American Monster I: Europe Was Our Ideal

Europe was our ideal. Europe at one time was not merely a place, not simply an economic or political entity. It was not even just an idea. In Europe one found an atmosphere of free inquiry, a prerequisite for scientific and philosophical activity that was largely absent elsewhere in the world. Europe had developed and implemented the powerful notions of individual worth and political liberty, of democracy, of the free pursuit of one’s own fate, or the freedom to change that fate, to move from one place to another, one profession, class or religion to another. It was the richest place on earth, both in economic terms and in artistic ones. It held the reins of world governance, both through dint of moral authority and power of arms. What happened in Kinshasa or Chicago meant little. What happened in Paris or London meant everything.

The picture the American media presents of Europe is that of an undifferentiated mass, dead-set on going toe-to-toe with the U.S. as an economic, political and military force. To American conservatives, Europe is a tourist trap filled with indulgent, unrealistic sybarites; a Greece to America’s Rome. To liberals, it is a promised land, bathed in the golden light of reason and peace; a Judea to America’s Babylon. But Europe is a fiction that we change to fit our needs.

And Europe is no longer our ideal. I discovered this recently during a month and a half spent traveling with my wife, SJ, through Latvia, Holland, Germany, France and England. We traveled in a post-9/11 world and at the time of the expansion of the European Union, the time of the elections for the European parliament, during Euro 2004, the European football championship, which, for the first time, featured Latvia as a contender and Greece as the winner.

Europe was my ideal. I first went to Europe when I was 17 on an unofficial student exchange put together by my high school German instructor. The liberation of walking around Cologne, West Germany (already you can sense how it’s changed, just from the names), fresh from rural Oregon was a watershed moment in my life. My father was a sailor and had seen Vietnam, Singapore, Korea. The wide world, in other words. Europe opened up the world for me like Asia did for my father. I would never again confuse Oregon for the world. Though much later I would realize Oregon too was part of that wider world.

There is no substitute for travel to get at the truth of a place. Like the peripatetic Indo-Irish novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell, I too believe most truths are truths of place. In the American media, the picture of Europe is one of a thriving, coherent and threateningly swanky though slightly irrelevant culture, full of proud, even belligerent, Euro-citizens dead set against the U.S. and determined to go toe-to-toe with it as a world force. But that picture is incomplete, perhaps even altogether wrong.

My experience is best illustrated by the encounter SJ and I had with a waitress in Berlin. We had stopped into a traditional German restaurant in Berlin in a side street off the Ku’damm – all Thüringer wurst, glüwein and Berliner Weisse mit Schuss – for an early dinner. Berlin is a city I had last visited before the wall fell. The Potsdamer Platz I remembered was an eerie, gargantuan concrete wasteland surrounded by Stalinist apartment houses and dotted like a de Chirico painting with vague, paranoid figures emerging from and returning to the shadows. In the last five years the building in Berlin has reached a fevered pitch. The Potsdamer now resembles, in the early summer evening, a cheery version of Blade Runner, full of curved glass walls, blued steel and tiled passageways, stuffed to the gills with modern, lively German citizens. When I hailed this new Germany to the waitress we had been talking to, she shook her head. “No,” she insisted sadly. “Germany is dead.”

Another example of how this Europe I walked around in differed from the one I had watched on CNN and read about in the New York Times was the build-up to the elections for the European Union’s parliament. Considering that the parliament was responsible for trade, labor, environmental and cultural issues for the 25 countries of the Union, one would think the elections would be a major concern. The EU had just expanded, adding 10 countries only two months earlier. But every European broadcast media, from France’s TV5 to Italy’s RAI to the BBC reported a wide-spread apathy. Euroscepticism, as they termed it, was everywhere. Interviewees from Porto to Aberdeen, from Den Haag to Naples complained that the enormous 732-seat parliament was expensive and corrupt and that the Union took huge amounts of money out of the member states’ coffers, returning virtually nothing in return. One report outlined the travel scheme for the parliament, in which members were allowed to claim reimbursement for up to eight times their travel expenses.

In fact when the election did take place, from the 10th to the 13th of June, the turn-out rate was only 45%, very low for a region in which voting rates regularly approach 80%. And those parties that did get elected were protest parties. The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party won in Britain. When the BBC asked new UKIP European Parliament Member Robert Kilroy-Silk what his party intended to do in the European Parliament, he replied, “”Wreck it – expose it for the waste, the corruption and the way it’s eroding our independence and our sovereignty.” The other members’ Ministers almost all came from parties in opposition to their sitting governments. So much for a united Europe.

SJ and I sat in the Leche Vin, a bar off the Place de la Bastille in Paris with David, an old photographer friend from Boston who had just finished an assignment to illustrate a new edition of the best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which is set in part in Paris. As SJ and David talked about… well, whatever photographers and painters talk about, I chewed the fat with Roland, a Frenchman who had spent time living, as I had, in San Francisco. “I love America,” said Roland. Hold tight. A Frenchman who loves America? “I love it so much I can hardly say.” He talked me through his time as an engineer in the bay, how he had, alas, fallen in love with a French woman, followed her back to Paris and promptly broken up with her. He asked me what do the American people think about the war? What do the American people feel about the election? Who do they think will win? What did I think about John Kerry? What did I think about France? I loved it, I said. Unreservedly, wildly, I loved it more in person than I did reading about it in books, which can scarcely be imagined.

The Europe I encountered was not much of a Union. It was not the X to balance out America’s Y in the equation of global power. Europe remains a collection of sovereign countries, each not farther away from the other than one U.S. state is from the next, but each holding within its borders, as though within the covers of a book, a different chapter of the world’s continuing history.

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