I’ve followed this US versus Europe discussion with some interest, as I get asked a similar version of the question occasionally (substitute US for Canada). Having read the comments here and here, I agree with some of the more measured comments made. There is no short, one-size-fit-all answer to the question. Because it depends on so many factors: why you are there, who you are with, what you do and what you really, really believe in. Self-anointed cultural gurus that jump in those debates with unwavering points of views and sweeping generalizations rub me the wrong way: a few months, or even years of living in any place does not make anybody an expert in comparative politics or sociology . Therefore, with the utmost humbleness, I submit a few observations.
1. Positive externalities come at a dear price and minute size.
When it comes to Europe’s real or perceived beauty, there are usually two camps. One group is full of adoration – oh to live within such loveliness, cultural diversity and respect for history and culture. The other group is dismayed by the implications of (sometimes lack of) infrastructural spending needed to keep them running, and more importantly, and the day-to-day realities of living in centuries-old towns.
It is not easy. I have been to some old Amsterdam houses. The ones built back in the day when property tax was levied based on the horizontal width of a house. To maximize living space, stairs were made as narrow as humanly possible, to the point where going up certain ones requires crawling on all fours. Most constructions prior to the 70s have no elevators. Property developers stopped just short of 4 stories to avoid having to put one in, as per regulation. You can then appreciate the difficulties of getting heavy furniture up the stairs. To alleviate that problem, many canal houses were built slightly slanted to allow for a hook-and-rope lever system to haul things up through the front balcony. Comfortable and convenient it’s not, but tolerable and pragmatic? Most of the time.
It’s not all that bad though. In the city I live in (pop 300,000), housing in the centre of cities or towns are very expensive, both in terms of unit price and ongoing upkeep. Most people, regardless of their attitudes towards historical homes, are simply priced out of the market. Therefore, most live in outer rings that are not quite urban, yet not suburban, by American standards. A handful of neighbourhoods just outside of city centre can all be reached within 5 to 10 minutes by train or bus. Or, if weather allows, which it does most of time, I can make it on my bike in 15 to 20 minutes. And rest assured, dwellings in those mid-burbs tend to be much newer and spacious than the older constructions.
2. The service-oriented mindset is something you will miss greatly. But only to a point.
It is a lot to take at first, this service attitude that marries slowness with a rather blaséd indifference. I have wondered from time to time if these mighty Europeans have risen so far above the bourgeoisie middle-class mindset, and just don’t care to take my money. It still puzzles me to this day why most stores and shopping centres would want to charge customers to use the washroom, if providing such service will encourage people shop longer. I was also less than ecstatic with the exorbitant parking rates almost everywhere in a city, until I found out that free parking we’ve gotten so accustomed to in North America really aren’t free after all.
Part of it is no doubt attributed to a lack of sales and service-oriented mentality. Another part comes from their reluctance to seem pushy, and their tolerance, and sometimes, preference, for slowness. I have eaten a few times in semi-formal settings. The turnover per table in most upscale restaurants was one a night. Once, a three-course meal did actually take two and half hours to get served. It was very good that the wait staff did not interrupt our evening constantly with frivolous queries, but it was not so good when our finished cutleries have to wait so long to get collected. On the other hand, it did cost more or less double of what we would have paid back in Canada, so maybe it’s just their way of giving us our money’s worth. It makes me want to go out less – because doing so requires much higher time and financial commitments. Instead, people tend to entertain at home home – more cozy and intimate anyway.
3. Convenience is one of those things best practiced in moderation.
There are things I always assumed would be nice to have. Big houses that you can get to by driving nice cars, where you have access to food and entertainment 24 hours a day, where a hopping nightlife is accompanied by neon lights, and cool people, followed by meeting those cool people in nice cafes, nice cafes tucked in quaint streets, quaint streets filled with beautiful people. It turned out that many of these things are contradictory, or mutually exclusive. Having big houses meant you most likely live in the suburbs, which you need to access with a car. Getting into a car means getting on a road with people that might be an even worse driver than your sister, and the high probability for traffic jams. Traffic jams do not make people happy. It also means you are far away from most of the hopping entertainment possibilities offered in the centre of town, so no neon lights or cool people. It would also mean a lot of work to get to those nice cafes, which are not nice when you can only go when going on a coffee break from your cement office building. Most cement office buildings are not tucked in quaint streets, and most people that stream out of those buildings are stressed, snarly, and fat. We are not all that great at predicting what would make us happy, or whether any of our expectation was ever realistic.
When I first moved to the Netherlands, it took a lot of patience to keep up with the lack of conveniences I took for granted back home. There’s nothing open on Sundays, there’s no big-box or outlet malls to get everything, there are no pharmacists in drugstores to help you since there is little you can get over-the-counter. It was vexing then to have to organize ahead of time to do all your chores based on a tighter schedule, drive or bike to a few places to get stuff done, and just have to grin and bear certain things. It was also less than comfortable at first to have to cook all the time, as “just grabbing a bite to eat” for dinner is more trouble than it’s worth when almost everything shuts down at 5pm.
But after a while, it’s not so bad. Life got less complicated. Shorter shopping time and more obstacles meant I actually spent less money and less time thinking about it. Instead of stressed over gym time, I got most of my exercises by walking and biking everywhere. Cooking more and eating out less meant an overall much healthier diet, and despite less intense exercises and more relaxed eating regimes, I am in better shape. So perhaps conveniences shouldn’t be the end all and be all yardstick of life.
Having lived and worked in cities where having a car is almost mandatory to access everyday conveniences, I understood, theoretically, the positive externalities of living in a walkable environment. While I lived downtown Calgary and loved walking to work, stores and bars, I still appreciated the ease of getting into a car and getting a week’s worth of groceries in one go.
Where I live now, most people in the neighbourhood can reach the supermarket, wine, cheese stores, butcher, pizza place, drycleaners, video rental, ice cream parlour, post office, all within a five to ten minutes walk or bike ride through tree-lined ponds, complete with various odd species of ducks. While the idea of walking into neighbourhood butchers and going to farmer’s market is considered a novelty and weekend indulgence back home, here it’s a way of life. People swing by various grocers on a near daily basis to pick up what they need, spending a laughably low amount on each transaction, compared to our hundreds of dollars of grocery blowout one a week. Is it more time-consuming and more inefficient? Yes. But it is pleasant and relaxed? Yes.
It’s not that we don’t have nice neighoubrhoods with similar amenities in North America, but few people live in ones with walkable distances. My parents live in a new sub-division of an older community (you know it’s old when it’s got “village” in its name). But there is only one street within a ten kilometer radius that has a walkable area that people can hang out. To get there, I need to get into the car, drive seven minutes, find parking for it, and then walk around with throngs of people with the same idea. It requires more effort.
My thoughts are ongoing on this topic, comments, suggestions and ideas are very welcome.