Saturday, July 20, 2024

5 Things That Really Make Europe Special Over USA

Photo by Fredy Martinez on Unsplash

Disclaimer: My experience in Europe is mostly based on my life in Germany and the Netherlands, although I have had the opportunity to travel to almost all the countries in wester Europe and some in central and eastern Europe.

I have been living in Europe since 2011. This June will be 12 long but fascinating years of my life in continental Europe.

I think of myself as fortunate because it was always my dream to go to Europe for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a little girl I grew up with an atlas and a dream. And to be able to live there for over a decade wasn’t even my dream.

And mind you, this isn’t easy, considering the fact that I was born and brought up in India by a very middle-class family.

But before I could come to live in Europe, I had a detour. I went to live in the USA for some years. Initially, it was because of my work and then because of my husband’s work.

My life in the USA was quite comfortable, hassle-free, and memorable too and I thought, living anywhere in the world would be difficult now that I have lived in the most comfortable country in the world. Boy, was I wrong!

In 2011, I moved to Germany and since 2015, I have been living in the Netherlands.

These are the things that make life in Europe so incredible:

1. There is (usually) great public transport

The first place I went to in the USA was a small city in California. Coming from India, it was jarring for me to see hardly any public transport. In India, public transport was the bane of my (and millions of others’) existence.

The place where I was given accommodation by my company was around a 30-minute walk each way, which was fair enough. The walk by the lagoon was refreshing.

But even in bad weather or when I was in a hurry, I had no way of getting any public transport. Calling a taxi wasn’t easy either. That was the era before smartphones and I had no phone in the USA other than the one in the office and the hotel.

I remember once I fell sick and I had to make an appointment with a doctor. Even if I could use the office phone to call a taxi on my way to the doctor’s office, I worried about how I was going to come back from the doctor’s office, if they would be kind enough to call a taxi for me and etc.

Eventually, I had to take help from another Indian colleague who had a car but he bullied me for a long time to remind me to be grateful for the help he provided.

When I moved to the east coast, it became worse. The small city I lived near Boston had ZERO public transport. People only used cars and you couldn’t go to even a grocery store or a pharmacy walking.

Think of your first time traveling to a new country where you don’t know anyone, you don’t understand the system, and you fall sick and on top of it, you have to arrange for your transport. Public transport should be one of your basic amenities and not something complicated.

When I moved to Europe, this was a pleasant change. Again, I wasn’t living in a big city, it was a small city near Dusseldorf. But the bus stop was just a two-minute walk, the tram stop was a few more minutes and it was quite frequent. Most important buses and trams ran until quite late in the night.

Photo by Guillermo Casales on Unsplash

2. Cities are pedestrian friendly

No one walks in the USA.

Okay, this one is perhaps an exaggeration and I can’t generalize because America is huge.

There was ample sidewalk in that small city in California where I lived briefly. If it was a walkable road, there was a sidewalk and the walk from my hotel/apartment to the office was quite pleasant by the lagoon.

This wasn’t the case on the east coast. The first place where I lived had a loop mall around two km away from my apartment. Technically, I could walk, but there was a sidewalk missing in a small porting and it was extremely dangerous to walk that stretch right on the road along with the speeding cars.

And there was no bike lane at all.

I love to go for a walk because that’s my only exercise, however, it was not only dangerous, it was usually also desolate. Never did I see anyone walking, running, or even biking. Neither did I see people taking their dogs out for a walk.

Some of the residential streets were also equally desolate.

There was only one street behind my apartment where I used to see some children playing on the side of the road. I used to frequent that road because that was the only place where I could see signs of life.

The next city I moved to was worse. There was nothing within walking distance. You needed your car for EVERY SINGLE THING. It was a long stretch of road with huge houses with a high fence. Thank God, I lived within an apartment complex, so I could see children playing outside.

Back in India, we walked almost everywhere. That’s the way of life.

Here in Europe, both in Germany and in the Netherlands, I could walk to many grocery stores, pharmacies, hair salons, shopping, pet shop, doctor’s office, flower stores, bakers, my German school, and most other things.

Most importantly, almost every city I have been to in Europe has a sidewalk and bike lane. Walking or riding bikes is the way of life here instead of taking the car out.

At any moment of the day, and also quite late in the night, I can see people walking or biking.

We do here grocery by walking or with our bikes. The kids go to school on their bikes. Even going to the office by bike is the norm and that includes the Dutch prime minister. Unless you live in a very remote place, you can manage by walking/biking.

Photo by Sam te Kiefte on Unsplash

3. People seem less like robots and appreciate the small things in life

While I can’t and shouldn’t generalize this one as well, because I indeed had the fortune to meet some incredible and kind Americans who made my life so much better. But, in general, I saw a lot of fakeness in the USA.

For example, I was really surprised when cashiers, shopkeepers, neighbors, or random strangers asked me “Hi, How are you doing?” and then get back to their own work, turn away, or even walk away without hearing my response.

Coming from India, I wasn’t quite accustomed to the politeness of absolute strangers, not even a smile. So this initial courtesy made me think highly about the politeness of the public in general only to be disappointed when they didn’t have the time to wait for my reply.

What the heck? Why ask if you don’t even care?

Both in Germany and in the Netherlands, people are rather known for their directness. I wrote in this article about Dutch ‘bespreekbaarheid’ (speakability) — that everything can and should be talked about.

Now, if that directness is interpreted to be rude or not by other cultures is a different story all together. However, my point is, when people come to talk to you, they show genuine interest in you. If they don’t have the time, they walk away and perhaps will say so.

Also, in the southern part of Europe, especially in Spain, Italy, and France, I have seen people slow down for meals, and take time for chit chats or for family. Even my German neighbors would always stop for a chat while coming back from grocery stores or the baker.

Even though the grocery stores have good quality bread, I see my neighbors taking the effort to go to a specific baker in the other part of the town because the bread is damn good, or to the farmers market for fresh produce.

People take time to appreciate the little things in life.

Photo by Renate Vanaga on Unsplash

4. Cities have ample parks

Where I lived in California had a lot of green space for the general public, but I didn’t see designated parks or play areas for children in some other cities and most cities on the east coast.

The first apartment complex I lived in had no place for a child to play. The city didn’t have any either. The only place where I saw some kids playing was a street behind my apartment.

I wondered where all the kids play and the elderly go for a stroll or take a rest on a park bench.

I get it, the houses come with such big yards that children don’t probably need to go out to play with other children. And in bigger cities, people have access to public areas like the Boston Common in Boston or the Central Park in New York.

But what about us, the apartment dwellers in smaller cities or suburbs? And I am not talking about national or state parks. Just your neighborhood city park where you don’t need a car to reach.

A city park can enhance your quality of life in so many ways.

In Europe, the cities are more people-centric. In all the places I have lived so far, I have seen designated children’s play areas or parks, in almost every neighborhood, for children, their parents, or anyone to relax and rejuvenate in nature.

I used to walk twice a day to the nearby park in Germany when my child was just a toddler, making sand castles in the sand pit or sitting under the big maple tree for a picnic.

And mind you, this was not just the case in the more modern or “rich” western Europe, I saw that in other parts of Europe too.

I remember my experience in Brasov, a city in Romania. I was tired after a long day and went to a nearby park to sit and rest. It was a lovely little park with trees and benches and children’s corners where the parents congregated with strollers, happy to chat with other parents, while their children played.

I just sat there happily witnessing a day of their life. That was the highlight of my trip to Romania and I could go back there in a heartbeat.

Photo by Mike Benna on Unsplash

5. The cities have centers

If you have watched the Netflix series “From Scratch”, which is based on the Hollywood actress, Tembi Locke’s memoir about losing her Italian husband, you would know exactly what I am saying (and I highly recommend it if you haven’t watched it already).

Tembi’s Italian husband Saro (in the series, he is named Lino) moved to the US to live with her and one day when he was really distressed and depressed about his life in the new country, he storms out to go for a walk. Tembi follows him in her car and urges him to not walk because it’s not safe.

Saro says, “I don’t know where to go to feel right in this city… This city has no center… I have no center.”

I don’t know if he indeed said that in real life, but if he did, he couldn’t be more correct.

When I moved to Germany, I experienced for the first time in my what an “Altstadt” (old town) is.

Unlike in the US, where downtown is mostly for business or crime (and I was often advised not to venture alone), a city center is usually the historical center, easily distinguished by the small alleys and an amalgamation of building from different eras.

The mostly walkable and lively city center is the heart of the city.

People of all ages congregate here to meet others, shop/window-shop, sit at a cafe and watch the world go by, or perhaps leisurely stroll around without any purpose. The French even have a name for this — “Flaneur” that originates from the verb “flana” — to wander with no purpose.

I don’t know what I would do without a city center anymore in my life because that’s also my center.

Photo by Igor Oliyarnik on Unsplash
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