From April til June of this year, Holly and I traveled Scotland, England, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Last summer we hung out with the French and the Italians.
Being in Europe for so long allowed us to soak in the smaller ambiances of the people, many which would have been missed on a shorter vacation. During my time there I got a better idea of how Europeans felt as a people, what they valued, and how they viewed the world compared to me as an American.
Of course, the only way to really know how a European sees the world, is to talk to them directly. And Europeans reading this, I’d love to hear your comments and corrections! These are just a few things that I picked up on while I was across the pond.
Europeans are more conscious of the world around them.
America is a lonely place. Besides Canada (which is basically the 51st state), and Mexico (which has become fairly integrated with the American Southwest), we don’t have neighbors. You can drive 3,000 miles and never leave American soil. In Europe, not the case. We drove only a few hundred kilometers, and passed through 4 countries, each with their own language.
The nightly news in England featured in-depth stories from Austria, Greece, and France. The news in Germany spoke extensively about the Dutch, the Swedes, and the Hungarians. Flip the channel and you can see the famous Eurovision song contest, essentially a mini European Olympics for singing. I felt pretty left out—they didn’t even invite us!
They all share a Euro, many of their monarchies ruled each other (ex. for much of its history, Spain was ruled by Austrian and French families), and they’ve all taken a turn invading or getting invaded by each other.
Several people we met, especially the younger generation, verbally identified themselves as “European,” not just as “German” or “Spanish” or “Dutch.” In America it seems that our ‘big world’ of the continent is pretty synonymous with our ‘small world’ state or city. In America, no major countries share our dollar, and our country’s major international involvement is limited to leaving England in the Revolutionary War, saving the Allies in WWII, and getting involved in a few smaller conflicts over the past century.
Europeans are much more language-conscious.
In America, everyone speaks (or is expected to speak) English. Imagine if all 50 states in the US spoke a different language. Sure would change things! If you ever wanted to meaningfully interact with other states, you’d have to get decent at speaking Californian or Alabaman or South Dakotan pretty fast. That’s a reality in Europe.
In Europe, at any given time you can look around and see 3-5 different languages on signs, billboards, and ads. Because of this, people tend to more easily pick up English, French, German, etc. There’s a pride and an expectation to knowing several languages. It seemed that this natural inclination to learn each others’ languages led to a quilted respect for each other.
Europeans are reminded of their place in history every day.
In America, something man-made and “old” is probably from the 1800s. We are constantly given a fresh slate. Most neighborhoods are the first structures to ever stand in that spot.
In Europe, it isn’t strange to run into something from the 1100s. Many of the major cities were built on top of Roman towns built 2,000 years ago. Town graveyards are full of people who walked the exact streets and lived in the same houses hundreds of years earlier. Because of this, Europeans realize that it’s not all about them. They innately recognize that they are one in a line of many to stand in their shoes and in their soil and in their streets. Mortality is laid constantly before them.
Americans can more easily look forward to the new stuff, since in many cases there is nothing to see behind them.
Europeans can more easily look into the past, always seeing traces of the people who have come and gone.
Europeans think smaller.
In so many ways, Europeans think smaller. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Europe has a lot of cities, cultures, and people to cram into a small landmass. Because of that, they have smaller cars and smaller streets and lots of parallel parking. Bikes outnumber people in Holland. Many Europeans don’t even own a car.
Europeans also tend to waste less and to eat less. Not a lot of napkins or plastic containers or huge dumpsters. They order small portions at cafes, or get what they need for the day at a market. Grocery stores supply handheld baskets, not carts. Costco or Sams Club is a bizarre concept.
Americans are just as small as Europeans, but for some reason we have come to believe that we have the consumption capacity of an elephant.
Americans are incredibly, disgustingly fat. I never really thought about it until I landed in the United States after 7 weeks of in-shape Europe. Now I see fat people everywhere. Europeans just have a “smaller proportions” mindset. They don’t feel the need to gorge themselves on fast food and junk. Many of our gatherings and holidays and cookouts are centrally focused on eating mounds of food. Many of our restaurants are buffets and our meals supersizable and extra large. America is truly a consumerist “think big” nation.
Europeans have figured out “the good life.”
Maybe because Europeans are constantly reminded of their mortality (being surrounded by thousands of years of buildings and cemeteries of people come and gone), they are more able to appreciate life. Most get the month of August off from work. Wine and cheese are things to be carefully selected and savored. Outdoor cafes are brimming with people who will sit outside for hours, even after the meal is done, soaking in the ambience and the weather. Art museums flourish, and everything seems to move at a slower pace.
Everything just seems to be appreciated a little more. A nice breeze, a cup of tea, a great relationship, a day trip to the museum, a bakery.
I love America. I love how big it is in space and in thinking. I love all the parking lots and being able to drive for hours in any direction and finding things that haven’t been touched. I love our forward thinking and our ambition to succeed. I love our national pride and our commitment to freedom. It’s not just something that we talk about- it’s real.
But there’s also so much to love about the way Europeans view their world. And every so often it’s wonderful to look into the world with their eyes.