Are Europeans More Civilized than Americans?

Zio Enzo is possibly not the uncle of anyone I know. In any case, he’s a toothless 70-something Italian man who everybody is calling Uncle. He’s wearing a baggy black suit on a Saturday afternoon, and explaining to me, in his barely-comprehensible central Italian dialect, all the reasons why I should become a Jehova’s Witness.

We’re standing in the garden of a house in some nameless small town and everyone’s taking an interest in the American–in me. Aunts and uncles are gathered round. In-laws are peering over my shoulder. Tiny cousins ride around on tricycles, shouting.

Mostly, however, their interest in me is limited to an interest in the fate of my soul. It occurs to me that the same conversation is taking place right now in a thousand backyards in Alabama or Kentucky or (Buddha save us!) Arizona–anywhere that God-fearing people with hideous accents gather, someone must be converted to the one true faith, whatever that may be.

It’s times like these that I question Europe’s reputation for being a highly civilized place.

Back in the United States, some people have the feeling that Europeans are all high-brow culture buffs. That the average person’s evening in any city from Lisbon to Istanbul is taken up listening to piano concertos and sipping champagne in some enormous drawing room.

Maybe they’ve seen some Woody Allen films and just decided that everyone in Europe is rich and has exquisite taste–what they don’t know is that Europe, like anywhere else, is secretly full of rednecks!

Of course, Euro-Rednecks are different than American rednecks. They’re certainly not shuffling around WalMart in a trash-bag-sized jogging suit. They have some dignity. But they’re not going out and buying season tickets to the symphony either.

ayuntamiento el espinar segoviaThe city hall in El Espinar, Segovia. Official town motto: Not the most cosmopolitan place on earth.

The Death Penalty

Many argue that Europeans are more civilized because they don’t have the death penalty. It’s true that capital punishment was abolished years ago across the European Union. However, to say that Europeans are a bunch of peaceful academics is to ignore thousands of years of European history, a history that much of the time tells of violence and conquest and intolerance of one kind or another.

You spent 3000 years slaughtering each other wholesale and now you’re calling other people uncivilized? Please!

In Spain, people were being executed by firing squad as recently as 1975, which means to me that the new culture of peace and non-violent conflict resolution is nothing more than a historical footnote. I admit, the death penalty is barbaric, but so was, for example, fascism.

Food Culture

Italy, France and Spain have wonderful food culture. It’s because they can grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables all year round.

Food culture in the north of Europe is very very different–Spaniards go to Germany and complain that the extent of German cuisine is sausages and potatoes, or to England, where beans on toast is considered to be a respectable meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

And let’s not even talk about Scandinavia, where the typical foods consist of fermented intestines. Prepackaged industrial crap is a godsend if your local cuisine has to be kept outside in order to keep the whole house from smelling like a sewer.

The Mediterranean also produces millions of liters of wine every year, which means you can get it anywhere and everywhere.

Americans see a bottle of wine and start thinking all kinds of high-culture thoughts–oh, if only I could marry a famous neurosurgeon so we could afford to drink wine with dinner!

Over here, wine means something totally different. It’s just a fact of daily life–a lot of people in small towns drink something that’s homemade and not very good.

My in-laws buy wine in 5 litre jugs from a neighboring farmer, and then water it down before drinking. Nobody had to marry a neurosurgeon to make that happen–it’s cheap and locally made and doesn’t make you go blind.

Europeans may eat better than Americans for a number of reasons, but they’re definitely not foodies in the pretentious American sense. They’re just eating the available local products, grown by local farmers or produced by local artisans.

The Arts

With regard to artistic accomplishments, it’s true that Europe is simply full of all kinds of beautiful art and architecture. Why? Because they’ve been making such things for, oh, let’s say a couple of millennia longer than Americans have.

Many of the most impressive buildings in Madrid were built before American independence, and you can’t take a day-trip anywhere without finding churches, monasteries or ancient ruins of some type that were built long before Columbus was born.

Many places (like Mérida, Extremadura) have monuments going all the way back to Roman times. That’s two thousand years or more! American art and culture are still–comparatively–in their infancy, so if you can drive around Toledo, Ohio all day without running into anything of artistic value, that’s why. Just try doing the same in Toledo, Spain.

In any case, I suspect that many or most of your average Europeans haven’t been inside a museum since they were taken there on a high school field trip.

Euro-Rednecks

Go to any small town and talk to people for a few days (you’ll probably have to learn their language first) and you’ll notice the inescapable fact that a lot of them are like small-town folk anywhere else. Not particularly knowledgeable about the outside world. Haven’t left their region more than a few times in their lives. Conservative or strongly religious or both.

They have their small Old World lives like their parents and grandparents had. They drive tractors or wander around behind a flock of sheep. They’ve never spent a semester lecturing at the Sorbonne or painting portraits of Countesses in Florence.

I always remember a trip to Cuenca (about two hours to the east of Madrid) a few summers ago. There’s a hill next to the city with a figure of Christ on the top, and I wanted to walk up to see the view. I stopped an old man on the edge of town. He was hobbling down the street bent over a cane. He was 90 years old if he as a day. I asked him the best way to walk up the hill and he said, “Oh, I don’t know. Lived here my whole life, but I’ve never been up there!”

See also: American Ignorance.

Foodies! Want to come to my house for some tripe stew and table wine? It’ll knock the pretentiousness right outta you! Let me know in the comments…

8 thoughts on “Are Europeans More Civilized than Americans?

  1. This entire post might as well be “American stereotypes a continent with 700 million people and then is shocked they aren’t all refined opera watching. suit wearing, concerto-composing individuals”.

    Jesus Christ is this one of the more retarded american blog posts I’ve read in a while. Which – incidentally – reinforces the American stereotype on this side of the pond.

    • The point was to talk about some typical American stereotypes of Europe, not to write a sociological treatise.

      Anyway, a lot of people apparently don’t understand any sort of irony that goes beyond LOLcats. And life goes on. Have a nice day!

  2. Thank you for this article! I am an American (yes, that is the correct term regardless of what some claim… but that argument is for another day :-)) married to a Spaniard. I have been traveling to Spain every year for the past 15 years, and now we will be moving there to live for the next 3 years (hence my interest in this article and your blog).

    When I first started visiting Spain, I was like you implied in your article, a bit intimidated and feeling very uncivilized. In fact, I underestimated the area that I grew up in (Washington, DC), thinking that it couldn’t compare to a European city. Well, I’ve done just fine showing that an American can be just as “sophisticated” as any European. (I have learned that the main area that I am lacking is gracefulness while deboning a fish, something an American rarely has to do (now there’s a topic for another article!) Granted, some of the things I do in the U.S. would never be useful in Spain, so I consider that a wash.)

    Now I realize that people are the same in many countries around the globe — there are rich people, poor people, rude people, kind people, sophisticated people, “rednecks”, and so on. I’ve found that as long as one is clever, observant, respectful and open-minded, one can fit in anywhere.

  3. Great post, Daniel! Coming from small-town America, I assumed that Spaniards and other Europeans would be much more aware of cultural significance, historical events, art, etc. But alas, proximity does not a scholar make.

    Spitting on the streets and not stopping at crosswalks likewise are also not included in my definition of “civilized,” although I find a lot of that here. And my personal favorite: city-dwellers who leave dog excrement in parks, on streets, etc, are just about the most inconsiderate people I can think of. Of course there are others who pick up after their pets, but there are plenty of other “uncivilized” people who don’t.

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