october 2022

Shopping in an ostentatious, organic grocery store in a gentrified neighbourhood of Amsterdam. I am a part of this gentrification, if only by using my buying power to sustain here-today-gone-tomorrow boutiques and stores like this one. I am strolling the aisles with my partner when we arrive at the honey section. There are many different types of honey - eucalyptus, lavender, sunflower, wild flower, meadow - nearly all of them made by the same brand. A little sticker just below the lid of each jar proclaims the origin of each honey: “From Italy”. “From Germany”. “From Norway”. “From France”. “From Holland”. 

The way a country or region has marketed itself, speaks volumes to our associations about that place...conscious or subconscious.

There are several pots of honey that curiously only state that the honey is “From Europe”. The above listed countries are surely all in Europe? What makes this honey, apparently also from Europe, only worthy of the generic listing of the continent? We instinctively grab for the jar and scour the back, looking for a place of origin. In tiny letters, just above information about the expiry date, yes there it is: Bulgaria.

This little lack of recognition may seem benign and perhaps doesn’t seem remotely problematic. But marketing quirks like this fascinate me; the success some countries have in creating commercial monopolies whilst others from the outset seem almost doomed to fail. Italy, France, Germany, Norway and Holland are all rich nations with a reputation for global exports - be it cheese, gas or vacuum cleaners. When we see ‘Made in France’ or ‘Qualità Italiana’ or ‘Designed in Germany’, images are conjured up in our minds of patient, Caucasian artisans, dutifully pouring over some small-batch product, not in a godforsaken sweat shop somewhere, but at a quaint window side where we might like to go on holidays.

Bulgaria (for those who had no idea it existed) is a country in Eastern Europe, and a member of the EU. Hearing the words ‘Eastern Europe’, I wonder what connotations come to mind? Little old ladies in headscarves milking goats? Soviet dictators saluting crowds assembled on crumbling squares? Corrupt oligarchs hiding their pilfered fortunes in offshore banks? If they are honest with themselves, Eastern Europe is probably deemed problematic to most Western and Northern Europeans, and probably lots of Southern Europeans too. Ditto, many Northerners and Westerners on the continent view Southerners as lazy and untrustworthy; a view unfortunately shared by themselves too.

I am cautious of how perceptions are formed, largely because perception is almost impossible to separate from fact.

Facts are things that are generally accepted to be happening at any given moment or as having happened sometime in the past, ie: there is at present an armed conflict happening in Ukraine, or, the Third Reich surrendered in 1945. Unlike facts, perceptions are formed in the mind of the individual and spread en masse in the group.  Perceptions can only ever be subjective. Like other beliefs, without psychic energy to keep them alive, they shift and evolve - or die. Interpretation of things is where material truth abruptly stops. Our understandings of the cause, value and meaning of things are rarely, if at all to be trusted.

Switzerland: images of the red and white Swiss cross flying above emerald pastures dotted with plump cows; the European jetset skiing down powdery white slopes to their chalets. Switzerland is perceived by most as an example of an ordered and prosperous Western society. “Swiss Made” endows upon the buyer the envy of peers, a sense of luxury and grandeur. Switzerland has also, for no insignificant part, offered some rather hardcore criminals - from the nazis to human traffickers, drug dealers to dictators - a sanctuary to whitewash stolen assets. ‘Secret banking laws’ are exploited for profiteering; a sparkling clean image hides misconduct on a massive scale.

The Netherlands: depictions of bikes zooming along canals lined with tulips and a noble reputation for being a green haven of generous governmental policy, where no citizen is left behind. Imagine that this same country has the third highest crude cancer rate in the world or that the ground water is riddled with pesticides. Few are aware that the health department covers up the steel industry’s poisoning of large numbers of the population or that the taxation department ruined countless lives after it branded thousands of a certain ethnic profile as dole fraudeurs (articles in Dutch). Facts like these do nothing for the marketing of Holland as an eco-friendly, democratic utopia. Like Switzerland, marketing strategies are required in order to keep capital flowing in and people instagramming beside scenic mountain vistas and bucolic windmills.

So why does Bulgaria not deserve the same status as her fellow Europeans, despite their corruption and dishonesty? It is said ‘you get what you pay for’. This is perhaps, only sometimes true. But it is also largely a gimmick. One could more often say ‘you pay for the hype’. It is not only a product that we purchase but a certain regard and esteem. Buying honey from Bulgaria is simply not ‘elegant’; it does not denote the peak of a pyramid. We consider the grandeur of richer nations when we see certain “Made in…” tags. We are also buying into an entire value system along with every product we purchase - the values are unfortunately mostly envy and status.

Ultimately perception is the mother of all inequality, and inequality in turn is the mother of all turmoil, unrest and suffering in our world.

Could it be that what we perceive as wealth could better be described as sickness? Is a wealthy country one that looks sparkling clean in the advertisement but is in fact far different under the surface? Could what we deem success imply submission to a way of life that apparently does not make people any happier, despite everything they have? By a different method of measurement, could people in ‘developing’ countries like Bulgaria, Georgia and Thailand - places where people are community and family oriented - be in fact much wealthier than those in places boasting high GDP’s? 

Using arcane economic terms to decide the wealth of nations creates a world in which countries are competing for a glistering façade, at all costs. Ultimately, every country suffers from corruption to some degree. I do not believe people to be inherently corrupt, quite the opposite. Rather it is money itself that can make us do strange, dishonest things to each other. Bulgarian honey speaks of a European Union that still has a long way to go in being truly fair and equal across member states. The European Project has very clear winners and losers. Enormous wealth creation has been the standard of separating these winners and losers in the West for centuries now. But perhaps, on the eve of world war three and yet another economic collapse, it is time to examine how far this ethos serves society at large. Bulgarian honey is just as sweet as any other nation’s produce. All that glisters is not gold.