Monday, July 3, 2017

Riddle Me This: Sketches from a Brief European Sojourn


"To believe something is to believe that it is true; therefore a reasonable person believes each of his beliefs to be true; yet experience has taught him to expect that some of his beliefs, he knows not which, will turn out to be false. A reasonable person believes, in short, that each of his beliefs is true and that some of them are false."
           W. V. O. Quine. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary.

"Well, we got wines from all over the world. We got, uh, English wines from France, we got Italian wines from all over Europe."
EJ Carroll. Everybody's Fine.

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
Robin Williams. 1951-2014.

We’ve been coming to Europe on a regular basis for almost forty years now and love practically everything about it: the bustling and historic cities, the cobblestoned alleys in medieval villages, the sun-drenched islands in the south and the green valleys in the north, the many languages and cultures. I stopped going to museums and tourist sites long ago, choosing instead to walk the streets, sit at sidewalk cafes, and watch people.

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We’ve just landed in Paris, the sun is shining, and I’m jetlagged. What better time to go for a walk? As I walk through the twisty side streets of Marais, I’m surprised to note the lack of tourists. I have always been in love with Paris but had come to dread visits surrounded by throngs of tourists at every corner. This time, things are different. The airport was practically deserted; it took us less than five minutes to clear customs. There are tourists around, to be sure, but they are few and far between. Police cars and armed officers are everywhere, government buildings are barricaded, and we are asked to cross the street when we get too close for comfort. Every few minutes, police cars and armored vehicles streak past at high speed, sirens blaring. There is a tension in the air that I’ve never sensed before. I’m sad to see that terrorism has killed tourism in this beautiful city but I’m also, secretly and guiltily, enjoying the quiet streets.

I sit at a cafe in Place des Vosges to have a drink. There are almost no tourists around and the locals are sunning themselves in the park in the middle of the square. The waiter comes by, hands me a menu, and walks away. He doesn’t say anything and neither do I. A few minutes later, I look up and notice that he’s standing in a corner, grinding his teeth, making ugly faces, and flexing his muscles while looking directly at me. That’s odd! Another couple of minutes go by and I glance at him again. If anything, his gestures have become even more pronounced. He’s clearly not happy to see me there and is making it obvious.

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[Paris - Source: http://benfa.smugmug.com]

It’s a strange spectacle I’ve never witnessed before. Everyone talks about rude Parisians and I’ve seen my share of them but this is not normal. I think back to what I may have done to irritate him but we have barely interacted and haven’t even spoken to each other yet. I sit there, puzzled and uncomfortable. The next time I look in his direction, he’s talking to another waiter inside the restaurant. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to serve me and is looking for a way out. This second waiter now comes to take my order. I ask for a glass of wine and try to ignore the hostile environment but it’s no good. Amazingly, the first waiter now stands in a corner, raises his fists, and grimaces as he stares angrily at me.

I’ve had enough. I stand up and pay for the wine I haven’t drunk. As I turn to walk out, I see him smiling broadly, frankly beaming, happy to be rid of me so quickly. It occurs to me that he’s probably a Le Pen supporter, angry at all the foreigners destroying his country and culture, frustrated about the terrorists killing his people. I see a parallel to the current political climate in the US and can’t honestly blame him for his actions. What I don’t quite understand is why such a person would take a job as a waiter in a touristy location where he has to interact daily with the very people he dislikes.

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It's 5 PM in Paris, a few days later. The angry waiter is a distant memory and, thankfully, all my other interactions have been positive. I'm sitting at a cafe on a side street in Saint Germain and trying, unsuccessfully, to blend in. My tourist clothes instantly betray me as I sip a drink and watch locals chain smoke like it's 1985!

A couple of fifty-something men of color sit down at the next table. They are sharply dressed in business suits and are clearly professionals of some sort, either businessmen or lawyers. Both are in superb physical condition - not even a hint of a beer belly - yet I doubt either of them has seen the inside of a gym in the recent past, if ever. They have dozens of printed pages in front of them and scribble notes as they discuss a business deal or perhaps argue over a court case. Surprisingly, one of them orders a glass of milk and the other orders an espresso and chocolate croissant! Did I mention it’s 5 pm?!?


For the next two and a half hours, they chain smoke and talk, laugh and argue, frequently making notations on the pieces of paper. They’re still at it as I get up to leave. For all I know, they will continue the discussion over dinner. It occurs to me, as I walk away, that I've been watching a routine business meeting that is commonplace here in Europe but would be unheard of in the US. Everything about it is different from the equivalent experience in the States: the outdoor setting instead of a conference room, the glass of milk instead of beer, the two and a half hour duration, pieces of paper instead of laptops, sharp suits instead of jeans or dockers, trim physique instead of layers of flab, the relaxed banter, cigarette smoke wafting through the air.

The scene is basically repeated at another cafe the next evening. The guy at the next table looks like a Hollywood movie star: thirty-something and, again, fit as a fiddle. Both he and his girlfriend are smoking and sipping wine. Three ancient looking women sit at another table drinking Campari and Soda, talking up a storm, and, you guessed it, smoking almost non-stop! As I look around me, I see more and more fit people walking around with their kids, buying bread for dinner, or just sitting and talking unhurriedly.

I have to admit the locals are pretty damn healthy looking, by any standard of physical fitness you may wish to use. And yet they eat fatty foods, smoke like chimneys, and stay up until midnight drinking - on weeknights, no less! Most have never seen the inside of a gym and get their only daily exercise by walking. They seem healthier than their American counterparts - regardless of age.

I see the same thing as we travel through France and Italy over the next few weeks. With fewer tourists around, the European cities and countryside are actually much more enjoyable. Rome and Tuscany, perennial tourist favorites, were crowded but the villages of Umbria are almost deserted. More than anything, it’s the relaxed pace that is jarring to Americans. Even in bustling Rome, the pace is glacially slow. Dinner can’t be had in less than three hours - the waiter will make sure of that!

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[Assisi - Source: http://benfa.smugmug.com]

Riddle me this: Why do Europeans get to live like this, enjoy longer relatively healthier lives, all while staying out with friends and family eating massive dinners and drinking multiple bottles of wine until midnight, taking four hour siestas every day, never getting on an exercise bike or attending a Zumba class in their lives, and smoking cigarettes?

This will seem like a cliche but there are only two main differences that I have observed: first, Europeans eat whatever they want; second, the level of stress over there is visibly lower. We talk obsessively about work-life balance, they live it. Americans work harder and longer hours, are much more careful about their diets, avoid cigarettes like the plague, spend hours a day exercising, and yet they are chronically overweight, in debt, and tired if not sick. My admittedly simplistic interpretation of the data, based on nothing but anecdotal evidence, is that the combination of hormones and genetically modified ingredients in our foods are slowly but surely making us sick while ever-increasing levels of stress conspire to make us miserable on a daily basis.

A baguette purchased in the morning in a European city goes stale if not consumed by that same evening but a loaf of bread purchased at an American supermarket has an expiration date a month hence. Why do you suppose that is? We’ve gotten so used to having chemicals added to our basic foods that we no longer even question the need for them.
I’m not naive enough to believe that all Europeans enjoy happier healthier lives and that all Americans are doomed to suffer through stressful ones. Nor am I suggesting that Europeans do everything right and we should abandon our lifestyles tomorrow. I do, however, have to wonder when we’ll wake up and get off the treadmills we’ve created for ourselves.

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My brother-in-law travelled with us. He’s suffered from an amazing series of gastrointestinal problems over the years. He's had colitis; he's had a quarter of his intestine removed due to digestive problems; he can't eat dairy, gluten, carbs, or sweets; he is constantly going from doctor to doctor while at home in the US, can’t eat anything other than bland home cooked meals, and is constantly at the edge of another intestinal “episode”.

He had pasta, tiramisu, and bread every single day. He had fried food, he had salads, he had cheese, he had deserts. He ate things he would never dream of eating in the US - and he was fine! He ate anything and everything while he also wondered aloud why he wasn't having any intestinal problems! Same guy, one day later, random restaurant in Italy. The experience was repeated again and again every day while traveling. No intestinal problems whatsoever. The only thing that was different were the ingredients in the food.

Anecdotal evidence.


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Then there’s this. I googled the GDP of Italy. It’s 1.8 trillion US dollars - with a population of 60 million. Think about it. That's about three Apples! Sort of puts things in perspective to think about it that way. The numbers are only slightly better for France: $2.4 trillion and 66 million people. By comparison, the US GDP is $18 trillion for a population of 320 million. In other words, the per capita GDP is almost double that of Italy and France. Our economy is clearly doing better but do we live better lives as a result? I wish we’d take a lesson from Bhutan and start measuring our Gross National Happiness instead.

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