These are simple things that may seem insignificant and probably won’t make anyone change their place of residence just based on their existence. But they are indicative of bigger societal differences in how people live their lives .
Biking is a popular pastime in the USA. But it’s an activity similar to jogging, power walking, or weight lifting. It’s a great way to exercise that also lets you enjoy spectacular views along scenic roads. People don’t use it to run errands, get themselves from A to B or anything practical. The result is that those who bike regularly are committed and good at it. But they are also very few. Biking is a financial investment and significant time commitment.
In Europe, people use bikes to get around in cities: run errands, take kids to kindergarten and go to work. Bikes are most commonly old, rusty and you can see them leaning onto walls or stands. They are popular and widely used. There is no tradition of stealing them either 🙂 as they are not meant to be high-performance sports wonders but loyal, reliable personal horses.
Clotheslines are a picturesque, environmentally-friendly way to dry clothes. Not sure why they are forbidden in many US cities. I am hearing that things are changing, though, as more and more cities repel such existing laws. True, laundry that has been dried this way can catch dust and lose its shape. But there are few items I would be concerned about becoming dusty in the process of drying in each load.
Not sure how to evaluate the news stand as a social phenomenon. Maybe it’s not an efficient way to distribute news. Too much paper, too expensive? I love it though. I appreciate the possibility to glance over magazine covers to discover something I would like to hold in my hands and read. The familiar type and design of favorite newspapers. The opportunity to chat with the news stand owner and find out the latest gossip in town, which he would certainly know, since everybody is going there to get their newspaper and leave their own news behind, too.
I’ve never understood the reason why trains are not more popular in the USA. Is it the perceived lack of individual independence of movement? Yet anybody who has been stuck in traffic in an American highway knows that most people do commute in regular streams, anyway. Why not do it on a train instead of individually, sitting lonely in your car listening to traffic updates on the radio? The picture above, taken at one of the two Milan train stations is evidence that you can commute by train and be utterly fashionable at the same time.
E-book readers may have helped more people find time to read. They may be more energy-efficient, fast-access and tree-friendly. But they lack the intimacy of book-filled, book-smelling space created by tiny independent bookstores. The real (as opposed to virtual) place where you go to find a reprieve of the everyday and a community of book lovers. I would prefer a non-acid-free-paper, yellowing book in my hand than the plastic-and-glass fragility of an e-reader. Same is true of chain bookstores, although I would prefer having them than nothing at all. The picture above is of a bookstore founded more than a hundred years ago in a small town in Northern Italy. The town has one more independent bookstore + two chain bookstores.
Now that I am looking at these European habits I can see that they are all somehow related. They are all either tools for creating community or side effects thereof. This is ironic, as US culture consists of myriads of communities. Yet they are mobile and virtual more than spatial, physical spaces. And we need the sense of physical space community, too.
I didn’t mean this list to include only things that are regarded positively. There are lots of things common in Europe that I would rather not have. Like standing in line to pay a bill, for example. Any other ideas?