5 things that are common in Europe but (almost) inexistent in the USA

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 .

Commuter bikes

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.

Line-drying laundry

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.

News stands

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.

Independent bookstores

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?


7 responses to “5 things that are common in Europe but (almost) inexistent in the USA

  1. Biking- We lack the infrastructure for SAFE biking. There are very few roads safe to ride a bike.

    Line drying- Can you imagine people line drying clothes in Georgetown, just outside Wash. D.C.? All the other Georgetowns are the same.

    Trains- My neighboring county has 15% unemployment. They are 85 miles from Cincinnati and about the same from Columbus.
    A train would be fast and efficient but neither the trains nor the jobs exist.

    NewsStands-Newspapers are changing to an online subscription service for distributing the news.

    Bookstores- People get their entertainment and news in sound bites from the TV. As a result, they are easily conditioned to accept certain types of behavior, political conditions, and class distinctions while their status quo is steadily eroded.

  2. Bikes: It’s starting. Not in the USA as far as I know yet, but it’s hitting Canada big time. Montreal’s Bixi (a commuter bike company) is a huge success so far.

    Newstands: Americans are lazy, they get their newspapers delivered 😉

  3. If you are looking for an affordable, quality made “dutch style” commuter bike you should check out http://www.bowerylanebicycles.com

    They are made by hand in american, out of american steel using solar power and they only cost $595.

  4. We have some of these in Israel. A growing tendency: bike routes all over Tel-Aviv, trains under pressure to multiply as the need goes, Laundry hanged to dry in most neighborhoods – except the villas of the very rich or young working parents pressed for time – only the independent book stores are dwindling, hunted by two large chain stores. which is a disaster.
    As for me, what I miss most are the horse driven carriages. I long for the day tey will push out of the roads all those herds of cars which typically carry just the driver.

  5. Thank you for your comments! Yes, if there is enough demand and, consequently, pressure, there will be the necessary infrastructure eventually. This should be valid for bikes and laundry regulations, but newsstands and bookstores have a different, exciting future ahead. I am optimistic.

  6. This jives completely with my memory of living in Rome. Most of these differences have their basis in infrastructure and tradition. Europe is set up this way so Europeans can live the way they’ve always lived.

    I’ve long felt the Americans are different tempermentally because we are largely decended from those that left other countries.

    One problem with the distrust the Americans feel of government regulation is that it has allowed large corporations to overpower small shops. I’m not sure where this will end up, but European socialism gives an advantage to independent businesses, as far as I can see.

  7. Pingback: Small towns on both sides of the Atlantic | Notes from Chronotopia

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