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When Europe Disappears: Baudrillard and the Hotel Chef

"In reality you do not, as I had hoped, get any distance on Europe from here. You do not acquire a fresh angle on it. When you turn around, it has quite simply disappeared." I have been rereading Jean Baudrillard's America, the French philosopher's collection of travel notes on the US. Baudrillard wrote as a European, more specifically as a Frenchman. He can be arrogant and annoying but his fascination with America is palpable throughout the book and his observations often ring true for me.

Yes, Europe becomes small when we get here. It happens when we come as visitors, because of the sheer immensity of the country, and it happens when we come as immigrants: Europe suddenly feels far away; it seems more distant than the US does from Vienna. The reason? I have not lived in any US city other than Los Angeles and can only speak for what happens here but  L.A. plunges us into the here and now - although not in the Zen sense of the meaning.

First Los Angeles leaves us no time for looking back. There is the speed of life, its busyness - at work, in the community, as a family. The stress of finding a job; the opportunities for volunteering, on a neighborhood level, for the community, the school, the local hospital; the many ways to spend a weekend (from state and national parks to amusement parks).

Then there are the demands of interacting with people from dozens of cultures and 24/7. This is different than in Austria. People here talk to strangers, to people they meet in the elevator, on the parking lot, at the cash register. I know that the hotel chef went to Catholic school (Don Bosco) and that he has a child which is now in sixth grade; the hotel receptionist would like to purchase an unlocked cell phone. Communication is key here. Those who would rather be left alone have a hard time in Los Angeles.

Third, in L.A. an individual's past doesn't matter. This is frustrating for dyed in the wool Europeans but others find it very freeing: all the things that are so important in the Old World and especially in Austria signify nothing: family background, social class, academic titles - no one cares. The question is: who are you now?


Reese said…
Your third point makes me ponder about cultural identity..Are people (particularly in LA) interested to learn about your country? Do people ask "where are you from? "Can you tell me more"? OR these questions are simply not of pertinence..
debi said…
Christina and Reese,

I'm fascinated by what both of you have written. L.A. is no different from Dallas in the friendliness terms, but background is very important in the world I'm familiar with - how can I understand you without knowing all of you?

I've lived in the same state, town, neighborhood for decades - the same house for over 26 years - it's a huge definition of who I am. And then I think, if I moved somewhere else, I would work to make it a definition of me and visa versa.

I guess, in the world I know, there is a mixture of the "who are you now" and "where are you from". How can you have one without the other? We are only a partial person, community, country without both.

Fascinating thoughts. I want to hear more.

Reese and Debi,

Thank you for your comments. My answer is long overdue - mainly because of the chaos of the move.

People in L.A. ask where I am from when they hear my accent, they want to hear more, but they don't judge me by my past. In Austria and other European countries this is often (not always!) different. A person's standing can depend on such things as a college degree, or parental lineage.

This summer I was talking to my massage therapist in Vienna about the physician who had referred me to him. The massage therapist mentioned that he likes the physician as a person because "He treats me like an equal eventhough I don't have a college degree." Excuse me?

The point is that the doctor - unlike many Central Europeans - doesn't ask about the therapist's background. He respects him for what he is now: a man who takes his work seriously and excels at what he does.

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