She professed to love this country more than any other. But I sensed that for her, as for M. and Mme Verdurin, the great thing was not to contemplate the country as tourists, but to eat well there, to receive guests they liked there, to write letters there, to read there, in short to live there, passively allowing its beauty to bathe them, rather than making it the object of their attention.
Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah
These two sentences crystallize a modern dilemma: is it better to pass through or go native? Until I actually went native, the answer to that question was clear to me. I was, after all, a liberal American teenager, and to that particular demographic tourism means Hawaiian shirts and braying commentary on the size of the Eiffel Tower. We wince at this garish obviousness, our uniquely American brand of provincialism. The Proustian brand of aesthetic, ecstatic contemplation might not offend us, if it occurred to us, but it doesn’t: there is no middle ground between being authentic – being a native – and being a brightly-coloured travelling advertisement on the dangers of obesity and reality television. If you don’t want to be the latter you have to be the former; you have to make yourself belong somewhere new.
Like most things, our desire to leave the US behind for good is really about sex. The urgency of the American teenager’s sexual desires leads to a certain unpatriotic point of view. Where exactly are you supposed to have it? Cars are uncomfortable, and not everyone can afford one; parents rarely leave town, and there are only so many friends with convenient spare rooms in the basement, cocooned in silence. Between the stress over where to have sex and hurriedly having it, one ear cocked for the chastening footstep on the stair, the brain has room for one activity: imagining a place where this planning and snatching and being denied is unnecessary. A place where there are no puritan attitudes to stop you having sex whenever you want, even when you’re sixteen. The name of this place is Europe: the country of the American teenager’s imagination. (more...)