10 things Europeans do better than us

10 Things Europeans do better than us

I returned yesterday from an incredible two-week vacation in Europe. I’m sorry, that makes me sound snooty. I hope that’s not true. This trip was a blessing, and certainly not a deserved one.

We planned this trip for a long time and took our grown kids with us on a work-related trip, with vacation time included. We visited some churches that we support, and we rolled that experience into a typical high-energy, low-rest Schlesman vacation, complete with sleeping on bunks in hostels, sporting events, and 25,000 steps per day (when we weren’t careening around hairpin mountain turns in a little rental car). Each of us took everything we needed in a carry-on roller bag and a backpack. So–it was super cool, but not very stylish.

This vacation marked, I think, my sixth trip to Europe. I am lucky. The problem is that my desire for Europe is never satisfied, and now I can tell, it never will be. On this trip, we covered multiple environs: country villages, mountain resorts, oceanfront beach towns, historic places, famous cities. Each place reinforced something I’ve thought during previous trips: Europeans do several things better than we do in the United States.

Here’s my list. See what you think.

  1. Community. Everyone likes to say that family and friends are our number one priority in America, but our lifestyles don’t often reflect that. We carpool kids to practices during the dinner hour and send group texts to communicate with one another. Not so in Europe. For example, in France parents and kids meet at home or the café for a two-hour lunch each day. Dinners are late and include friends and extended relations. People work shorter work days and have more vacation days. It’s normal to take a month off in the summer to travel or rent a beach house. These folks know how to rest.
  2. Enjoying the outside. Nobody stays in the house. Sure, most houses and apartments are smaller on average than American homes—several hundred square feet to our thousands—but perhaps that’s a value, rather than an economical difference. European villages and towns are built for outdoor community, with more parks, more gardens, more designed walking and biking trails. Even in Paris, I watched children coloring by the Seine or biking past Notre Dame. They weren’t on their phones or in front of the TV on a beautiful day. They were actually using their legs. They walk everywhere. Whether we were hiking, biking, climbing, or touring, I watched European families on the move, and the kids weren’t complaining about being hot, tired, or hungry. (Well, maybe they were. I don’t speak German, Dutch, or Czech, and my French is slow.) But the kids looked content, anyway. I just kept thinking, “I wouldn’t bring a toddler or a baby here,” which shows my obvious un-European perspective about what’s hard and what’s worth the trouble.
  3. Face-to-face communication. Cell phones don’t rule life. Oh, yes, everybody has them, and everybody uses them. But phones are put away when people are talking together or sitting at the table. And I didn’t see any children with a cell phone. The children were running around unsupervised, amusing themselves. What a novel concept.
  4. Child-centered living. This term is a dirty word in Christian-parenting circles. It hints of spoiling your kids and raising entitled adults. That’s another blog, perhaps. I’m really not an expert on how European children turn out. I’m talking about a culture that’s child-friendly, not child-driven. I couldn’t help but notice that European children are included in everything and that there don’t seem to be many places that are not open to families with kids. Conversations, outings, dinners–people take their kids everywhere instead of getting a babysitter. There were little kids and babies all along the Tour de France route, for instance. They sat in 90-degree heat for the entire day, on a mountain at 10,000 feet elevation, snacking on baguettes and cheese and warm water. And not screaming. But I guess some of them did get to arrive and leave in a stroller.
  5. Conservation. I’m not just talking about recycling and limited bathing. Or the tiny showers and tiny kitchens with gadgets hanging from the ceiling and little things tucked into every corner. They also have very tiny trash cans there—another telling sign. Europe is the birthplace of IKEA, you know. And the Swiss Army knife. And Legos and Playmobiles. They know how to put things together and make items that do 10 different things at once. I am always impressed by the ingenuity of organization, especially in Germany. Wow, those people can create systems. Everything works in the best possible way, with the least amount of waste. Everything is a masterpiece of function, while the French make everything a masterpiece of beauty. Things serve purposes greater than brief consumption.
  6. Gardens. Yes, we have gardens in the U.S. But in our country, you have a green thumb, or you don’t. You have a lawn guy, you do it yourself, or you let the weeks grow until someone leaves a nasty note in your mailbox. We celebrate the freedom of not caring if things grow or how they grow. But it seems like everyone in Europe can garden. Even in apartment buildings, residents grown flowers at every window and till a little plot somewhere. I took about 25 pictures of hydrangea bushes while I was there. I couldn’t help myself. Hydrangeas are my favorite flower, and they were everywhere, and the blooms were as big as my head. And don’t get me started on English hedges. Remarkable.
  7. Remembering history, even bad history. We’re good at history in the U.S.: we have beautiful monuments and markers; we like celebrating our success as a super-power and making people feel patriotic. But we’re not so good at highlighting our mistakes; we cover them over or highlight the winner of the conflict, instead of honoring the losers and the misfits. I grew up visiting a lot of battlefields, historic sites, and museums, but I don’t recall any Japanese concentration camps or monuments to Freedom Fighters. In recent years, we’ve added Smithsonian buildings to tell the histories of the Native American and the African American. We built Holocaust museums, but a Holocaust museum in Germany is a different animal. Their death camps and gas chambers tell the real story of history because you can go in for free and experience the reality of disenfranchisement. There, you feel how a nation blindly followed the promise of prosperity and supremacy and then reaped the humiliation and culpability of having annihilated their friends and neighbors. Instead of hiding it, they’ve chosen to live with the pain so everyone else can learn from their mistakes. Perhaps if we in America had correctly documented (let alone corrected) our sins throughout our history, we wouldn’t still be suffering from divisions of race, class, and gender for decades—even centuries—after we made the mistakes.
  8. Castles. I have to go here. Yes, we suffer from our limited 250-year American history, void of knights and kings and dragon legends. We do have filthy-rich people who live in mansions behind high walls, but all that pales in comparison to real castles, built by real royalty, at the expense of real village people. It’s not an honorable history, but it’s so fascinating and beautiful. You can’t be a reader of novels, history, or fairy tales and not be completely mesmerized by a castle. I can never see enough of them. A castle tour is fantasy camp for the literateur.
  9. Food. I’m not a foodie, a gourmet, or a connoisseur. But come on. The food and drinks are why most people go to Europe. No wonder European meals take 3 hours or more. The food is so good, you just can’t stop eating. And you always order dessert. I like to think that Europeans don’t eat dessert—they don’t look like it—and yet, every afternoon, the cafes are filled with people eating ice cream and cake. European food is a thousand times better than ours, especially in France. (You know you’re enjoying the local cuisine when you can walk 10 miles a day and not lose any weight.) The cheeses, the pastries, the sauces, the gelato. I am beginning to salivate at this very moment. Heaven. And let me not forget to mention fresh and organically-grown. I can’t imagine going to a farmer’s market every day for fresh food here in the U.S., but it’s delightful to do in Europe. (Also a way to socialize.)
  10. Fashion. Maybe not in the little villages, where some people dress like Goodwill shoppers, but most western European towns and cities are filled with fashionable people. Yes, I realize that Europeans have to go to work while I visit their old churches, but how do they dress up and not sweat?? This is the million-dollar question. There’s no A/C anywhere, and it’s hot in July. I’m sitting there in my tank top, shorts, tennis shoes, and ponytail, looking sticky and very touristy, and there they sit with flawless skin and no make-up, in tight skirts, high heels, and some off-the shoulder top, packed onto a bus or train car or sitting at a café table across from me, NOT SWEATING. Their fashionability knows no bounds. I am enthralled and intimidated. I always come home with notes about how to pack more fashionably the next time, but I never do.
  11. Architecture. I had to come back and add this after running errands yesterday in blah suburbia. Oh, how I miss the buildings in Europe! The frescos and gargoyles, stenciled walls, lace curtains fluttering behind working shutters, winding cobblestone streets, houses with turrets, the fountains. I miss the French hip roof and the German chalet, those ancient walls in every city, the countless castles tucked into every mountainside. I’m a sucker for architecture and design. I took hundreds of pictures that the average person won’t want to see. The Eiffel Tower, yes. Notre Dame, yes. Mont Blanc, yes. Neuschwanstein Castle, yes. But not my hundred shots of ironwork, window boxes, and flying buttresses. That’s a bit obsessive.

These are the differences from our friends across the ocean. I could be wrong. I’m sure Americans do all these things to some extent. But I can’t help thinking that no matter how many outdoor malls or outdoor dining rooms we build in America, we will never be able to replicate the charm of European culture. Perhaps it’s the combined power of all eleven things that makes each one of them unreachable.

They are just so doggone cute over there.

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