It’s Sunday night in Trento, Italy, and I am at the end of a long journey that began on Saturday morning in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a former steel mill town in suburban Pittsburgh. I was downstairs in the breakfast room of the hotel, where I shared a table with a man who had been at the Evangelical Christian conference at which I had spoken about the Benedict Option. His name was Andy, and he was from London. Immediately likable, this guy. At some point, we began to talk about Christianity and culture, and he revealed that he had been the lead singer of a 1980s band called After The Fire.
Suddenly, I was sixteen again, recalling sitting on the edge of the coffee table in my family’s living room, early in the morning of 1982, putting on my socks for school that day, watching MTV and this guy, Andy Piercy, singing the English language version of the hit song “Der Kommissar.”
In those days, I was on the borders of everything that I had been given in my little town. I don’t think I have ever felt like I belonged anywhere – I’m not complaining; it’s just my personality – but it was acute for me in that time, and that place. My father was one of the first people in our town to get a satellite dish. I’m not sure why he did it, but he did, and there was a giant square white plastic dip bowl, big as an upturned gazebo, mounted on a steel pipe in our back yard. Most of the time, it was locked in to the broadcast from Satcom 3 – and that meant MTV. I was there at the beginning of MTV, and to me, it was like Radio Free Europe, or something. I immersed myself in New Wave and early ‘80s Britpop.
As it turned out, MTV had to air so much British music because American record companies were slower to respond to the video revolution. I didn’t know that then, though. For me, MTV broadcast sound and vision from another world – a world that made room for me, at least in my own mind. If only I could get to London, I would belong, I thought. Don’t you want me, baby? Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do? I’m on the hunt, I’m after you. Come on, Eileen. Do you really want to hurt me? And: don’t turn around, the Commissar’s in town.
How to say how much those lines meant to me back then? As trite and ephemeral as all of it was, that music carried me through a dark and anxious time of my life.
Andy Piercy was my breakfast companion on Saturday morning. I told him that my mom won a trip to Europe in a church drawing, and, knowing that I longed intensely to go to Europe, sent me in her place. I was a kid on a coach full of elderly Americans, but I didn’t care: I was going to Europe. I flew into London in the summer of 1984. I was 17, and went to Carnaby Street as fast as I could, and staked my claim on independence by getting my ear pierced.
That trip – my first time ever in Europe – would set the direction for the rest of my life, in ways that were not clear to me until later. I’ve told the story about how on that trip, I followed the tourist group into the Chartres cathedral, and beheld beauty so overwhelming that I had no categories for it. God spoke to me through that beauty, and first called me to Himself. As I’ve written before, I did not walk out of that medieval Gothic cathedral a Christian, but I did emerge onto something. I had heard a secret message, one I could not decipher, but whose reality I could not deny. You know how that turned out.
The other big thing I learned on that trip was that life could be something else, something other than what I had been given. I met my Dutch pen pal Miriam in her town in the south of Holland. Valkenswaard was its name. I had dreamed of Valkenswaard as everything my own town was not. What I discovered was that kids in Valkenswaard dreamed of America as everything their town was not. It was, in truth, an unhappy surprise to discover that Valkenswaard was a real place and not a fantasy village. I laugh to think about it today, at 50, but back then, I needed to believe in Valkenswaard like I needed to believe in Carnaby Street and Dexys Midnight Runners and After The Fire and all of it. If only I could possess it, and be a part of it, I would finally belong.
Well, no. That’s not how it works. There are some places that are better than others, but the thing I learned was that you can’t escape from yourself. This is unfortunate. But there it is.
Still, I liked the me that I met on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, on Carnaby Street in London, and on Karel Mollen Straat Noord in Valkenswaard. It turned out that I didn’t quite feel that I belonged in those places in a way I had hoped I would, but that was okay. The gift was that my outsiderness felt like something I could live with. I was a stranger here, but nobody saw me, and that was liberating. Thirty years later, walking across the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on a fall day, all alone, I felt the same strange paradoxical joy: belonging in my alienation, in a world that was enchanted because it was strange to me. It’s a lovely feeling.
I would not have felt it in China, or anywhere else. Europe was everything to me. The idea of being lost in Shanghai, for example, frightens me. Being lost in a European city or town, though, is perfect. For me, it offered the opportunity to go deeper into what made my world, what made everything I loved. What made me. Why did I feel at home in the Chartres cathedral in a way I never had in my actual home? That mystery has been with me all my life.
My ninth-grade English teacher signed my yearbook with a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”: “And still he was filled with ‘’satiable curiosity.” She had my number. European civilization is an old curiosity shop for me, and there are no ends to its shelves and warrens. Back in 2012, when I spent the month of October with my family in Paris, my son Matthew and I, both bibliophiles, discovered a musty basement bookshop near the Sorbonne: the Abbey. The Canadian proprietors sold used English-language books. The place is small and crowded and medieval, and we loved it, both of us. To be in an old place, surrounded by old books, is a great grace for people like us. And I have to say that for a father, to see that his children love the same things he loves is a great gift. My father had that with my sister, and it gave him such satisfaction. He did not have it with me, and it was the source of sorrow for both of us.
I am in Italy this week with Matthew, who is 17. I decided to celebrate my 50th birthday year by taking each of my three children on a special trip with me. Matt goes first. I have a conference to attend in Trento early this week. After it, we are taking the train up to Munich, which Matt, who is something of a Germanophile, wants to see. We will end the trip next weekend in Venice. I have never been to these places, so we will discover them together.
Of all three children, Matt is the one most like me. He has had a very different childhood from the one I had in many ways, but he is even more of an outsider by nature than I was, and has incomparably better musical taste. His sense of curiosity is even more intense than my own, though it expresses itself in a cooler, more restrained, more, well, German way. One of the gifts he has given me is introducing me to music that I would not have heard otherwise. David Bowie, for instance. I knew and liked the Bowie hits, but Matt took me on a deep dive of Bowie’s catalog, and boy, is it interesting.
On the flight over from Atlanta, I watched a short documentary about the last five years of Bowie’s life, and the music he made. It wasn’t all that great, this film, but it did teach me some things about Bowie that I didn’t know. The film focused in one part on one of his final songs, “Where Are We Now?”, a moody recollection of the years he spent in Berlin in the 1970s. It has a very “Wings Of Desire” feel to it, this song. In the movie, they quote from old Bowie interviews in which he talks about his perpetual outsiderness, and how his own personality is oriented toward “apocalypticism” (his word). I thought: Yes, that’s me. I know that feeling, and it is where I am happiest. The deep, deep sense that all this beauty is passing through our fingers. This yearning to capture it, to preserve it, to exist with it forever, yet knowing that you can’t, because that is not how life is. We are made for eternity, but live in time, and the creative tension that emerges from being stretched between those two poles creates the art and music and prayers of our lives.
It is all passing, but that only makes it sweeter. It is going to be a good thing to spend this week with my 17-year-old son, and to see what he can show me about Europe through his fresh eyes.