Europeans Head to the U.S. to Learn About Life

SAN FRANCISCO -- It used to be that Americans -- bohemians and millionaires, intellectuals and socialites -- needed to go to Europe to learn about life. Europe the old country, Europe the American obsession, Europe the fatherland.You do not have to be of European ancestry to feel its hold on the American imagination. All my life, for example, my literary imagination has been focused on Europe. Only lately have I bothered to notice that the best books in English about Mexico have been written by British writers. American writers did not write about Mexico or Canada or Australia.Traditionally, if an American writer ventured beyond our borders, he ventured to Europe -- inevitably so, oddly so. Inevitably, because for most of our history, we have thought of ourselves as being a country derived from Europe. But oddly so, because the U.S. was founded in rebellion against an overbearing British crown and the old aristocratic order.By the late-nineteenth century, immigrants from Germany and Italy and Sweden fled to Ellis Island, escaping European poverty. But if Europe was the old country, America the new, immigrants found themselves in a place that seemed to have no history, no memory, therefore no knowledge of life. We Americans judged ourselves inexperienced.When Mark Twain, our most self-conscious American writer, transported his literary persona to Europe, he portrayed himself as an "innocent abroad." Henry James wrote novels about young heroines, with names as fresh as Daisy Miller, who got ensnared in cynical European drawing rooms.But still Americans went. The newly rich from Pittsburgh and Chicago took "the grand tour," hoping to buy experience, to learn sophistication. To this day, Americans grow flustered by haughty French waiters, and Cary Grant's middle class British accent sounds mighty grand to our American ears.Recently, when the story of Monica Lewinsky broke, I'd hear people criticizing their fellow Americans for a lack of sophistication. People said, after all, in Europe sexual matters are of little concern. Just look at what happened when the French president died. His wife and his mistress were both at his funeral.Europe, the sophisticate. America, the yokel.In truth, the 20th century has not been a good one for European moral superiority. Twice within forty years, Europe devoured itself. Europe gave the world Hitler and Stalin, Mussolini and Franco.In the aftermath of World War II, one sensed a decline of Europe in the American imagination, until today we easily recognize that America is a global society, not just Europe's invention. With that confidence, American pop culture has grown dominant in the world.At the other end of this century, the American writer, Gertrude Stein, living in Paris, described the city of Oakland, California, as having "no there there." Today, I do not know of any young Americans who dream of going to Paris to become writers. But I know young Africans in Paris who take their cues from Afro-American Oakland.In the last fifty years, we have come to be seen by people all over the world as too powerful to be able to pass ourselves off as innocents. Curiously enough, as the century ends, Europeans are inclined to play the innocent, and they regard us as the contaminating other.A few months ago, on British radio, an interviewer kept badgering me, blaming America -- our music, our movies -- for the rising crime rate in London (gangs, guns, graffiti).Roles have changed. As the century ends, young and not-so-young Europeans head for New York and Los Angeles, especially L.A., to become screen writers and directors. German and Italian tourists -- sometimes called "Euro-trash" by jaded Americans -- head for decadent San Francisco or Miami.In truth, there isn't much moral difference between San Francisco and Berlin. "The only difference," a German friend of mine says, "is that sin has a sharper tang in San Francisco, because you Americans still like to imagine yourselves morally innocent."PNS editor Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Days of Obligation" and essayist for the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

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