June 27, 2008
I have just one last vacation post before I get back to somewhat regularly scheduled programming. Since my trip I’ve had a bunch of other topics that have accumulated in sort of half finished form. Presently they’re all about as ambiguous as that last sentence, but hopefully I’ll get them finished sooner then later.
And for no particular reason, this blog post is dedicated to Zoe.
For most of my travel recollections, I’ve tried to focus a lot more on my activities and impressions at specific moments. The real purpose was to log what I did so I could remember it. I’ve mostly avoided any general themes from the entire trip, aside from asides, thinking it would be more valuable to contain them all in one place. This is that place.
When Katie and I grabbed a bagel in the airport in Dublin on our first morning, I think that shop might have been a chain. Other than that one occasion, I can’t remember eating at another chain restaurant. Anywhere. The entire time.
That means alot. Going out and grabbing a quick meal in Europe means a quaint, unique little pub or shop. In the States, a nice meal out with friends usually means a national chain restaurant of some sort (unless it’s a really nice meal out) like a TGI Fridays, Subway, or Ruby Tuesday (or Bennigans or Applebee’s or… ). I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since I’ve been back, because I eat out so much. We have certain expectations of the prices in a reasonable, everyday restaurant. A burger should be about 8 dollars. Pasta dishes are 9-13, salads are 5-8 dollars. That’s quite cheap. In Europe, the going prices are anywhere from 10-40% higher than that for the same meals.
The problem arises when we try to make an apples to apples comparison - these aren’t the same meals. That lovely pasta with red sauce dish you get in London is made with these things called tomatoes, a remarkable plant that translates quite wonderfully to red sauces. American chains don’t use tomatoes. They manage to keep their prices even with American expectations by scaling their supply. So they have suppliers that supply them with mass quantities of crap iceberg lettuce and tomato paste that their chain locations can ingest with a reasonable rate of return. Meanwhile, the consumer gets their expected $6 caesar salad. The lack in quality doesn’t seem to bother most people, but they’re still surprised when they hear that our obesity rates are so much higher than the rest of the Western World.
We have lots of preservatives and other artificial ingredients. We make our sauces out of pastes or prepackaged nonsense instead of vegetables and other centuries old, basic food products. We do all of this to keep prices down, but does it affect taste? If our expectation for super cheap meals anywhere at anytime doesn’t correspond to higher quality, do they at least taste the same or better?
American food tastes like donkey shit. Nearly all of it. It might give you that warm fuzzy feeling on the first bite (you know the one I’m talking about - it’s the way that first bite of a big nasty Papa John’s pizza tastes), but it doesn’t satisfy any desire beyond that, and it certainly doesn’t make you feel any better after you finish your meal.
Europeans sacrifice price for quality and taste. Americans do the opposite. And it sucks. And I’m tired of it. One of my goals over the summer is to actually do something about this in my life. A new Harris Teeter opened up in my neighborhood in May, and I hope to take advantage of it’s selection of fresh ingredients and try to give my eating habits a European twist. Since I’m just going on high cholesterol medicine right now, this is long overdue.
One other interesting thing about food in Europe: there’s more selection. Nearly anywhere you go with a population center - a village, town, or city - has an easy selection of pubs and restaurants you can walk into for a meal. I’m pretty sure the village of Kilronan on the Aran Islands, with a population of about 500, had more restaurants than the village of Kings Contrivance here in Columbia with it’s thousands of residents.
Nearly everyone drinks tea. It’s a part of the culture. I knew this struck me for awhile, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. When I do dinners with my friends, the evening usually ends with coffee, grappa or some other after dinner drink. But the average lunch or dinner has no inclusion for digestives in America. This whispers something about the cultural difference in the same way as France’s 35 hour work weeks. The average American consumes their meals on the run, with not a moment to spare. We’re always in a hurry, and we’re almost certainly in too much of a rush to sit down for a few minutes, prepare tea, and drink it slowly and properly. Not being capable of sitting down, even occasionally, to provide time for a proper meal is extremely unsettling. I can’t imagine why our kids are all diagnosed with ADHD.
The Geography of Nowhere
While I was gone I read Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere, a poignant description of American civic history. Kunstler takes the reader through the various stages and historical movements that have brought us to suburbia - a state of being he calls “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world”. I was quite pleased to be reading this while in Europe. It kept all of his insights in the forefront of my mind as I admired the architecture, civic art, and city planning that exists outside the States.
Cities, towns, and villages elsewhere are all organic places grown over time. They have morphed, changed, and been added to as needed. They were not built by development corporations or golf courses. They seem to have only a minimum for standards, zoning, and planning committees. That minimum allows even the simplest civic requirement for culture, like shopping and restaurants at street level mixed in with housing. In the United States, zoning laws generally prevent such things, demanding that residential areas be only houses. But this also very naturally levies the car on everyone as a requirement to get anywhere.
Kunstler has some very scary things to say about the ramifications of the automobile on culture. Things that make me hope gas prices keep rising. We are in dire need of motivation to understand and build or rebuild a relevant American civic center which will allow culture to once again become a part of the country. WWE, Bob Evans, Target and Walmart just don’t cut it.
Some interesting history that struck me:
- Back in the 20s and 30s, GM went around buying out streetcar companies just to dismantle them to ensure the continuing success of the automobile.
- Robert Moses set quite an example in ensuring that the automobile was the only viable transportation system for New York City and surrounding areas.
- Frederick Law Olmstead, more commonly known for Central Park and Biltmore, also designed Riverside, Illinois, one of the first planned communities in the United States. Funny how such simple, well-intentioned initial conditions can balloon into a major problem like sprawl.
In his essay Made in USA, Paul Graham talks about the ability of Americans to produce something quickly and messy and their ineptitude to produce something of high quality, good design, or general remarkability. This seems to be a basic tenet of our entire history. Even though our country is over 200 years old, the average town or city has very few, if any, structures older than 150 years. Meanwhile, the tiniest village in Europe generally has ancient roots.
In a recent interview, Freeman Dyson shares an old quip: ”The famous story goes, ‘How do you make these beautiful British lawns?’ and the answer is, ‘Oh, you just roll them for 200 years.’ [The British] never thought of things in terms of quick returns.”
Americans don’t think like this. We never have, and until we slow down and start actually considering, on a very small scale, the world our great grandchildren will inherit, we never will. We’ve become brilliant at producing and flipping simple commodities in any market, and that’s gained us an interesting place at or near the top of the world economy. But I’m not sure if this constant commodity producing and shifting activity can produce any sort of persistence.
There’s also a video version of some of Kunstler’s thoughts available.
I have a whole other post (maybe two) almost ready to go on driving, so I’ll only touch on it briefly here. Nearly everyone knows how to drive well in Europe. It’s not as if it is terribly hard, but it does take common sense. And in the tradition of Descartes, Americans have that in spades.
Driving was actually pleasant in Ireland. The speed limits were equitable, the drivers courteous, and the signage visible. In fact, it was actually easier to navigate than here because the signs were so good.
The roads were consistent too. Every single freeway or exit was on the left; not one required the fast lane to suddenly become the exit lane. Nobody passed on the left. People stopped when the light turned. It was an entirely different experience to American traffic.
Travel packs so many experiences into a small period of time that it becomes nearly impossible to keep up. Even though I tried to get a bunch of thoughts down for everything we did on the trip, I still barely remarked on it all. This could just be because writing is so damn hard. It really is. I enjoy it a lot, but it’s a great way to stay humble. But I didn’t want to talk about writing, I wanted to talk about travel. (See there’s one of those difficulties - it’s so hard to not go off on every tangent.)
I never really had a huge desire to travel growing up. I remember going to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park when I was not quite a teenager, and I remember loving those places. But the embers were never lit until I went to Italy for a wedding of two great friends of mine. The experiences flooded me there, and I began thinking seriously about the rest of the world and what it might be like to live in other places. Menaggio on the shores of Lake Como became my new home for retirement dreams.
One of the things I was hoping to learn on this trip is whether or not my quick attachment to Lago di Como was a true attachment, or if it was simply the infatuation of a virgin traveller. I learned quickly that, while I loved the places I visited in the British Isles, they didn’t capture my soul the same way that Italia did. I remember having very nearly the same impressions as Oscar Wilde had on arriving. There’s something very different about the land and culture there.
Travel forces you to try new things. One of my biggest fears as I get older is that I’ll stop learning. The placidity of old age grows rapidly, and otherwise intelligent and curious people drift downward into believing that their experience requires them to always have the right answer. The opposite is often true: the more questions a person asks, the wiser they tend to be. Travel helps maintain that inquisitiveness. It’s impossible to travel well and not be brought in front of new experiences in almost blinding sequence. That’s what keeps you coming back.
So that’s it. Back to my irregularly scheduled wanderings. I need to travel more. You probably do too.