Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

Downton Abbey Meets Invercargill

I just finished reading a great slice-of-life memoir a from a friend of mine in New Zealand. I lived in New Zealand from 1984 to 1986 and will always have a special place in my heart for that magical country “down under.” But what I’m loving about my friend’s memoir, The Boltons of the Little Boltons, is that it is a remembrance of the period of time in my friend’s life when he and his wife decided to move to the UK to become domestic servants to a wealthy, titled, English couple. They were successful writers in NZ who decided to have a Downton Abbey adventure (about twenty years before Julian Fellowes got his brainstorm.)

Like in the States, there is no class system in New Zealand so my friends, who are educated, well-travelled and professional people, had many significant adjustments and singular experiences (which, also, as it turned out, was brilliant material for a book!) I am loving the book and find myself so envious of their experience. Their children were grown and out of the nest when they had their adventure but, even so, England is a long, long way from New Zealand and their entire world.

As I read, I marvel at, not only their bravery (after all they are both intrepid and had lived in other parts of the world for extended periods of time so it wasn’t too much of a jolt for them in that way) but at their flexibility. It’s hard, after a certain age, to accept a wide range of inconveniences, which, I think, travel largely is. You have to be okay with strange beds, strange foods, lack of security in routine or routes, and a general fare of continual, relentless, surprise. When I was younger, that was the very thing I loved about travel—the not knowing, the surprises. Now, not so much. I hate how I’m so damn happy to crawl back into my own bed after a trip. Or how ecstatic I am to see the pets and the garden.

As it happens, I was a newlywed living in the Cotswolds while my Kiwi friends were being cooks and housemaids in London in 1991. They came down to our little cottage in Compton Abdale to see us—since a visit to either Atlanta or Auckland was harder to come by—and they told some of their “Upstairs-Downstairs” tales then. Actually, I might’ve been at a good age to do something similar, but just then I wasn’t “where they were.” They were empty nesters and I had yet to put the first egg in mine. Plus, I had just married and was keen to set up house and see the sights from that particular voyage first.

I think that’s the marvelous thing about memoirs—the re-living of a special time—a time that can never come again—can actually transport you in ways that no DC10 or Euro-rail system can. And if you write—or are lucky enough to share a memorable time with someone who does—you can recreate that time and go back there in vivid detail and living color over and over again. And when you do, inevitably you’ll meet and get to know all over again the most amazing people: not just loved ones who are no longer with us, but someone else who is no longer with us—your younger self.