America, it seems, has deserted Europe this year. Statistics from the first half of 2003 show double-digit percentage drops from last year's levels of U.S. tourists. And that was before the infernal summer, which has featured 100+ temperatures, wildfires from Iberia to the Balkans, and more than three dozen heat-related deaths. If this keeps up, as predicted, Americans will be scarcer on the streets of Rome and Paris than the natives themselves (most of whom are already on vacation).
Once things cool off, Americans will still have cause to stay away. A big reason is money. One year ago, a euro cost 97.5 cents; today it's more than $1.13, a rise of more than 17 percent. There's also lingering resentment of the diplomatic rift over the second Gulf War, which anecdotal evidence suggests has particularly harmed France. And as Americans get ever more security-conscious in the wake of 9/11, travel abroad grows ever less inviting.
Sooner or later, though, the Americans will be back. Notwithstanding all the angry talk from politicians and pundits, Europe matters too much to the American soul.
The most enduring draw is religious. The Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches all have their headquarters here, and Europe is the cradle of Protestantism. Jewish history is deeply, though painfully, interwoven with that of all European nations. Muslims find in Spain some of the most glorious monuments to Islamic civilization and its importance to the West. For most Americans of faith, Europe is sacred ground.
Then of course there are the cultural shrines. Even the most shameless philistine will visit the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa, if only to see what the fuss is about. America has its own proud cultural traditions, with rich contributions from non-Western sources, but let's waste no time arguing over where lie the roots of its art, literature, science, philosophy and system of government. For Americans of all races and creeds, whether they like it or not, Europe's heritage is also theirs.
A trip to Europe used to be more of a luxury than it is now. As one who came of age in the early '80s -- after the heyday of charter flights and $5-a-day budget travel, but before the passenger's bonanza of E.U. airline deregulation -- I didn't make it over till I was 28. Now middle-class college kids hop on discounted flights to Frankfurt and Amsterdam the way they used to hit Ft. Lauderdale.
It's a good thing that the Old World has become more accessible, but sometimes I think it's become a little too much so. When I look and listen to my countrymen sightseeing in Rome, I rarely sense the awe that I felt, and no doubt showed, on my first visit here 11 years ago -- that feeling of Holy Smoke, I'm actually looking at St. Peter's. People tend to take for granted even a priceless experience when it comes cheap, so maybe the current situation will enhance their appreciation. Even to someone who earns his living in dollars, that hope offers some consolation for the rise of the euro.