To an American, Europe is a cautionary tale. From Jefferson’s warning that when we “get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall be as corrupt as Europe” to Madison’s explanation that separation of church and state was the only way to avoid “the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries,” the Founding Fathers used the Continent to signify everything our new nation was not. A century later the Gilded Age’s yearning for cultural validation complicated matters, requiring a Henry James or an Edith Wharton to do justice to the shifting balance of social insecurity, moral superiority, confidence and naïveté. But even the most starry-eyed grand tourist knew they were traveling backwards in time. Well into the last century, Europe was the “old world,” a fading catalogue of postcard views and primitive plumbing where Americans came to lose their innocence.
This was still true in 1977, when I first lived in Europe as a student. Parisian literary theory may have been avant-garde, but French public phones seldom functioned (and still required a jeton, a slotted token), hot showers were a luxury and the future, from architecture to music to technology, was Made in the USA. Italy and Spain seemed even more backward–vast gorgeous museums where you could look at art, eat and drink incomparably well and admire the past, but where the train stations were tiny islands of modernity. The Italian lira was in perpetual free fall–a Roman friend told me the chewing gum and candy I was usually given in lieu of small change was worth more than the coins–and Spain was just emerging from Franco’s suffocating embrace. When I arrived in Madrid the Communist Party was still illegal; back in Paris the newly elected mayor was a right-wing Gaullist named Jacques Chirac. France’s president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, was also a conservative, as were the leaders of Italy and Germany–West Germany, that is. In England, where I came to study a few years later, all the Americans at my college were put in the same building–the only one with central heat. None of my student friends had cars or telephones, and the pay phones were even worse than in France. Public anger over the lack of heat–and electricity–for days at a time during a coal strike helped bring down Britain’s Labour government and usher in Thatcherism, a genuine European innovation, if not a welcome one.
When did Europe’s olde curiosity shoppe turn cutting edge? For Timothy Garton Ash the seminal event was the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989. A British journalist who reported extensively on the rise of Solidarity and the collapse of the Soviet empire, Garton Ash has come a long way since the early 1980s, when he found the German Green Party’s pacifism far more alarming than anything Ronald Reagan was up to. Garton Ash’s unmitigated delight at the demise of “actually existing socialism” may be hard for some Nation readers to take, but his perception that the end of the cold war severed many of the ties that bound Europe so firmly to America is surely correct. (Longtime Nation readers may recall that E.P. Thompson predicted precisely such a drifting apart once European politics were allowed to thaw.)
Culturally the traffic across the Atlantic has been two-way for rather longer. Even in 1977, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou announced an architecture firmly rooted in European soil, one that no longer took America’s post-World War II dominance for granted. Punk rock in Britain shared little more than a name with its American cousin; Barcelona reinvented its Ramblas without even a glance at Broadway. But as long as Soviet tanks faced west, Europe was obliged to huddle together under Uncle Sam’s nuclear umbrella.