Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

by Thomas Geoghegan

30 September 2010

Photographer unknown 
cover art

Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

Thomas Geoghegan

(The New Press)
US: Aug 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Geoghegan. This excerpt originally appeared in Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Part One: Which Side of Paradise? Chapter 1, “I Know No Europeans”
March 1997. When I came back from Europe, after two months, I thought, “My God, where’s my furniture?” Then it hit me: I’d never had any. In the middle of the room was a NordicTrack, which someone, maybe me, must have dragged out and—forgot. It looked as if I’d fled.

It was a shock to me, still, that I had left at all. Two months, away from work! Before I went, most lawyers I knew said, “Two months? In Europe? But what about your practice?” While other lawyers would say, “That’s nice, but what about your practice?” And still other lawyers would just say, “What about your practice???”

And all I could say was: I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know! I had court dates, court calls, and I was on trailing trial calendars, which wrapped around my ankle, up my leg, and around and around my shoulders. Go to Europe for two months? Tangled like this, how could I even move? I had decided to drop the idea, it was ridiculous, but then one friend who was a lawyer called and left a voice mail, which I heard late at night, and all he said was: “Vacation courage!” Because he and I are in a kind of support group to tell each other, it’s okay, we can take vacations: “Yes I can.” But later, when he heard my plan was to go for two whole months, he called up and said, “What about your practice?” Because in our lives today, two months off is like two years off. It’s like the time that an explorer such as Richard Burton would take to travel up the Nile.

Well, for an academic, a social scientist, a two-month trip like this would be a joke. “You can’t find out anything in two months,” they’d say. But I figured that for a lawyer, to find out what Europe is like, it’s almost too long. One all-night binge to pound out a brief would be enough, wouldn’t it?

Obviously, I’m kidding. I should probably repeat that for any Europeans: I’m kidding! No, the truth is, I am scared to go to Europe. Why? First, I’d just hate to be in Paris and be—alone. Second, I’d hate to be anywhere and be alone. In a sense, to be in a city like Paris, alone, is to be in a state of sin, mortal sin, the kind of sin a Jesuit describes on a tape I have at home. In the end, he says, sin is the condition of being alone. That is, it’s the condition of being isolated, cut off, from everything that is human.

In other words, it’s like all the Paris trips I took when I was in my twenties.

It means walking around all day without talking to anyone. It’s knowing I don’t know any Europeans. “Oh Paris—isn’t it wonderful?” Sure, it’s great. But after two days in Paris, every demon I hammer down under the floor here is flying up through the air. For years, I have kept a big photo of Paris in my law office: it’s huge, what one used to call a panorama. It’s a wide-angle, 180-degree black-and-white photo of Paris in 1927, with little Model Ts tooting to the Louvre. Sometimes, a client, like a teamster, might stare up at it, look at the Paris metro map next to it, and say, “Hey, you must like Paris, huh?”


It’s in my law office, like a skull, to remind me how unhappy I will be if I ever go to Europe. No human contact, not a word of speech. I think of poor Jim, back in college: one summer, as a junior, he went around Europe by himself with his Let’s Go Europe. And as he went, he got lonelier, and lonelier. Finally, he stopped eating, then talking. He ended up in Glasgow, unable to move. Somehow he got to a phone and made a call: to his mother, in Boston, for money for the plane. When his mother saw him at the airport, she burst into tears: “My God, what’s happened?!” All he could do was stare—he’d not talked to a human being in two or three weeks. Still, the photo, over my desk—it’s haunting. What if my real life is over there, ticking away, and I’m not being allowed to live it?

Just the other night, I opened Pilgrim’s Progress. On the first page, the Evangelist comes up to Christian—Fly from here! I shivered. Didn’t we come to this country as Pilgrims, to be free? I’m not free at all. When was my last vacation? I can’t remember.

Shouldn’t we all get on a plane and fly?

Yes, my life is ticking away somewhere, etc., and I’m not being allowed to live it! But what makes me think, in these wild moments, that it’s going on in Europe? For years I’ve thought the most “political” part of the New York Times is the Sunday travel section: “It’s got the real news about Europe.” For years I read the front page about European unemployment, the collapse of social democracy, etc. But then I’d flip to the travel page and get the real news, the news that they don’t dare put on page one, that every year in Europe, the whole place keeps getting nicer. It may be that in our time, the real political news, the specter that is haunting our civilization, is only in the travel section of the New York Times. It would murmur in a whisper what the “serious” parts of the New York Times would deny: maybe, just maybe, Europe was moving past us.

Reading the travel page, I think of all the European cities I might have lived in. Just think, for example, of the ones that start with “B,” like Barcelona, Brussels, Bologna, and even Bruges. What do we have, over here? Oh, we’ve got Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and let’s toss in Bayonne, too. In these cities that begin with “B,” for the kids at the bottom, the “B” should stand for “bullet.” From ages eight to twenty, it seems most live under fire. Am I being unfair? Let’s go to the next letters, “C” and “D”: they’ve got Copenhagen and Deauville, and we have Cleveland and Detroit. Or let’s take the ones that begin with “E,” then “F”—and when we get down to “Z,” I have to bring up Zurich.

I admit, Zurich is the main reason I came to write this book. It was 1993, and I was on my way to Moscow. Why? Well, I could say: I had to go because of the collapse of Communism. It seemed to me this was the biggest event in World History, in my entire lifetime. Shouldn’t I go to see it, even if I was a little too late? So yes, I could say: the collapse of Communism. But it had more to do with the collapse of a relationship in Chicago, and while grieving I met Ms. O. and decided to go.

Yes, I went to Moscow, to see a girl. Now you know.

But since it was a long flight, I decided to have a day’s stopover in the middle. Get used to the time change. I didn’t want to get there and then, like Communism, collapse. So, for no specific reason, I came to Zurich.

Zurich: I expected to be bored. True, I’d not been to Western Europe in many years. But the adventure would be Moscow. That’s the only city that was burning in my brain. In Zurich, I would snooze.

Ms. O. would laugh: “Zurich! That’s where you keep your money.” And if you lived in a city where they spike vodka with diphtheria, you’d be right to scoff at Zurich. What kind of kick could Zurich be?

Still, as I walked the streets, I had to gasp: My God! I had never seen a city not just opulent but opulent in such an elegantly intelligent way. How could a continent like Europe change so much in ten years? I now saw what ten good years of GDP growth can do! Much of Europe, from Milan up to Stockholm, had climbed up to us, in America, and a few countries, like Norway, were even above us in GDP per capita.

But that’s not the shock. It’s not the per capita on paper. It’s the per capita in the street. I mean, these are social democracies. The richest, like Sweden, are the most Red, i.e., on the left. Which means everybody’s got dough. That’s why in a social democracy, even plain old Cologne has a whiff of cologne, while out in the parks even our most elegant cities have a whiff of urine.

Just count the elderly poor: in the U.S., 24.7 percent of old people are in poverty; in Sweden, it’s 7.7 percent; and in Germany, 10.1 percent (mainly in East Germany). Dare I mention children?
Ours is 21.9 percent, and in Germany, it’s 9.0 (again, mainly in East Germany). So think of “U.S. v. Europe” not in terms of graphs and tables, but sensually. Sight. Touch. Even smell. Over there, in the really social democratic parts, I can inhale whole cities like banks of violets.

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