Monday, August 24, 2009

Innocents Abroad

As someone with a lot of experience as both a traveler and an expat, I've got to say that the phenomenon of American Europhilia has always puzzled me. It is true that many European cities are quite attractive places, and with their compact urban centers, historical districts, and high-quality public transportation, nice places to explore as a tourist. This does not, however, mean that Europe is necessarily a nicer place to live than America, because what's convenient and appealing for a tourist is not necessarily convenient and appealing for a local. Consider Brugge, Belgium, for example. It's a storybook medieval town in which literally almost every building has hundreds of years of fascinating history, charming cafes and shops line the canals and cobblestone streets, and architectural and artistic treasures are never more than a few blocks away. It's a must-visit for anyone traveling in that part of Europe. It's also a place I would never want to live. Those old buildings are charming, but also cramped and ill-insulated - hot in the summer and, though I've not visited at that time of year, no doubt cold and drafty in the winter. Likely they are a pain to repair or retrofit with new upgrades such as digital cable. Those narrow, picturesque streets - lovely if you're wandering around oblivious of the time snapping photos, rather an annoyance if you're in a hurry on your way to work in the morning and get stuck in traffic. The cultural attractions? Wonderful to visit, but really, which does one wish to do more often, shop conveniently at a modern supermarket, or appreciate the aesthetic mastery of the Flemish school?

The fact is, most Americans visit Europe as tourists, and don't stay long enough to take off their tourist goggles. If they actually tried living in the places they find so romantic on first blush, they'd discover that the novelty of old buildings and accumulated cultural and historical ambience quickly wears off, and that the conveniences of modern urban living are highly underrated. This has certainly been my experience in Japan which, like Europe, is a mix of modern and historical areas, with most Japanese, like most Europeans, preferring to live in the former and visit the latter.

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