Why We Suck

Every time I come back to the U.S. from a Mediterranean country, I feel like I live in the quietest, most boring place on earth. And I live in Chicago, dear reader, not Glad Valley, South Dakota, (America’s McFarthest place) or Henderson, Nevada. (The most boring city in America according to one of these incredibly fucking stupid, annoying top ten photo slideshow lists on Forbes- so crass and pointless that I’m not even going to link to it.)

I recently returned from a ten-day trip to Spain, where I spent an inordinate amount of time wandering the streets of Barcelona and San Sebastian wondering why the streets were so full of life, even on Monday and Tuesday nights. Doesn’t anyone have a job to go to tomorrow morning? Isn’t there anything on TV in this country? Why does everyone seem to have friends? I swear to God, the average 8-year-old boy in Spain stays out later and has a more active social life than your average American college student. We spent three months in Italy and Greece last year and it’s the same there.

I just got back from a 20-minute walk around my neighborhood- and I live in a pretty lively place by the standards of American suburbia with sidewalks and a pretty high population density and it was a beautiful night-and I saw only two people out walking, both with dogs. Take a walk around my neighborhood around 8 or 9 p.m. and you’ll see the glow of television sets in almost any house and apartment that has their lights on and curtains open. We’re watching TV while our Mediterranean cousins are out on the streets, socializing with friends, eating and drinking while their children are kicking soccer balls around. I have the Bears-Steelers game on as I write this and I’m just as guilty as everyone else.

There are things about Europe that drive me crazy (namely the absence of the following amenities: air conditioning, box springs, ice cubes and baseball) and I know that the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) have train-wreck economies, but goddamit, they sure as hell know how to enjoy life.  A few theories…

  1. Better public spaces. Cities like Barcelona don’t just have 1 or 2 pedestrian streets and plazas. There are dozens upon dozens of them. It’s a hell of a lot more pleasant to sit at a sidewalk café when there is no traffic whizzing by.
  2. Friends and family are nearby. We don’t get together with friends and family members as often because we are more mobile and a lot of us live in big, sprawling metro areas where we are a half hour or more from our friends and family members. In the PIGS countries, people tend to stay put and they live closer together.
  3. Live to Work or Work to Live? We’re the Bowling Alone country. Overworked, isolated, undersexed, oversold and undersocialized. The PIGS are going broke but there’s a social fabric there that you have to admire. Relationships matter more, human contact is prized over money and acquiring material possessions. I could continue on here, but, um, Breaking Bad is coming on and then after that there’s, oh, I don’t know, probably something on TV.