaximander, who himself hailed from the eastern shore of the Aegean in today's Turkey, published the first Greek map of the world. He set the border between Europe and Asia at the Caucasus, along the Rioni river in modern-day Georgia. As ancient Greece declined and Rome rose, the consensus shifted north and east, to the Don river, in modern-day Russia, just beyond the border with Ukraine. But the Roman Empire was never particularly invested in the classical continental divisions formulated by the Greeks anyway. Its civilization centered around the Mediterranean, or Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea.”
Europe as a concept only truly gained widespread currency with the rise of Islam. The sudden shattering of a unity the Mediterranean world had taken for granted had echoes that reverberate to this day. Similarly, since Putin’s incursions into Ukraine this year, instead of just the queries about individual European nationalities and ethnicities I always field, now I have people asking what it really means to be European with new urgency.
Of course, Anaximander and the ancients didn’t have the last word. By the 1600’s, cartography as a scientific discipline had begun to be rooted in the latest methods of surveying. Recourse to Herodotus's hearsay and Ptolemy’s wisdom were no longer necessary. When the astronomer Giovanni Cassini mapped France more accurately for Louis XIV, the Sun King was chagrined to discover science had shrunk his kingdom. And with the advance of scientific cartography, 18th-century thinkers judged the amorphous traditional border between Europe and Asia in the Don drainage basin to be too imprecise. They required a grander physical feature than some river snaking languidly through the featureless steppe.