Of course, in order to see Europe as palaces and museums and cathedrals, you have to drag out a huge mental eraser. You have to scrub away most of what Europe actually looks like. If you’re a visitor, you have to forget the airport where you arrived. You have to ignore the ugly freeway you drove on, the bland apartment blocks you passed, on the way to your modern hotel. And if you decide to stay longer, to make a life here, you have to press delete on the nasty politicians and the social tensions, the traffic and the hideous sprawl, that are as much a part of life here as they are anywhere else.
Still, the choice to see Europe as a collection of palaces and museums and cathedrals always seemed valid to me. There is no point in leaving home unless it’s to find something different. For a kid from Texas, contact with old buildings and old paintings seemed vital in a way that I’m pretty sure not all Europeans understand. Many would just as well sweep that past away and dream of coming to America in search of a country that is just as much of a fantasy as our dream of Europe. To such people, it’s often hard to explain why for so many Americans, that past seems so necessary. We long to feel a connection to a history older than our own, and to the aspirations that “Europe” has always symbolized to us.
I never want to lose sight of that connection. So while I’m grateful for Wi-Fi and indoor plumbing, I still cling to my American Europe. I go to old museums. I love wandering through a baroque palace or crawling through a Neolithic cave. This is not the Europe that exists on a continuum with America, as different expressions of a single Western civilization, but the Europe that exists as a counterpoint, as an alternative. And if, to a large degree, this place is a fairy tale, a fiction, it has the reality that a great film or novel has. We need it in the same way that we need art itself — to help us rearrange our minds, to make us see the world differently.
I hope that all those visitors are imagining, even if only for a few days, some other way of thinking, some freedom from the expectations, about how to hold our silverware and how to see the world, that our own culture unconsciously imposes . I hope they’ll ignore the billboards and the fast food, and glimpse the different possibilities that Europe has always held out for us — of romance, of art, of another life.