I’d rather be Parisian

Two new books tap into a growing feeling of ‘continent envy’—the idea that we really belong somewhere else

I'd rather be Parisian

Julia Roberts shopped the world in the film adaptation of Gilbert’s book | Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Geography is destiny, the old chestnut goes. Now, however, geography is also identity—as well as the latest determinant of personal happiness. The idea that place influences self has insinuated itself into the culture, from popular Facebook memes “What continent are you?” and “What country should you REALLY be living in?” to a barrage of self-seeking travel memoirs, most notably the 2006 blockbuster, Eat Pray Love. In it, American author Elizabeth Gilbert shopped the world as if it were a supermarket—travelling to Italy for gastro-epiphanies, to India for a spiritual tune-up, then on to Bali for transcendental scenery and sex.

Lately, though, that continental drift seems to have been eclipsed by a more focused continent envy. Economic instability, coupled with the realization that “quality of life” is on the skids in North America, has given rise to an I’d-be-happier-elsewhere feeling evident in two new books: Thomas Geohegan’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life and Steven Will’s Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. Geohegan, a Chicago labour lawyer, started work on his book 10 years ago, inspired by Germany’s generous worker compensation (including a standard six weeks of holiday) and vigorous work ethic—two factors, he contends, that contribute to that nation’s current status as the world’s most competitive economy. What impressed him was the “dignity” accorded workers in a society that views work as only one facet of a well-lived life. It’s a template he would like to see imported to North America: “We need the European model because we don’t have a way of speaking about raising our standard of living except in terms of money,” he writes.

So it isn’t surprising that the notion of a romantic soulmate has extended to geographical soulmate—the premise being that people quite literally are being born on the wrong continent. Patricia Wells, who became a celebrated French-food authority after moving to France from the U.S. in 1980, observes certain places are easier to embrace: “I don’t think it takes great originality to fall in love with Paris,” she says wryly. But what struck her most the first time she visited France in the 1970s, she says, was how she instantly felt “at home” there: “This was the place I was always meant to be.” Faith Willinger, the American-born chef and author who has lived in Florence since 1973, says she also had an epiphany during her first visit to Rome: “It was a revelation, especially the food,” she says. She now refers to herself as a “born-again Italian” and can’t imagine living anywhere else: “I have always felt so much more alive here than I do in the States.”

Of course, now that austerity is the new buzzword, even in Europe there’s a desperate need to rejig standard-of-living vocabulary away from an economic base. British Prime Minister David Cameron is the latest politician to call for a national “happiness index.” Quality of life has also become the new thrust of research that reveals Canada losing ground (according to the latest UN Human Development Index). But it also reveals people crave a kinship with their community more than they do money. A Gallup study released last month, based on 26 U.S. cities, found residents rated social relationships and the beauty of their surroundings as more important to forging strong community bonds than economic health and jobs.

Tommy McHugh, a 30-year-old Toronto-born sous-chef, feels that way about England. The son of a British father and Irish mother, McHugh was raised to be a proud Canadian; still, he was enthralled by England when he visited at age seven: “I was overwhelmed by the castles, the knights-in-shining-armour history and massive cathedrals—all of those things we don’t have in Canada.” He moved to London at age 20 and worked there for nearly seven years. Now the proud monarchist is an Anglo oasis: his speech is peppered with “tickety-boo” and “cuppa”; he drinks PG Tips tea and London Pride beer; he cheers on Fulham’s football team. He plans to return when he has more money: “I would love to have a flat in London,” he says.

It’s not always Euro-envy. Renowned travel writer Pico Iyer went to Japan on a soul-searching mission decades ago; he now lives there. And growing up in Manila, Lenie Viola was convinced her true home existed elsewhere. “I would watch planes flying overhead and say, ‘That will be me,’ ” says the 33-year-old child-care worker. In 2007, she settled in Toronto. The country’s open spaces and changing seasons delight her. The first sight of snow falling made her cry: “It was the most wonderful thing. Everything was so white, so clean.” Canadians’ mania for what she calls our “two-month summer” amuses her, as does the desire for a tan. She returns to the Philippines to visit her family, but finds the climate and conditions suffocating. Her hope is to bring her 16-year-old daughter to her new home and the opportunities it offers—a reminder that continent envy goes both ways.




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I’d rather be Parisian

  1. I think that part of the continent envy from the average north american point of view has to do a lot with the fact that north america has become by and large a land of consumption with a quick pace of life. It's quite easy to see for those who have travelled that in almost all of the rest of the world there is more pride in family, food and vacation time. In north america you are bombarded by advertising and 'money fears'.

  2. If Julia Roberts took all of her Hollywood liberal friends with her to live in Paris that would be great, then the rest of us wouldn't have to be treated to so many condescenting spiels about how the Euro-weenies are so much better at living than we are here in North America.

    You want conservative, suffocating Europe? Go!

  3. Europeans care more about the quality of their experience than North Americans. Here it is all about acquiring objects.

    • If you are a trust fund brat or fabulously wealthy like Julia Roberts et al, you can live the good life in Europe and look down on North Americans. If you are the average Parisian, you commute three hours a day, if you are lucky enough to have a job.

  4. First, nothing could be more consumerist than treating national identity as something you can shop around for.

    Second, the admirable traits that make up a culture usually have a lot of baggage. The above poster dislikes North American consumerism but doesn't contemplate where it comes from. North America is a classless society – accents, one's raising, etc. are not impediments to class mobility, so long as you've got the bank account. We emphasize quantity over quality, sure. Which isn't so bad if you can't afford quality.

    Eat Pray Love worldliness is but one manifestation of how our desire to rebel against our own culture, or consumerism or whatever, is so easily coopted by the very system we think we are standing up to or rejecting. It is an expensive affectation, and we just know we want more of it than the neighbours have.

  5. I've always felt as though I don't belong in Canada. I'm finishing up school in Waterloo, and have lived in Toronto and Ottawa and if I had to live in Canada the rest of my life it would be probably be in TO, Ottawa or Montreal…I just don't feel particularly Canadian. I have lacklustre national pride, don't care about hockey, didn't think the gold medal winning goal by Crosby the this huge event. I'm more than willing to shop around for my national identity. So far I've felt most at home in small town France and England. And I'm getting the right career training that I could move to either country and find work. If I have to move to the UK to get a passport, then so be it; I want the freedom to work and travel wherever I please (at least in Europe).

    I want to live in a society that cares about culture, that has museums (and lots of them!) that are either free and or very affordable. That has a train station in almost every town, where you don't NEED a car (I don't drive), where people value the learning of languages; where Transformers isn't a blockbuster success, where everything but cafés are open on Sundays.

    Stupid sure, but I didn't ask to be born in this country. I say all this realising full well that Canada can be a great place to live and has lots of great things going for it – all my siblings have found good jobs and are happy with their lives and families,and enjoy great health and high quality of life compared to most of the world.

    I'll just work hard so that I'm qualified to pursue my dreams either in Canada or overseas. Nothing comes without hard work.

  6. Always looks greener across the fence. maybe if we north Americans could see where we are with the eyes of visitors we'd be as enthralled with what we have here too. It is a sad state of affairs and a disappointment that we are so quick to judge and belittle what is around us all the time. The variety of landscape and climate and diversity of our populations all in three countries make North America excitingly unique. Old Montreal is like Old Montreal not a substitute for somewhere in France. Small enclaves in the former Upper Canada are not just like somewhere in the jolly old UK they are wonderful hidden treasures and finds right here in North America. The attributes that make north America new are things that make it immediately different from what is superficially enchanting about the old history of European countries. I like my home country, Canada.

    • I lived in Montreal and used to love the old port. Then it was changed into a giant tourist trap. Can't find a grocery store or depanneur anywhere in the old port now, whereas they used to be abundant. Go to the small enclaves of Upper Canada as you suggested and try and find a community with a thriving farmers market outside of mennonite St.Jacobs. Everyone prefers taking cars to supermarkets. Ditto all the Bob's Place type greasy spoons that used to exist on the highways that have been traded for McCrap. Don't get me wrong, Canada is still a geographically and demographically exciting place, but culturally it has taken a back seat to capitalism and consumerism.

  7. But Old Montreal is not like a small town in France, where half the towns' revenue comes from wineries and where in five-ten minutes you can take a walk in the country. I don't want to have to drive to get someone scenic and gorgeous. And Canada is WAY too huge to make rail stations in every town affordable. I don't drive. I will have to drive one day but we just aren't Europe, for all its ills. I can learn to deal with exhausting beaurocracy and shoddy craftsmanship and I share a lot of their conservative values.

    In France, government offices are everywhere! Imagine going in person in a town of 100 000 people to ask about paper work you mailed two weeks ago, to ask about anything….versus calling somewhere in P.E.I. or Alberta or in Oshawa, ON when you live in Wateroo. I have lost it so often on poor people on the other end of the line because I don't WANT to talk to someone two time-zones away. If have to have to deal with red tape, I'd rather do that in person and then stop into a bakery on the way home to buy a baguette.

    I lived in a smaller sized town that was well serviced by trains and buses, surrounded by vines, near a national park that had fantastic trails that I could get to on foot. Tell me where that exists in Canada, and I will move there.

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