BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Life is a funny thing. Even the most self-aware among us don’t understand it as it unfolds. We grope forward guided by instinct, guess and habit; the resulting action only makes sense when it is all but over. Purpose and order are things we see–or construct–in hindsight.
Luckily, though, we need not wait for the deathbed to make sense of absolutely everything about us. We can sometimes achieve insight into certain chapters of our lives as they conclude.
Recently, I closed one such chapter. Call it the European chapter. It lasted 19 years, not including a four-year hitch in the Air Force spent in Europe as well, from 1991 to 1994. At the time, that phase felt like a destination in and of itself, a coming-of-age set to U2’s Achtung Baby that might have led to any other kind of experience, set anywhere else on the globe. But in fact, it was a prelude to the main plot-line of my life. It led back to Europe after a short break for school, and yielded up what turned out to be my life’s defining chapter. It was an era again set to music by U2, this time All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its signature song Beautiful Day.
For the time I lived in Europe, I was happy. No surprise. It was there that I made a career, fell in love, got married and started a family. For most of us large, thinking mammals, those are the goals we live for, and so I know, more or less, what the source of my happiness was–the well-being that comes from doing satisfying work in the company of the people one loves best.
But still, even the main human patterns don’t make an individual life completely predictable. Some of the things that formed me in Europe came as surprises. Exhibit A: Four of the best years of my life, which I will always recall with intense and pleasurable nostalgia, I lived in a noisy, slightly run-down, provincial capital city in what used to be Yugoslavia. On the surface, this setting would hardly be any American’s idea of bliss.
My neighborhood looked ike this:
You might not think much of it, but to me it was a paradise. I courted my wife there, went to family dinners on the weekend, ran errands, and, a little later, watched my kids play, usually in a playground right behind the buildings you see here. The place overflowed with kids, all of them running and shouting. Grannies would stuff bites of bananas into their mouths as the kids would swoop toward them and then carom off to re-join the happy chaos.
To get back and forth to work, I bought a brand new Russian jeep for 6,000€, paid cash. It performed like a 15 year-old car right off the lot, but it did the job, albeit with shimmies and rattles. I had a theory that no single part of that jeep cost more than a dollar to manufacture.
It looked like this:
There were too many other enchanting things about my neighborhood in Skopje to recount them all. The richness of my memories will always consist in the I family started there and how my life began to take shape in its streets, churches, cafes, and, of course, the small apartment where we lived.
Well, you might say, these things will happen anywhere. Human appetites being what they are, my bourgeois pleasures might have sprung from any ground on the planet whatsoever. Mid-town Skopje just happened to be where I was during my years of rising sap and professional hustle; there’s no need to get moony over the place’s noisy playgrounds and downscale apartment blocks.
I suppose that’s all true; I would have looked back with gauzy fondness on whichever place my adulthood finally began to form up in. But my rootedness to Skopje (and, as it turns out, to all of Europe) was more than just an aesthetic response to accidental conditions. Something more formative was happening to me. Without knowing it, I was receiving an economic and sentimental education in the sustaining pleasures of Europe’s public goods. The thing I came to love about Europe was how easy it was for any person of limited means to lead a gratifying life there, abundant with simple pleasures. Europe is, at least today, a continent made for people.
What I began to discover in Macedonia–and continued to do in Germany–was that public life in Europe is ingeniously geared toward dignifying the proletariat. While American tourists can easily get the idea that living in Europe takes loads of money (a 25€ check for an espresso on St. Mark’s Square in Venice will do that to you), I discovered that quite the opposite is true. It is common to be able to lead a pleasant, secure life well within one’s means in a European city even at the lower range of the middle incomes. I don’t pretend to know all the reasons why this is the case, but two factors suggested themselves during my 19 years there.
The first is how generously furnished public spaces are in Europe. While of course there are roads and highways, the main thing one notices as one moves around any European city is how navigable and accessible everything is to the carless. The abundance of sidewalks, walkable streets, public transportation, parks, playgrounds, shopping districts, and extensive foot- and bike paths that actually go somewhere is astonishing. Well, it’s astonishing if you’re American, and you’re used to having to drive even a quarter mile just to get across a street that is unnavigable by foot- or bike traffic.
One of my deepest satisfactions in Skopje sprang from the ease with which I could walk everywhere. My weekends with my wife routinely consisted in paying bills, doing the shopping, running other errands, exercising the kids, enjoying the sights, or going to my in-laws, all on foot. And Skopje is an interesting test case for such mobility precisely because of the, ahem, “modesty” of its infrastructure. Macedonia is not a rich country, and many of its roads, sidewalks and playgrounds are broken or poorly maintained. But they work. They prove the hypothesis that basic infrastructure need not be lavish to improve the quality of life; it just needs to be there and to function with a modicum of safety.
I expressly used the word “generous” to describe Europe’s pedestrian infrastructure. I could have justly called it “plentiful,” but that would have missed an important point. Roads and paths are built with the people’s tax money, and the people must in some sense agree on this expenditure. An experience I had over and over in Germany revealed to me just how generous the taxpayers are in funding the paths that support carless travel.
Frequently, as I was jogging along a hardpack trail through one of the numerous forests that abut or thread through German cities, I would come right up to a rail line or highway, and instead of the trail diverting to nowhere or just stopping, I would encounter an underpass that let me keep going, like this one:
Or, I would zip over the top of an Autobahn on a footbridge, like this one:
These things obviously cost money. A rail line with trains going 300 km per hour cannot pass over just any old underpass in an anonymous German forest. Statics must be drawn up, stresses calculated, and the underpass built just so. Ditto for the bridges. A huge pile of money goes into the provision of these things that are so common throughout Europe that they nearly escape notice.
Who benefits from this largess? Well, on any given day when I was jogging through, it was typically me, some other schmoe biking to work (I guess–there were often briefcases bungie-corded to their carrying racks), and a young mother or two with strollers. That’s it. Traffic picked up on weekends, of course, as families and elders came out for long strolls, but even then, if you would stop to do some math on a cocktail napkin, you would–or at least should–be astonished at how much tax money was being spent per capita to keep the Volk ambling pleasantly along through the forest.
Before I leave this theme, I should also stress something that I only hinted at a moment ago–that car-free infrastructure in Europe actually goes places. That’s the whole point of it. It’s the reason for building all those under- and overpasses, as it also is for countless well-protected crosswalks and pedestrian traffic signals. In America, a walker might set out on their subdivision’s fitness trail for recreation, but God help them if they hope to use it to go to the store or post office or the next town over. In Germany, I need not even look at a map to know that I could have walked on protected foot trails all the way from my home to the seat of the national government, 550 km away. (Fun fact: You can actually look up the best walking routes for this trip without breaking Google Maps.)
Confession is good for the soul. And after 19 years of walking, biking and running places in Europe, with my wife, with my kids, by myself, sometimes to get somewhere, sometimes to go nowhere at all, I find I have something to confess: I feel I have right to go safely carless in public, and I feel this right with as much conviction as Americans tend to reserve for gun ownership and freedom of expression. I see no reason whatsoever why a state that calls itself modern cannot provide for its citzenry to walk from here to fucking there without risking their lives or attracting unwelcome attention as potential vagrants.
The answer to this conundrum leads to my second comment on proletarian pleasures in Europe. Why is it so hard to go without a car in America? Because doing so would risk giving up our primary identity as consumers, something that large companies spend lots of money to keep in place. Americans’ habits, reflexes and desires–indeed our very lives–are engineered by corporations who want and need us to believe that the highest expression of freedom is the power to buy and consume whatever we want, in whatever quantity.
Getting and keeping us in our cars (ingeniously pitched as another great American expression of freedom) is a sure way to do this. As long as we are somewhere in our cars, driving from the bank where we got the car loan, to the job where we work to pay it back, to the mall where we train our kids to join in the same rat race by addicting them to brands, corporate America is happy. We are enriching the industries that make the world go round (at the same time they are ruining it–a post for another day).
Jogging through the forest or strolling down the promenade, however, doesn’t make anyone any money, or at least not enough to matter, and that is something that the tycoons will not abide. You will not be allowed to get off the treadmill of consumption. Any hours spent being a thoughtful, or creative, or merely idling human being rather than Homo economicus constitute a mortal sin in our plutocracy. (Remember George W. Bush’s plea in 2001 to keep the 9/11 attacks in mind while going out and doing your duty as a consumer? It does not get any more barefaced than that.)
So the second thing about life in Europe that I only slowly came to appreciate but which now stands out in dramatic relief is the extent to which its thought leaders put the brakes on all-out consumerism. I do not pretend that the place is a utopia of Buddhist self-denial. Nor do I contest the legitimate role of commerce in enabling the welfare state. Money is what makes economic security possible. There will be money.
But what is typical in Europe is to say, “Just enough.” We’ll have money and commerce and trade, but we need not have ever more of everything. While the growth imperative governs the choices of boards of directors all across Europe, it is not, as a general rule, transplanted into the lives of workers as an ethic of ever-greater consumption. Society has not been given over by lobbyists and advertisers to the tawdry, all-out avarice that is so easily awoken in the breasts of the working poor.
This is actually a huge deal. It means that a proletarian can live a life that is not defined by ruinous envy and insatiable hunger. You can walk down the street with just 10€ in your pocket and feel comfortable in your own skin. You probably don’t even know it, but somewhere, someone is keeping watch and passing laws to prevent corporations from invading your most private self and debasing your humanity.
As I say goodbye to all that, what awaits me? To what am I saying hello?
Well, I am no curmudgeon, still less Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, bent on exposing the hypocrisies of society. I get a long. I put on a brave face. I teach the kids that the world can be a decent, welcoming place.
And, I am sure I will find things my family actually loves here. We will get into our cars and drive to experience some genuine new pleasures. But I will be honest: to invite that transformation feels like the willful deformation of habits eminently worth having. Europe taught me, with great specificity, that the best things in life are free. Saying hello again to America, where corporations constantly do their damnedest to deny workers the possibility of a life of simple, abundant pleasures, feels like it puts that dream at risk.