Twice in the last year I’ve spent three weeks in Europe – last summer exploring several former Soviet bloc countries, most recently returning from a 2,000-mile driving trip through Italy and Switzerland’s Ticino region, the Italian-speaking corner that juts into the lakes district north of Milan.
Both times I’ve been struck, on “re-entry” (that’s always how it feels when I come back to the U.S. after a trip to another country), at how BIG everything is here at home. We drive big cars, especially in Colorado where I live, 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 big amounts of 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 are big: as a nation, anyway. According to current data, 63% of Americans are overweight, and nearly 1/3 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:
• Europeans walk and bike more. Whether in crowded cities like Rome or Budapest, or centuries-old rural villages, people get around on their own power. It’s easier than negotiating jammed streets, finding scarce parking, and paying $10 a gallon for gas (yes, that’s what we shelled out in Italy in June). 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 – and they may be wearing an Armani business suit and silk tie, or a leopard baby-doll top and platforms, like a couple of stylish Roman commuters I watched weave through a jam of Fiats and Peugeots on the via Nomentana.
• Europeans use more public transit, and drive 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 and every seventh driver in Boulder own 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 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.
• 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 while the calves stay toned for the stylish heels in which Italian women negotiate the ancient cobblestone streets of Florence. Another observation: virtually all European women wear bikinis at the beach — all ages, all body shapes, women who may be trim but have telltale belly rolls that are hard to avoid after having children. Europeans are a lot more at home in their bodies than Americans are. They don’t obsess about diets, and they are more comfortable and more gratified in their own skins.
• Europeans choose community over convenience. Though Britain is becoming an exception, in Europe, you don’t see people dashing off with their coffee in a paper cup. Most fast-food stands, like the ubiquitous neighborhood bars in Italy that serve a quick panini, espresso or glass of wine, do not 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.
• 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 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.
Here’s to living more, with less.