How France Is Like America in the 1970s

Today’s itinerary: The English Channel.

An act of nostalgia: I approach Europe by sea, on the Dover-Calais ferry. This is how I first encountered the continent in the summer of 1966—a season remembered for Rubber Soul, the Spencer Davis Group, cheap wine, an English football triumph, and the belated loss of virginity. The ferry has changed. It is a floating duty-free commerce and gambling parlor now; open-air access is limited to a scruffy patch of deck aft on the topmost level. There are no signs pointing the way, perhaps because nothing is being sold out there.

But it is glorious in the fresh air, a calm sunny day on the channel. A group of British schoolkids in maroon uniforms chase each other about the deck and feed sea gulls, which appear to be set on hover. From halfway across the water, the Dover cliffs remain formidable and proud; ahead, France is misty, not nearly so well defined. But it is France, nonetheless: I remember the anticipation of 1966—I approached Europe then with Hemingway-esque intent. I would run with the bulls in Pamplona, lounge in the cafes of Paris and say things like, “The wine, it is very good.” I would endure a few museums and chase after dark-eyed lovelies with narrow waists, sharp features, and difficult personalities.

In other words, I approached Europe then as most Americans have for the past half-century: anticipating an adult theme park. One went there to find history, culture, sophistication, and, of course, naughtiness. One was daunted by the sophistication, but there was condescension as well: Europe wasn’t nearly so serious or businesslike a place as America—or Britain, for that matter. The Soviet threat seemed remote, sequestered behind barbed wire; in the American imagination, the real threat was Rossano Brazzi, who wooed a repressed Katharine Hepburn in the dreadfully romantic film Summertime without telling her that he was married. (Hepburn succumbed for a time, then fled to Ohio—what a perfect Yank she’s always been.)

Things have changed, apparently. Europe is in crisis, and in a fairly pissy mood besides. There is a growing “rift” with America. We are seen as naive, arrogant, unilateral barbarians. (But wasn’t that always the case: “Monsewer, van rooge see voo play?”) And Europe itself is becoming less fun: There is crime, there is a tide of immigrants, there are right-wing demagogues, there are right-wing demagogues being assassinated, there are lunatic children firing weapons in schools. Indeed, the news from Europe sounds … rather American, don’t you think? Could this possibly be true? Where are the accordion players of yesteryear? The Guardian has put me on the case: a six-country Arrogant Yank tour, starting in France, anti-Americanism’s most fragrant vineyard. My trip begins at the very same moment that a rather more arrogant Yank, my president, George Bush, is beginning his own truncated tour—a six-day flash across the Continent. Mine will last six weeks, unless I’m detained in a villa somewhere. I have refused the Guardian’s offer of a pink Cadillac convertible as a means of conveyance. I have purchased a Eurailpass. I mean to be inconspicuous. My first words in Calais: “Pardonnay mwa, ooo ehhh le … uh … train station?”

The train from Calais to Lille is a disgrace. I had hoped for the Orient Express. What I get is double-deckered, graffiti-smeared (the artist “Eczema ‘97” has claimed this for his own), and vinyl-seated. On my seat, someone has written, “A spliff a day keeps the doctor away.” We haven’t seen trains as anarchic as this in the States for years—and I experience an epiphany: Is it possible that Europe really has become just like America, but an America of the recent past—the 1970s, to be precise, a period for which I harbor zero nostalgia.

Think about it: In the ‘70s American politicians were still caught in the turbulence of the George Wallace phenomenon—Wallace, the American Le Pen, who had stood in the schoolhouse door to block integration, who had coined the greatest of all political slogans, “Send them a message!,” and who had actually won primary elections in reasonably proper states like Michigan and Maryland. In the ‘70s, too, Americans were reacting against an exploding crime rate (it had quadrupled in the ‘60s) and a rush of new immigrants from such un-American places as Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, and South Asia. Young people were alienated. The economy was sluggish; American products weren’t nearly so nifty as those from Germany and Japan. Jimmy Carter was worried about a national “malaise,” which was reflected in the polls: For the first time in the history of the country, a majority of Americans didn’t think next year would be better. Much of this was handled over time: Crime abated, industry reorganized itself, the immigrants proved themselves brilliant Americans, “Eczema ‘74” stowed the spray paint and learned computer programming, Donny and Marie Osmond retired. We vanquished the Evil Empire and made the world safe for Disney. We’ve even made some progress on race. But it was rather painful there for a while. One wonders if Europe can make a similar recovery. (One wonders if America can sustain its triumphs, but that’s another story.)