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Letter from Europe

My business takes me to Europe every year or so, and things have changed a lot over there since my first visit nearly fifteen years ago. Most noticeable on this latest trip was the weak dollar. Four years ago, a euro was worth eighty five cents. This year, a euro costs me a buck and a half. While this devaluation makes our exports cheap for them, it makes everything expensive for this visiting American. From forty dollar breakfasts to dinners—and not fancy dinners—that set me back over a hundred diluted dollars. The price of oil has sky-rocketed in part because it’s valued in an unstable currency, the dollar.

I’ve spent most of my current visit in Vienna, where my wife and I were invited to speak at a conference. We spent the first Sunday morning of our visit strolling through the Augarten, a park sited on the grounds of a former palace. (Vienna is lousy with former palaces.) This one, though, is different, because in it stands two flakturms, or flack towers, left over from the World War Two Nazi occupation. The Nazis built these dark towers as anti-aircraft platforms and bomb shelters. Each high-rise tower could hold ten thousand frightened people behind reinforced concrete walls so thick that they still stand today, barely pock-marked with the signatures of shells that benignly bounced off their stark grey exteriors. One is now wired as a cell tower. The other, simply fenced off. Built a few feet from densely-packed apartment blocks, these testaments to tyranny cannot be torn down. People jog by as if these abominations, feet-thick walls glowering over the lovely garden, were invisible. And perhaps they are.

There’s little left of the war years’ deprivation. Vienna today is a modern city populating a rebuilt, ancient infrastructure. Our conference was held in another old palace, dating from the fifteenth century, but remodeled into as modern a conference facility as any in the world. Not remodeled cheaply, but re-gilded, with fresh frescoes on the ceilings and finely-carved paneling on the walls. One friend there, who has been expanding his home, showed us his work. He said he built every addition expecting it to last at least two hundred years. Yes, he admitted, it’s expensive, but he feels an obligation to future generations to continue this tradition of building to last. If anything typifies this new Europe, it is this dedication to the long view.

Contrary to anyone believing that investors are only interested in short-term results, business is thriving there, but it’s anticipating the pinch of our sub-prime mortgage crisis. They expect that our financial flu will migrate to infect their economy, and they are not pleased at the prospect of economic sniffles caused by our short-sightedness.

America has lost influence in Europe since 2000. On prior visits, I found our hosts and the attendees at the conferences fluent in English. This time, several commented that their English has grown rusty with disuse. I felt embarrassed that they find little reason to follow the American media or stay current with what used to be considered the trend-setter nation. More than our dollar is falling behind.

The New Europe has resolved many social issues we Americans continue to stiff-arm. High fuel taxes keep cars off the road and encourage choosing public transportation, which is convenient, plentiful, and cheap. When we discovered that a cab ride to the train station would cost us a hundred dollars, we caught a municipal bus half a block away that arrived within ten minutes and cost less than ten bucks—and got us to the train just as quickly. Walking and bicycling are common and delightful in cities purposely designed to be compact. Mornings found legions of bicyclers—many more bicycles than cars—using the bike lanes bordering every road. Sure, there are a lot of regulations limiting choices there, but the European Union has actually made good on commitments to, for instance, leave a smaller ecological footprint while our congress argues over everything but resolves little.

Likewise, universal health care is impossible to argue against. I frustrated myself failing to explain the rationality of our system. They complain about paying half their income in taxes, but are astounded to learn that we pay more than that after adding up the private costs of all our government doesn’t provide. They’ve never had to make the choice between keeping the house and having an operation, and had never heard of anyone having to pay off childbirth expenses over years, like car payments.

And our paranoia over terrorism feels pathological compared to the EU’s responses, even though they’ve been threatened from terrorism for decades. Boarding a flight into an EU country is little different than boarding a domestic flight here. Flying back to the States, I’m cautioned to arrive two and a half hours before departure time, because every passenger must be personally interviewed by airline security personnel—a process that extends a wide-body’s loading time to two hours! Arriving here, I might be asked to exit the plane with my passport held open at arm’s length through a gauntlet of Homeland Security personnel, progress up the exit ramp slowed by repeated questions about my destination and purpose for the visit. And I was born here! Friends confided that they avoid the hassle of visiting the US, even though our weak dollar would make their trip cheap.

The misconceptions between our cultures are huge and growing larger. Our friends’ kids were surprised that we weren’t chubby because they’d heard that all Americans were fat from eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. Neighbor kids stopped by to see some fabled ‘real Americans’, and left disappointed that we didn’t look much different from anyone else. Our friends served non-fat milk, and when I noted that I thought Europeans didn’t care about saturated fat, they just laughed at me.

Every conversation seems to eventually slip into mutually embarrassing questions about what we’re doing in Iraq. To anyone growing up in the shadows of flakterms, war is a futility one needn’t have personally experienced to choose to avoid. Our friends wonder how we’d ever extract ourselves from Middle Eastern quicksand, and I share their dismay.

Our distant cousins, left behind when we went to invent a new world, fear for us. They watch in dismay as we fall into the same traps our common ancestors stumbled into, and are genuinely concerned at the long shadows our modern, virtual flakterms will cast on future generations who will want nothing more than a walk in a well-tended garden on a frosty Sunday morning.

Travel, the old adage claims, broadens one. It broadens by highlighting the narrowness of parochial perspective. We still have a lot to learn from each other, if we can respect differing opinions to actually learn from each other. Our differences make us so much the same that we dare not dismiss each other now.

We are not the ugly Americans they too easily expect us to be. They are no longer the war-ravaged refugees our Marshal Plan revived. These facts become obvious over something as personal as coffee and strudel shared in a smoky Viennese coffeehouse. They’ve left the Intensive Care Unit of international relations and stand quite proudly upon what they are building with their own hands. And we are no longer the Daddy Warbucks they relied upon in the past. Neither of us seem sure who the other is now.

Any visit to Europe is a step into history and tradition so present that it colors everything. From the cobblestone streets to the ancient cathedrals, the new Europe stands on the shoulders of its past. Just like us.

I will return from this visit reminded of this simple fact. No one escapes from their past and our present is destined to be our future’s foundation. We can securely stand only upon sturdy shoulders. It’s up to each of us to deeply consider our future while we construct our present because the towers we build today will not be easily torn down then. What keeps us feeling secure today might well cast long shadows over our children and their children’s children long after whatever threatens us has gone.

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