Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What I Saw in Europe

For the past three weeks I've stayed and traveled in southern Germany (Swabia, between the Black Forest and Bavaria), Switzerland (the central region, around Lucern), and western Austria (not far from the Von Trapp family ancestral home outside Salzburg). For the most part we've been in smaller towns and outside the large cities, and with the exception of Salzburg and one day's visit to Lucern, have avoided the tourist traps (and a good thing too, with the meager buying power of the dollar). In these parts of central Europe (all German speaking), I have been mightily impressed - as ever - by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence.

This impression - admittedly somewhat biased by the particular areas where I've been staying - does not easily fit with the predominant American Left-Right views of Europe, both of which respectively praise or condemn "Europe" for its progressiveness. In the Left wing narrative, Europe is the ultimate "blue state": progressive in its taxation, generous in its health policies, loose in governing marriage and euthanasia, it is praised as a nirvana of easygoing libertarianism. According to the Right wing narrative, Europe is in the throes of cultural suicide, with its churches abandoned, its cradles empty, and incapable of dealing with the threat of internal Islamic domination given trajectories in the birth rate and the feebleness of the "multicultural" response. According to both narratives, Europe is largely the reducible to Amsterdam, Bruxelles and the Hague.

I am far from the centers of influence, but feel myself more in the midst of the reality for many, many peoples of Europe. Here, at the moment in Swabia, outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a "pfand" (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.

Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density - even in the smallest towns - and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of "big box" stores outside town and city limits (yes, it's there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times - a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S. Pressure to change the store closing times have come from big businesses and increasing numbers of people working outside the home who have difficulty shopping before 6:30 p.m. Currently a compromise permits businesses to remain open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, though many do not. In any event, family businesses and small companies still dominate the landscape. What is also striking is that most people who work in these businesses actually know a lot about their trade. Try finding someone at Toys 'R' Us who knows whether the toy you want to buy is liable to have lead paint, and you're likely to get the reply, "Wha??"

In addition to the woodpiles in every yard (much of the wood comes from carefully managed forestland that has long been owned by each family), what strikes one too are the immense numbers of solar panels on many, many of the red tiled roofs. I've learned that there is a very effective subsidy now taking place in Germany which guarantees a high rate of return for electricity produced through solar capture. In effect, houses without solar panels are subsidizing houses that have solar. Of course, the ultimate incentive is reducing the high expenditures for energy in Germany. Roughly half the cost of gas comes in the form of an energy tax (thus, a gallon is roughly six and a half dollars here), and electricity is comparably expensive. There is a far greater degree of effort to conserve, save, and finance sustainable alternatives. In addition to the many thousands of solar panels on house and farmhouse roofs, almost everywhere one can catch sight of a wind turbine turning over and over. Of course, the vehicles are universally smaller, and no one seems to mind that they aren't driving a Hummer. The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation, and will weather the storm of depleting oil reserves far better than we. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America's wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever "give" there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life.

Here's something funny: my German father-in-law - no friend of big government, and about as anti-60s one could find - describes this way of life (including the solar panels, etc.) as conservative. And what could be more conservative than the Swabian motto - "schafe, spare, Häusle baue" (work, save, build a house)? Of course, the high finance boys in NYC never got a bonus house in Westhampton based on THAT ethic.

A question without easy answer is how these Europeans - apparently so willing to throw off their traditional allegiance to nationalities and religion - are otherwise so willing to make these sacrifices for the common weal of their communities and fellow citizens? Are the two phenomena connected, or do they persist in spite of, and in ultimate tension with, one another? And why Americans, otherwise so devoted to nation and exceptional in the developed West for their religiosity, have become otherwise so unwilling to make the individual sacrifices that might result in actual forms of liberty - liberty, that is, as self-governance, a form of liberty that would seem otherwise to comport well with self-declared love for patrie and religious faith grounded in stewardship and self-sacrifice? What otherwise ought to go together in each case seems to have been put asunder. Is there a tendency in each way of life that will eventually prevail, or will each continent continue a kind of schizophrenic combination of forms? Or maybe, and most simply, one sees in the South of each of our respective countries a way of life that is passing out of being, but which here in Germany, at least, seems to have maintained a strong and vital foothold.

I am not finally persuaded that THESE Europeans with whom I have visited and lived for the past few weeks are actually as libertarian as an emphasis on Amsterdam would have us believe. Church attendance IS low - that I did note, and I do lament. But, that may not be the most fundamental indicator of the ultimate sources of faith in the lives that are lived here in this way, and I would be unsurprised if Church attendance were to rise in coming years (the current Pope may contribute mightily to that end. There can be no coincidence that he is Bavarian, a southern German). The highest - and usually central point - in each town is its church (usually one steeple, and stunningly beautiful at that), and in the small town where we're staying, I must have counted at least seven large crucifixes that have been erected over decades and even centuries at intersections and on roadsides. On the Holy Day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, stores were closed and in Bavaria one saw churchgoers dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, the women carrying baskets of flowers to be blessed. In Swabia and Bavaria the customary greeting is "Gruss Gott" - "Greetings with God." In the evening we sit down for "Vespers," still so named for the hour of Benedictine evensong. At the town cemetery one sees neighbors and friends, nearly all times of the day, tending to the graves of loved ones even those generations since departed. Everywhere there are signs of the faith of old, something that must at least still persist in the minds and hearts and hands of these people even as church attendance dwindles. It would take little, it seems, in this land, for a renewal of faith, the faith of old that would comport with a life in many ways barely changed in hundreds of years. It is a way of life, an art of living, that I think will be here recognizable still many hundreds of years yet, long after our reckless American "lifestyle" has passed from existence.


emmaco said...

Enjoyed your blog, but think you have a perspective of Americans that may be wholly wrong.

There are many Americans willing to fight for liberty- note that we have an all volunteer military and irrespective of the anti-Bush rhetoric abounding the US is the main guarantor liberty in the world today. Thank God for the US Navy.

Also note that southern Germany's liberty was purchased at the cost of many American lives not so long ago. Third and First US Armies as I recall, then another fifty years of occupation to keep the Germans in and the Russians out of Germany.

Wall Street is a reflection of America but certainly not its heart and soul.

John from San Marino, CA (home of George Patton)

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of a story related by Caleb Stegall in a review in the current issue of the American Conservative. I'll just let Caleb tell it:

'In 1947, two titans of 20th-century economic theory, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Röpke, met in Röpke’s home of Geneva, Switzerland. During the war, the Genevan fathers coped with shortages by providing citizens with small garden allotments outside the city for growing vegtables. These citizen gardens became so popular with the people of Geneva that the practice was continued even after the war and the return to abundance. Röpke was particularly proud of these citizen farmers, and so he took Mises on a tour of the gardens. “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs!” Mises noted disapprovingly. “Perhaps so, but a very efficient way of producing human happiness” was Röpke’s rejoinder.'

And, by the way, I won't comment on the Germans, but the Swiss don't owe their liberty to the American army.

Anonymous said...

I really don't understand that people seem to think that because many nations owe their liberty to the allied forces during WW II. They should do things the " American way" . And that flowing from that act of liberation that american way is and will always be superior.
That is just total and utter nonsense!

Anonymous said...


I just returned from a similar part of the world (the provinces of Salzburg and Tyrol in Austria...though we spent time as well in the Netherlands and Italy). We too had contact with relatives (my mom's cousins in a town outside Salzburg and in Tyrol, as well as my dad's family in the Netherlands).

I recognize the picture you paint, though my experiences leave me a little less impressed by it all. For example, my mother's town used to be a "Markt," but--thanks to Salzburg's sprawl (most folks can't afford to live well in medieval Salzburg, so most move out)--it has become a "Stadt" (with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, as opposed to the 4,000 or 5,000 I remember from previous visits. My mother's cousin (whose family-owned grocery story was put out of business by a chain) puts it this way: she knows all the people who are dying, but none of those getting married or having babies. Her kids live in Cologne and Vienna; the son in Cologne sells Austrian food specialties to the denizens of that fine city.

Our host in Tyrol (the keeper of a very fine inn) told us that he rents out the family farm, because keeping cows for milk and meat doesn't pay. The meadows he continues to work with his brother-in-law are only for hay. Most of the wood at the local sawmill (where he was employed for 30 years) actually comes from Scandanavia.

The "Bauern" around my mom's town keep it going only by selling expensive organic produce. And the kids often leave the farm for greener pastures, so to speak.

So, as I said, I recognize the picture you paint and find some resonances with my experience: western Austria and southern Germany are "crunchy" in many of the ways you describe, but IKEA (with two stores around Innsbruck, one in Salzburg, and three in the rest of Austria, if memory serves), McDonald's, and EuroSpar are everywhere. Satellite dishes are ubiquitous as well.

Patrick Deneen said...

Joe -
Always nice to have a visit from the "No Left Turns" gang.

Yes, trends are underway even in these still recognizable parts of Old Europe. Isn't what you are describing here, however, something of an Americanization of a more traditional way of life (sometimes also called globalization)? If so, can we be so content in our superiority (e.g., emmaco's banal first comment, too often the kind of sentiment one gets when discussing "Old Europe"), and self-satisfied that we have nothing to gain from considering an alternative? Isn't what you describe the kind of progress that is so often celebrated by our libertarian friends (even at times on your blog site), liberation from the drudgery of having to work on the family farm, the opening of new vistas of globalized liberty. (Then again, maybe small scale farming for milk and meat "doesn't pay" because it's cheaper to buy stuff from China. However, note that agricultural policies in Switzerland have preserved small family milk farms and restrictive tariffs keep the price of milk and cheese high, making it possible to make a good living as a farmer. Yes, it helps to have tourism and banking, I won't deny - but why oughtn't one combine the benefits of ever-present forms of globalized commerce with conscious and public efforts to preserve local and traditional forms of life)? If I detect rightly, I hear the sound of lament and regret in your note (or, perhaps I am mistaken), but, if so, I don't detect any diagnosis either of its origin nor of a possible paths of resistance. Maybe that might be part of what would be entailed if you really wanted to avoid "Left Turns."

Anonymous said...


I agree with you both that some aspects of globalization should be resisted and that resistance is pretty doggone expensive.

I hope Europeans continue to have the will to resist, though I think that resistance in the name of "Europeanness" or anti-Americanism won't get them very far. Europe absent Christianity is either chauvinism or consumerism, "Occidentalism" (as the book I picked up to while away the hours in "Shophol" called it) or Disneyworld. Neither is very attractive. And neither is humanly satisfying. So let's hope that Benedict succeeds. I don't have many expectations of the traditional Protestant confessions in Europe, and wonder whether the evangelical alternative is deep enough to do the job.

Patrick Deneen said...

Amen. And, sometimes it doesn't have to be expensive - there's always the cheap wine! And conversation over said wine still isn't being taxed.

I look forward to comparing notes. Sorry we missed you!

Anonymous said...

No kids.

Germany is not having children at replacement rates.

I find it disturbing that such a sickness, a lack of hope for the future, is not more apparent. Nicely stacked woodpiles and solar panels shouldn't mask the culture of death on display.

Patti McCracken said...

I'm an American journalist who has lived in a village in East Austria for about six years. You have summed up, better than I ever could, the way of life and the misconceptions many Americans have about Europe.
I had a dear friend visiting recently--her first time in Europe--I'd define her as an East Cost liberal... her assumptions about the way of life here brought me back to how I was when I was first here.
Seemingly insignificant things, yet telling. For example, she assumed they had a substandard recycling system (quite the opposite), she didn't understand why the washing machine took so long (it generates its own heat), wondered where my dryer was (like most here, I don't use one), and the amount of hot water, water in general, and electricity she consumed was stunning. She was disgusted when she learned how relatively high the cost of energy is here... but she didn't understand the benefit to it---the conservatism your father-in-law talsk about...she thought I was being frugal when I turned off the power sources at night--my perspective was that it felt good not to waste.
I heat my house with wood from trees in my yard, I have an efficient compost pile, my single trashcan gets emptied once a month by the city. My tin cans and glass bottles are taken weekly to the assigned dumpster.
She also had a hard time understanding that religion here is more of a nationality than a religion.
The concern here is that the farms where we get our local produce, the butcher where we get our "local" meat, will have to go "EU" and follow an American model that may not work so well here. For example, I live in wine country--walks with my dog mean stolen grapes (just one or two!) off of the vines. Yet, in the grocery store, I can only find grapes from Italy, at $5 a kilo.
The expression here is: when america sneezes, Europe catches a cold-and many locals are worried that the Americanization of distribution will end their way of life.
But for the moment, I live in a town that still sends their children home from school to eat lunch, and the local cafe closes during that time so the waitress can go home and be with her grandson.

And regarding more on "conservatism"--no credit card debt, no Hummers, no McMansions, means Austrians and Swiss are among the richest per capita in the world.

Anonymous said...

I find it strange that you try to separate "Liberal" (driven by freedom, FDP/Greens) vs. "Converative" (driven by moral, CDU/CSU) in Europe.

Europe, specially Germany, has a third player with Socialism (driven by equality, SPD, Linke) that is normally considered as a third pole (very strong pole) of the political spectrum, making all that black/white right/left reasoning much more complicated. The US, with its Communism-Phobic history does not have this.

Anonymous said...

Being a Finn, but at this time working in Berlin, and with my sister studying in upstate New Your, I too found your piece excellent. It sums up most of my own frustration with trying to answer or discuss European matters with educated Americans. Concepts such as family values and conservatism are tricky, either becuase they are understood quite differently or because people are convinced the concepts are somehow uniquely American.

A topic of minor importance, but not quite irrelevant, is how different National feelings can be held. My experience from Finland and Denmark differs slightly from what I perceive here in Germany, where the emotional part of the national identity barely reaches all of Germany. Danes and Finns on the other hand feel language to be determining, and international borders of lesser importance. Comparing to what I perceive in the U.S. there's however much more of feeling of active responsibility for one's neighborhood, one's town, one's village or region - and for its inhabitants. My conclusion about America is that the National Feeling seems to start with the flag and the constitution and the outher borders of the United States, but doesn't have enough power to reach to the neighborhood one lives in.

For me, this is a very central aspect of Quality of Life. Not so very much right now, at the age of 26, but for me in the future, if I get kids, and then when I grow older.

I do, in fact, not care if people of other nationalities perceive themselves as richer than I am, but I do care about that kind of Quality that it means to have my own stock pile of wood, my own Erdkeller for my own home-grown potatoes. ...in a town or a village where I'm recognized and respected as on community member among the others.

betty said...

Great site-thank you! Check it out-Google CEO Schmidt says punching down into the earth to capture natural and clean geothermal energy could help move the United States away from it's dependence on petroleum. Dec.16,2008 Betty http://www.geothermalquestions.net