The American Dream and the Dream of Europe

2013_Expat alley 02_picture

Maybe they’re visions instead. After my previous post, my father-in-law rightly noted that as an expat, my wife and I are less like changelings and more like dreamers. That got me wondering exactly where and how our dreams have guided us over the past ten years. Over that time, we have been lucky enough to experience both the American and European versions. Time plays a crucial role in the experience of dreams. There has to be enough of it to wade through the slings, arrows, pastries, documents, drinks and festivals in order to make a valid assessment. Anything shorter than three months in America or Europe is more like a nap.

The ‘real’ American Dream and the Dream of Europe are supposed to offer a glimpse into what the future in each place ought to look like. They are more roadmap than trippy B-film, directing their believers toward some previously known and agreed upon goal. As you can see from the auto-search results in the picture above, more people tend to point out that their roadmap is deficient. Maybe the GPS gave a wrong turn or two. Maybe the system is missing whole highways. There may not have even been a road back there. This is why these are more like visions. Whether you’re living in What Cheer, Iowa or Bad Kissing, Bavaria, we can’t really wake up.

The American Dream remains a hard and fast adage of American citizens, politicians, commentators. If I remember right—and I may not—the typical American Dream includes a house, yard, car or two (or five), satisfying work, a solid family and minimal interference from outsiders. It serves as a way to judge the direction of the entire county, often referred to as the right track/wrong track. I’m not sure whether the American Dream is alive, dead, a lie or just perfect. Frankly, I don’t think it matters. I’d rather talk about what it’s like to chase it. Considering its elements, the American Dream really focuses on settling, on putting down roots somewhere special. I never realized how essential and interwoven hometown pride can become for a person. To be proud of your hometown, to think of it fondly and enjoy cruising its streets and meeting its people on a regular basis, that seems the ultimate American Dream.

The Dream of Europe I borrowed from Orhan Pamuk, a Pulitzer Prize winner, whose essay “The Fading Dream of Europe” offers much about how outsiders view the half-continent that bears the name of one of Zeus’s female conquests. If this sort of thing interests you, see here. For Pamuk and for me, Europe was and is the “rosy land of legend.” It offers the opportunity to discover new cultures, languages, landscapes and varying degrees of refinement. Just check out any study abroad brochure. You’ll be sure to find the words “history, discovery, culture, language and representative food.” Think all of the proverbial Swiss chocolate, French wine, German engineering, Spanish tapas and whatever else that non-European pop culture assigns to each culture as the key identifier. The most interesting thing is, none of this Dream really relates to cultural roots. These are things that you are supposed to experience and enjoy on some sort of journey toward self-discovery. The Dream of Europe is, for many Americans, a chance to encounter foreign things and foreigners, to expand one’s horizons and boundaries.

One dream encourages settling. The other promises adventure and discovery. My wife and I have been working for the past few years to somehow marry the two with varying degrees of success. To borrow a phrase from Yvgeny Nabokov, dreams by their very nature are full of “mental mediocrity and bumble,” which kind of makes it hard to see the Straße.

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