After ten years, I spent two weeks in Europe. One week in France and one week in the Netherlands, the country of my birth. I have not lived in The Netherlands for some twenty-seven years. Below are my non-scientific and broad stroke observations of the change I noticed.
The attitude of the french has improved dramatically. In the past, everything not native to France would be disdained and discarded. Today, perhaps influenced by the Eurozone, the French seem eager to bridge the language and attitude gap to empower themselves. Even my eroding French language skills disarmed them.
You cannot enter any facility without a mask. You cannot sit on an outside terrace or enter a restaurant without valid COVID vaccination documents. The Europeans have their QR code cell phone validation system figured out before the U.S. does. Please tell me again how we are leading the world. Showing my CDC vaccination card, even with a picture on my iPhone, did the job. They checked vaccination dates, not my identity.
The French have gotten fatter, especially the women. Perhaps empowered by a women’s movement not to care much about what men think, the elegance of French women, in my view, has eroded. The super-sizing of globalization is taking its terrible toll. Expect health insurance premiums to rise in France.
Subway has entered even quaint villages in France, replacing delicious french charcuterie and local-baked bread with mass-produced mediocrity. I pity the French who lower themselves to American subpriming. Instead, I reveled and gorged in getting real French baguettes and meats from the local purveyors, proud of their craft.
The French are serious about their vacation. They’ll close down the one and the only bakery in town for one month, only to sell some fresh bread through the neighboring bar managing to stay open. The French love their fresh bread like I do, even offering fresh bread at a gas station.
Selling the beautiful watermill I inherited with my brothers from my parents revealed the French are much more commercial in real estate than America. You can hire multiple realtors at a time to represent your house, and only the one with the winning bid gets the commission. Welcome to a free market that no longer exists in America.
French food at random restaurants was generally top-notch. Not necessarily fancy every time, but great in execution on most occasions. I tried sea shells local to the area I had never eaten before. Deliciously unique. The wine pairing was excellent, without exception.
Many young people in France admire the United States and cannot wait to get out. Numerous were conversations with waiters and strangers to learn about life in America, a country they only know from television. I gave them a broader perspective of life in America as an immigrant myself and offered the cute ones room and board. My house is still empty.
I hate to say it, but the Dutch are more “sophisticated” than the French, at least in the suburbs. They are more worldly, more used to diverging viewpoints, and move forward in stating their likes and dislikes. You will know who you are talking to. For one, they all speak English reasonably well.
More than France, I found the Netherlands has become more of a copy-culture of the United States or a feeble attempt at that. The shows on TV, the phrases used in the streets, the clothes they wear, the thug adulation, the mimicking of purported systemic racism, the politics, all reeked of American derivatives. Do not tell them because they will fight you tooth and nail on the subject.
The Netherlands is clean, much cleaner than the U.S., reminding me a bit of Switzerland. Everything has its place. No runaway debris. No dilapidated people or places that jumped out. It is a well-organized country.
Driving in The Netherlands requires special considerations. The speed limit on roads changes rapidly and unexpectedly, with cameras ready to capture your every minute infraction. One kilometer over the speed limit is enough to record you. You must download a special application, only available through the local App Store, to get alerts about where those cameras are located. Some are mobile cameras, changing location at a moment’s notice. Expect to get ticketed, sent right to your home for your convenience.
Life in The Netherlands has not changed much. The population density seems to have increased, but I saw no notable change in people’s behavior from thirty years back. They live in the same beautiful medieval houses, enduring twenty-three weeks of rain per year amidst lush farmland and beautiful waterways. Their skins were weathered and leathered by the rain and cold they faced, driving their bikes to school and work. The Dutch are generally in shape, their two-hour average exercise coming not from a treadmill but their bike rides and walking. Life has seemingly stood still, yet not necessarily for the worse.
Friendships in The Netherlands are earned, not given. It may take years to earn friendships which then will last you a lifetime. It is on that basis I still operate even in the U.S. today. Having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years, you learn to value friendships for what they are. You can count on the Dutch when the going gets tough or need the help they can provide.
Health insurance in The Netherlands for a person my age costs between $100-200 per month. In the Obamacare marketplace I would pay $1,600 per month. Go figure.
I was happy to notice Dutch artisan cheese shops, bakeries, and local eateries still existing and thriving. Globalization has taken its toll here too, but less in the quaint towns I visited. The Dutch Gouda does not compare to anything we import to the U.S.
The Dutch do not subprime anything. Their houses are meticulous, their kitchens equipped with state-of-the-art faucets and utilities. I did not spot a single home with American microwave hoods, the ultimate of homeowner subpriming. They may not indulge in grandiosity, but they take pride in what they own and why.
Here are some general European observations that apply to both France and the Netherlands.
Having a common currency across European countries is nice if you are still paying cash. The downside of a common currency is that no country can really adjust its value to its valuation. The homogenization of currencies has outpriced many locals of underperforming Eurozone countries and has done more harm than good.
I expected to see more immigrants roaming the streets, even in larger cities, but saw no noticeable presence. I noticed no obvious threat to local sovereignty so often painted in the press, with notable exceptions of major cities like Paris and Amsterdam. It was somewhat jarring to see Chinese people running a dutch snack bar, speaking Dutch fluently. And then again, why not?
Europe is far ahead in payment systems in retail stores and restaurants. I could pay in almost every establishment with my Apple Watch activated American debit cards, and in only two locations had to swipe the actual card to make a payment go through. Another area in which the United States is not leading.
I find it a relief not to have to tip people. Especially when in the U.S., we feel inclined to tip waiters for bad and aloof service. Overall, the service I received has been much better than in the U.S., with alert waiters actually knowing their product and interested in selling.
Perhaps because of my friendships, but the effort made by acquaintances, kids, and family members to come out and see me was endearing. It warmed my heart. It reminded me how the Dutch value the integrity of those relationships deeply.
No border control
It is still weird to drive from Belgium to France without getting stopped. The borders are gone, but the differences are not. As I discussed with Nigel Farage in person, the idea of homogenizing and flatting the plurality of sovereignty is not a good idea. I favor Brexit, as I supported the French, Dutch and Irish voting against the Eurozone constitution. I remain in favor of more, not less fragmentation of freedom that promotes unique character and ability.
It is amazing to watch how much better run these nation-states appear to be. In two weeks, I saw no crime and virtually no policing except for one time when a known straggler in France decided to sit on a terrace. The police were called and showed up with four officers in less than five minutes, gently moving the homeless person to a location where he would not disturb others. Do not expect that kind of gentle diffusion by the U.S. police on such an occasion.
The U.S. is embarrassingly far behind on infrastructure development compared to both France and The Netherlands. Most roads are bowed and made of special asphalt, allowing for water runoff. Compare that to the 101 from San Francisco to San Jose, and you will recognize the difference. There is not enough money in Biden’s infrastructure bill to fill the potholes from roads constructed the wrong way. Here too, the U.S. needs to address cause rather than consequence.
In the U.S., you get a driver’s license after driving around the farm twice. In Europe, you must attend and satisfactorily pass thirty driving lessons with an instructor and pass a test. And it shows. Even on narrower roads, the traffic flows smoother because everyone has been taught to go with the flow, move to the right, and break gently if needed. Smooth is the word.
Art and Design
Europeans still love and treasure design. Even modern design. It is amazing to see how they turn medieval places and palaces into gorgeous venues. Even for something as simple as a local bar to stand out. Creativity is treasured.
The houses in France and The Netherlands are made out of brick designed to last three hundred years. The houses in the U.S. are made out of wood lasting thirty years, becoming moldy after ten and easily falling apart when storms hit. Nobody should get a mortgage on a wooden house, really. We could learn something from the Dutch.
As a self-proclaimed espresso snob and Illy fan, I rated the quality of espressos in Europe as appalling. Most espressos I tasted in France and the Netherlands were strong coffees, a different brewing process altogether. Not even the local Starbucks serves up the consistency of espresso you can expect in the U.S. I see a massive opportunity for Illy, recently collaborating with a private equity firm, to bring much-needed push-button consistency to wherever their brand is served.
Roughly 45% of global credit card fraud occurs in the U.S., making it easy to comprehend why other countries, like France and the Netherlands, still operate under the presumption of trust. Again, I made a reservation at a beautiful hotel and extended my stay without any credit card swipe in advance. I love the trust bestowed on me and repaying said trust.
With all the beautiful attributes of Europe, there is no country I’d rather be in than America. Best portrayed perhaps by the feeling of riding up front in the Tour De France. Catching all the wind and debris of carving the path to a bright new future, with the rest of the peloton riding much more comfortably in the slipstream.
The difference between Europe and the U.S. is derived from how each country defines and implements systems that induce the behavior they expect to see. In Einstein’s words, the theory determines what can be discovered. The people in this world look to the United States for guidance, and we better shore up our act to prove we still deserve and preserve that honor.
Yes, one can live more comfortably in Europe. And I could buy out my brothers and live happily in beautiful France. Yet, given what I do, I seek the possibility of breaking new ground in improving the operating systems of humanity, embracing the struggle to ride up front, and catching all the wind.
I do it from a country where fundamental change is still possible, and a peloton of countries is bound to follow in our slipstream once again. This time though, under my watch, not into the abyss of systemic subpriming.