MOSCOW — Barbarian invasions from the east are old news for old Europe. Over the centuries, restless nomads kept rolling through the area — sometimes to kill, sometimes to plunder, and sometimes to plunder and stay.
In fact, most invaders chose to settle down on the conquered European terrain, won over by its mild climate, bustling urban culture and easy access to every imaginable trade route, be that to China, Ethiopia or the Canary Islands.
For a few centuries, Europe was left alone, and then the post-World War II economic boom came. By the 1960s, almost every country of Western Europe was enjoying skyrocketing economic growth.
However, the postwar welfare society constrained the boom. Millions of former soldiers angrily demanded better pay, decent labor environment, long vacations and fat retirement benefits. With a working force like that, it was difficult for the European economy to gain momentum.
The answer to the problem was found immediately: Import cheap labor. Arabs streamed to France and Spain, Turks moved to Germany, Yugoslavs settled in Austria. Even Norway brought in thousands of hungry Pakistanis. Not pampered by the trade unions and not protected by any political party, going unnoticed and unacknowledged, Asians and Africans became a silent driving force behind the European economic miracle.
But today guest workers from countries like Turkey and Pakistan no longer look good to European employers. For starters, they are Muslim, and in the post-9/11 world this is not the best possible asset on one’s resume. Second, they have already become too numerous in their adopted countries, and Europeans are quite apprehensive of this demographic time bomb.
I recall an episode that occurred in Norway several years ago. It was a Monday morning and I was standing at a bus stop with my kids. Monday mornings are pretty bad in Oslo, as it is the time when ferries from the continent arrive. The price of a bottle of scotch in Norway exceeds the cost of a Cartier necklace in Paris, so many thrifty Norwegians board ferries bound for Denmark to buy alcohol on board — duty-free.
However, Norwegian customs agents watch out for alcohol imports more zealously than the Americans do for Osama bin Laden. The travelers feel cheated, so they make sure they drink enough on board to keep them sick for the rest of the week. When I spotted a middle-aged Norwegian male crawling toward the bus stop like a challenged lizard, I assumed a protective posture and clutched my kids’ hands.
The traveler, drunk he was, didn’t fail to notice my panic and, as many drunks do, immediately struck up a conversation.
“Where are you from?”
“Russia,” I said, unsure about what his reaction would be.
He looked at me, then with some difficulty — which was understandable, given the throbbing alcohol count in his system — he switched his stare to my kids.
“It’s OK,” he finally said. “You are still better than the Pakis.”
“Why is that?”
“You are white and Christian,” he said.
There we were. I was a guest worker in his country myself — granted, not doing dishes or digging ditches but instead involved in some inconsequential research in a very generous think tank — but I was not rated much different from a “Paki,” who also had kids and wanted to build a better future for them.
Only several years ago, people of my skin color easily passed the ultimate test in Europe — “white and Christian” — but I am not so sure about now, and for one simple reason: Migrant labor from the former Soviet Union has become overpowering in each and every European venue.
If a hotel maid is not Ukrainian, she must be Moldavian or Belarusian. Sex clubs teem with “hostesses” speaking Dutch and Spanish with a husky Slavic accent. There are several blocks in Naples where Ukrainian — not Italian — is the first language. In Portugal, there are several newspapers published by Russians for Russians.
There is an unprecedented migration of “white and Christian” people to Europe, which — unlike America — has always been exceedingly squeamish about alien influxes. When you get too many guest workers, it stops mattering that they are white and Christian, even if they polish the floors that you don’t want to touch and do the laundry that you don’t care to hear about.
Several weeks ago, I came across a Ukrainian girl at Hauptbanhof, the central railway station in Munich. Only God knows how she had landed there in the first place, but now she was saying she had to get to Naples. She looked very determined and she carried bags too heavy to be containing just personal items. Maybe she planned to sell some vodka or caviar in Naples before getting a job in a hotel, or maybe she was carrying winter clothes for a friend already employed there.
She didn’t speak a word of German or English and, for that matter, appeared clearly intimidated by the gigantic and frightfully effective cobweb that Germans call their railroad system. But I felt absolutely sure that she would get to Naples all right.
I suppose she will be a gem for her Italian employer, as she is likely to be hardworking, resilient and undemanding. But what about the neighbor who lives next door and who now has to put up with the legion of white and Christian guest workers who quickly undermine his faith in the importance of both whiteness and Christianity? Will her stumbling Italian irritate him or will he find it charming?
Will her determination to succeed — because of course she wants to stay in Europe and start a family there — make him angry, or will he accept it as a fact of life and maybe even welcome her to his church, if not to his living room?
There are so many questions I have about the future of this Ukrainian, and I bet she has many more. Meanwhile, she disappears in the scary underworld of a European transit authority, burdened by her fat bags and uncertain about the location of the train that is supposed to leave for Naples, a white and Christian refugee knocking on the glamorous doors of the old European fortress.
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