by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - August 15, 2011) Europe never changes. Yeah and hurray! Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it never changes as quickly as the U.S. changes. That's the beauty of Europe -- the slowness of time and of change. You can count on the Seine being there in the same place, along with Notre Dame, croissants, Le Monde, and in Spain, bull fighting, tapas, and the Prado Museum in Madrid, though the Nazis bombed it during the Spanish Civil War, which began 75 years ago in 1936. I wanted to remember the occasion this past July, during a month-long stay in Spain and in France, but my French friend, Jean-François, said, "What's there to remember or celebrate? There's only grieving."
One evening, for a couple of hours we sat and watched a new documentary about the Civil War on Spanish TV and we were both disappointed. There were shots of fascist planes dropping bombs on Madrid, but there were also shots of communists and anarchists looting churches and burning crucifixes. Both sides were at fault, the filmmakers argued. They were both extremists. Curiously, the filmmakers never used the "dirty" words "fascist" or "fascism." "Franquistas" was the term they used to describe the Franco forces and their allies. In a way, the Spanish are still fighting over the Spanish Civil War, and maybe they always will. That's the nature of civil wars. Generations later, the descendants of the original combatants continue to wage cultural and ideological warfare, though they don't drop bombs anymore.
For a month, I didn't see, hear, or talk to another American. When I finally came face-to-face with a tall, lanky fellow American, and from California, too, I was sorry I had. We were at CDG on an Air France plane ready to leave Paris for San Francisco. The first thing he said to me was, "Did you steal my newspaper?" When he stood up to look around he noticed that he'd been sitting on his copy the whole time. I know it's not fair to generalize about Americans on the basis of one American. But I've been to Europe enough times to have encountered dozens of Americans there, and they're almost all ugly, absurd, and pompous like the Americans in Woody Allen's movie, Midnight in Paris. If you can help it, don't sit next to an American on a 12-hour flight.
For the month of July, I didn't hear much news of the U.S. either; European papers offered news of Europe not America, and so America seemed to shrink, to become smaller and smaller, and not to be at the center of the world. What a relief that was.
The first time I went to Europe it was 1961 -- 50 years ago -- and I was 19 and just discovering literature. There were no credit cards then, no cell phones or Euros, either. We used American Express travelers checks, francs, and lire, and we sent telegrams if we had to reach a friend or relative back home. You might say those are all big changes. I say they're merely superficial. Europeans still sit in cafés for hours, smoking cigarettes, sipping tiny cups of strong black coffee, and talking, too, about small things and big things. Europe hasn't changed, though there's talk of the crisis in Greece, and the potential crisis in Portugal and Spain.
I didn't meet a single European who behaved as though there was a crisis, though the headlines in all the major European papers screamed "crisis." It was summer; families were on vacation or setting out for vacation. Shops were closed for the month, or preparing to close for August. Even workers who were unemployed -- and even the "indignants," as they're called and who marched to Madrid to protest unemployment -- took time out from their indignation about the economic and political crisis to sit, smoke, drink, and talk.
Moreover, even when their elected leaders urged them to adopt austerity measures, to tighten their belts, they weren't listening. It isn't possible anymore for Europeans to be austere and to reject joie de vivre, which is a way of life. It's too late for austerity, just as it was too late in 1793 to turn back the hands of time to France before the revolution, though reactionaries wanted to do just that.
On my first visit in 1961, Paris was sweet and cheap, too. For $5 a day, I had a room in a hotel in the Latin Quarter and ate three meals a day. The French were still in Algeria and you could hear the sound of explosives and machine guns. Henry Miller's novels -- Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn -- were still banned in the U.S. but you could buy them at Shakespeare & Co., the legendary bookstore along the Seine that's still there, a kind of monument to the bohemian life -- la vie bohème. I saw my first Humphrey Bogart films in Paris in 1961, and they changed my notions about film and America. I'm talking about The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, of course.
For Europeans, Europe doesn't have the same appeal it once had. They're more likely now than in 1961 to turn to world music, and to wear American style caps and T-shirts, like the farmer I met in Galicia in his stone barn who wore a T-shirt that said, "The West was won in Levis," and who was wearing a pair of faded Levis himself. Forty-three years old, he had never left the village in which he was born and raised and didn't want to. But he was unusual. He belongs to a Europe that's older than the Europe I discovered in 1961, a Europe of stonewalls, stone barns, and stone houses made from the stones in the old, old earth itself.
In a bookstore in Burgos, in Spain, which was swollen with tourists, most of them Spanish, I met a young woman named Sol who spoke near-perfect English, like many of her generation, because some 20 or so years ago English supplanted French as the second language. Sol studied English in school, but she perfected it in San Francisco, and she told me she wanted to go back as soon as she could. Europe was too solid and inflexible for her, and she felt she couldn't alter her identity in Borgos, where she was born and raised, or anywhere else in Europe either.
"There is so much weight of tradition here for me," she explained. "There's my family and the church, and my friends and teachers. It wasn't until I went to San Francisco that I felt really free, and that I could be myself, discover my own identity, and be true to it."
So, in the end, I wasn't as critical of my own country as I might have been had I not met Sol, who seems representative of the new Europe, the Europe that speaks English and doesn't mind English, the Europe that's been to California and that has reveled in its freedoms. I guess Europe has changed after all, and after all these years.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)