Aug 15, 2010

To Be Or Not To Be Too Civilized

Aperetif in Biron, France

“I find Europeans too civilized, ” my friend declared before downing the last gulp of his beer.

He said he much preferred the Wild West, take what’s yours and it’s all yours for the taking, mentality of America. “Entrepreneurial spirit,” he termed it.

We were in Brussels, my home for the last six years, and my friend had decided to cap his seven day European tour with this generalization and a night at my house

I am all for the spirited entrepreneur, and there’s even a little ‘Wild West’ in me. I am from Ronald Regan country after all. But I scratched my head at his assertion that too much of what the dictionary defines as ‘polite and well-mannered’ was a bad thing. A beer later, we had moved on to discuss why men should never wear sleeveless shirts. This we could agree on.

Now back living in the U.S., revisiting places once familiar and relearning customs once routine, I think I finally understand what my friend was getting at all those years ago. Being civilized, he deduced, is directly linked to the tolerance threshold we have for average settings and situations. I think he may be on to something. But it’s not only Europeans that attain high readings on the civility meter. Americans have their standards too, that is to say what they will stand for, and comparing how we react to common situations suggests that being civilized, according to my friend's definition, is all a matter of what you're used to.

Based on my experience, which does not claim to be accurate or scientific, my astounding observations are as follows:

Restaurant Lighting

Restaurants and cafes, from Amsterdam to Umbria, could land planes in their dining rooms. A dimmer switch and a few candles are all it would take to change the atmosphere from ‘prison cafeteria’ to ‘pleasant place to eat’. American restaurants are leaps and bounds ahead of European ones when it comes to establishing ambiance. But ask a friend of mine who spent a decade in America and Canada and she'll tell you, "The restaurants were so dark, I couldn't read the menus." Go figure.

Eating out

Despite the prison lighting, dining out in Europe is an event to be savored, not a chore to check off the list. Meals are not meant to come from a carton, a bucket, or a clown's mouth, but rather served on a plate, preferably not a paper one, at a table, preferably not a foldable one in front of the TV. Most restaurants are family run and owners take great pride in preparing and presenting a good meal. You will be hard pressed to grab a ‘quick bite’ in a restaurant and this is a good thing. Count on 1.5 hours minimum. Relax and enjoy.

Europe- Civilized

Europeans sit down and enjoy their coffee, served in real coffee cup, always served on a doily dressed tray, and accompanied by a cookie or other sweet. A paper cup with cardboard cozy and plastic lid is not social, and drinking in the car is simply not recommended (see driving below). I consider my self an addict, er , expert on coffee and this is one custom that will stay with me here in the US. You will love coffee at my house.

Customer Service

I wish I could say it’s improving, but even after 6-years, I can’t. Customer service is optional and you, the customer, do not get to choose this option. Be it at the phone company representative or salesperson at a shop, the supermarket checkout girl or a waiter, the point is the same---the customer does not come first and you will often be met by the standard shrug of the shoulders with accompanied ‘pppfffft’ sound blown from frowning lips. It helps dull the frustration if you lower your expectations to zero. It can only go up from there.

Waiting in Line

Europeans boggle my mind when it comes to their willingness to wait patiently in a line. It could be 20 deep at the department store, or the minutes ticking away until the last train leaves the station, and the common denominator is: no one cares. In all my years living in Europe, not once, no exaggeration, did I hear anyone in line ever ask for a new line or ticket window to be opened. I once asked a woman in line why this wasn’t done and she replied, “Because we have the time to wait.” I missed my train.

Personal Space

When you have 500 million people living in a continent the size of Europe, you are bound to have a different sense of personal space than in America, where roads are wide, the egos are huge, and walk in closets are the size of Paris studios. We Americans tend to observe and expect a 1-foot invisible box of personal space around us in all public settings. This does not exist in Europe. The only place I’ve ever noticed it respected is at the ATM.


Driving in Brussels (or Paris, or Rome) makes my driving pedigree in Los Angeles look like a Disney ride. The ‘rule of the right’ rules in Europe. That is the unwritten yet enforced acceptance that the right of way is always granted to the car coming from the right. This has the effect of transforming even the most demure of people into raving lunatics as they rightfully speed into intersections, crosswalks, roundabouts, and onto large roads from small ones. The speed limit is also significantly faster, 130km or 90 mph. California’s 55 mph feels like the dumbo ride.



I just drove by the Safeway grocery store near my house (at 10 p.m.) and there were still hordes of people shopping.
Europe really has it right here, in my opinion. Shops are closed. Restaurants, museums and parks are open, and families and friends frequent them in non-frenzied masses. A large midday meal is customary, often at someone's home. I like that I can’t do my grocery shopping on Sunday, and God forbid I ever need anything so badly I'd do it on Sunday night at 10 p.m. Chores can wait until Monday. They suck anyway.

Dogs and Dog Feces

For fear of being chased by torches and sticks by dog lovers, a ubiquitous breed of their own, I won't say more than this: dog lover or not, is it ever pleasant step in excrement? Human. Dog. Yak. I guess I don't need to limit it to just dogs. But in Belgium, in Paris, in the South of France, and a myriad of other large cities in Europe, pyramids of dog doodoo are more common on sidewalks than parking meters. I supposed this is really an issue directed at the dog owner, not the dog. So I ask you: Why is it ok to let little scruffy do his business in front of a church door, at the bottom of an escalator, or right next to a cash machine? I've seen and stepped in them all. Is it that you yourself enjoy stepping in excrement so you perceive others have the same fetish? One word: baggie.

I know this isn’t a very high tech analysis, but it is based on personal experience. By my count, I don't see Europeans as too civilized. I see two different habits cultivated and accepted as the norm. And even with the long lines, the lack of customer service and the prison lighting, I still loved living in Europe. These are merely obserations that can't come from a one day visit or a week's vacation, but come into focus only when you truly live in a place.


BomboChipolata said...

I'm with you on restaurants, coffee and customer service, but what's all this nonsense about personal space? Yeah the blokes can get a bit kissy, but there's no tongues. In fact, some of the biggest culprits for invading my exclusion zone have come from your country (though not you personally, I hasten to add).

Driving is not a mode of transport here, it's a bloodsport. I would have thought that'd appeal to the Wild West culture :-) You don't cede priority, you ram it out of the car in front. If you allow someone right of way here, instead of a friendly wave, you'll get a look reserved for people caught being romantic with farmyard animals. Yee-haw!

Kimberley Lovato said...

Thanks for your comment and flair with words. My observations on personal space are simply that we Americans are very sensitive about it and europeans are not as worried if someone is breathing down their collar in a line. You must be worth getting close to or wear a nice scent if any American stranger, that wasn't a pervert, moved in too close for your comfort. On behalf of them all, pervs and non pervs, I apologize.