Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Tired Continent

"Europe is an old, tired Continent."

This was the observation of one of our B and B hosts recently, a world-wise lady who had lived in many places including the United States.

As recent posts may have indicated we have been wandering about in the odd corners of Belgium and France, with a little of Germany and the Netherlands for perspective.  And where ever I go I ask are things really?

Well, it is an ageing land.  Having on past visits been a bit intimidated by vigorous, fit young Europeans clicking away at a rapid pace on the cobbled streets I can report that much grey hair and a few expansive waistlines have been seen.  And even one or two "mobility scooters".

Of course it is good that Europeans, and Americans, are living longer. But as I go here and there I see few children.  Lots of dogs.  While I am all heartily in favor of both a healthy society should have more of the former.  Pet boutiques appear to outnumber children's clothing stores.

What energy there is in the younger generations seems to come from elsewhere.  England has recently absorbed two million Poles.  France has a significant North African population.   We even encountered some gypsies.  I have no problems with any of these folks (well, a gypsy did put the evil eye on my wife last year).  In fact you have to expect that empty spaces in Europe will fill in with people from elsewhere.  It has always been so.

But beyond the demographic issues there is a deeper fatigue lying on the land.

The infrastructure is ancient.  In places there are still Roman sewers functioning.  You just can't upgrade old stone buildings very easily.

And beyond the physical limits there are the human factors.  Take a look at this:

A phone booth.  You almost never see them in the US, and rarely in England.  In France they are common.  And in a time when almost everyone has a cell phone they are unused by anyone other than grafftists.

I like Europe.  I come here fairly often.  But the wind has gone out of their sails, and they seem content to cheer on their football teams and to enjoy three hour long dinners.  

I would not want to make a New America out of the place.  The quaint narrow streets and half timbered buildings belong here.  If Europe is no longer the Vanguard of Western Civilization she is still the Custodian of much of it.  And that is an important role even if it means that the Old World will not in foreseeable times rival America.  Or China.

They still do some things well despite the decline.  Or perhaps in some instances because of it.  I had some excellent meals during those long, lingering dinners.  And if you ask an amiable barkeep in Belgium if he has something extra special you will be served up a mighty beer that will in short order have you grinning as maniacally as the monk on its label.

You can learn something profound about modern Europe by thinking on the subject of......wheelbarrows.

Excavating at Vindolanda we used French wheelbarrows.  The Vindolanda folks had tried every available English made brand.  They were all flimsy crap that could not take the beating they were dealt.  But the French ones were reliable troupers.  Why?

Well, it seems that by a combination of tradition and union rules French road and construction crews do not use skid steers and similar small dumping/hauling machinery.  They still use guys with shovels and wheelbarrows.  So they have not forgotten how to make a decent one.  Some consolation I guess when you are waiting for a trio of Gallic road guys to finish their smokes and get back to work.

Wheelbarrows, Abbey Ales and pate foie gras.  Yes, it is quite possible to enjoy the decline.  

I just don't think America should join them in it.
Belgian frites (French Fries) come with huge dollops of mayonaisse. 

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