Every year between 10-12 million Americans visit Europe. Ever since independence it seems many Americans have been fascinated with the idea of a return to the land of their great-great-grandparents, even if just for a summer vacation. Even for those of us who don’t manage to traverse the skies for Europe, the longing for that other shore exists within us. This is especially evident in the diaspora communities that dot the American landscape. Irish, Italians, Croats, Serbs, Latvians, Poles, all of us celebrate the lands that once made our ancestors refugees ( I’m sure so do non-European Americans from Central or South America, Vietnam, the Philippines, China or Japan who want to glimpse their past homelands). Can our Croatian and European readers understand what it is like to have an imaginary connection to a place you’ve never been before? Beneath the buzz of life in America exists an idea tugging at the back of our consciousness. Deep down, there is, in every American, the half-hearted hope that we will one day return. While the constraints of finance, travel and language dampen the likelihood of an ancestral homecoming, we can still feel ourselves grasping for it. And so, some of us indulge our fate and come back, if not to our proper homeland then at least to a generalized equivalent, Europe.
Now for all this talk about vacationing Americans, like they are all on some noble voyage of soul searching, spend any amount of time (no matter how brief) among American tourists, and you’ll find that we mostly find Europe annoying. It is cramped, there is no ice in any of our drinks, no free refills, limits on air-conditioning, cigarette smoke everywhere, smelly public transport, too few McDonalds, crappy customer service, and a billion other little things that make HERE too different from THERE. Beneath a sheen of sweat, nursing our blistered feet and wishing to God we could get a 40.oz styrofoam cup of cold Dr. Pepper, we believe we finally understand why our great-great whoever got the hell out of here. And yet, we keep coming back.
Despite these superficial annoyances, Europe still holds a deeper fascination for Americans. It is easiest to understand the ‘wonders of Europe’ when you think about its age compared to the US. The age of stuff around Europe is just mind-boggling to us. For example, Zagreb is 1,000 years old. A. THOUSAND. That’s 900 years older than Oklahoma has even been a state. Split is like 2,000 years old. Paris? Old. London? Old. Rome? Super old. Athens? Hella old. The secret that attracts us to Europe’s agelessness is the mystery of its own persistence. The age difference between the US and Europe is so great that we are puzzled at how a language, culture, lifestyle, let alone the buildings, monuments, and streets that make each city’s geography, can endure for so long.
Not only is our country young, but most of us living in the US have only lived here a generation or two. Even when someone’s family tree goes all the way back to the Mayflower, the rest of the tree’s branches and roots are jumbled with immigrants who arrived not so long ago. Now, granted, this diversity is one of the US’s greatest strengths. I am proud of the fact that my ancestry consists of Irish, French, Italian and Prussian people. But, it also speaks to the fluid waves that have washed over our past, eroding it. In some ways we are but the flotsam and jetsam of great upheaval come to rest in a new land. By the very nature of our immigrant roots, the past is obscured. Everything in the US is then new(-ish).
In Croatia, on the other hand, I have a friend whose father has been able to trace his family tree back 400 years, IN THE SAME PLACE! Another friend (from Imotski no less) met someone when we were out and they both realized that their families had been friends for over 100 years! As kids they had both played in the same yard of the same two houses that all of their relatives had played and lived in for the last 100 YEARS! I can’t imagine that. Really. I’m torn between thinking that living in the same area for 400 years is either wonderful or incredibly boring. The bearing that such a long continuity can have one someone’s outlook is incomprehensible to me (and I imagine to most Americans). What is it like to have the same neighbors for 100 (or maybe even 400) years! (In the US, I move around every 3-4 years and usually try to avoid my neighbors as much as possible. Why make friends when you’re just going to move). Now imagine what these long and consistent relationships do for a society. Is this why there is so little street crime in Croatia and Europe? Because the criminal might easily know the victim or the victim’s uncle? Hell they could be related! I imagine there is some comfort or ease that comes with knowing some of the same families for over 100 years. Or at least knowing that you’ve all known each other for 100 years.
To us, Europe is Europe because it appears immutable, from its ancient ruins, medieval castles, to its enduring relationships. This fixedness is what we are longing for in the US. Our European dreams are to know what it is like to belong to a place, a culture, and history that is not as ephemeral as life in the US. I believe that a lot of the fear that grips American society is rendered, in part, by the absence of such permanence. The US is unique as a result of its dynamism, and yet when compared to Europe, it is easy to feel as if our time is but a blip on the screen of history. We fear it may be transient after all. So, some of us come back in hope that we can go forward.