Waking up from the European dream

Vacation and studying abroad are great cultural experiences, but not necessarily accurate representations.

Andrew Johnson

“Why canâÄôt we be more like Europe? ItâÄôs such a pleasant way of life,âÄù students returning from abroad often grumble. Anything typically American, they sneer, is lowbrow. But using only personal experience as a gauge for EuropeâÄôs pre-eminence can result in being badly informed, especially amid current political, cultural and economic woes.

Apparently, understanding the centuries old, if not millennia old, culture of European countries is attainable in just a semester in Montpellier, Bologna, Toledo or Freiburg. Old World sophistication has become a souvenir you can bring back with you just as easily as your Oktoberfest mug or actual Dijon mustard. Throw in a suddenly undying allegiance to the local soccer team and your worldliness is unquestionable. It seems like only a few months ago you were inhaling Jell-O shots to âÄúParty in the U.S.A.,âÄù and now youâÄôre a wine connoisseur who insists Sweden was cheated in the last Eurovision.

Smugly acting as if youâÄôre now a cultured emissary, fully equipped to teach deprived Yankee Doodles that our lives arenâÄôt quite so dandy compared to a café-lounging, siesta-enjoying one, ignores a reality for the sake of a Bavarian or Gaelic castle in the sky. The whole fortified castle mentality for Europe is fitting, its aim to keep some people out.

Even though the United States is nearly 40 percent nonwhite, Eurofans still argue it is relatively intolerant. Meanwhile, despite most of its countries hovering at only 10 to 15 percent nonwhite, Europe is considered tolerant when it comes to race.

ItâÄôs easy to be color blind to race when you rarely see other races. In France, North African black immigrants are hardly mingling with the idealized image of le français. Instead, theyâÄôre residing in low-income apartments in the Parisian outskirts, where unemployment is near 50 percent among Muslim youths, and crime is prevalent because of the lack of social mobility; the latest assault and murder rates are actually higher in France than in Algeria, where many of these immigrants come from. This lack of opportunity is hard to see from the comfortable and distant vantage point enjoyed by the âÄútraditionalâÄù French. Conveniently, the countryâÄôs constitution doesnâÄôt permit data collection based on race, so theyâÄôre never directly confronted with hard evidence either.

Even across the Channel, this front of multicultural harmony shows itself. In 2010, officials estimated that 57 percent of British Pakistanis were married to their first cousin. Forget the dating pool, what about the gene one? This sort of trend only comes about through cultural isolation. IâÄôm not sure who is doing the isolating âÄî the Brits or the Pakistanis âÄî and it doesnâÄôt really matter; the point is that it exists in a country regarded for its openness. Correction: a continent regarded for its openness. The Netherlands, Spain and Italy have each experienced their share of race riots over the past couple years as well.

Ah, but even amid these socioeconomic issues, nouveau Europeans insist that the lifestyle is so pleasing, with their quaint bakeries and picturesque plazas. As Johnny Depp once said of Europeans, âÄúMost important thing, though, is that people there know how to live!âÄù

But do they? Fourteen of the top-20 countries with the highest suicide rates are in Europe, with an additional 10 countries ahead of the United States, which is 40th. Norway, dubbed âÄúthe happiest countryâÄù according to a recent survey, has a higher suicide rate than India, China and Venezuela. WhatâÄôs causing these Europeans to take their own supposedly idyllic life?

Just glance at the European UnionâÄôs economic troubles and youâÄôll understand the source of their misery. One in five Greeks, Montenegrins and Spaniards is unemployed, and itâÄôs even worse for our age group. Stateside, we get nervous if unemployment is above 8 percent. Debts continue to build up and there is popular resistance to doing anything to fix the problem. Turmoil has forced prime ministers to step down, replaced with appointed stand-ins who are entrusted with acting in the best interest of the people even though they were never elected.

But the dangers go beyond who will decide whether or not Greek government employees will continue getting their 13 monthly checks per year or Denmark can continue paying students to go to their universities. As feisty youths, we unwisely herald the latest unrests in London, Paris, Madrid and Athens as inspirational, looking past the injuries, destruction and deaths caused by the demonstrators. If weâÄôre lucky, though, we wonâÄôt have to worry about hearing these menacing tales much longer. Since the start of the anti-austerity protests in 2008, Reporters Without Borders has dropped Greece 39 spots on its press freedom index, from 31st to 70th, during which a journalist was killed at his home because of his coverage. Apparently, enlightened activists think an environment of free flowing information is an unimportant casualty.

None of this is to discourage travel or studying abroad; my passport is decorated with stamps from across the globe and each stop has been personally enriching. Rather, bear in mind that these experiences are definitively distant from reality, adventures that you embarked on to escape it for a while. Of course coming back to your reality will always pale in comparison to a romanticized aura of Europe, but choosing to remain in that fantasy isnâÄôt cultured, it is convenient simplification.