Last fall, just as this issue was starting to take shape, I received an invitation to a press conference held by the European Commission, a sort of chamber of commerce of nations. In promoting a new tourism program called “Routes to the Roots,” speakers from Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, and Norway praised the success of the American experiment and the way we as a people have managed to forge a common purpose yet keep our individual ethnic identities. This struck me as an appealingly archaic, faded-sepia-postcard view of a society whose warp and woof is undoubtedly a bit frayed right now. Indeed, it was only the day before the conference that Pope John Paul II had arrived in America; from the tarmac at Newark Airport, he had implored Americans to hold open our doors to immigrants.
With “Routes to the Roots” the nations named above plus Iceland, Finland, Greece, Italy, and Poland are betting on our underlying fealty to the worth of the immigrant experience. In most of these countries ambitious plans are under way now, or will be in the near future, to restore historic ports of embarkation, such as Cobh, Bremerhaven, Stavanger, and Liverpool, and to lure back as visitors the American descendants of those most intrepid of travelers who left their homelands to launch new lives. Rebuilding ancient docks and waterfront buildings to house museums, devising models of creaky immigrant ships, plotting tours along the very paths our ancestors trod as they stopped at ticket offices or rented rooms for a last night in the Old World, historical agencies of these nations are forging links with one another in order to get you over for a visit. It’s a business plan of course; not coincidentally, these ports are in the less well-known corners of their nations. But it’s much more than that. It’s Europe’s acknowledgment that Americans did it right; we broke down national barriers to a degree unheard of ever before, and now in a time of utmost urgency they must do so too.
“We’ll take the Americans to the ports of embarkation,” the program’s ebullient director, Dr. Wolfgang Grams of Germany’s University of Oldenburg, told me, explaining his plans for the future, “And then we’ll send them all back on the QE2 .”