Europe and I are Growing Up

November 22, 2007

I still remember my first trip to Europe. I had just turned six and finished kindergarten.

It was the first time I remember flying on an airplane—back when flying was still fun. It was a huge 747, 10 seats across. They gave us toiletry kits, with mini toothpaste, toothbrush, and little red LTU/LTS slippers (which I kept, of course. I kept everything). Wow, that was ages ago. I don’t think LTU/LTS even exists anymore and I doubt that any airline hands out slippers and toothbrushes in coach. Flying used to be an adventure and a luxurious experience. That was before Pan Am flight 103, before 9-11. I was naïve back then. I think we all were.

I remember my first grapefruit-flavored Orangina drink, at an outdoor pool in Switzerland. I remember the strange onion-shaped bottle, which was labeled in all kinds of different languages that I had never seen and couldn’t understand. It was so exotic, and so good! I think my brother and I drank it at every meal from then on. I remember driving (in a very tiny VW Golf) through Basel, and watching the languages and accent marks on the signs change as we drove from France, to Switzerland, to Germany.

To me, Europe was this exotic place where countries were smashed on top of each other. In the time it would take us to drive across Pittsburgh, we could cross through three countries. Each place had its own language, its own currency, its own way of writing “Basel.” I was completely fascinated. I kept Coke cans because they were written in French, napkins with German writing. My dad would give me a few coins from each of the countries we visited.

I still have that foreign coin collection, full of now extinct European currencies.

I used some of those coins when I came back to Europe by myself during college in 1999. I remember traveling with all of the different currencies- French, Belgian and Swiss francs, German marks and Austrian schilling, tucked away in a handful of ziplock baggies. When I crossed the border into a new country, I would empty my wallet into a baggie, and then fill it with the new currency from another baggie. (I am suddenly thinking that “baggie” isn’t a real word, but a figment of my distorted language skills. The longer I stay in Germany, the worse my English becomes…)

I remember border controls. I remember being scared shitless when I crossed through Slovakia and a soldier with a huge gun came onto the train and barked something at me. I gave him my passport, which seemed to please him. He gave me a stamp and moved on.

Ha! Passport stamps! A thing of the past! Now everyone can travel around Europe freely. No more scary border controls, no more passport stamps, and no need for a currency-baggie system; just about everywhere has the Euro. Even in the euro-hole that is Switzerland, many stores accept the money.

I think a lot of people feel nostalgic about the “old” Europe. I overhear people talking about it occasionally. People miss the passport stamps and the different kinds of money (especially the French, whose money featured the cartoon Little Prince from the famous Saint-Exupery book). To a certain extent, the national identities of Europe have been shoved aside to make way for a greater European identity.

Some people may argue about this, but I definitely think that the idea of a “European Identity” is catching on. Perhaps I notice it more because I’m not part of this exclusive club. Every time I come here (1998, 1999, 2000, 2003-04, 2006 and now in 2007-08), I feel more and more American. I think part of that is a reaction to what is being constructed as “European.”

Part of this evolution is on my end. I am older, smarter and more comfortable with myself. When I was 18, I was less confident and not sure exactly what it meant for me to be “American.” Now, I clearly identify myself as American and I am also proud to do so. That doesn’t mean I love everything about my country and agree with everything my government does, but I have accepted that growing up there has shaped who I am and how I think about things.

I have matured, but so has Europe. The construction of a shared European identity is intentional, supported by programs like Erasmus, where students from EU countries can study for a semester or more in any other EU country. It reminds me of a fraternity or sorority that builds solidarity among its members by being exclusive. The members of the “in” club get privileges (in the case of a fraternity, free beer and job connections; in the case of Erasmus, scholarships and less bureaucratic hassle), while the non-members are left having to wait and pay.

As a result, there is a spurbar separation between the Erasmus students and the other internationals. For example, during the orientation for international students, we were always separated into two groups: EU citizens and non-EU citizens. All the Italians, Poles, Czechs, French, Swedes on one side, the Americans, Russians, Chinese and Turks on the other. The Europeans versus the Non-Europeans. I’m not saying we don’t interact with each other (my best friend here is Swedish), but there is a noticeable difference in perspectives and opinions. It comes out when we talk about things like paying for higher education, taxes, or views on foreign policy.

This has changed since I started coming to Europe. For example, when I spent a summer in France in 1999, I lived in a French student dorm, and there were a bunch of Irish kids on my floor. Back then, I think I felt a strong bond with the Irish, not only because of language, but also because we had the common experience of NOT being French. Now, I think this has changed. Eight years later, I think the Irish and the French have more in common. They share a currency, a political system, and, to a certain extent, an identity as European that is growing stronger all the time.

I think the Iraq war has also played a large role in this divide. Before that, people were much more excited to meet me as an American. They wanted to know where I was from and what it was like there so they could go visit someday. People liked me because they liked “America.” Now, sometimes, it feels like the opposite is true. They disapprove of Bush, of the U.S, and by association, of me. I think fewer people these days are begeistert by the U.S. and would rather go somewhere in Europe, or perhaps somewhere more exotic, like Australia or South America. The decreasing numbers of students applying for scholarships like Fulbright to study in the U.S. shows this to be true. I can’t say I blame them. I’m just amazed at how things have changed in the last eight years.

George Bush and his administration have contributed greatly to European integration by giving Europeans a common (political) enemy: us. It seems that Europe wants to set itself apart from the U.S., and our “environmental” and military policies. By uniting to follow a different, Non-American path, I believe Europeans will grow closer to each other.

The idea of building a united “Europe” is still absolutely amazing to me. When I read about the evolution of the EU, I am baffled by what has been accomplished in the last 50 years. When my parents were born, all of the different countries in Europe were at each others’ throats, killing people to establish borders. When my mother was my age and studying in Europe, she had to cross the Berlin Wall to visit her sister in East Germany. By the time I’m ready to have kids of my own, it will be during a period of cooperation in a unified Europe, without walls, where the borders are slowly melting away.

It will be interesting to see what Europe (and I) will be like in another ten years. Ich bin gespannt.

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