Is Europe Still Worth the Schlep?

You can buy croissants at Costco.

Eiffel tower models are displayed for tourists by a souvenir vendor at the Trocadero in Paris July 26, 2011.

Do you need to go to Paris to get Eiffel Tower trinkets?

Photo by Eric Gaillard/Reuters

There is a plague of Medusa jellyfish in the Med. Last week, while cavorting in the green grotto on the Isle of Capri, I accidentally touched one on the head. It felt like a piece of tofu. A travelling companion got stung on his nipple. It hurt. And then there were the maxi pads. The boat-ride from Naples to Capri lasts 40 minutes. During that time we counted 23 floating maxi pads.

Medusas and maxi pads: welcome to Europe.

Despite the scourges highlighted above, of course, we had a gorgeous time. The natives are friendly and have lovely skin. Unlike many Mediterranean resorts, Capri has retained its rustic, mid-century, Sophia Loren-ish glamour. And the food—mercifully the Italians show no interest in deviating from their scrumptious classics, so there is no risk of encountering dollops of foam or idiotic bursts of pretentious molecular gastronomy—is pornographically yummy.

However, Caprese salads aside, one cannot escape the fact that every year the list of reasons why you might wish to blow your wad on a European sojourn gets shorter, and the list of reasons why you might bag it, and consider your local options, gets longer.

As I joined the line of knackered and cash-strapped returning U.S. citizens at JFK, I could not help but ask myself the following question: Now that you can Google Earth any place that takes your fancy, now that Europe is full of Gap and Starbucks, now that you can buy macarons and croissants at Costco, now that trash culture is global—even Austria has cheesy Real Housewives-style reality shows, so Europe no longer affords any escape—is it still worth the cost and kerfuffle of hauling one’s ass across the Atlantic?

I realize that, for many Americans, Europe is a sacred cow. Americans fetishize le savoir-faire and la dolce vita. Paris and Rome are always spoken of with a breathy deference which is never afforded Frisco, NYC, or Chicago. Casting nasturtiums on all that history and culture is an act of sacrilege. A we-are-tacky-and-they-sophisticated ethos has been propelling Yanks across the pond and into the path of jellyfish since the 19th century.

The American obsession with Euro-fabulous style has driven people on both sides of the Atlantic to some truly demented extremes: Did you know that, back in the late 19th century, American women were so desperate to get their paws on European styles that Parisian houses started creating “fashion dolls”? Sporting miniature versions of couture gowns, these decidedly creepy little poupées were shipped to gals all over the States. If the fashion devotees liked what they saw they could then order the garment in a scaled-up version. This system seems fraught with crazy-making pitfalls. What happened if you got depressed while waiting for the stage coach to deliver that frock-box and packed on a few pounds?

Back to this century: My thoughts and perceptions about Europe are, it must be acknowledged, very much those of a fashion-obsessed old queen, a vielle reine who is overly focused on the fact that everything is now everywhere and has never really recovered from the fact that there’s a McDonald’s on the Champs Élysées. I am a twilight nellie who remembers a simpler time when a trip to Europe was full of startling revelations and cultural idiosyncrasies. Back in the day the only way to get a Gucci handbag—or even gaze at it longingly through a shop window—was to fly to Roma, ferchrissakes! Recognizing that my judgment might be clouded by all of the above, I sought the opinion of a younger, more objective, less jaded person: my niece Tanya.

For the last two years, scrappy 23-year-old, red-headed Tanya—with her torrent of auburn locks she resembles a younger, prettier Rebekah Brooks, she of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal—has been slinging pints and fending off drunks in an Irish bar in Barcelona. Tanya’s unique vantage point in this international city has made her something of an expert on the pluses and minuses of the contemporary European scene.

I reconnoitered with Tanya, a plain-speaking South Londoner, on my recent Euro-tastic vacation and took the opportunity to probe her for insights. I kicked off my Spanish inquisition by asking Tan what had brought her to Barcelona in the first place. The Gaudis? The paella? Her answer was assured and concise: “The city, the sea, the 24-hour party scene and the South American skater boys.”

Given that her description of Barcy sounded more than reminiscent of Miami or the Jersey Shore, I asked Tanya if her sojourn had delivered any quintessentially Spanish experiences. Tanya cited the following: “Catalans smashing up my pub because they wanted to watch basketball on the telly rather than football [soccer]. Another time an ugly Scottish man started flashing his penis at everyone from under his kilt.”

Rather than highlight the fact that the latter event could have happened almost anywhere, I switched gears and encouraged her to compare and contrast the various tribes she encountered. She delighted me with the following sweeping generalizations:

“Brits can be obnoxious and annoying but are always up for a laugh. Europeans are defo [sic] not nicer. They buy half a pint and try to make it last for four hours while they snog each other in the corner until you kick them out. The French are the worst. They talk to you in French even though you have made it clear you don’t speak French. Yanks tip well though they do sometimes give me a lot of abuse for being an English girl working in an Irish pub. They seem to think it’s a political statement. Hello! I’m ginger. Obviously I’m of Irish heritage!”

Tanya’s overall observations about Europe were positive. However, make no mistake about it, those annoying and unjustified feelings of Euro-superiority and anti-Americanism are, per my niece, still very much intact: “Europe’s all right. Lots of history and nice buildings and normally good party life but most people think they’re better than other people, better than yanks in particular.”

Those of you with kids who are trying to decide whether to send your brats off on an enriching Euro-jaunt should feel encouraged by my niece’s tale. While it may have skimped on the history and the intellectual stuff, here is no question that Tanya’s big fat European adventure has given her sundry life skills, not the least of which is the ability to de-escalate conflict: “A Spanish hooker was trying to pick the pocket of some old tourist geezer. I waved my broom at her. She called me ‘a sassy lady’ which I take as quite a compliment.”

Bon voyage!