When Americans visit Europe, they see a lot to like: Charming boulevards, delicious food, and historic cities that feel safe. When Europeans visit the U.S., it’s not so pretty: While major American cities are impressive, their inhabitants can be more than a little scary even after the sharp decline in crime rates. From an American or European tourist’s point of view, Europe seems not just more aesthetic than the U.S., but more hospitable.
My thesis: On both sides of the Atlantic, tourists’ experiences are deeply misleading. The fact that a country is (or isn’t) a nice place to visit often tells you less than zero about whether you would want to live there.
Where American tourists go wrong:
1. In European countries, historic downtowns of the premiere cities like Paris or Stockholm are by far the best places to live. Most people in Europe don’t live in these areas, and can’t afford to.
2. Most of the Europeans who are lucky enough to live in the premiere cities can’t afford to frequently eat in the nice restaurants that delight foreign visitors.
3. “Efficient public transportation” and bicycles may seem great to a tourist who eats in restaurants. They’re not so great if you’re a local who needs to get groceries home to make dinner. In bad weather, subways and bikes are downright awful.
Where European tourists go wrong:
1. They usually visit the most European places in the U.S. – especially New York City and San Francisco. Since NYC and SF are basically uglier, scarier versions of the premiere European cities, it’s natural for tourists to go home with a negative impression.
2. However, very few Americans live in such cities – even if they can easily afford to. Why not? Because the natural habitat of the American – including most affluent Americans – is the suburb.
Bryan suggests that American tourists like Europe so much because they are visiting it with U.S. incomes. I am not sure which PPP calculation he is using but I disagree at a more fundamental level. Bryan gives some good reasons why America is better for 37-year-olds with young children, namely lots of living space and easy shopping. But I view much of Western Europe as better for the elderly, if only because it requires less driving and they are more likely to live close to their children and perhaps also they receive more respect. Western Europe is probably better for children too, for reasons related to safety and health care.
My alternative view is that Americans rate European life so highly (in part) because the buildings from previous eras are so striking and attractive. If all of the U.S. looked like U.S. postwar construction, the country would still impress more or less as it does. If all of Europe looked like its postwar construction, Americans would be less likely to admire European policies and political institutions. Yes I know about Lille, and contemporary Spanish architecture, but in reality most Americans would think of Europe as some kind of dump.
Tyler is spot on, I’d say. Without the pretty buildings, what would often most strike Americans is the cramped space and a succession of petty inconveniences. One of my friends who lived in Toronto, and is a raging europhile and a liberal, was nonetheless fond of pointing out that, due to a building boom in the 1970s, much of the city reminded her of nothing so much as her childhood in the Soviet Union. Toronto is a lovely, liveable city for most of the reasons that people say they like European cities. But its architecture is mostly pretty dreary, and it rarely captures the heart of American tourists or ex-pats the way that London, Paris, Rome and Amsterdam do.
During the heyday of laissez-faire, when the success of Victorian economic liberalism seemed undermine the case for dirigiste economics, you did get a lot of handsome architecture, but now we’re just belaboring the point.
I find Tyler’s second paragraph odd and Megan’s interpretation of it inane — she manages to undersell Europe and Americans simultaneously. Obviously part of Europe’s charm is the way it looks, but that’s inextricably tied up with other aspects of the place. It’s not like attractiveness isn’t a real reason to appreciate a place. And I think that what most often strikes Americans about life is the succession of petty inconveniences.
Why do Americans like Europe? Well, my sense is that visitors to Europe appreciate the beauty, the overwhelming sense of history, and the richness and density of cultural treasures. I think many visitors do enjoy what they see of European life and appreciate the contrast with America. In big European cities and small — and poor — villages, people knock off of work earlier than Americans do and they go hang out in comfortable bars and pubs and cafes that are truly a pleasure to be in. They seem to be enjoying themselves. If you think about Berlin, it’s by and large a pretty ugly place. And yet, Berliners seem to have a marvelous time of things.
What bothered me most about living abroad were the things that I missed — my friends and family. There are some things that are tricky to get used to, but then you get used to them, and sometimes the getting used to new things is part of the joy of a new place. I can see ways in which raising children would be tricky, but I can also see many advantages to living with children over there. Unless you place no value on exposing your kids to culture and history, having all of Europe within easy reach is a significant plus to set against the ability to drive the station wagon to Costco. And then there’s the health care. I would take the NHS over what I’ve got here any day of the week. The NHS is a comfort. Health insurance here is a looming financial catastrophe. I speak from personal experience.
I hesitate to go that far only because I have no reliable experience upon which to make a judgment; I’ve really only been a tourist in Western Europe. I’m wary of my tendency to romanticize places and peoples. It’s no doubt also true that as I’ve gotten older, and as my children have gotten older, I’ve come to see more value in the place in which we live, even though these things would have been invisible to me before I had children (if you think this means I’m making a grudging peace with the idea of the suburbs, you’re right).
Even so, I think the Europeans, based on my limited experience, have a better quality of life than we do, though we have a better “quantity” of life, if you follow me. In most respects, I think I’d feel more at home in Europe — see Charles Curtis’s remarks about life in Switzerland in the comboxes here — but nothing matters more to me as a father than to raise children to be faithful to our religion, and I worry that living in Europe would make that substantially more difficult than here in my part of the US. What does it profit a man if his children gain baguettes, but lose their souls? (I’m exaggerating, but you see my point).
While many readers seem to think that I think anyone who likes the suburbs is somehow deluded, and that what they really want is to live in an urban hellhole, that isn’t actually the case. Some people really love their burbs! Good for them.
Likewise, some people actually do like Europe and not because they’re deluded about what it is like. Sure anyone who does a quick week somewhere doesn’t really have a detailed understanding of a place, but that’s different than thinking they’re clueless.