Analysis & Comment

Opinion | I Live in the Europe of My American Dreams

When I used to reassure American visitors that everybody speaks English in the Netherlands, where I live, I meant that Dutch people spoke English. But these days, when I hear people speaking English in the streets of Amsterdam, it’s usually because they’re from Atlanta or Milwaukee or, like me, from Houston.

Europe is the most popular destination for American travelers this summer. The number of U.S. visitors was expected to jump 55 percent over last year, when people first started, post-Covid, to freely venture abroad again. There are Americans everywhere — more in some pockets than natives, who leave town in August for holidays of their own.

Why are they here? What are they looking for? I can’t speak for everyone, but I suspect that a lot of them are coming to look for the same things that I came looking for, more than half a lifetime ago. A couple of years after I graduated from college, I fell in love with a Dutch writer. I was young, bored in my job and ready to give the relationship a try. If he had been from Chicago, I would have gone to Chicago — but he was from the Netherlands, so I went to the Netherlands.

Unwittingly, I was following in the footsteps of generations of Americans before me who had come to “Europe”: a place that, though it has always existed for us, doesn’t quite exist for Europeans. It’s that mythical place where New World people come to lead different lives. For centuries, and no matter how much it has changed, Europe, for us, has meant art and architecture, science and philosophy, fashion and fame, sex and perfume — and some connection to the past that, in an unbridgeable way, is unavailable to us back home.

When I came here, I was disoriented. I was trying to be an adult; I was trying to be a writer; I was constantly, I felt, failing at both. And to add to my confusion, I had managed to turn myself into a foreigner. To come abroad is to understand yourself as a product of your own culture, and to see just how specific that culture is. So much of what I thought of as my personality — whatever made me different from other people — turned out to pale in comparison with what made me similar to other people, especially other Americans.

The size of the United States makes it hard to see outside it. Away from it, I realized that many things I thought of as normal are not, in fact, normal. Moving to Europe meant learning how to speak a new language, and not just the kind of language that can be taught in textbooks or classrooms. So many things that I had never thought about, like smiling at strangers or holding my fork with my right hand, suddenly became markers of a particular culture. Learning to live here meant mastering a grammar that gave me access to other ways to see — other ways to be. I wanted to learn that grammar. I didn’t want to be a clueless foreigner forever.

Eventually, I found guides in an unlikely place: in the museums of the Netherlands, where I discovered the dazzling constellation of artists of the age of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. I grew obsessed by what, I fancied, these Dutch artists were trying to tell me. They seemed to be asking the same questions I was. In their work and in the stories of their lives, I discovered answers to my own questions about family and money and career, about love and death and art. Why do we make art, and why do we need it? Who, and what, is an artist? What does it mean to have talent, and how can one develop whatever one has been given? How, in other words, is a person supposed to live?

But if I felt that they were guiding me through their country — and indeed my own life — I also realized that this was my foreigner’s fantasy. They had been dead for centuries. In the past nearly 400 years, their country, like every other country, had changed so much as to be unrecognizable. But I made up my mind to live in their world. This was because the longer I stayed in the Netherlands, the more familiar the country became to me. I often feared that I had learned the grammar a little bit too well.

I kept company with these artists, reading about them and writing about them, because I grew to miss the American’s fantasy, the foreigner’s eye. The longer I stayed, the easier so many practical things got. But time also dulled the brightness of my first impressions. The longer you stay in Paris, the harder it becomes to get excited about the Eiffel Tower — especially if you pass it on your way to the dentist. And I always thought that one advantage of being from Houston is that we New World people are far more impressed by a Gothic cathedral than someone from Utrecht or Milan can ever be.

Of course, in order to see Europe as palaces and museums and cathedrals, you have to drag out a huge mental eraser. You have to scrub away most of what Europe actually looks like. If you’re a visitor, you have to forget the airport where you arrived. You have to ignore the ugly freeway you drove on, the bland apartment blocks you passed, on the way to your modern hotel. And if you decide to stay longer, to make a life here, you have to press delete on the nasty politicians and the social tensions, the traffic and the hideous sprawl, that are as much a part of life here as they are anywhere else.

Still, the choice to see Europe as a collection of palaces and museums and cathedrals always seemed valid to me. There is no point in leaving home unless it’s to find something different. For a kid from Texas, contact with old buildings and old paintings seemed vital in a way that I’m pretty sure not all Europeans understand. Many would just as well sweep that past away and dream of coming to America in search of a country that is just as much of a fantasy as our dream of Europe. To such people, it’s often hard to explain why for so many Americans, that past seems so necessary. We long to feel a connection to a history older than our own, and to the aspirations that “Europe” has always symbolized to us.

I never want to lose sight of that connection. So while I’m grateful for Wi-Fi and indoor plumbing, I still cling to my American Europe. I go to old museums. I love wandering through a baroque palace or crawling through a Neolithic cave. This is not the Europe that exists on a continuum with America, as different expressions of a single Western civilization, but the Europe that exists as a counterpoint, as an alternative. And if, to a large degree, this place is a fairy tale, a fiction, it has the reality that a great film or novel has. We need it in the same way that we need art itself — to help us rearrange our minds, to make us see the world differently.

I hope that all those visitors are imagining, even if only for a few days, some other way of thinking, some freedom from the expectations, about how to hold our silverware and how to see the world, that our own culture unconsciously imposes . I hope they’ll ignore the billboards and the fast food, and glimpse the different possibilities that Europe has always held out for us — of romance, of art, of another life.

Benjamin Moser is the author of the forthcoming book “The Upside Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters.”

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