As a student of Modern European History in undergrad, I reveled in soaking up stories from Europe’s past.
But, through all the lectures and coursework, the ramblings in Italy with Art History books in tow, and the hours spent digging through WWII archives and practicing foreign languages, I didn’t always give much thought to connecting the history I was studying with the present.
History surrounds you naturally in Europe, which I love, but it doesn’t always seem to connect in a straight line to the present. The modern-day Europe I interacted with appeared, to my foreign eyes, strangely removed from all the conflicts of succession, the revolutionary fervor and even the world war nightmares of the past 500 years. The sculptures of kings that grace central plazas or the venerable cathedrals tucked in every town looked almost like extra decoration to the cities I visited – not exactly inconsequential, but sharply divided from the present age.
Was I just experiencing the natural by-product of Fukuyama’s postulated “End of history?” Europe almost seemed to exist in a post-conflict floating state where young people from different countries all had endearing local quirks, but shared overarching common values and currency – alá the much loved study abroad film L’Auberge Espagnole. Sure, all the characters had their differences, but those differences were more cute than disruptive, and everyone had a good laugh at the end of the day.
But my perspective expanded around the time I graduated in 2011, as rumblings of debt issues in Europe morphed into a full-fledged crisis. In the past two years I watched with morbid fascination as the fiscal crisis crashed onto Europe’s shores and washed over it, changing the political and social landscape and uncovering age-old tensions that lurked below the surface. My background in European history seemed more relevant than ever to the immediate present as xenophobia and a far right movement erupted in Greece, separatist tensions come to the forefront with renewed zeal in Spain, Scotland and Flanders, and youth and family of all countries struggled to cope with rising unemployment, housing issues, and changing societal norms. I started to see immigration, gender issues, art & culture, and European integration all in a new light.
The more I read the news, the more I was struck with all the connections between what I’d studied as “long-ago history” and the issues currently at hand. Though at times I felt almost perversely curious, watching a train wreck that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from, I also began to get excited about the possibilities that a shake-up of this scale would provoke in the next chapter of European History. Stories of youth-fueled protest movements, a budding startup culture energized by the next generation of entrepreneurs, and all kinds of innovative solutions people came up with in response to the new challenges made me feel hopeful and eager to find out what will happen next.
Pursuing this desire, I eventually landed on joining NYU’s Global and Joint Studies master’s program in Journalism and European & Mediterranean. This summer, before I start the program, I’ll visit Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece in an effort to find people, organizations, and movements that are helping shape the next chapter of Europe’s future. This blog will act as a chronicle of the inspirations I find and the questions I encounter, as well as a sounding board for those interested in adding to the conversation.
Speaking of “local quirks” and my adventures as an American traveling in Europe, check out this clip from L’Auberge Espagnole. The first few minutes are from when the guy from “The States” makes a cameo, complete with a Bob Marley sing-along and insipid tales of his travels in India. Is that how you guys see us Americans abroad?