It’s a quiet, early Sunday morning in Lyon. I probably should head down to the baker, buy a couple of perfectly balanced crust and crumb baguettes and get my day started. I looked outside my window and all I see is fog. I didn’t even know fog existed this far inland. I take in a pasty white ambling mass of fuzziness and cold just hovering above and beyond the houses a short distance from my window. I can’t see towards Lyon’s downtown like I usually can.
I got up early this morning to make sure that our new friends, Amber and Michael, got out ok. They’re roaming Europe for a few months before they take over running the Pastorius Haus in Bad Windsheim, Bavaria (Southern Germany). They’re a 29-year-old married couple from Ohio and Iowa (although they’ve spent the last four years in Arkansas) who uprooted themselves at the opportunity to become houseparents (read: managers) of a small, non-profit 50-bed house named for Francis Daniel Pastorius, a 17th-18th century German immigrant to America who founded Germantown, Pennsylvania. They take over in January 2009 and will be there “for at least a year.”
There’s this strange romanticism that even we are guilty of having about Europe, which in some ways is sort of the reverse of the romanticism that probably Pastorius and other European immigrants to the US had back in the day. Europe is a land that’s largely figured it out. Everyone gets high-quality quasi-free health care and education. There are bike-sharing programs, and trains that run across entire nations in mere hours, and when they don’t, they connect right to the airport. Sure, there are problems, but overall, there’s this idea that things just make sense here, and that there’s an unparalleled joie de vivre fueled by French wine, German bread, Polish sausage, Dutch cheese, Belgian beer, Italian olives, Greek beaches, Austrian pastries, British music, Croatian coastline, Estonian forests and Finnish vodka.
When we actually come here, and see for ourselves, the surface cracks a little bit. How is it that our students have studied English for eight years and can’t string a sentence together? What’s up with the constant strikes? Why is every shop closed on Sunday, and 2-3 hours in the middle of the day? And why does every bureaucratic office require half a dozen photos to fill out any form?
I’m sure the reverse is true. Why don’t Americans get more vacation? Why does our bread suck so bad? Why does it take 12 hours to ride a train 400 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco? Why are Americans so fat and gun-crazy?
To Europeans, it’s shocking that we had slavery until the 1860s and racist laws until well into the 20th century. To us, it’s astonishing that Europe doesn’t know how to apply the lessons of multiculturalism and Obama’s campaign to its own societies. French magazines couldn’t believe it: “Could he lose because he’s black?” To Europeans, America represents creativity, inventiveness, openness, popular culture and at the same time, atrocious poverty and racism bubble to the surface during and after events like Hurricane Katrina of 2005 or the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. Meanwhile, Americans are slowly learning how Europe brushes its inter-ethnic and inter-religious problems with a broad veneer of secularism and the theory that everyone is all the same, or at least should be. Oh, and don’t pay any attention to those Muslims.
But those baguettes. Dude, those baguettes.