Edit: ok, so this post was done in a bit of a ‘ranting’ mood, when my wife and I were trying to find something to do, or somewhere to go, in rural Belgium, which did not cost 100 Euros for the family, between gas and/or restaurant fees. Note at the end I begin to reiterate what I have said in other posts, which is that I am very fond of many things European, enough that I’d rather live here than in North America. But anyway, take the first part of this as shorthand, which tries to make a number of points quickly, without pausing to be nice; I had a lot to cram into this one post, and b/c I write for a living I have relatively little time to devote to this sort of post, so I had to do it fast… anyway, it’s not at all intended to be rude, as you’ll see if you get to the end, but instead to get European continentals (who whether they wish to believe it or not can be just as smug and culture-o-centric as anyone…) to think beyond some of their cherished stereotypes of North Americans. (It also should have the effect of causing American liberals to look beyond some of their stereotypes of the ‘European person’ as a liberal person’s Jesus figure.., and realize, in other words, that some of the things they continually criticize in the American right’s economic policies might actually be empowering their own lifestyle, to a degree that they could never realize until they lived in Europe, and found that much of what they hold dear cannot exist here due, I think, to relatively rigid continental modes of thought, which could use some shaking up. And finally, Hey, I’m a progressive, I shake things up, whether it’s in the U.S. or Europe, so it’s good for everyone to get the cobwebs out.)
Like most progressive folks in the US, I spent most of my conscious life under the assumption that Europe was of course culturally more progressive than the US. Because Europeans are generally quite socially liberal, and because some European countries have laws in place which tend to favour working moms, and working people in general, together with liberal views on healthcare, the environment etc., one gets the impression that European culture and society in general are not only liberal, but innovative, and interesting. Based on the fitishization that Americans do of “European” food, furniture, clothing, cars, etc…, one would imagine that when one came to Europe that one would find fashion-forward trends in clothing, housewares, restaurants, eating habits, Eco/Green items, etc. And based on the worship that American greens have of European green-ness, including the environmentally friendly laws that Europeans are supposed to have in place, against things like GMOs, nuclear power, and the like, one would imagine that coming to Europe one would find people who are super green, super aware, and super into green eating., etc.
I have had these ideas from the American media and advertising, and they were generally confirmed from the vegetarianism and progressivism that I found while living with British and German students for a few years in England during and after undergrad, and I found that they were also somewhat confirmed from living in Barcelona. There were cool and hip and progressive stores and magazines, and other cultural forces at work in Barcelona, but not much of this anywhere else in Spain – but I figured that, hey the Spanish are Latins after all, and so surely the northern Europeans, such as the Dutch, Scandinavians, Germans, etc., would be that much more Green and progressive, right?
Well, imagine my surprise when I move to Holland and find that, au contraire, the Dutch are at least 10 years behind the Americans and Canadians in terms of progressive culture. For one thing, the Dutch eat horribly. Totally blandly. And the Belgians aren’t really much better at food culture–particularly on experimenting with food from other cultures. In Holland, all the professors ate the most traditional “Dutch” food imaginable: rock-hard grilled cheese sandwiches, and a plastic cup filled with milk for lunch. There were no vegetables in sight. They didn’t even mix ham and cheese, let alone actually put tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, etc., on their sandwiches!! And no salads for sale anywhere!!! Just yoghurt, dry bread, and a pathetic slice or two of random lunchmeat. It’s worse than how americans ate in the 1950s! Unbelievable. Clearly the “hip sandwich” revolution of the 1990s has totally not hit in holland yet.
In other words, the nutritional revolution simply has not happened in the Low Countries. There are very few “superfoods” available such as nuts, seeds, blueberries, pumpkins, squashes, and sweet potatoes (orange vegetables), nuts, seeds and kale. These are either not sold at all, or are very expensive. Whole foods in general are incredibly hard to find, and very expensive. No bulk prices. There is little or no sense in Europe that salt is bad for you; cholesterol is not remarked at all; doctors do not talk about cholesterol, as a rule; or advise people to lower their intakes, and no one has begun to question the wisdom of having multiple espressos per day, as is now common in north america.
Even meat, which many Anglo progressives eschew, is done much more arcanely here, as if it were the 1950s. First, there is no sense that meat is bad for you, and the environment, generally speaking, especially red meat and game. There is no literature and subculture which talks about this; there is absolutely no push towards vegetarianism here. You can’t even buy dried beans in the grocery stores, except for split green peas, because these are Flemish and Dutch traditional foods. This to any north american progressive is shocking- – a total lack of Indian, Latin American, and even Mediterranean bean culture in the stores. The culture here still entirely worships meat as the obvious centrepiece of any real meal. And the gamier and more exotic the meat, the higher value is placed on it. The flavours that are favoured are highly meaty, organey tasting meats which make the stomachs of american progressives turn. It’s almost impossible to buy ground meat of any kind which hasn’t already been “seasoned” with additives that include dextrose and MSG. There is little counterculture which demands pure, non-additive contaminated foods. Most of the ground meat which is sold is extremely bland tasting, or else pre-seasoned with these high sodium processed-tasting mixtures. Also the sausages are sold almost entirely without spices, so that they are very bland–there are no Italian sausages, let alone ones with spinach, garlic, sun-dried tomates, feta, and all of the standards which can be found in almost every North American grocery store. The sausages are either made with very bland meat (no garlic) or else are made from –yum!– organ meat; blood sausage is still a favourite as is tripe. Delicious. Also, sausages are priced incredibly highly – 10/12 euros per kilogram, as though this were some type of luxury–, despite their being made from mystery meat.
In general, the absence of a nutritional, globally-aware, multiculrual and environmentally-friendly food movement means that hippies, artist types, and students, and progressives of all stripes do not eat well here. They do not eat progressively, and do not actively therefore support sustainable agriculture, the way that north american (and to a degree English) lefties can do. if you’re poor here, in other words, you tend to eat shitty corporate food. there is no sense of artists rebelling against the corporate agenda through eating independently of the agrobusinesses. Thus the link between food and politics is almost non existent here. I would argue that this is a major strength of the North American left in the past 20 years. People here basically eat sausages and french fries with mayonnaise (ie, cholesterol bombs), or appalling frozen pizza that would make your great aunt shudder that are filled with MSG and artificial flavours, fake seasonings, tons of sugar, and trans-fats in the crust.
So this lack of good, multicultural taste in the public at large translates into a relative dearth of cool restaurants, no coffee shops (except cannabis shops). Ok, in Amsterdam itself, it was a bit better. But if you leave Amsterdam, very little. And they do have a few “BIO” (I.e., Eco) stores, but you can never get any cheap grains or beans loose there, like you can in their American/Canadian equivalents. Organic stores in the Low Countries are seen as things that only wealthy upper-middle class people shop at, and buy things in teensy tinsy quantiies. England is a bit better for this sort of thing, but still can’t hold a candle to the States.
Also, this translates into eating habits of kids. Because there is no progressive movement for nutrition to speak of, parents still give their kids candy and soda as though it were the 1970s, with no concern for sugar intake. As a result, you will see parents allowing kids to freely gulp down quantities of candy; in one home our kids play at, there is a large bowl of candy and chocolates that are freely available for the kids to grab at will, after their nutritious lunch of crepes and chocolate sauce. There is little sense that breakfast and lunch should not have sugar in them; they do not eat peanut butter, but instead “speculaas” which is filled with sugar. It’s icing with a few fake spices added to make it taste like gingerbread. At breakfast, they eat “hagelslag” which is candy sprinkles on their toast. At schools they give out an enormous amount of candy on festive occasions, allowing children to have 10 to 15 small wrapped candy bars without any reserve. Let alone any sense of having a well-balanced meal, high in fibre, essential fatty acids, omega 3s, or anything of the kind.
Needless to say, in North America no middle-class mom will allow 1/5th as much sugar intake, since doctors have long since proven that this causes a host of health and behavioural problems throughout life. These eating habits in North America are now reserved only for the most ignorant and uneducated amongst the lower classes, for the most part. In short, ihe eating culture here makes Martha Stewart seem like a radical nutritionarian.
The other enviro-friendly movements that are such a staple of lefties of all social classes in North America are also very hard to find here. For example, there were no fragrance free products in Holland at all… until about 2010, they started coming in. And there are hardly any recyclables, either.There is only horrendous quality overprocessed flour available in grocery stores, with massive amuonts of addities, particularly for bread baking.
And as for progressive magazines, and independent journalism? Almost zero. In fact, there is almost no subculture at all in the Low Countries, or Germany really even. France, far far less – in all latin countries, there is almost none. There are no progressive liberal store/hangouts, per se, at which one can buy these. There are no co-ops, hardly at all.
And in Belgium, you can’t even find a pub anywhere outside of city centres– there are no casual family restaurants – let alone green places, or hip sandwich shops on the side of the road, like in the US and Canada. Not even any good Butchers. Belgian sausages are unbelievably bland–they don’t use any garlic at all! Nor are there any places where you can buy “world” traded goods — or, ok, there are a few, but they are very tiny, and few and far between.
And there aren’t even any superstores, either; let alone green ones. Absolutely nothing like Whole Foods. And pretty few independent bookstores, and almost zero internet sites, for anything, from books to used stuff . There is no belgian Craigslist. There is at least in Holland “marktplaats.nl” Let’s be clear: I am not at all advocating that Wal Mart comes to the Low Countries, as a Belgian friend of mine suggested… what I mean is, that there are so many ways in North America that progressive people enable a free market to thrive in non-corporate ways of doing business, which lowers prices, and which therefore makes many progressive products available to non-elites. In the Low Countries, to be progressive, you have to be a double-income professional family— i.e., you have to be wedded to the corporate lifestyle. And even if many Low Countries corporate people are way more progressive than their american counterparts, it still strikes me as being a very classist-enabling system – it does more to keep progressivism as an affectation of social elites, rather than being a grass-roots movement — heck even university students can’t really eat well, or act organic here – and since there is so little literature and cultural concern with this stuff, university students here generally eat way worse, and way less progressively, than in the Anglophone world. This is quite unexpected.
Ok, so you get it. It’s shocking how few of the standard places of business that are frequented by American and other Anglophone liberals and progressives there are in Europe. Why in the hey is this?
1) Economic policy has a major, major impact. A german professor buddy told me that in Germany the books are so expensive, because the government regulates the stores to prohibit competition. In England you can get books for just a few pounds–in Germany, Harry Potter paperbacks are, I shit you not, 18 Euros. And used aren’t much better. And websites, again, almost no used books websites from Germany – except Amazon.de, which is harldy a bargain.
And you might be like–sucks that books are expensive, but so what. But when you trace the effects of this through the culture – it has profound unforseen effects. For example, because books are so expensive, people on the continent basically don’t really buy them. So that means fewer people with independent interests in hobbies. There are very few hobby stores here, partly for that reason. And there are also fewer independent publishers. And thus, fewer independent magazines and journalism. And with little online culture, these things don’t form that way either. Hence less intense progressivism.
And because of having majorly expensive books, elementary schools in Holland and Belgium don’t have school libraries! You go to the bookmobile once every other week. And so there is even less exposure to books here for kids, even though European attitudes towards books are in general more positive. And there are no reader-books even for literature in schools– you just get handouts. So no anticipation in elementary school of progressing through your reader over the course of the year (and there are not even literature majors in college – only philology, which I’ve talked about in my post on English majors). And even in university libraries, at US and Cdn colleges, faculty get 200 book limits, and grad students ca. 100. And we take out this many books all the time, so that we can skim the books, and find individual quotes, and look up things in the index at our leisure at home. But scholars here expect to consult far fewer books, meaning that they write on much narrower topics, and are more specialized. And university librarians freak out, when, like I did the other day, one consults 20 books at once even in the library. I had a stack of about 25 books on a table, and flipped through them, and put them on the return table, and the Flemish librarian was like “Wat is de bedoeling (meaning) van de boeken op de tafel?” Like I was some sort of criminal for pulling more than 4 books off the shelf at once!
So the point is, that this over-regulation, and lack of competition, makes for an entire culture which is much more scared of books than that section of American society which actually uses books. In the states, if a person gets into something, they really get into it, and they have access to the tools and the subculture that supports it, and that way, they have a much greater impact. (I daresay that American scholarship has blossomed in the past 30 years, while European has languished – and the book situation is certainly a serious contributing factor). Even outside of university, the culture at large, once again, will have less developed and varied subcultures, including that of literacy, and of any culture that relies on books, because of economic policies such as this. So back to the list of why European culture seems less progressive de facto.
2) Europeans think in terms of categories, and regulate that way too. In Holland, there are laughably few independent stores, or at least, different store types. That’s because, in drug stores, you can only sell drug store stuff – a certain tiny list. You can’t sell, say batteries, or blank CDs. Ok. maybe those, but you can’t dare sell housewares on a little stand in the corner. It’s just illegal. And restaurants have to just be sit-down ma and pa restaurants. And cafes have to just be cafes, etc. There are no hybrids possible. So if you want to find a specific thing, like, say a fingernail clipper, you have to figure out that they are only saleable at a certain type hardware store – not the big type which sells lawn equipment, but the smaller type which sells housewares. Etc. It’s crazy how specialized places are. To buy shoe laces, you have to go to a shoe repair guy. No one else is allowed to sell them, not grocery stores, etc. This drives non-Dutch people crazy, and it incidentally keeps people from opening up other types of stores, say progresive hippie places that you can hang out at, have a coffee, and browse through naturally eco produced goods, and go to the eco book section, while then going to the hiking map area in the back. Etc., The US and Canada are full of places like that.
3) Europeans are liberal, but it’s kind of because they are all liberal, because their socieites are in each country so homogenous. Dutch people are really quite Dutch, and Belgians are quite Belgian – or rather, flemish are flemish and walloons walloons. And northern french are northern french, with a few regional variations, etc. So that means that each of these countries really relies on its national cuisine, and people tend to think similar things. I mean, there is a wide political spectrum, but within what North Americans would call a rather restrictive set of beliefs. For example, there is no subculture. There are very few Dutch who would call themselves ‘progressives.’ There are a few Dutch who are a bit more progressive than the average, but not many, and only by degree, not by kind. in North America, we tend to think of people as being really quite radically of different ‘types.’ In European continental countries, there is much less of this – b/c, obviously,. their socieites have been quite the same for over a thousand years, evolving, but not fundamentally shaken up–it’s been the same gene pool, same language, etc, with few major in fluxes of immigrants until quite recently. So there aren’t “hippie hangouts” because that is really seen as too subversive, too not-dutch, really, or not-belgian. So people don’t do it.
4) This also means, that there are almost no ethnic or “fushion” restaurants. To get non=-Belgian food in belgium, one has to go to a few chinese restaurants which are way overpriced and basically suck. And same with italian food – it’s so de-garlicked to accomodate the belgians’ natural cuisine, that it’s really not very inspiring. People don’t come here and try to make a splash, they try and blend in. And what could you grow in medieval belgium? It was very cold, and dark, and so people grew endives, and leeks, and there was nary a spice; and they decided not to eat garlic, either. Too bad!!!
So again, don’t get me wrong. I am living here because i find the people to be so much more rational, progressive, intellectual, accomodating of thought, humane, concerned, engaged, and many other progressive things that I really despair are so utterly lacking in the US at large (Canada is much better). But Europeans could stand to learn quite a lot from the American/Canadian model. I would say:
1) De-regulate business! Reward creativity, and personal initiative. Let the market fragment a bit. Stop overregulating what types of stores there can be,. and what they can sell! yes, it helps keep downtowns ordered and prosperous, but in such a dreary way. Montreal, for example, has far far more hipper and interesting stores and restaurants than any French or Low Countries town. Who would have guessed. Everyone thinks of it as a fake Europe. In fact, it’s far hipper than any one European city — of course mb excepting Paris or London, or a few mega cities.
2) Let people open roadside businesses (e.g., nice family pubs like in England), outside of downtowns.! The belgian countryside is like a ghost town – only a few old man bars in the village squares. Wholly uninspiring.
3) Let people start websites! Who cares if they compete with some downtown businesses. If you let loose a bit, downtowns would be filled with hip cool places that people actually want to shop at, in stead of these ancient 1950s categories of what a store should be.
4) For god’s sake, stop fetishizing national cuisine. It will survive. Embrace change, enbrace variety. I have had no Thai, no Korean – there are a few in brussels, but really, it’s so not hip. And please, de-regulate so that restaurants can charge lower prices, so it doesn’t cost 60 Euros for a family of four to have a pizza (I kid not). And stop charging 4 Euros/person for bottled water!!! Water should be free, like in the US.
5) Allow for progressive magazines. This will happen if there are places of business. This will create subcultures, which is good. It’s healthy.
6) This will enable a few people who are progressive to start organizing more eco-friendly community projects, and you will find that work on recycling and other ideas moves forward, as it even has in the US, despite so many corporate and stupid southern prejudices against them.
But, that being said, I see that Europeans have so many good things going, that I would never want them to un-regulate to the point of letting in the corporate monsters who have done so much to ruin the US. E.g.,
But keep state media. This has been very good for England and Canada, and keeps the populace from being too dumbed down. Total lack of regulation is bad. And of course keep things regulated to cut down on urban sprawl, that is wonderful. Don’t allow for big monopolies in every major business, like in the US, or for a few people like Rupert Murdoch to take over the news media. That’s obviously bad.
So yes, Europe has very much to offer. But with a bit of strategic de-regulation, esp of small businesses, it could so easily be so much more vital here, and more progressive, and more multicultural, and more hip, humane, cool, and fun to live in!!!
This would allow for the best of both worlds. Europe can have its cake and eat it too. But few Europeans have travelled enough in N Am., and are so amazed by its horrors, that they don’t get a chance to see the liberal green amongst the rottenness. That green movement has a lot to teach Europeans, indubitably.