Whenever I visit Europe — whether to explore a few former Soviet bloc countries or to take a 2,000-mile driving trip through Italy and Switzerland’s Ticino region — I’m always struck upon “re-entry” into the U.S. by how BIG everything is here at home.
We drive big cars, especially here in Colorado, where every other vehicle seems to be an SUV. Our cars have big cup holders for our venti Frappucinos and Big Gulp sodas. We live in big houses that we furnish with stuff we buy at big-box stores. Our big refrigerators – and often an extra freezer – are crammed full of food we purchase at big supermarkets. And, alas, we ourselves are big, and getting bigger: According to the American Heart Association, more than 70 percent of American adults are overweight, and of those, nearly 38 percent are obese.
Europeans clearly do things differently from us. Yet their ‘smaller’ lives seem in many ways richer and fuller. I’ve begun to notice some of those differences that we might do well to consider. Here are five that really struck me:
1. Europeans walk and bike more. Whether in crowded cities like Rome or Budapest, or centuries-old rural villages, more people get around on their own power in Europe. It’s easier than negotiating jammed streets, finding scarce parking and paying twice as much for a gallon for gas. Age has nothing to do with it: You’re as likely to see a wrinkled grandmother toting a wheeled market cart or pedaling her cruiser, a bouquet of baguettes in the handlebar basket, as you are more youthful cyclists, who may be wearing an Armani business suit, or a leopard blouse and platforms, like a couple of stylish Roman commuters I watched pedal down the via Nomentana.
2. Europeans use more public transit and drive more economical cars. If they can get there by train or bus, they usually do. Granted, Europe has a far better rail network than the U.S., and the same is true for buses, especially in small towns and rural areas. But when one must drive, what’s considered acceptable, especially for families, is a drastic contrast to American expectations. The Subaru Outback I own (pretty common in Boulder, Colo.) is considered a modest, practical car here – but in Europe, it’s big. In fact, so are Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas. Those are spacious, family-sized cars in Europe. They dwarf the Toyota Yaris, or the Fiat Panda, or the 2-door Audi A2 hatchback that isn’t even sold in the U.S. While the toy-like Smart Car is still a novelty here, they’re all over the streets of Europe. The Europeans are getting 40, 50, even 60 miles per gallon and aren’t feeling a bit deprived.
3. Europeans eat well, but eat less. Just try ordering a non-fat latte in Italy. You’d be laughed at (and you couldn’t get one). The standard Italian breakfast is a flaky, butter-laden croissant and a rich, foamy, whole-milk 6-oz. cappuccino. No one spares the olive oil on a salad or a plate of fresh pasta. It’s a basic essential of Italian life. But restaurants don’t serve a pound of pasta as a single portion, either. And since everyone walks, the calories are burned off while the calves stay toned for the stylish heels in which Italian women negotiate the ancient cobblestone streets of Florence.
4. Europeans choose community over convenience. Although Britain is becoming an exception, in Europe, you don’t see people dashing off with their coffee in a paper cup. Even Europe’s fast-food stands, like the ubiquitous neighborhood bars in Italy that serve a quick panini, espresso or glass of wine, rarely offer disposable plates or cutlery. When I asked last summer at a casual plaza café in Croatia if I could get an impulsive espresso to go, not wanting to hold up my fellow travelers, the barista made a studied appraisal of me and asked, “Madame, are you really in so much of a hurry?” I tried to explain about delaying my companions, and he said simply, ‘They will wait.” They would, in Croatia. They would sit down together, and chat, and not be in such a rush.
5. Europeans are more relaxed. At times, it was irritating to find so many businesses (outside the main tourist districts, anyway) shuttered between 1 and 4 p.m. And if you didn’t eat lunch by 2:00, you couldn’t find an open restaurant until 7:00 or 7:30. The always-on, always-open nature of American commercial culture is simply not the norm in Europe, even in the sophisticated, modern cities. In the oppressive heat of Rome in late June, it was easy to see the practicality of the ‘siesta’ tradition. A sluggish, heat-induced pall hung over the whole city, and those who were smart retreated behind thick stone walls to rest and rejuvenate. On Sundays, nearly everything is shut. Europeans learn to plan ahead so they can enjoy their culturally mandated – and embraced — leisure time.
None of this is to say that you must pack your bags and apply for a visa to start living life a little closer to the way our European neighbors do. With a little creativity and planning, you can find ways to bring these cultural distinctions home to wherever you live. For instance, maybe your job is too far away to bike every day, but could you walk or ride to your neighborhood farmers’ market on the weekends? And perhaps trading your healthy egg-white omelet for a buttery croissant doesn’t appeal, but could you find a few extra minutes in your day to sit down and savor your breakfast and morning coffee instead of downing them as you rush out the door?
Here’s to enjoying la dolce vita, the sweet life, whether here or abroad. Here’s to living more, with less.
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Photo: Oleg Sidorenko