American in Europe: Marilyn Sands' OC

I logged onto Our Salon just now, for the first time in days, and saw marilyn sands' delightful post and Open Call about the biggest culture shock you had in Europe.  After years of traveling and living here, mine remains the one I wrote about in a post on Open back in 2013, shortly after my brother and his future wife (side note: they just had a baby a few days ago so now I am an aunt!) came to visit and we took a long trip to several European countries/cities:

American in Europe

I’ll admit it -- in addition to safe and wonderful travels, there was something else I was hoping for during my brother and his fiancée’s trip to Europe: that they’d fall in love with one of the cities we were visiting, and decide to stay.

One of the hardest things about living abroad is that I’m so far from my family.  And my brother has always been more than just family – he and I get along so well, that I’ve always considered him a friend, too.  What could be better than to have someone whose company I enjoy so much go from being across the Atlantic, to just a short flight or a few hours’ train travel away, at most?  And it wouldn’t be so hard for this dream to become a reality: A few years ago, my family found out that we’re eligible for Italian citizenship through my maternal grandfather, and my brother has been planning to start the application process for a while now.  He also works for a company that often has openings in their international offices. 

I don’t think I ever figured my brother would want to live in Paris. This city doesn’t seem like the right fit for my jovial, easygoing sibling.  But maybe somewhere in Italy would capture his and his fiancée’s hearts.  Or maybe clean, pretty, open-minded Amsterdam would be the winner. 

But while they appreciated most of the places we visited, I quickly came to realize that European life isn’t for them. 

"I AMsterdam": Sadly, this wasn't the case for my brother and his fiancée.


It's said that when you travel, you learn who you are.  Sometimes, travel even makes you realize where you belong.  I don’t mean this in a metaphorical way - although that can be the case, too - but literally.  When I first came to Paris, for example, I knew almost immediately that this was where I wanted, even needed, to live.  This city suits me.  It feels like home.  My brother and his fiancée could see many alluring things about life in the places we visited.  But they never felt that pull.  Instead, America seemed better to them than ever before.

My family’s never been particularly patriotic.  We might love our country, and feel pride sometimes, but we’ve never been the type of people to hang an American flag outside, or weep during the national anthem.  But that’s not what makes you an American.

There are different kinds of people in America, of course, but I think there is something that’s in almost all of our characters.  When I was younger, I remember reading Interview with the Vampire  and being struck by how Anne Rice described the vampires of Europe and the vampires of America.  Rice portrays the former as alluring and clever, albeit backwards-thinking and resistant to change – even if it means their own peril.  American vampires, on the other hand, are more independent, more opportunistic, more willing to change with the times.  Living in France has taught me that this doesn’t just hold true for fictional monsters. 

My mom used to tell me stories about one of my great-grandmothers, who would stubbornly insist, in her heavy Italian accent, “I’m not a greenhorn!”  She was ready to adapt to a completely different culture and lifestyle, no looking back.  Recently, I listened to great-aunt recall how her own parents, devout Eastern European Jews, dealt with the discovery of Chinese food when they came to the United States: My great-grandfather fell in love with the local Chinese restaurant’s lobster, despite its not being kosher, and my great-grandmother would let him eat it, but outside their house only.

In France, I’ve been struck by how people can act the opposite way.  Whereas Americans constantly look for the bigger and the better (to good and bad results), in many situations, Europeans often seem to settle into routine and accept whatever inconvenience or discomfort might come with it.  There are and have been strikes and revolutions here, but when it comes to everyday issues, not much is typically done, and when it is, change is usually long in coming.  Here in France, for example, people who build large houses often only have one bathroom, insisting that more than that is unnecessary. Air conditioning is a luxury in most Parisian apartments, and even ceiling fans are viewed with wariness and incomprehension, despite everyone having to go through uncomfortably hot summer days. 

In one of my art history classes in college, a professor tried to explain Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal with a false signature on it – in the context of everyday life in Europe. 


(image source) 

“Indoor plumbing was just becoming common,” she said, “and exposed pipes were everywhere.  Perhaps Duchamp wanted to elevate that to the level of art.”  Though a hundred years have passed since Fountain’s debut at the New York Armory show, unless homeowners have money and a modern sense of style, exposed pipes are still frequently the norm in Paris today. We recently had renovation work done on our apartment.  Here’s the new water heater the construction workers installed in our WC:


 This isn’t a “work in progress” picture; for most Parisians, including the workers and my boyfriend, this is the final stage (well, unless you choose to paint the pipes the same color of the wall, which we did). 

There are situations here – from the look of furnishings and amenities, to different ideas of customer service and convenience (nowhere in Europe will you find a 24-hour Wal-Mart, much to my chagrin), that would be unacceptable in most places in the States.  Though they loved the cities they saw, and were especially charmed by Florence, Siena, Sorrento, and Amsterdam, my brother and his fiancée couldn’t turn a blind eye to these things.  “I like it here,” my brother mused over a fresh croissant and a mug of coffee from the boyfriend’s Moka pot, “but it also really makes me miss things in the US.  It’s so easy there.”

And so, when I said goodbye to them a few days ago, I knew that when they said they’d come back, it was only a future visit they were talking about, not a future life.  They’d come here as young, maybe uncertain adults, but they left very much Americans. 

As for me, that same Moka pot makes my mind wander to Cézanne’s portrait of his wife.  I get annoyed about those uncovered pipes, but then I think of Paris, just outside, and I forget everything else. 

Travel makes us learn about ourselves, and these travels have made me realize more than ever that I’m not really much of an American.  I do long for convenience and comfort, and my heart aches to be back with my family and childhood friends.  But when I try to really imagine living there again, I can’t.  How do people do it, I find myself thinking, working with only two weeks’ vacation a year, and no universal healthcare, and good food being so expensive, and foreign countries to discover so far away? 

I guess in some ways I’m like those ancestors of mine who didn’t leave the Old Country; maybe, from time to time, worry came to them like wisps of smoke on the air: Should I have gone?  Should I have tried?  - before they shrugged and went back to their lives, happily following the old ways, tied to history, for better or for worse, as their soon-to-be American cousins and brothers and sisters never would be again.

Still, that doesn't mean I've completely returned to my roots.  I still get frustrated that things like air conditioning and acceptance of IBS aren't as widespread here, and annoyed that people in many European countries just seem to accept inconveniences like excessive paperwork, strikes, and leaky pipes - or, at least, or slow to change them.

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Comment by koshersalaami on May 16, 2016 at 6:58am

Yes, it's easy, but there's a big tradeoff, one that you don't personally get to take advantage of, though the boyfriend does (so you do vicariously in a way). That's continuing to reside in a community with nearby family, the whole It Takes A Village thing. Some ethnicities do that here, particularly if immigrants are still running things. You see this in Italian and Greek communities. But here, we follow jobs hundreds of miles from family. The closest family either my wife or I have is over a four hour drive from here. We're about to move, and the closest family will be a little farther (the closest close family - I'll have cousins within three and a half hours). Family/community is a big thing to sacrifice, ultimately I'd say probably an illogical thing. 

Comment by Jeanne Sathre on May 16, 2016 at 8:27am

I think a lot of people spend their lives looking for the place they belong. You've been lucky, Alysa, Open pipes and all.

Comment by nerd cred on May 16, 2016 at 9:23am

My American house has surface pipes in the one bathroom ... The house must have been built without indoor plumbing (1913.) Wait, there's a bathroom in the basement I rarely use, or only as a lav - added more recently but still, pipes on the walls. Not copper and painted pre-me. I like copper pipes.

That's the thing, most American houses are built with indoor plumbing, many Euro ones not. I bet you could have got someone to open the wall so the plumbers could hide the pipes, then close it up again. But probably not the plumbers, you'd have had to hire - and pay - someone else.

I saw Michael Moore's who to invade next this weekend. It makes me think there are different things Euros will pay for that Americans don't think of. Like many weeks of paid time off the job, holidays, universal medical care. (And OMG the school lunches which would be called "goormay" here but cost less than we spend on junk food for our kids.)

I know, that's not the point of your piece which is deeper and more meaningful. But that's where my thoughts go as I gear up for improving this old house. And inescapable politics in this election season.

Comment by marilyn sands on May 16, 2016 at 3:43pm

Alysa - thanks for responding to the Open Call & the shout out to mine! 

Enjoyed your view.  You might agree; so much acclimation & acceptance to living outside anyone's "home" country has to do with someone's age, marital & financial status & which decade you arrive & depart, if at all.  For me; it was the very first time I had ever traveled out of the U.S. & as hard as it was - it was the greatest experience & have many wonderful stories to tell.  R&L


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