Monday, September 8, 2008

Love-Hate Relationship with Europe

I'm trying to get around to posting some pictures of fabulous paintings seen in Vienna, but for today let me just say that you really can sit for hours in a cafe and nurse a single cup of coffee.

The pink thing on the table is friend Ed's dangerous dessert; mine is the more modest one in front, with the large glass of latte. (Picture of rest of cafe to the left.)

I'm glad I went to Vienna, even though sightseeing is awfully wearying. It was my first time on the continent (aside from a trip to western Ireland last summer for a week of mountain walking) since the year 2000. After September 11, 2001, I didn't feel like getting on an airplane for a long time. Then, as time passed, I found myself more and more irritated by the anti-Americanism to be found in European newspapers. By the time I went to Vienna, I was feeling pretty negative about Europeans. Friends of mine were doing research in Vienna, and, when they heard I had never been to Austria -- despite having a Ph.D. in German literature -- they invited me to stay with them. So, it was a case of cultural tourism.

But, as I said, I am glad I went, because I found myself encountering all the things that had once charmed me about Europe and had been important to me when I was a young woman of eighteen to twenty years of age. Vienna (though surprisingly different from Germany: there is that Habsburg imperial background) likewise offers that mix of a long cultural tradition with a way of life that is simply not American. When I arrived on a Saturday morning, the day after the Annunciation (a holiday in Austria), the city was simply closed down. (If Friday is a holiday, then so is Saturday.) And Vienna is a city of one and a half million. (At the height of the Habsburg Empire, in 1910, it was the fourth largest city in the world, with over 2 million population.) I'm not going to compare the U.S. with Europe here; suffice it to say, I appreciate the custom of not doing business on a religious holiday.

My first year in Germany, when I was eighteen, young and uninformed, I used to think that I would be happy living there or indeed in a foreign country. I never took to Japan, of course, where I lived for several years. As I said, this time back in Europe I liked the way of life, but there now remains too much that is simply alien to my taste. When you find the advertisements in the subway strange, you know you are a stranger. I have not aged spending my afternoons sitting in cafes. I have lived for decades in a city that never sleeps. That shapes one's mentality.

I recently had some correspondence with the managing editor of The Complete Review's literary blog (called The Literary Saloon), who objected to my way of talking about "Europeans." I think what I most object to about Europeans is that they take their way of life for the natural state of affairs, without realizing that the ability to sit in cafes is actually a kind of inheritance, like the objects in museums. Are Europeans willing to fight to preserve what their forefathers have made possible for them to enjoy?

Thus, my love-hate relationship with Europe.

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