Recently I had the good fortune to spend 12 days in Ireland, a country I had never visited but had always wanted to. Of course my gratitude is of the human kind: I wish it could have been longer. But I was not so ungrateful that I failed to drink the experience to the lees. For the second time in my life a place (Paris was the other) had outpaced my imagination—and my expectations were high to begin with. There is much to say about the trip and about Ireland, but that is for another time. It was a beautiful 12 days away from America and our dysfunction—and it answered a question I have asked myself for a long, long time: where do I want to live when I grow up?
Before I left I faced the inevitable questions from the curious and the judgmental. Why are you going? You don’t have a job and your wife is letting you holiday for 12 days—how’d you swing that? (Amusing side question from those askers: “What am I doing wrong?”) Ireland! Awesome! Where are you going when you’re there? Wait, what? You are visiting because you think you might to move there one day? Why? Why? Why?
If my trip depended on me getting those answers “right” it is unlikely I would have been able to go—there are no right answers. I could (and will) offer any number of concrete examples, but for as legitimate as those reasons are, it’s a mystery; I only know the desire is a part of me, as central to my existence as anything I have ever known. The dream formed early, and when I was younger it remained an unfocussed and romantic one, as childhood dreams tend to be. Like so many other young boys, I also wanted to be a professional baseball player. No, make that football! Nope, it’s baseball. Still, there’s basketball, too! And so, as expected, the dream drifted toward college and marriage and a career and all the rest—toward the real world, in other words.
As the years rolled on, however, my belief system evolved to encapsulate much of what Europe already offers. Each visit, admittedly seen thru the flawless frame of vacation, has only strengthened the dream. The European and US frames for living are largely similar, but the differences are stark nonetheless, and there is no point in examining them in great detail. Neither side will move the other to any real degree. That does not stop people from trying, however. Many of my American friends—and even some Europeans I have met over the years—tell me I view the situation with rose-coloured glasses. Live in Europe and you’ll find out, they say: life is better in the United States. In the past I have tried to defend myself with more vigour, but the truth is I’m not changing anyone’s mind, and they are not changing mine. Finally, though, at some point long after anything new has been said, someone will tell me to count my blessings: choosing between living in Europe or the United States is the very definition of privilege. You could have been born in (insert blighted country of your choice here). Fair enough. But what am I to do? I was lucky enough to be born in a western democracy, and that is all I can know. Instead of continuing a discussion that has lost what little value it had, I nod my head and say, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s a silly dream.”
But it’s not about right or not right. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of the life-is-better-in-the-USA camp have never visited Europe, let alone lived both here and there. How can they say with precision what they profess to know? How can I, for that matter? They can’t. I can’t. I can cite any of the examples above—and more—and cite the counter-arguments. But I still can’t know. As Milan Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.” But sometimes, and they are rare and therefore precious, I find a signpost. A whisper in the dark will pierce me, and the veil lifts. I see what ignites the flame, and the flame burns evermore.
Isabel took a drive, alone, that afternoon; she wished to be far away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread among the daisies. She had long before taken this old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could smile at it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion. But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where people suffered. This was what came to her in the starved churches, where the marble columns, transferred from pagan ruins, seemed to offer her a companionship in endurance, and the musty incense to be a compound of long-unanswered prayers… She still occasionally found herself alone when it suited her mood, and where it suited the place. On such occasions she had several resorts; the most accessible of which perhaps was a seat on the low parapet which edges the wide grassy space lying before the high, cold form of St. John Lateran; where you look across the Campagna at the far-trailing outline of the Alban Mount, and at that mighty plain between, which is still so full of all that has vanished from it…The carriage, passing out of the walls of Rome, rolled through narrow lanes, where the wild honeysuckle had begun to tangle itself in the hedges, or waited for her in quiet places where the fields lay near, while she strolled further and further over the flower-freckled turf, or sat on a stone that once had a use, and gazed through the veil of her personal sadness at the splendid sadness of the scene—at the dense, warm light, the far gradations and soft confusions of colour, the motionless shepherds in lonely attitudes, the hills where the cloud-shadows had the lightness of a blush.
The continent in general and Rome in particular had never seemed more majestic, and while the vista which Henry James paints so lucidly in his masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady no longer exists, there is no doubt, as he says about an even older view, what exists today is “still so full of all that has vanished from it.” Writing in 1881 from Florence, James spoke to me, lounging in a modern hotel room 138 years later, half a block away from Trinity College in Dublin, and showed me a signpost. The sense of belonging to something bigger, something eternal, this reminder of the “unanswered prayers” of multitudes of people and persons and countries, those crumbled ruins of the past that vibrate still, the fragile humility of how small we are: all that is what is missing in the United States.
It was a coincidence this happened while I was in Ireland. Early in the trip I visited Hodges Figgis, the oldest bookstore in the country. (It is now owned, for better or worse, by the British chain Waterstones.) Having discovered several years ago while in London that Penguin offers a “Penguin English Library” of their classics—complete with Anglicised spelling!—I once again found myself face-to-face with dozens of them, books that I could theoretically special order in the United States and that would not risk sending my checked luggage over the 50-pound threshold. That sensible thought didn’t get beyond the “I really” in “I really don’t need these books,” and the next I knew The Portrait of a Lady, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure,and Wuthering Heights had found their way into my hands—along with several other books I absolutely did not need.
When I got back to my hotel it was The Portrait of a Lady I was drawn to, one of a few books, along with The Snow Leopard, The Age of Innocence, and the aforementioned The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that I re-read every other year or so. I won’t get into the magnificence of the book—it is the best American novel I have ever read, and it might be the best one ever written, period—but, as with any great work of art, a fresh examination of it will yield something new each viewing. This time around I discovered that passage about Rome, a scene I had undoubtedly noticed before, seeing as it is so close to the climax of the story, but which held particular power this time. It turns out Kundera is wrong, in this case: if someone had asked me, on the spot, for a reason I wanted to live in Europe, I would point to that uniquely Jamesian paragraph above.
If I romanticise life in Europe it’s because the vision is a romantic one, at least to a culture-starved American like me. Is the “American Dream” any less romantic, though? The pillars of the Dream—marriage, house, children, career, wealth—what are these if not the willfully blind tilting at windmills? Half of all marriages continue to fail, houses are chased and purchased and foreclosed on, children are challenging no matter how rewarding, careers are more fleeting than love, wealth remains as exclusive as ever. Look around. How is the American Dream working out for us as a society? As individuals? And yet its appeal endures virtually unabated, despite the cold reality of scarcity making the dream out of reach for a growing number of hard-working Americans. Looking for a romantic idea of life? Look no further than our American Dream before slinging arrows at the dream of moving to the Old World.
I am being somewhat unfair to the United States, since it is still a young country. Young or old, there is something admirable in always looking forward, in never looking back, and our ever-present sense of optimism is indeed something Europeans admire about us. As a country, however, being old has its own advantages. Getting old is proving to be problematic here, and I do not see the United States aging as well as, say, Ireland. It will be no panacea there, my friends say. There are problems in Ireland and Europe, too, many of them the same we face, some new ones you’ve never encountered. If someone is unhappy here, they will be unhappy there. Life is harder in other places, but it is hard everywhere, and you can’t run away from it or yourself. There is much truth to that.
What my friends almost always neglect to mention is what I will gain by running away to Europe. Oh yes, I freely admit that I am running away. What I’m running from, though, is best expressed in what I’m running to—freedom from the fear of gun violence, a capacious safety net, a feeling of belonging to an older and larger and vulnerable world, and more. To a life lived not in fear but simply lived. To Americans who simply don’t know any better, I beg you: go out and visit other western democracies. We do not understand the anxiety and fear that cripple us day-by-day until you get out of it.