Why Americans Love Europe
For as long as there’s been an America, Americans have been flocking to Europe. From the moment our colonial compatriots escaped that oppressive old museum-piece of a continent, they began plotting their return on a 10-country all-inclusive tour. We still call it “The Continent,” as if there weren’t a half-dozen others. Sure, counter-intuitive types will stray off now and then on some exotic fling—to Brazil, New Zealand, Japan—but is it ever quite the same? Our fantasy landscapes will always be planted with Dutch tulips, Italian cypress, and Provençal lavender.
Some say we’re drawn to Europe because so many of our ancestors came from there. They’ll tell you Americans and Europeans retain a “common bond.” But come on—look at them. Look at us. We say potato, they say ziemniak. They say Campari, we say Tequiza. We could not be more different.
Though their influence has waned considerably, Europeans had quite a run for a while, inventing democracy, the printing press, gravity, and Krautrock. No wonder Americans have a long-standing inferiority complex. As soon as we set foot on the Continent, we lose all our powers, like Superman returning to Krypton, or Rudy Giuliani to New York. Our basic verbal skills fail us. Our ATM cards, mobile phones, and hair dryers cease to work. Our daunting American swagger is reduced to a tentative “mi scusi.”
Of course, historically speaking, we’re barely teenagers by comparison. Americans in Europe tend to feel like the gawky, wide-eyed prepubescent visiting the hip older sibling—the prodigal brother who learned to smoke unfiltered cigarettes and habituate subterranean jazz clubs. (Jazz! For crying out loud, they play it more than we do—and we invented it!)
So what explains our unwavering obsession? Why—in spite of rising airfares, a still-high exchange rate, and the scarcity of rental cars with automatic transmission—do Americans insist on vacationing in Europe?
Well, because it’s Europe. And it’s awesome. Here are a few reasons why.
Everything is Adorably Small
The first thing that strikes an American visiting Europe is how improbably tiny everything is—not least Europeans themselves. Look at them: driving their puny Smart cars, sleeping in their minuscule hobbit beds, wearing size-XS shirts from Zara. The entire Continent is miniature-scaled: tiny soda bottles, tiny subway cars, tiny garbage trucks. It’s like Legoland with cigarettes. Can you blame us for wanting to collect every precious little piece?
They Appreciate Football
Until recently, only prep-schoolers and suburban four-year-olds played soccer in America. In Europe it’s a $21.6 billion sensation, and the only industry that doesn’t require a government subsidy. Whole 90,000-seat stadiums fill up with riotous, bloodthirsty fans. To nonbelievers “the beautiful game” resembles nothing more than an unsupervised kindergarten recess: OK, everybody just run around for an hour and a half, and occasionally stop to hug! Olé, olé, olé! But for Europeans—far more sensitive to subtlety and nuance—those 90 minutes are the most sacred and profound of the week.
The Fashion? Incredible
The birthplace of Camus, Beckett, and Ionesco, Europe has always been at home with absurdity. Nowhere is this proud legacy more evident than in the way European men dress. Seriously, have you ever seen an Italian in his native environment, left to his own sartorial devices? He will pair a Day-Glo-orange cycling jersey with a checked suit (double-breasted, of course) and ivory suede moccasins. He will swathe himself in a veritable gelato shop of pastels. He will make Björk look pragmatic. Yet around the planet, Italian men are revered for their fashion sense. Why? Because no matter how ridiculous they look, they are impervious to embarrassment. When you own your goofiness as Europeans do, the world is your catwalk.
Great Education for the Kids
Traveling to Europe is a fine way to expose your children to history, art, foreign languages, and prostitution. I was 10 when my parents first took me to Amsterdam. Walking to dinner the first night we passed a lady sitting in a window, dressed in what I took to be a not-very-convincing Catwoman costume. On her lap was a fluffy Siamese cat. A sign in the window said “$75 USD.”
“Can we buy him, Dad? Can we?” I begged. “Canwecanwe?”
“She’s not selling the cat,” he replied. And that was that.
Sex is no Big Deal
They put topless women in newspapers. They sunbathe in the nude. They’ve kept Silvio Berlusconi in office for 10 years. French President Nicolas Sarkozy married much younger former model, Carla Bruni—and both are rumored to have had affairs. In Europe, randiness is nothing to feel bad about. If anything, it’s a mark of sophistication. This is why, in French movies, devastatingly attractive 19-year-old women are always falling head-over-Chloé-heels for slovenly old sex-obsessed alcoholics. Who cares if they reek of pastis and stale tobacco? They’re so confident! So virile! So captivating!
The Miracle of European Cuisine
Having endured all manner of privation throughout history, Euros learned to survive by sifting through the bottom of the food chain. Hence their vestigial preference for hooves, tails, spleens, kidneys, and other odd bits. But here’s the rub: everything they cook is crazy-delicious. Even the calves’ intestines. You will never eat better calves’ intestines in your life. Nor better boiled sheep’s head, nor pressed ox tongue. The secret? Fantastic butter, and lots of it. Also? Everything tastes great when you’ve been drunk since noon.
Loads of Downtime
Europeans love whiling away the day at outdoor cafés. On the sidewalks of Athens, Marseilles, Milan, and Barcelona, you’ll see adult males—on the small side, sure, but by all other measures “grown-up”—doing nothing all afternoon but sipping espresso and reading newspapers/pornography. (The incredible thing about Europe is that, aside from soccer players and prostitutes, nobody else seems to have a job. If they do, they’re on strike.)
Then again, if you lived in Europe, you’d sit around drinking espresso all day too. The coffee is phenomenal. Even the skeeviest autostrada rest stop will serve you a perfect ristretto. Which is convenient, since coffee is about the only thing you can drink there if you don’t want to get plastered. Take it from me: There is nothing refreshing about anise-hazelnut soda.
It’s Surprisingly Cost-Effective
Europe gets flak for being expensive—and, granted, it can require a planeload of cash to get there in high season. But once you arrive, flying from Paris to Berlin costs less than a dinner and movie back home. Eighty cents will buy you the best baguette you’ve ever had. Wine is cheaper than orange juice. In many respects, Europe is a bargain. It’s just that the pricing structure is all back-assward, so things that ought to be affordable (a tank of gas; the London subway) cost an arm and a leg, while things that ought to be costly (tobacco; foie gras; health care) are dirt cheap or outright free.
So go on: smoke, drink, and gorge on foie gras with abandon. Join the throngs at a football match or a labor strike. Ogle topless pinups with impunity. Buy your-self a pair of pistachio-colored Italian sneakers. It’s Europe! Honestly, why go anywhere else?
Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.