Vacation in Europe: The Political Struggles of a Global Cosmopolitan

Maggie Hennefeld

I frame this story about my three-week getaway to Europe last summer by asking what it means for Americans to venture across the pond at this juncture in our history. How do we navigate foreign cultures during a moment when our own national obsessions, with everything from rape biology scandals to “Honey Boo Boo’s” Southern familial dysfunction, are more insular than ever? How can Americans abroad serve as global ambassadors when our own national discourse is emblematized by a Hollywood cowboy ranting at an empty chair while apostrophizing the President? While Europe grapples with crippling austerity, sovereign bankruptcy, and other repercussions of having economic without political interstate unity, how can I as an American demonstrate that I am equally concerned about the future of social and cultural institutions in the wake of transformations wrought by accelerating processes of global capitalism?

 

For my seat neighbor on my plane ride from Boston Logan to London Heathrow, the solution to these difficult questions seems manifest:

 

“Excuse me, miss,” she tugs on my sleeve while whacking me with one of her magenta braids, “Are you going to open your flavored peanuts? I am collecting them for the children of Jesus.”

Groggy but intrigued, I hand over my in-flight snack.

“God Bless You,” she places the nuts in a large Ziploc bag with a preponderance of other sealed snack containers, “Are you a child of Jesus?”

Taken aback, “I am Jewish.”

“I used to be Muslim.”

Calling her raise, “I am an atheist.”

“I used to be a communist. I grew up in Soviet Uzbekistan, until Jesus carried me away across rivers and mountains to Ohio where we live on a farm and sing songs in praise of Him.”

 

I nod. Her story sounds idiosyncratic enough to diffuse any ideological tensions. She lives on a farm in rural Ohio with an especially musical religious cult. She still likes to cook Eastern European dishes like borscht and pierogies. Her little daughter, the smartest girl in her third grade class, loves Jesus even more than she does.

 

“Are you still in touch with any family in Uzbekistan?”

“Not today. If they make the right choices with their heart, then I will see them in the next life.”

 

She clutches my hand, conveying the metaphysical urgency of the choices we make as individuals. I put on my headphones and pretend to be listening to music for the remainder of the flight.

 

Arriving in London, negotiating the usual series of nationally transitional rituals such as currency exchange and biometric security control, I set off about the city in thick pursuit of the local culture. About a month ahead of the Summer Olympics, the city is adorned with British flags alongside multi-colored symbols of global solidarity. I wander down Piccadilly, and am momentarily swept up by a Hare Krishna street parade, offering me literature translated from Sanskrit about God’s vitality—and the prospect of free naan and curry later in Piccadilly Circus.

 

After an invigorating experience of collective song in words I do not understand, the parade throng bifurcates due to a Starbucks employee handing out complimentary “Pomegranate Refreshers,” and I trail off in search of further cultural enrichment. A gallery crawl delivers me from portraits of British Royals, to a silent French experimental documentary about an octopus, to Damien Hirst’s jewel-encrusted human skull featured in the Tate Modern. From national sovereignty, to aesthetic obscurity, to artistic commodities, my oversaturated senses are again enticed by the delicious aromas emanating from an international refugee food and music festival happening on the Thames.

 

A woman offers me the opportunity to patronize the disenfranchised “hand arts” by paying ten quid for a bracelet, but a man at the next kiosk makes me a better offer of only five quid for homemade pulled pork tagine. So far my quest for global cultural understanding has yielded an attempted religious conversion, the enjoyment of delicious fusion-y street food, and a public throwback to 1960s hippie subculture.   

 

 

My next destination delivers me about 50 miles north of London to the British seaside party town of Brighton, famous for its low-stakes gambling venues and torrentially windy beaches: I am nearly blown bodily off of the sidewalk in a gesture to go enjoy some fish and chips with the locals. Contrary to my belief that all Brits are soused enough to close down the pubs at “23:00 PM,” a small army of Sussex sorority girls are still out flashing bus drivers and downing pints of ale in the middle of the night when I leave for the airport to catch an early morning flight to Bologna, Italy.

 

I gladly shift climates and swap national cuisines just in time for Bologna’s annual international film festival, featuring a program of everything from silent films by Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, to Andy Warhol’s Face, to French films about rabid lighthouse attendants. The city of Bologna even manages to augment its pleasantness by shading its streets with thousands of arched covered walkways: imagine never getting wet in the rain or burnt in the sun while still traveling everywhere on foot.

 

Every night there are open public film screenings on the massive central piazza—except during the Italy v. Germany World Cup match which for some reason takes pride of place in the piazza over a British thriller from the 1920s. One night we are unable to unlock our door when the heat causes the bolt to expand, and instead of sleeping, plant ourselves in a café and guzzle down espressos every hour while catching naps on the table. No questions asked. The global liquidation of social institutions dampens the barista’s curiosity about our situation—even in a city with as robust a socialist political legacy as Bologna has.

 

Just in time to avoid Italy’s final World Cup match against Spain, I touch down in the historical heartland of revolutionary cultural politics: Paris, France. Slightly different than my memory of it from Jean-Paul Marat or Jean Epstein, Paris is overrun by upscale department stores and condescending gourmet pancake vendors. I walk along the Seine, penetrating deeper into the bastion of high cultural tourism. I take in an ‘80s animated British film about the domestic backlash of all-out nuclear holocaust, and then drown my sorrows with a butter-sugar crepe smothered in Grand Marnier. I attempt to navigate the bureaucracy of the French National Film Archives, and pay 20 euros for a small box of assorted macarons to bring home to my boyfriend. I see paintings by artists who lived in Paris over a century ago, and then am nearly trampled on the sidewalk by a chic young woman shod in pastel stilettos. 

 

 

At last, I leave Paris’ stylized nostalgia behind, and embark upon a climactic jaunt in the unemployed artist capital of Western Europe, Berlin, Germany. Deutschland! Where my people came from before all of a sudden there weren’t any of us remaining. We have flocked back to you to graffiti your warehouses with puns about anti-authoritarianism, to perform suggestive poetry aloud in public spaces, and to adorn your thoroughfares with shops named after international but obscure cultural references. I make the most of my time, spending hours poring over Marlene Dietrich’s luggage in a German film museum, and then the rest of it eating bratwurst and drinking hefeweizen in an open beer garden. There is no time to waste, no time to sleep, the future of my mission as a roving American global cultural ambassador is rapidly elapsing. Where will the world be tomorrow if I do not take a stand right now and right here in Berlin, Germany?

 

Eventually I exhaust myself and later almost miss my connecting flight home while napping at my gate in Heathrow airport. Having grown accustomed to French and Italian espresso, and overlooking the histories of Britain’s stakes in promoting its tea culture, I awake with a watered-down dark roast in my hand to a message that my gate is closing and that I must board the plane immediately or else be landlocked out of state, in a country that once tried to colonize us, with no return plane ticket—and the prospect of purchasing a new one with dollars, which in Britain are considered slightly less valuable than Monopoly money. I bolt to my gate, make it just in time, and am relieved when my seat neighbor spends the entire flight home watching on-demand Julia Roberts movies.

 

The next day I check the BBC to learn that President Assad of Syria has granted German television a rare English interview to accuse all countries supporting his opponents of being “terrorists.” Despite my individual failures abroad, as a fellow enemy of a failed state, perhaps there is hope for America after all.

 

Author Bio:

Maggie Hennefeld, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., and currently lives in Providence, R.I., studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University. Maggie has published in academic journals including Screen and Media Fields and has articles forthcoming in Discourse and Projections. She is currently working on her dissertation, titled “The Politics of Film Comedy: From Vaudeville to Terrorism.”

 

Photos: Anuridh Koul, David Rodrigues, Mariusz Sikorski (Flickr, Creative Commons).

 

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