Greetings from Europe
First of all, let me explain that, when I say, “Greetings from Europe” it’s not in the “Look where I am, don’t you wish you were too,” vein. I’m writing more in the “What have they done to this place, and why are we trying so hard to do the same things to America,” vein.
I live in Portugal. Until recently, Portugal was located at the end of the Iberian Peninsula, the westernmost point of Europe. Nowadays, Portugal is right next door to Greece, jockeying with the Cradle of Democracy for first place in the spiral race down the drain.
Portugal, like much of Europe, is characterized by quaint villages, narrow cobble streets, and an air of shabbiness that is mitigated by its antiquity. A more modern place in such disrepair would be just run down (Think Washington D.C.) but because the Portuguese infrastructure can trace its lineage back to the age of royalty, somehow, its decrepitude is part of its allure.
How graffiti fits into that, since the graffiti antedates royalty, I’m not sure, but there certainly is a lot of it around here. It has something to do, I think, with the very European notion that even though you may pay the taxes on your property, I have the right to paint my name on it.
That philosophy is closely tied to the idea that certain conditions give some the right to dictate how much water, gas, or electricity others should use. The royalty are long departed, but they have been replaced here by those who drive Smart Cars, those tiny little two-seat vehicles that offer all the safety features of a motorcycle with a seat belt. Those who pilot these ridiculous velocipedes through Portugal’s death-holds-no-terror-for-me traffic hold their heads high and glare at those of us driving reasonable vehicles with the same type of disdain that would have been shown by blue-bloods for dirty commoners. Of course that haughtiness is somewhat diminished when I’m scraping them like insects from my radiator grill.
Portugal has a musical form called Fado. While I don’t yet speak Portuguese, I’m given to understand that the wailing and gnashing of teeth featured in Fado songs are lamentations for this nation’s lost greatness. In Fado, suffering becomes a kind of musical art form, sort of country western music wherein, instead of bemoaning the loss of dog, wife, and truck, the participants wonder what has happened to all the navigators, world explorers, and men of war that made the country great such a long time ago.
But Portugal is not the only nation that has made an art form of suffering. It seems all of Europe has fallen in love with the notion that all cars, appliances, streets, and families should be too small, and that none of them should actually work very well. In the case of families, this is demonstrated by the shockingly low birth rate. Of course, the Muslim immigrant population is helping make up for their deficiencies, but you have to wonder about any culture, any people, that has lost interest in reproduction. That’s not to say there’s no interest in sex; I have to cover my kids’ eyes every time we walk past a news stand, and a pair of men at the beach the other day seemed to have an extraordinary interest in each other. What I mean is that most of my friends in America know first-hand the benefits they have derived from having children. Our children make us better people. They cause us to work harder, save more, and try to lead better lives. (Sometimes they make us crabby, short-tempered, and a little too fond of beer, but on the balance, they make us better.) I would argue that those effects are no less profound on our society and our economy. Imagine then, the lack of those effects on the societies and economies of Europe, where couples are not even having enough children to maintain their populations.
I suppose if you don’t have kids, you aren’t as likely to notice that someone has shrunk your washing machine, dishwasher, dryer, and your shower. Ours washer is about the standard (Euro) size, and back in the USA, I would consider it barely large enough to wash one of the bathing suits the girls parade around in over here. You are in no danger of losing a sock in your laundry at my house, because the machine is so tiny that you are forced to wash them one at a time.
But that’s fine, because the whole point is not to wash things very well. As the French have always known, cleanliness is not all it’s cracked up to be. The important thing is using as little water as possible, and in that regard, our little washer is a champ. It’s a front-loader with a glass door, so I can make this claim with the authority of a first-hand observer; my washing machine drinks less water than Ted Kennedy did. At no time, no matter what cycle (I can’t tell you what the cycles are, because the dial is printed in some Scandinavian language that uses runes instead of a real alphabet.) there is never more than a cup of water sloshing around in there, an amount so insignificant, that if you were to offer it to the most desperate of castaways dying of thirst under the hottest of suns, they would fling it back at you in disgust.
Of course, because it uses so little water, the machine takes about two hours to complete a load of laundry. I have yet to compare the savings in water to the costs of the electricity I burn during those two hours, but something tells me I’m not coming out ahead.
But that’s ok, because here in Europe, nobody is supposed to get ahead. Getting ahead, unless you work for the higher levels of government, is unsporting and rude. It’s American. We’re supposed to pay exorbitant prices for things like gas, electricity, and water, and if any money is left, we’re supposed to hand it cheerfully to the government in the form of the Value Added Tax. People here do this sort of thing because someone has convinced them that doing so is good, and it’s especially good for the environment. Any discomfort, we are led to believe, is a virtue, doubly so if it is suffered for the sake of Mother Earth.
I think that’s a crock. Call me skeptical, call me the Ugly American, but I have the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, has pulled off the mother of all con games, and the people of Europe are not only the marks, but they’re proud to be so.
It must be a corollary to the Stockholm Syndrome – that tendency of kidnapping victims to develop sympathy for their captors. Or maybe it’s like Ford buyers who, long after they know better, still insist that they got a great deal on their Fiesta. Whatever its source, the pride Europeans take in their tiny cars, ineffective appliances, and the high prices they pay for them could be endearing, if only they weren’t so smug about it. Imagine if the Amish weren’t content to live their lives quietly, but felt compelled to glare at anyone who dared to use indoor plumbing.
But that comparison isn’t fair to the Amish. They, at least, work hard and take care of themselves. For years now, Europeans (Germans excepted, which probably has something to do with that Amish thing) have worked fewer hours for more pay and greater pensions, even as their productivity rate has declined. And as they’ve worked less and vacationed more, they’ve expected their governments to take on more and more of the responsibility of their health care. Ultimately it doesn’t work. Anyone with the most basic knowledge of human nature must know this, but as with any pyramid scheme, they don’t care. They are only concerned with getting in on it early enough, so that they get their payoff before the whole thing comes crashing down.
Meanwhile, it’s been crashing down for years, not with the flashing lights and sirens we’re beginning to see now, but incrementally, in the form of impenetrable layers of bureaucracy, high taxes, and a general poorness in function and service everywhere. When it’s normal for thieves to steal your water meter to sell it for scrap metal (but they turn off the water, because stealing is fine, but wasting water is a sin) for police to not enforce traffic laws, and for potentates in Brussels to dictate prices; tiny appliances, lack of air conditioning, and graffiti are just background noise. Like the frog in the warming pot of water, people get accustomed by degrees to the growing decrepitude, and only when it’s intolerable – and too late to do anything about it – do they notice it.
I notice. I try to take it in stride and not make too much of it. After all, I’m fortunate to be able to travel and live in foreign countries, and there’s plenty to enjoy and admire here. And besides, I wouldn’t want every place to be like home. But I take advantage of the opportunity to point out to my children how a once-great nation – a people that sent great men across uncharted waters to achieve impossible things – can be lured into docile mediocrity by the empty promises of socialism. And if my children can understand that, what’s wrong with the rest of my countrymen? Why are they so hell-bent on settling into this well-worn path to destruction?