Walking across Boulevard St. Michel in Paris last week, on the night before Bastille Day, I bumped into an old friend--an American who has lived in the city for 25 years--who told me he was taking up the tango. When I asked him why, he suggested I take a stroll along the Left Bank of the Seine, opposite Ile St. Louis, and so of course I did.
It was one big party. A drop-dead-gorgeous crowd was tangoing away in a makeshift, open-air amphitheater. Nearby, a multiethnic group was doing the merengue. Hundreds of others were tucking into picnics by the river as a full moon rose in a cloudless sky. Much later that night, after a perfect fish soup in the Place des Vosges, I walked into the narrow passages of the Marais district and stumbled upon an impromptu block party. Someone had set up a sound system on the sidewalk, and the street was packed with people--straight and gay, young and old, black and white--dancing to salsa.
Europe is enjoying itself. O.K., in late July, it always does. The weekend I was in Paris, an estimated 500,000 kids descended on Berlin for the annual Love Parade, a carnival of techno music, dope and sex. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of families started their treks from the damp north of the Continent to their vacation homes in the warm south. But even when the sun isn't shining, Europeans seem to be throwing themselves into fun and festivity with unprecedented zeal. Each weekend, central London is one great bacchanal. Cities that for reasons of politics or religion were once gloomily repressive--Madrid, say, or Dublin--now rock to the small hours. In Prague the foreign visitors who get talked about are not the earnest young Americans who flocked there in the early 1990s, but British partygoers who have flown in for the cheap beer and pretty girls. The place that British historian Mark Mazower once called the true dark continent--and from whose curdled soul the horrors of fascism and communism sprang--has become Europa ludens, a community at play.
Funny. This is how the U.S was supposed to be. In a famous series of essays collected in his 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell noted how the decline of the Protestant small-town ethic had unhinged American capitalism from its moral foundation in the intrinsic value of work. By the 1960s, Bell argued, "the cultural justification of capitalism [had] become hedonism, the idea of pleasure as a way of life." This magazine agreed. In a 1969 cover story titled "California: A State of Excitement," TIME reported that, as most Americans saw it, "the good, godless, gregarious pursuit of pleasure is what California is all about ... 'I have seen the future,' says the newly returned visitor to California, 'and it plays.'"