Culture

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.