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Europe vs. the US

After eight trips to Europe covering at least 18 countries, some patterns show up over and over again. Therefore, a totally subjective view of the strengths of each.

Favorite things about Europe:

1. Food Quality: yoghurt, cheese, and beer that are rich and still alive, wide availability of organic and natural foods in supermarkets, wine and chocolate with full body and tremendous flavor, fresh local produce, bakery breads...

2. Multilingualism and Multiculturalism: Most educated Europeans speak at least two languages; many speak several. On my first trip to Europe, back in 1973, I encountered a couple of kids, maybe 8 and 10 years old, who tried three or four languages until they got a response, in English, from my sister and me.

3. A Sense of History: Most European cities have a long-held planning philosophy that emphasizes preservation. It's common to encounter town centers whose buildings date from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries, while the 20th-century skyscrapers rise beyond the outer core. And Europeans always seem to know the crucial events of their own country for at least the last thousand years. This is why European cities and towns have such exciting and vibrant architecture—because the past has been preserved while being modernized.

4. Appreciation of Lifestyle Rhythms and Work/Family Balance: While long commutes have been eroding this, it's still very common for Europeans (not only in the southern countries with a strong Siesta tradition, but even in the UK) to take time off during the day, have lunch at home with their families, go back to work in the afternoon feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, and then return home for a long, leisurely slow-food family dinner. Grabbing a slice of pizza or a hot dog and eating it on the run is simply not part of the culture; food is to be savored, and family plays a crucial role.

5. Political Awareness: In far greater numbers than the US, Europeans have a grasp of the interconnectedness of political, social, and ecological issues across borders. Living with international borders close by in several directions, Europeans understand that a stone dropped into a metaphorical pond creates a complex of ripples, that seemingly unrelated occurrences are actually tied together. Even the cab drivers can often talk politics in depth; we had one in London who ought to have been teaching at a university. And educated Europeans are far more informed about world affairs than the average American.

6. Transit: In most European cities and towns, a well-established and much-used network of buses, trams, suburban and long-distance trains can get you pretty much anywhere, efficiently and comfortably. While large private cars are gaining currency, most vehicles tend to be much smaller than American cars—and the inner cores tend to be pedestrian-friendly. In many parts of Europe, bicycles are also heavily used, and dedicated bike lanes, vast numbers of bike racks, and the ability to bring a bike onto a train all help keep the populace fit and trim while lowering air pollution.

7. Conservation Consciousness: Small cars (encouraged by far higher fuel prices), water-saving toilets with different settings for large and small loads, efficient use of space, and reliance on renewable technology—such as the vast wind farms in Scandinavia—all add up to a commitment to use resources wisely. This in turn probably laid the foundation for the vast and powerful Green movement that has won seats in many parliaments and local governments, and even ministries in several countries. And this strong popular movement has helped rein in some of the worst excesses of industrialization and sprawl.

8. Appreciation of Culture: Surrounded by art and music, Europeans gravitate to beauty. Simple household objects bear the stamp of art: paper napkins with patterns like fine china, beautiful natural dyes for toilet paper and towels, an artful approach to details in clothing or hair, statues on every square or carved into buildings—and high standards of music appreciation. In Italy, street sweepers sing opera. In the Czech Republic, we saw the same bus driver at two classical concerts. In Russia, a girl of about 12 was playing beautiful classical violin in the park.

9. Parliamentary Democracy: Forget the winner-take-all election method. In Europe, seats in Parliament are allocated as a percentage of the vote. Thus, minority voices such as the Green Party might get five or ten or twenty percent of the vote and still be part of the governing body, able to make their voices heard and represent their constituency. A far fairer system that encourages the development of new ideas and new alliances, and gives ordinary people both more choice and more power.

10. Distinct Village Identities: Villages are still very much a part of European society. They often have clear boundaries and a clear identity, and they may specialize in a particular artisanship (such as the separate islands for glassblowing and lace-making in Venice). There's still a value placed on the land, and an understanding that the cow or goat grazing in the field has a direct relationship with the food on our table.

10 Things I Like Better About the US:

1. Less Smog: In the US, cars have had pollution control devices since 1963; European trucks still belch plumes of black smoke.

2. Tobacco-free zones: While there's less smoking in Europe than there used to be, it's hard to get away, especially in southern, central, and eastern countries. Non-smoking sections in restaurants and pubs are rare, though the movement for smoke-free has made progress.

3. Creature Comforts: Window screens, fans or air conditioners, large bathtubs, soft toilet paper, and so forth.

4. The "Can-Do" spirit: Europeans are mired in bureaucracy. Any request out of the ordinary may involve a great deal of red tape and form-filling out. (One among many examples: when we bought tickets for an event in Italy, thinking it was a live-music concert, walked into the hall and realized it was something different, walked out again before the performance started and explained that we'd had the wrong idea, the ticket seller actually had to call the boss in order to authorize returning our money. We were waiting a good 20 minutes.) In America, employees are empowered to make it happen.

5. Wide-Open Spaces: Expanses of hundreds of miles of wilderness in the desert or forest.

6. Acceptance of Cultural, Religious, and Racial Diversity: Yes, we have a long way to go—but a myriad of ethnic communities and a broad mix of religions help shape the US. In Europe, most countries are dominated by one religion. And while recent decades have brought an influx of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants, the culture in much of Europe is totally dominated by people whose local roots stretch for many generations, and who are heavily tilted toward white and Christian.

7. Free Public Restrooms: A rarity in many parts of Europe.

8. Natural Wonders: The US is blessed with giant redwoods, the Grand Canyon, the stony cliffs of Maine, dunes, barrier islands...

9. Separation of Church and State: The absence of state-sanctioned religion makes a huge difference to cultural minorities. As a Jew, I'm not at all sure I'd be comfortable living in a country where Christianity or Islam was completely intertwined with the government, and if you were not of the majority, the government worked against or even persecuted you in the sometimes-recent past.

10. Flexible Class Barriers: In the US, it's much easier to rise above your class. It even has happened recently that a boy raised in severe rural poverty actually became President (Bill Clinton)—although, of course, he was a wealthy, well-connected, and successful politician long before winning the race. Still, America is a nation that values achievement, and where it really doesn't matter how many generations back you can trace your pedigree, because your place in history can be altered by your own efforts. (Yes, I'm a realist, and I recognize the power and wealth of political dynasty families of great wealth, e.g., Kennedy, Bush, and Roosevelt. But Clinton, Ford, and Carter prove success is possible without that kind of heritage.)

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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