Life in the USA vs that in Europe


My late friend, the London-based architect Ayyub Malik, often critisized me for sounding too American in my attitude towards life. He told me to stop trying to optimise and be a go getter. Just sit back and have some slack. Relax. These were not his exact words, but I concluded that’s what he disapproved of. The fast pace of life, the competitiveness, and the 24 by 7 existence was what he wanted to avoid when he turned down that job in Chicago many years before he met me.

Bekkers Duo with Ayyub Malik and Mayor of London Ealing, 30 May 2003

Bekkers Duo with Ayyub Malik and Mayor of London Ealing, 30 May 2003

Now that I’ve lived outside the USA for more than a decade, and in particular, on continental Europe for most of the past decade, I daresay that I have absorbed some of that European attitude, especially when compared to the way I was. I’m not sure if going to the USA will bring it all back.

I notice the differences when I converse with newly arrived Americans.

They are surprised that they can’t get from A to B by car. I patiently tell them that they can hop on a bus (which seems very foreign) or cycle (which requires renting a bicycle or buying one). “I’ll walk,” they say. But they forget what distances are when they are not used to walking.

American students complain of a lack of flexibility and attentiveness of Dutch administration. Having studied in the USA, I do admit that American universities do a much better job of ensuring new students are provided for. They certainly don’t need to sweat for accommodation after they arrive. It’s all taken care of BEFORE they arrive. It’s almost as if their needs are anticipated before they are voiced. In the Netherlands, I learned that if you don’t ask, you won’t get it. Those were the exact words of a student administrator at the Dutch conservatory where I studied for four years.

I explain the recycling rules. Americans that have lived in Germany nod in understanding. Those that haven’t think it’s novel to separate your waste into different compartments: paper, plastic, glass, refundable glass or plastic bottles, compost, and real trash. It does require getting used to. It does take up extra space before the weekly collection or trip to the depot.

I warn them to get their grocery shopping done before end of day Saturday. Unless it’s the first Sunday of the month, expect all stores to be closed and not reopen until Monday 11 am. Restaurants are even worse. I have starved myself trying to find outdoor seating on a warm summer’s evening, only to be turned away at 10 pm that the kitchen has closed. In some smaller towns the restaurants close at 9 pm. [This happened in Doorn on a Friday evening in July.]

One Dutch-American observed that the Dutch seem so much more organised than the Americans. “There are rules for everything, and the Dutch abide by the rules,” he said. On the flip side, the Dutch are not as flexible or spontaneous as the Americans. You could say that the way of dealing with uncertainty is different: rules vs flexibility.

As I plan how to travel from our upcoming concert in Newton, Massachusetts on 22nd October 2010 to the next one in Hampton, Connecticut on 23rd October, I’m amazed that no public transportation is adequate. “You’ll have either get someone to give you a lift,” advised an American friend, “or rent a car.”

Thank goodness gasoline prices in America are not $8 per gallon as we pay here in the Netherlands!

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Filed under articles, culture, planning, travel

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