Believe it or not, I recently participated in a conference in Vienna (the one in Austria) on “The Transatlantic South,” which was dedicated to explaining the “The South in Europe” and “Europe in the South.” At this assemblage of academic types from Europe and the United States, I heard some fascinating discussions of the way that economic, political, literary, musical and other artistic influences made their way back and forth across the big pond. Although a few Yankees continue to stereotype Southerners as the ultimate provincials, up until the Civil War, as the premier producer of American exports, the South maintained strong economic ties to Europe, and the latest European styles and trends were at least as likely to pop up in Charleston as in Boston. After the war, European capital and expertise helped to expedite the creation of a more agricultural and industrially modern South. Today, as the national leader in foreign direct investment, the South is arguably America’s most economically globalized region.
From Thomas Jefferson on, many Southerners have shown a tendency to take their prejudices and predispositions with them, often using their contacts with other cultures as a means of affirming their own values and beliefs, rather than as a stimulus to rethink them. In this, however, they are hardly different from other Americans, or other travelers. On my fairly frequent visits to Europe, I have certainly noted differences in culture or world-view, but, in general, I have been more impressed by the similarities in the challenges we face and the responses we make. Neat, orderly, clean Vienna seems outwardly calm and a rock of stability, but as the blatantly nativist campaign posters we saw everywhere and the ultimate outcome of their Oct. 1 national election made abundantly clear, immigration issues are at least as emotional and confounding in Austria as they are here.
Popping over to France for a brief family holiday after the conference, I was struck once again by the cultural difference just a few hundred kilometers can make in Europe, and I could only ponder the enormity of the European Union’s task in trying to forge such a diverse mass of ethnicity, culture and political traditions into what is effectively almost a single national entity. Even before all the flapdoodle over the French government’s refusal to endorse our ill-fated invasion of Iraq, it seemed that most Americans came back from France mainly interested in relating their horrible experiences with filthy toilets and insolent waiters. Most such accounts relate to Paris, which, even with my 40-plus years of removal from high school French, I still find far less of a hassle than New York.
I will concede, however, that for all of Paris’ manifold delights, we prefer to visit the French countryside whenever possible. There, we have found the people as unfailingly charming, helpful and friendly as any we have met anywhere. (Georgians who are put off by experiences in Paris might ask themselves if they would want their entire state judged on someone’s visit to Atlanta.) On this trip, for example, we visited our friend Phillipe Bernard, who was an exchange student at Athens Academy in the mid-1970s. With his wife, Martine, Phillipe runs Domaine du Clos Saint Louis in Fixin, a small town south of Dijon whose ambiance is every bit as Southern as a place named “Fixin’” (though pronounced “fee-san”) ought to be.
Happily for us and for Phillipe and Martine as well, I’m sure, we stopped by on the day after their grape harvest was completed. Watching workers take to the vineyards in Burgundy has always reminded me of cotton picking in the Georgia of my long-ago youth, although in France the process seems a much more upbeat affair, highlighted by huge communal mid-day repasts prepared by superb cooks such as Martine. Recalling a pattern reminiscent of the rural South in days of yore, Phillipe observes that attracting sufficient harvest labor is never a problem for him because Martine’s culinary credentials are known far and wide. Like any good farmer, of course, Phillipe takes great pride in the fruits of his roughly 30 acres of vines, and a number of noted oenophiles support the untutored taste buds of this humble correspondent in reckoning that he is entirely justified in doing so. Still, calling to mind a trend all too similar to what has happened in Southern agriculture over the last few decades, Phillipe notes that many of France’s family vineyards are now passing into corporate hands as the younger generation opts out of a vocation that has often been passed from generation to generation over several centuries.
On the flight home from Paris, the lady seated behind me was complaining that the French had “forgotten” how we bailed them out in World War II. I would argue just the opposite, that the French remember not only D-Day, but everything about World War II all too well. So painfully well, in fact, that they seem to have deliberately relegated it to the edge of their public memory, much as we have done with Vietnam and for much the same reason. Monuments to World War I, “The Great War,” abound, but similar remembrances of World Rumble #2 are far less obvious. I recall being in London in 1995 amid multiple celebrations of the 50th anniversary of V.E. Day and then hopping across the channel to Paris to find what struck me as pretty much a business-as-usual atmosphere. Let’s face it, save for the heroic exploits and sacrifices of the French Underground, World War II was our “Good War,” not theirs.
The argument that the French owed us their support in our Iraqi misadventure because of our role in helping to liberate them in 1944 works only if Saddam Hussein had actually attacked us, a notion that even the most committed liars in Bushdom have finally been forced to abandon. To say that George W. Bush is unpopular in Europe is to commit assault and battery on the word “understatement,” but I do not believe European disdain for our “President Cowboy” necessarily translates into hostility to Americans per se, so much as bewilderment that so many of us have been taken in by him and for so long. I am not exactly bewilderment-free on this point myself, but I do think our European friends in general may not fully appreciate the emotionally, and, to some extent, intellectually debilitating impact of 9/11 on a people so unaccustomed to being attacked on their own soil, much less finding themselves unable to do very much about it. Senseless slaughter and unpunished injustice are far more prominent in Europe’s experience than America’s, save, of course, for the South. For that reason alone, it seems to me, there is a lot more of “the South in Europe” and “Europe in the South” than most of us probably realize.