Hi there. My name is Sven. I blog here occasionally, mostly on eco matters, ranging from environmental justice to livable cities, creativity, and generally, how to make the planet a better, cleaner and more friendly place to live on.
I was born and raised in Germany, till I came to the U.S. at age nineteen to go to college. Thought I was going to Harvard, but it was Hayward (Cal State), but that's a whole 'nother story. The original plan was four years of America, then back to Deutschland, but 23 years later I'm still over here. Heh, as John Lennon said, "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
Anyway, while I've been enjoying the series on why Europe is so much more awesomer than the U.S. and I've become friendly with its author, I thought it might be nice for your poor battered American souls to hear that you're still pretty special and that you all still rock my world.
I mean, baby Jesus, it's not enough to have "Speaker Boehner" looming over your heads, but now you have to keep reading about those paradises on earth of Finland and Liechtenstein!
It's time for "Euroman" to give y'alls a soul massage!
First of all, as someone who has spent half his life in Europe and the other in the U.S., here's my carefully researched evaluation of both places:
Europe: Some Good, Some So So, Some Bad.
America: Some Good, Some So So, Some Bad.
You know that old adage, "the grass is always greener...?" Well, the way I hear some folks over here talk about Europe you'd think everyone over there would always be all smiles and in great spirits, just waiting to invite you into their solar-powered saunas for a couple of weeks of government-sponsored spa-splashing hospitality. The reality is that despite all those great social services that are supposedly making life so much more enjoyable, there are some pretty damn grumpy Euros over there in Euroland.
Take Germany: You think Americans are in a rotten mood right now? I think when it comes to bitching and complaining, Germans still hold the trademark. I mean, I love my people dearly, but they sure know how to make a partly cloudy day look like a raging thunderstorm. They've gotten better, and give them credit, ever since World Cup 2006 everyone seems to have lightened up a bit, but overall, talking about anything political, the government, or money/services is just serious buzzkill. Let's face it, despite all the vacation and sick time there are very few happy shiny people. Incidentally, the happiest people I've ever encountered were during my travels to the poorest countries on earth. Go figure.
Anyway, I do agree that there's a lot left to be improved about the social system in this country, and if you compare things just in numbers, then Europe has an edge in many ways. But there are always a lot of intangibles that the numbers can't cover.
I'll give you an example: My friend Timo, who I've known since playing in the sandbox, is one of the most intelligent and talented guys I've ever met. In a street-smart sort of way, he knows when someone is a phony, and when interested in something he'll know the entire history of it. (like a local soccer team's standings dating back the last 40 years). He's also amazing with his hands, the person people call when they need stuff fixed in their house. Not to mention that he can pretty much make anything out of wood, glass or metal. But he's quirky, wasn't a good student in a school-system sort of way, and really hates to be told what to do and how to do it. Sort of mavericky, but hey, while I'm at it I might as well reclaim that word too.
Since his grades weren't that good and the German school system puts us on our future career track according to our GPA in 4th grade, Timo, at age 10, went to trade school. This is the shortest of three high school tracks, the one that prepares kids who are deemed less intellectually inclined and more apt at building and fixing things for their future as productive members of society. Nothing wrong with that, everyone knows that Germans make great stuff and we honor our trades and take them very seriously. I have quite a few other friends who went into the trades and are fine and successful tile layers, masons, and carpenters. Timo began his apprenticeship as a window maker at age 15, and needless to say, he became really good at it.
Here's the thing though: when you have a society where everything is so regulated and planned out, there's not that much room for improvisation. If you decide (or more likely, your parents decide) at age 10 that you're going to be a mason or a clerk or a doctor and stick with it for the rest of your life, you're in good shape. Just sign up for the respective program, follow the pre-paved track, show up on time, do your home work, and everything about life will be taken care of. And God bless those who have such clarity and persistence in their DNA, it's certainly a commendable and righteous life, and it is rewarded by society with many certificates, promotions, and stamps of approval.
But Timo is not one of those people. It's hard for him to take orders from superiors who are sometimes even less qualified than him (other than the badge), he likes to come up with his own creative, better looking, and often even more functional specifications, and he sure as hell was not made to work 9-5. He's like a cat you're trying to train, it's nothing against you and your best intentions, but the cat is just not interested. So Timo rolls into work late a few times and he gets canned. New job, same story. He's just kind of drifting along, and he misses just enough classes, work days and opportunities to ever become a certified master window maker. Meanwhile, he's making some pretty amazing stuff at home, like toys and puzzles, and he's remodeling the whole village's houses, but all under the table, because he doesn't have the right piece of paper.
I hear you saying, "come on, Timo, go down to city hall, get your 50 dollar business license, and get to work," because that's what you would do in the U.S. But Timo can't do that because he did not get his diploma as a master window maker, and without that piece of paper we're not even starting the discussion. Even if you have that certification, there's a whole mountain of bureaucracy standing between you and being self-employed. I have another friend who's an independent mason, and he says it took him years and endless hoops to jump through to make it happen.
So this is what I love about the U.S. If I decide tomorrow that I'm going to be a dog groomer or I'm passionate about making cookies, I'll get a business license and start putting myself out there. I can start out small and with little investment, maybe with an ad on craigslist or a food cart on the sidewalk, but I can give it a shot, and if I'm really good and a little bit of lucky, I have a chance at making a living at something that may be a bit unusual but that I love and care about, and be recognized for it by society.
This is not to say that it's impossible to do in Europe, but the mountain to get there is much steeper. Timo didn't have it in him to climb that mountain, and so now that he has pretty much alienated himself from the only "legitimate" profession he's been in since he was a teenager (all the window makers in town are done with him, and you can't blame them), it's super hard to impossible to reinvent himself. So, now he's on Hartz IV, the permanent unemployment program that pays a single person €359 per month plus the cost of "adequate" housing, with very limited prospects of ever getting out of it. On paper and in the spreadsheet, this may not seem like such a bad deal, but on an emotional/spiritual level it's a total killer when you're 45 and your life as far as career prospects is pretty much over.
Of course, the great thing is that someone like Timo isn't left out on the sidewalk like so many people who fall through the cracks in the United States. But every time I'm back home and hang out with him I just wonder whether he would have been able to thrive across the big pond, where structures aren't as rigid, and extremely talented though slightly eccentric characters like him have an easier time to gain respect by forging their own path into the melting pot of possibilities. I see all the little wood, gift or bike repair shops in my San Francisco neighborhood, and I imagine Timo in them. I see an artist collective in an old warehouse in the industrial part of town, and I imagine Timo welding and sawing custom parts for restaurants and retail spaces. Just so many possibilities...
I don't want to get too long-winded about this, but I think the whole Europe vs United States discussion is a complex one that deserves looks from many angles, so that both places can learn from each others' strengths as well as weaknesses. The question I hate the most is when people ask me, "so, which country is better, the U.S. or Germany?" I usually answer that they're both wonderful and that I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be so deeply involved in both. For the record, it's usually my German friends who ask that question, which I find interesting since it's Americans who supposedly have the reputation of always wanting to be #1.
Anyway, there are many obvious things that we have to work on in this country and that we can learn from Europe. I do think health care is a human right, and we need to keep fighting for universal health care in this country. I don't think anyone should be left to rot in the street, as I see far too often in my city. We've got to get money out of politics in this country, and for crying out loud, let's push back on that crazy notion that clean energy and reducing our carbon footprint is going to be bad for the economy. Yes, let's keep looking at Europe and some of the sensible and forward-thinking policies over there.
But let's not make it an Us vs Them. In my view, America's greatest asset is her people's resourcefulness, ingenuity, creativity, and heart. Despite all the economic hardship and political windstorms, let's recognize that Americans are a resilient bunch who can inspire a new vision and follow through on it. Let's remember that despite all the gloom and doom, there are so many great spirits and caring hearts in this country, and always have been. The same flexibility, mobility and hospitality that has allowed me to become one of you is what makes this place so special. Even if I can't back it up with any numbers, there's something about this country that always makes me feel like "we can do it" and we can overcome, no matter how depressing the 24-hour news cycle makes things look.
I mean, we voted for Barack Obama!! What were the chances of that happening just a few years ago during those dark Bush years. And yes, he's not perfect and change happens slowly, but all my German friends would trade you a Merkel for an Obama. But it's not about one person anyway, it's about all of us. Change is always hard, whether you're in Europe or the U.S. But in order to make change happen you have to open your mind and envision something that doesn't yet exist. It's about imagination and creativity, and that's what America has always been about for me.
There's a danger of course, as we saw during the Bush years, and again, with the screaming teapartiers: If you imagine fear and doom, then that's what you'll get. But when Americans use their imagination to dream a kinder, more creative and caring world into being, it is a powerful energy that can lift up everyone else, too. I see it every day, all the people who are going the extra mile to re-envision the world, whether they're farmers, artists, teachers, activists, and all kinds of other manifestations of that change. I see it here on daily kos, where so many new ideas are hatched and discussed, and so much great and inspiring work is shared.
That's the America I love and believe in, and that's the America I love being part of.
For ruminations from the spaces between soil and soul, visit my blog, A World of Words.