May 22, 2007

What America has to learn from Europeans

What do America and Europe have to learn from each other? Only a supremely smug, self-important pedant prone to ridiculous generalizations could pretend to answer that question in 750 words, and Thomas Friedman was unfortunately unavailable. Luckily, I also fit the bill—after all, I am a University of Chicago student. In addition, based on the extensive time I’ve spent (one-and-a-half months) and exhaustive research I’ve conducted (about 20 bottles of wine) in my Paris study abroad program, I can confidently declare that the continents have much to learn from each other.

For example, life in America would be vastly improved if Americans realized that Nutella, a creamy, chocolatey hazelnut spread ubiquitous in Europe, is not only high in protein but a natural source of deliciousness. One taste of the transcendent goodness of Nutella on a crêpe (another European delicacy that should be more common in the States), and I am reminded of a few famous lines from the pen of the obscure French poet Maurice LaPierre, “What is love? Where is God? How I suffer, how I am bored. But please, pass me the Nutella.” Sadly, Europe is currently light years ahead of America in terms of Nutella–related usage and technology.

America, of course, has a few lessons for Europe as well. Indeed, the astute observer of international politics probably noted a chill in trans-Atlantic relations last week when I was informed at a Paris diner that while my first glass of water was on the house, I would be charged for the next. Pardon? My two friends and I had just ordered 30 “euros” (for the untraveled, a “euro” is a type of currency used in European countries which don’t have enough dollars to go around) worth of overpriced brunch, and the diner is worried that I’m mooching water off them? Even when tap water is free at Parisian restaurants, it has to be specifically requested in poor French (that last bit may not be required if you speak better French than I do). The water takes forever to arrive, comes in a glass of a size more suited for vodka, and is never, ever refilled without great reluctance and pained facial expressions. So much for Europe’s vaunted regard for human rights. America may not allow prostitution, marijuana use, or habeas corpus, but at least we respect the right of every restaurant-goer to a bowl of bread and a never-ending supply of water while dining.

Of course, Europe’s intermittently sclerotic economy could benefit from America’s capitalistic know-how, and Americans could stand to learn that vacationing and relaxing can be incorporated into everyday life. Americans could learn that vice, in moderation, is no evil, and Europe could learn that it is OK to be a little shy about sex. By combining the American and European models of life, one could perhaps design a system that provides a socially liberal environment, a vibrant capitalist economy, and a government that provides benefits to all of its citizens.

If I were a more intellectual (read: boring) person, I probably would have written a column about that. Or, if I had the chutzpah to actually pretend that a few months in France and a few years in America gave me a serious understanding of anything relating to national character or what one country has to teach each other, I probably would have written a column like that. Maureen Dowd, apparently satisfied that chatting with a few Parisians in downtown Paris gave her a profound understanding of the French and Nicolas Sarkozy, recently wrote a whole column in The New York Times about how the French as a people can improve. As for me, I’m 20 years old, and I have the rest of my life to become an arrogant American who is never short of advice and who can understand complex problems by becoming vaguely acquainted with them.

The upside of declining the intellectually bunk route of attempting to seriously compare Europe and America is that I can offer some realistic improvements for both sides of the Atlantic. Don’t believe me? Then you clearly have not allowed Nutella to become part of your life. And Europe? How hard is it to put a glass under the sink and give me some of the good stuff? No, seriously. I’m actually sort of thirsty for something not made from grapes or barley, and this is your final warning.