The European Life-Style

I have two quick posts this morning, but blogging will be spotty today. The mute kid puked when he got off the school bus this morning. The nurse put a "return to sender" stamp on his forehead, so he's watching Cartoon Network downstairs. Somehow I have to grade the blog projects while parenting. Le sigh.

Spain-Mallorca-Valldemossa-Outdoor Cafe OK, the first post of the day is a link to Russell Arben Fox's post about the life-changing experience of living in Germany. I've never lived in Europe, but I've bummed around there over the years with a backpack or stayed with my sister who lived in Spain. Like Russell, I love the walk-ability of Europe, the daily shopping for fresh produce, the slower pace of life, the great food, the bicycles, the small apartments, and the boisterous pubs and cafes. Not to mention the generous social welfare programs.

Russell identifies this lifestyle with conservatism. I'm not sure if any ideology can claim the rights to this lifestyle.

Why don't we have that here? I want everything from the cafes to the subsidized daycare.

In a comment in a previous post, Siobhan says that Americans have made a trade off between the big houses and lawns for that European experience.

While David Brooks wrote that maybe Americans do want a different lifestyle — something with more community, but retains their cars and their backyards.

We need real urban planning to undo the bad decisions of the past sixty years that have given us suburban sprawl and shopping centers. Instead, we're held hostage by local interests who lack a central vision or plan and building decisions are based solely on what brings in ratables, what helps their friends, and what lowers taxes.

19 thoughts on “The European Life-Style

  1. But, Laura, didn’t you have those things in New York? (walk-ability, daily shopping, good food, small apartments, boisterous pubs & cafes)? Probably not the slower pace of life, but plenty of European cities don’t strike me as having that, either. Of course, you didn’t have the subsidized day care and schools, which I think are the real problem with urban life in the US, and one mitigated in Europe by their less diverse population.
    I think there’s a significant individual streak in the American psyche (not mention vast swathes of land) that make our lifestyle choices (single family houses with yards) more than just the bad planning of the last 60 years. I think Americans really want personal space. I’m also finding that a number of Europeans I know are choosing a more “American” lifestyle (i.e. moving to the suburbs).

  2. You know, I’m going to make a pitch for the awesomeness of Levittown. YES, LEVITTOWN. The Levitts originally built it to center on walkability, mainly because of the idea that there were one-car families. The moms who stayed at home needed to be able to walk to the Village Greens (Do you remember those days hanging out at the Village Green?😉 When I visit my parents in a late-ish-built Levitt development, I’m always amazed how we can just walk over to the pool, and Carvel, and Chinese food, and Carman Farms (bodega-type small grocery). We can’t do that in the development I live in (built in 1960 in SE Mass.).

  3. PS: now is the time — get Steve to angle for a transfer to Europe. It must be possible, at least somewhere along the line. You could write your book there. And, we’d get the lovely experience of your blogging from Europe (allowing me to live vicariously through your experience). What can we do to help🙂

  4. I should clarify that what I was trying to get at was something beyond “Aren’t Americans awful with their McMansions and their Hummers?”
    My point was more that even among friends and acquaintances who consider themselves quite frugal — and would be thrilled to have their aesthetic described as “European” — because they only own a three-bedroom house and they only drive Subarus not Volvos, they only live in Squirrel Hill, not Shadyside, and they buy J. Crew which is expensive “but lasts”. “So why can’t we get ahead and why are our lives so rushed?” they ask.
    But three bedroom houses are still quite unnecessary for 1-2 kids, and Subaru Foreseters are still in the high $20k new and suitably equipped, Squirrel Hill is still the third wealthiest of Pgh’s 80+ neighborhoods, and as a total J. Crew fanatic, I call BS on the claim that it really lasts longer than most of the stuff you’d find at JC Penneys.
    Ugh, I’m just rambling now.

  5. You can find find plenty of “big houses with yards” in “Europe,” it’s just that’s not the Europe that 20-something upper-middle class Americans go looking for. I stayed at a middle-class home in a Bavarian village (about an hour’s drive from Munich) that would give most American McMansions an inferiority complex. The yard wasn’t vast, but the house had been originally intended for a post-war family with four kids, and it was easily 3000 or 3500 square feet. Opa and Oma have the top floor and any visiting kids can have the bottom floor, which now had a second kitchen installed for longer visits. That was the only house I saw the inside of during our visit, but the villages and the countryside were dotted with similarly barn-sized homes.

  6. Siobhan, if you’d have said ‘Jeep’ instead of ‘Subaru’ and ‘Brooks Brothers’ instead of ‘J. Crew’, I’d have to assume you were following me around again. Don’t forget to vote for Dowd and pick-up organic broccoli at Whole Foods on the way home.

  7. “…as a total J. Crew fanatic, I call BS on the claim that it really lasts longer than most of the stuff you’d find at JC Penneys.”
    I don’t know about those two brands, but there truly is a big differerence in durability between GAP and Landsend and Carter’s versus downmarket children’s clothing (although maybe not enough to justify the expense). My bete noire is $%@#^&* popped seams on $10 children’s items, especially after the second washing. (I just spent most of last night hand-repairing about two feet of a fallen hem on a school uniform.)

  8. “…That was the only house I saw the inside of during our visit…”
    Scratch that. I just remembered that we also visited the matriarch of the family (who must have been in her 80s). She lived in a much smaller home on the family farm.

  9. Amy P, I’m talking about people who would consider Carter’s* (which I love almost as much as J. Crew) a little downmarket: far to gender specific and too many characters (although at least they’re not “licensed characters”, something which strikes fear into the heart of every good progressive Pgh parent). They’re buying Zutano and Hanna Anderson because “it lasts” (as if that matters when they outgrow it within months and you can only afford one kid anyway) and they think it has that Nordic look.
    (* In between everything being at least 40% off there permanently and the additional 20% off coupons they hand out like candy, if someone spends more than $10 on a Carter’s item, they aren’t doing it right.)

  10. Thanks for the link, Laura. It’s also at my blog here.
    Russell identifies this lifestyle with conservatism. I’m not sure if any ideology can claim the rights to this lifestyle.
    “Conservatism” within quotation marks. It’s “conservative” because it’s intent on conserving what history has built and what families and communities do together, rather than allowing all of the above to be paved under and driven from the market by the big stores, by the expressways, by 24-7 work-week mentality, by all the expansiveness of American capitalism. Western Europe teaches many things, and not all of them positive, but one very positive point is simply this: if you want to conserve all the little things that make life good for families and for diverse ways of life, then one important option is to think big, at least in terms of taxes and regulations and all that “social welfare” requires.

  11. Amy,
    I think Americans really want personal space. I’m also finding that a number of Europeans I know are choosing a more “American” lifestyle (i.e. moving to the suburbs).
    As I say towards the end of my post, we knew a family over there–smart, friendly, wonderful people, deeply “German” in pretty much every way you can measure–who were desperate to move to the states. They had three kids, and dammit, they wanted those kids to have a yard where they could play on a swingset and rip up the sod, and hang the neighbors. Obviously, most modern human beings are always going to be floating back and forth on a continuum, looking either for more community or more freedom. There were definitely people over there who envied the individual freedom which America’s space and economic opportunity makes possible. I just wish more people would recognize the truth of what Laura is talking about: that the welfare states of Western Europe produce their own more “positive” freedoms as well.

  12. “…if you want to conserve all the little things that make life good for families and for diverse ways of life, then one important option is to think big, at least in terms of taxes and regulations and all that “social welfare” requires.”
    Just don’t forget that you can get high taxes without good services, that regulations can screw-up social welfare as easily as they can improve it, and that in areas without high levels of social cohesion, taxes and regulations tend to get set by those with vested interests or absurbly high tolerances for boredom.

  13. “They’re buying Zutano and Hanna Anderson because “it lasts”…”
    Plus you have to figure out your child’s size in the European system, which is inherently ennobling.
    “Just don’t forget that you can get high taxes without good services, that regulations can screw-up social welfare as easily as they can improve it, and that in areas without high levels of social cohesion, taxes and regulations tend to get set by those with vested interests or absurbly high tolerances for boredom.”
    Amen. My husband has been sharing with me some of the Texas state laws that he’s come across since we’ve moved here, and it’s amazing how restrictive and counter-productive many of them are. There are certain areas of the law (like gun laws) where the populace is vigilant about protecting their rights (i.e. you can be blind and hunt legally in Texas), but in other respects, it’s amazing what the state legislators get away with in a freedom-loving state. 1. You need a permit to buy an Erlenmeyer flask in Texas as in some other states (we’re eventually going to do some home chemistry for the kids, so I’m ticked off about it–gosh darned War on Drugs). 2. As I understand it, Texas businesses are required to pay a tax on the value of their equipment (not a sales tax–you pay it every year), which has got to be catastrophic during a slow down or for capital-intensive businesses, as well as making it very tempting to falsify values. (My husband has a very small side business producing software, so that was a shocker this spring. Fortunately, he doesn’t need a lot of equipment beyond a laptop.) 3. Although there is an exception for garage sales, technically you are a retailer and you are supposed to pay the state sales if you sell more then a handful of items a year. So if you buy an item new for $10 and sell it used through Craigslist for $5, technically, you might need to be collecting sales tax and sending it in. My husband has an inquiry in with the state. My hope is that they’ll realize that Craigslisting used items is the equivalent of a garage sale and that it would be asinine to have state workers processing checks for 8 cents of sales tax on a dollar item sold through Craigslist.
    Then on the national level, there’s the issue of CPSIA and its unexpected effect on small-time US craftspeople who make children’s clothing and toys, as well as resellers of children’s books. There are apparently similar issues with farmer’s markets, which are supposed to be in jeopardy, although I don’t know as much about that as about the CPSIA shenanigans. The stuff about used books has really hurt my respect for the law. I’ve normally a big ole goody two shoes, but there is no way that I am going to even try to obey the CPSIA regulations on sales of children’s books from before 1985.
    Anyway, my point is that you think you’re free up until you try to do stuff or start paying attention to what the laws are, and then you realize how many threads there are holding you down, how much regulation there is, and how poorly thought-out it all is. My suggestion is that legislators be required to annul one existing piece of legislation for each new one they want to pass–one in, one out.

  14. Is an REI rain-suit a bit too much for a three-year old? We have one now, due to deep discounting. Unfortunately, we don’t have a rain suit for an adult, so I’m a bit wet.

  15. “Plus you have to figure out your child’s size in the European system, which is inherently ennobling.”
    And Amy shoots, she scores!
    And owes me a new laptop.

  16. Thanks, Wendy. I have some ratty German hand-me-downs for the kids, and I cannot describe what pleasure it gives me to be able to dress them in “baumwolle.”

  17. I thought this NYT article relevant to the discussion, of why the US isn’t Europe, and not just because of an accident of planning:
    Apparently 72% say they either have, or will achieve the American dream: “72 percent of Americans in this nationwide survey said they believed it is possible to start out poor in the United States, work hard and become rich.”
    and, then, they quote to the historical definition of the American Dream, first coined during the depression:
    “In his book, “The Epic of America,” the historian James Truslow Adams wrote, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.””
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/us/08dreampoll.html

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