Just days ago, I was in Belgium and England. At this point, I have no idea how many trips I have made to either country or to the rest of what is called Europe.
For me, Europe is very much like Africa: It is many countries and cultures as well as something that can sometimes be considered as an entity larger than itself. What I mean is, when something is termed "European," it isn't being described as being of any one country but in more collective sense. When we use such a term, we are often trying to get at a far bigger idea for the sake of conversational expediency. We're putting an infinitely large concept into a context so small, it can be immediately vague and unintentionally disingenuous.
I went to European countries as a child with my mother. My memories are of interesting accents, a sense of antiquity, the vastness of time and museums.
When I started touring with a band, Europe became more than just a list of countries you could perform in as you did states in America.
For decades, Europe has been a haven for artists and musicians. It was where Charlie Parker could go and eat in the same restaurant as any member of his audience, something that wasn't always possible in his native state of Kansas or what should have been his native land, America.
Having racial epithets hurled at you and being treated as a subclass of human might not stoke the furnace of your patriotism. It's no wonder Europe became a welcoming place for so many great American artists, from Lightnin' Hopkins to Henry Miller, whose work for years was banned in the land of the First Amendment, while he was hailed as a literary hero in Europe.
If you are in an alternative band, if you make noise that is rarely heard on the radio, if you are in any way strange or "arty," there is a good chance that many people will find value in your output if you take it to Europe.
In 1988, I took the legendary writer Hubert Selby Jr. to Europe as my opener, for a series of speaking dates. It was amazing to watch his mind get blown on an almost daily basis. Preshow, while I was at the venue, Selby often was being whisked around town for radio and television appearances. People hugged him on the street and brought hardcover editions of his books in translation, to be signed after his appearances. When we would do the shows, after his performance, many people would leave. He was the one they came to see. I don't think he had ever experienced anything like it.
To watch him be so appreciated and respected, as the truly great writer he was, was one of the most inspirational things I have ever witnessed. It moved him to tears more than once. I can't thank Europe enough for that.
I will never be able to repay Europe, the geographical place or the concept, for the decades of kindness, respect and generosity it has heaped upon me. There were, on the first few tours, some rough experiences — that's life — but the far larger experience has been amazing and hugely impactful.
I love the countries of Europe. Love them. They are a part of my life. It's great to be somewhat familiar with so many streets in so many European cities, from Belgium to Portugal. It is like having a home as big as the world. It is something that those who do not travel will simply never know and never be served so well by. Travel makes you a better person.
Although the areas that comprise Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and continental Europe are pretty spread out on the map, I think that, to a certain degree, they all share a connection that is as deep as it gets. World War II has united every European country, even neutral Switzerland, through blood, sadness and incalculable loss, in ways that are still detectable decades later.
The destruction leveled upon these countries — what they have had to recover from and what they have done in order to prevent anything like it from happening again — is as much part of the European identity as anything else.
I think this is why Europe places such emphasis on the arts. It is a safeguard against ignorance and the more obscene acts perpetrated by humankind. And I think international sporting events keep the conversations between European countries continuous and healthy.
The people of every country in Europe understand that almost everything can be lost, and that war takes several generations to fully recover from. Humanity should not have to be so resilient, but what we sometimes do to one another really leaves us no other choice, which is one of the things that makes our species so amazing.
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This is why the recent attacks in Paris are more than horrific headlines from an incredible city. It is a stab in the collective heart of Europe, and the world.
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