Sunday, December 12, 2010

Living, just living

It always amazes me when I hear Americans go on about the "high taxes in Europe" without giving any thought to what life is actually like over here. It's like they think we're burdened with huge tax debt and are constantly struggling to have a decent standard of living. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Though I sometimes hear rebuttals pointing out how we have universal health care, low cost or free universities, better pensions, better safety nets in general, and so on, I never hear anyone point out the obvious: day-to-day life in Europe is just day-to-day life. It's not a hardship and we certainly don't have a lower standard of living than the US (in fact, by many measures the average standard of living is far better than the US due to a much narrower rich-poor gap).

Just to give you a typical taste of life here, my wife and I were invited to dinner at a friend's house in Alphen aan den Rijn, a small town maybe 40 kilometres away from Amsterdam. Yesterday after breakfast, we started walking to the Leidseplein, after stopping to grab a couple of oliebollen from a vendor. Oliebollen (which unappetizingly translates to "oil balls") are a traditional Dutch treat served during the holidays.

As it's close to Christmas, there are decorations everywhere, children are laughing and excited and people rush about from store to store, frantically shopping for presents. Holidays in foreign countries can often be surprising. For example, here's a short video of Zwarte Piet, or "Black Pete", that I shot here in Amsterdam. Zwarte Piet is the helper of Sinterklaas and if you've been a bad boy or girl, he'll snatch you away in a burlap sack and take you to Spain, where he and Sinterklaas live during the off season. Doesn't sound like much of a threat to me, but a couple of hundred years ago, it might have been scary.

Amsterdam Bloemenmarkt
Photo by Emanuele
Meanwhile, my wife and I headed to the Bloemenmarkt to buy some flowers for our hosts, before finally getting to Leidseplein and catching the bus (I stopped driving when I moved to Europe because there was never any need to). When we arrived in Alphen aan den Rijn, our host met us at the bus stop and drove us to his house. From there, we had a lovely evening of catching up, including chatting with a friend from Portugal who was in town on business. Dinner was a pasta served with hare (hare, not rabbit) with a delicious apple pie for dessert. We finished with a lovely white port (I hadn't had one of those before!) before heading home.

There's really nothing interesting in any of this recounting of "a day in the life." Aside from locations many would consider "exotic", it's just business as usual. We are ordinary people with ordinary lives. Except that we don't have medical bankruptcies. We don't have people living in studio flats under a crushing mound of university debt (my wife has a Master's Degree in French law and she spent about €2,000 a year for that). We don't have people constantly scrimping on vacation days since we tend to get five weeks a year or more. In short, we work to live and we enjoy life. If you doubt this, just check out the various studies regarding standards of living and national happiness. The US is never on top. European countries usually are.


  1. I really enjoy reading this blog; it's a refreshing, erm, refresher for when I get really annoyed about little things here; it's a gentle reminder that we've actually got it quite good here.

  2. I have an expat friend in South Korea who was responding to some facebook worry about the craziness there a few weeks back with North Korea. He responded that they didn't feel endangered and that they were always reading in the papers about the craziness that goes on in the US. South Korea seemed quite calm and nice in comparison. He went on to suggest that people just like to feel good about themselves and news papers wanting to stay in business oblige by providing that particular bias.

    I live in the US and don't know anyone whose suffered medical bankruptcy. I do know several people who've needed lifesaving surgery and raised money through local churches and civic organizations like The Lions Club. And I don't know anyone living with 'crushing' student debt though most of my friends do have some debt. Plus the studies we read in the papers generally do show much higher standards of living in the US (always along the line of "If [France, Germany, the UK] were a US state, it would be just behind [West Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama, DC] in terms of ..."

    I'm not saying you're wrong, and I'm definitely not looking to argue (I'm thinking that after NYC I'd like to try Paris). All I'm saying is that I agree with my friend in South Korea.

    Plus, thank you so much for sharing your experiences about living abroad. I am looking forward to my future opportunities and you are definitely helping me with that.

  3. @eh1mnwy: thanks for sharing that. It's unfortunate that in a blog like this, at times it's almost impossible to avoid "political" issues (it will be particularly interesting when I discuss health care), but I don't want this to be a political blog. I just want to present the information people need to consider options for changing countries, but sometimes it will come out with a point of view. I welcome you posting a different point of view and I'll also make a point not to argue.

    Also, if you could find any references to the standard of living studies you're referring to, I'd be very interested in reading them.