In Franz Kafka’s first novel, Amerika (1927), a teenage boy from central Europe is sent to the US in disgrace, having “seduced” the family maid. (It later emerges that she — a giant, terrifying, Kafkaesque ogre — did the seducing.) In New York harbour, the boy is welcomed by a wealthy stranger: his uncle, who turns out to be a US senator. The ship’s captain offers congratulations: “A shining career awaits you now.”
Kafka was poking fun at the European dream of America, which had infected his own family. His cousin Otto, who had emigrated to the US speaking no English, ended up founding the brilliantly named Kafka Export Company. Like countless Europeans, I also grew up dreaming of America. The slow death of that dream has altered the European imagination.
When I was 10, in 1980, my father, an academic, took a sabbatical at Stanford, so we moved to Palo Alto, California, for a year. Palo Alto in those pre-tech-billionaire days was a delightful university town where an academic salary got us a big clapboard house on a tree-lined avenue.
One sunny morning soon after we arrived, we watched an old house being moved on a flatbed truck to a better location. This, I thought, was America: if anything in your life was imperfect, you fixed it.
Even many anti-Americans wanted a part of this. The writer PJ O’Rourke recounts being held up at gunpoint in Lebanon in 1984 “by this Hezbollah kid . . . at one of those checkpoints, screaming at me about America, Great Satan, etc” When the kid was done screaming, he told O’Rourke his ambition: to study dentistry in Dearborn, Michigan.
In 1993, I returned to the US for a glorious year at university. One night at a party I ran into a Briton with a working-class London accent who had found happiness in Boston, a city where nobody cared to locate him on the class ladder. The US was a place where Europeans could reinvent themselves. I began applying for jobs there but my plans were derailed when the FT made me an offer. I decided to give it a go, thinking the US would still be there later.
In 2004, I married an American. For all her wondrous qualities, I’m sure I was also transferring my love of her country on to her. Every time we visited, her grandfather greeted me with “Welcome to America!” as if he was personally bestowing the country’s bounty upon me.
At first, my wife and I assumed we’d end up in the US. Occasionally she’d badger me to apply for a green card. Gradually we stopped having that conversation. American life was losing appeal. In 2009, I met a Palestinian in the Gulf, who — flying in the face of history — was sending money to a relative in California bankrupted by the financial crisis.
Today, average US hourly earnings are about the same as when I moved to Palo Alto. I see American friends spend their lives worrying about paying for their healthcare, their college debts, their children’s university education and their own hoped-for retirements. They remind me of the character in Amerika who works as an errand-boy by day and studies at night. Asked when he sleeps, he replies: “I will sleep when I’m done with my studies. For now I drink black coffee.”
European attitudes to Americans are shifting from envy to compassion. This spring, Irish donors raised millions of dollars for the Native American Choctaw people devastated by coronavirus. The gift was a thank-you: in 1847, the Choctaw had sent money to Irish people devastated by the Potato Famine.
The obvious retort to all this is that the people living in our old Palo Alto house (now valued at $5.4m) are rich beyond my imagining and work for companies that shape my existence. It’s true — though there’s more chance of becoming a billionaire, if that’s your thing, in Scandinavia than in the US. Famously, too, northern European social mobility is now higher. Then there are the catastrophic California wildfires that lit Palo Alto’s skies orange this summer.
The US today reminds me of Argentina. When I was in Buenos Aires in 2002, interviewing descendants of Italians, Spaniards, Britons and Poles during yet another financial crisis, I thought: their grandparents went to the wrong country. They should have emigrated to the US instead.
An Argentine historian set me right: early last century, those people were making the correct decision. They couldn’t have known that the most valuable thing they would leave behind would be their European birth certificates. By 2002, their grandchildren were queueing for passports at the Spanish and Italian consulates.
Similarly, the poor Scandinavian farmers who populated the American Midwest made a sensible choice. But their relatives who stayed home have ended up living better. Donald Trump wants fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more “from places like Norway”.
The question is why Norwegians would want to come to America today, except as aid workers. On the contrary, I suspect many Scandinavian-, German- and Irish-Americans are now rootling in the attic for grandpa’s birth certificate.
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