July 4th: The Fundamental Things Apply...As Time Goes By

Jul 7, 2014 9:08:25 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, a reflection just after the 4th of July, on two countries compared to old lovers and all that we (and our study abroad students) can continue to learn from each other.

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Every year at about this time I tend to think about where our relationship went wrong. It all started so promisingly. There was a passionate, emotional empathy between us. We dreamed of each other. We knew each other with an intimacy bordering on incest. But, kisses and embraces turned cold.

America left ageing Europe (and its oldest love, England) to slink into senility. We turned into heartbroken ruins to which our American lovers would return, rather pityingly, to check out (among other irritations) the absence of mixer taps and ice, the quaintness of streets, confusions over where the first floor is, and the other eccentricities of behavior we associate with the bewilderments of the elderly. Over years our relationship has become a nostalgic shadow of an early passion. We are revisited not for our youthful exuberance or handsome sophistication but to stir, for a moment, the ashes of desire.

Photo: 4th of July over NYC by Douglas Palmer

This troubled affair is focused for me in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Paris: a Romantic version of Europe created in the USA and, then, ironically re-exported. This is a landscape dreamed and invented in America, populated by the princes and princesses of the imagination inhabiting romantic castles of dream. It is what we should have been had we not proved to be such inept and unreliable lovers.

The Magic Kingdom is an ideal metaphor for an aspect of Europe that our students search for in the embers of this lost love. The Sleeping Beauty Castle, at the heart of Disneyland Paris, is based upon Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a lunatic structure commissioned by Mad King Ludwig II in the nineteenth century as homage to Richard Wagner. Thus, when Walt Disney wanted to celebrate our romance he drew upon legend, myth, music and poetry. It is his Taj Mahal: a celebration of a lost love, a monument to passion both excessive and doomed. The Magic Kingdom reflects a profound sense of continuity with our dreamed past. That crazy castle has become a little tarnished and stained by the years but still brings back memories of the time when we were, oh, so much in love.

Photo: Vintage 4th of July postcard by Dave

As Rick said in the great movie “Casablanca”, “We’ll always have Paris.”

As Rick never said in in the great movie “Casablanca”, “Play it again Sam.”

Sam plays “As Time Goes by”:

You must remember this

A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.

The fundamental things apply

As time goes by.

Those fundamental things bring our students to Europe as they seek to rediscover historical passions. They look to find again evidence of why their predecessors fell for aged Europe. For the literary expatriate of the nineteenth century, from Washington Irving to Henry James, Europe was associated with high culture. It contained the kinds of forms that were perceived to be missing in America of that century. The American infant, mannerless and crude, came in search of an idea of what it could mean to be culturally, socially, politically mature; there to be seduced by louche Europe, wearing a velvet smoking jacket, sipping a Bellini, and smoking a Black Russian Sobraine.

Photo: Vintage 4th of July postcard by Dave

What the student continues to seek (and the study abroad industry continues to promote) is a society perceived to be more sophisticated, complex and historically layered than that available in the USA. That is, of course, both true and untrue. The smoking jacket is faded and, even in Europe, you struggle to find anywhere to have a cigarette (let alone a Black Russian at over $20 a pack).

Nevertheless, in Italy they seek the Renaissance and the richness of Italian art. In England they discover evidence of historical longevity in the streets and buildings, and quaint behavioral quirks. (The English, for example, regularly apologize to inanimate objects). In Ireland, the great dead writers populate the landscape. The common thread is that we are old but interesting; if a little senile, we still have the capacity to fascinate. Our students in London may briefly direct their gaze towards the new towers of Docklands but what they really intend is a form of historical pilgrimage: a ritual pursuit of a lost love.

Like most passionate obsessions there is an element of delusion here. The idea that the USA is somehow a new country persists despite the fact that from around 1918 the USA has been a great world power, now the great world power. In a political sense, it is an older nation than the United Kingdom, Italy or Germany, let alone brash newcomers like the Czech Republic.

Photo: Vintage 4th of July postcard by Dave

Despite these minor falsehoods and occasional casual infidelities, we have had a reciprocal relationship between, mostly, consenting adults. America is a land first dreamed by lovesick Europe: the Western land mass that assumed mythical and Edenic associations even before it was discovered. It was never the gateway to the fabled riches of Asia, as we had hoped, but in that respect it conformed precisely to our experience of the disappointments of first love.

America was a nation built by yearning Europeans and that fact is simultaneously celebrated and rejected. That is the basis of the heritage industry: Americans seeking their European past so as to confirm their delighted sense of comfortable distance from those origins (where there may not be proper access to an unlimited supply of ice, where mixer taps may be a scarcity and where nobody knows where the first floor is).

Photo: Vintage 4th of July postcard by Dave

All of this reveals a set of rich paradoxes. Within the nuanced and residual intimacy that marks our old loves, the learning opportunities are many and profound. Europe is the place from which America re-perceives itself. When we Europeans go to America we seek to rediscover the optimism of our youth. Washington Irving understood this better than most:

Europe held forth the charm of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly-cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. My native country was full of youthful promise: Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age.

In our moments of rediscovered intimacy America seeks intimacy with an uneasy amalgam of decadence and dream, a version of a kingdom made by magic. Economic or political reality tends to remain shadowy and insubstantial. Europe acts as an introspective device: a landscape where mental possibilities can be realized in concrete geographical shapes, a form of mystery that may be discovered or uncovered: a kind of objective correlative for aspects of the American imagination.

What we Europeans do has a kind of doomed but noble futility: to seek our lost youth, analogous to the process envisioned by Scott Fitzgerald at the end of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” In our moments of re-discovered intimacy, Americans seek the mythical past while we aspire to those “blue remembered hills” where we young dreamers were in love with the innocence and potent optimism of America.

Photo: 4th of July fireworks over San Diego by Nathan Rupert

So, every July 4th is a morose time for me. After a tearful martini or two I stand alongside Nick and say: “If she can stand it, I can stand it. Play it Sam!”

And he does, and after all …

It's still the same old story

The world will always welcome lovers

As time goes by.

Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers

As time goes by.

Though the ardors of first love fade, there are moments, like July 4th, when, as T.S. Eliot said, “memory and desire” combine to make us forget that we have no ice. So, we don the faded smoking jacket, light the Black Russian, and sip a warm Bellini in memory of the passions of our youth.

For more, see the Thoughts on Education Abroad column archives.