Things North America could learn from Europe

by Michelle on July 14, 2013 · 23 comments

While there are things I wish Europe would adopt from North America (like not charging for water in restaurants, better Mexican food, bringing the poutine to Europe!), there’s also a lot of things (although not so apparently food related) that I wish North America would adopt from Europe. After living on both continents, here are some of my thoughts!

1. Free university education

University of Mannheim (photo taken by Miriam!)

University of Mannheim – photo taken by Miriam!

I feel like this is a HUGE thing. For one thing, people always seem to be talking about how “children are the future”….but what kind of future would this be if these children can’t afford a university education? In Canada, tuition a year is around $6,000 (compared to the staggering $30,000 + in the US), and that doesn’t include the $1,000 in student service fees, hundreds of dollars for textbooks, and an extra few thousands of dollars to cover living expenses. In general, the average middle-class family are unable to send their kids to university without some sort of assistance. In Canada, we have a lot of great government student loan programs to help us finance our studies, but at the same time, it takes an average of 10 years to pay back loans for a post grad! That’s a long time to be in debt!

In Europe (excluding the UK), most public universities offer free or next to nothing costs for tuition (even for international students! see upcoming post for more details). These include countries like Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, German, Norway and Spain. In fact, Denmark actually pays their students to go to school! The only thing they have to pay for are student fees, which average to be around 100 euros a semester, which is a pretty sweet deal! And despite the Eurozone crisis, I’ve read that the EU is actually planning on increasing government funding for education by 70%!

(Fun fact: some non-EU countries that offer free university include: Argentina, Cuba, Egypt, India, Malta, Morocco, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia).

2. More bikes and affordable public transit

Bikes in Amsterdam (photo creed: wikipedia.org)

In some cities in Europe like Amsterdam, sometimes you feel like there’s more bikes than pedestrians and cars. In the European cities I’ve been to, most streets have bike lanes and there’s places everywhere to rent bikes. In North America, suburbs seem to be designed to be very bike and pedestrian unfriendly.

In many European cities, public transit is so well connected, sometimes it’s even more convenient than driving. With high gas prices, and relatively low transit fares, you’ll see everyone from students, to business people to the elderly on any given European bus or subway. There’s lots of incentives as well, such as a group transit pass, to let groups of people share the cost of one ticket!

While public transit is pretty well-connected in North American cities, taking public transit can be nightmarish in the suburbs. Some places aren’t well connected, transit fares are incredibly over-priced, and simple tasks like grocery shopping can take over an hour in commutes because of how far away everything is. No wonder car culture is big here! Which brings us to….

3. Less emphasis on car culture

IMG_0858

A view of Würzburg, Germany!

In North America, you’re expected to have a driver’s licence. Materialism in society also attributes to owning a car to status and money. Unless you live in a big city, walking or taking public transit is seen as a “poor man’s” option, and it’s ridiculous how often I would mention walking from point A to point B (which only takes about 15 minutes), and have people look at me in shock, and ask why I would walk such a long distance and didn’t take a car instead. Well, that’s probably why there’s a lot more overweight people in North America!

Car culture I feel like also isolates people. It’s hardly ever “lively” on the streets in the suburbs, but there’s European “cities” I’ve been to with a population of 100,000 that are way more lively than North American suburbs boosting even 900,000 people. I love how in Europe, many people prefer to walk. Yes, they have the advantage of everything being closer to them, but it definitely adds a personal charm to their countries.

4. More environmentally friendly 

photo cred: www.inhabitat.com

Windmills in Spain (photo cred: www.inhabitat.com)

I feel like in general, there’s less packaging in products in Europe. In Germany they have a 25 cent “deposit” on bottles, which you pay and get back when you return your bottles. It’s great because it forces everyone to recycle, and even if you don’t, there’s always bums who will rummage the streets in search of these bottles.

In places like Germany, most people don’t even own AC’s and dryers! Clothes are most often hung to air dry, which surprised me at first, but once I got used to it, I really like the idea. Even in the winter, clothes generally don’t take more than 2-3 days to dry!

Also, in some parts of Spain, 70% of their energy source comes from renewable energy, and in most Scandinavian countries, more than half of their energy is from renewable sources.

While I feel like us North Americans are starting to become more environmentally friendly (I know in Canada, we rely mostly on hydro power, and wind energy is becoming extremely popular), there’s still a lot we can learn from our European counterparts!

4. Affordable Health care 

photo cred: huffingtonpost.ca

photo cred: huffingtonpost.ca

Living in Germany, I find the health care system really efficient. While it’s not free like back home in Canada, it’s very affordable and I never have to wait long to see a doctor. I love that it’s so easy to go to any doctor here, show them my health insurance card and be able to get treatment that same day. Since I’m privately insured, I would pay for my bill first and have my insurance company reimburse me. I’m always shocked too that these costs are significantly lower than what I would pay in Canada or the US. For example, when I went for physiotherapy, 10 sessions in Canada cost over $800 while it Germany it was only 200 euros (and I enjoyed my sessions much more in Germany as well!).

When I lived in Chicago for art school, I remember my roommate was sick and had to stay overnight at a hospital for a couple nights and we were all shocked when she received her bill that amounted to a number in the three digits. I can’t imagine how most people could ever afford that. Luckily the Obama Care legislature is changing the American health care system to make it more affordable for everyone!

5. Europeans are more relaxed and celebrate more

IMG_0664

Partying in Barcelona

Did you know that North Americans (Americans followed by Canadians) have the least amount of vacation time amongst the developed world? Actually, by law in America, companies legally do not even have to give employees paid vacation days! Most European countries like Sweden, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, etc tops the list of most paid vacation days with 34 + plus days of time off (*hint hint* to travel!!) Not to mention in countries like Spain, there’s siestas, that let you rest for 2-3 hours in the middle of the work day! What a perfect time to go to the beach :)

Also, food and drinks “on the go” are a lot less popular in Europe. In North America, paper cups seem to be the norm, especially in the city, where everyone has a cup of coffee in their hands, rushing to go somewhere. Meanwhile in Europe, street cafes are always packed with groups of people at all times of the day. Come to think of it, I don’t think there was ever a time when I bought a drink in Europe and took it to go rather than drinking it in the cafe! I think the overall vibe of Europe forces you to slow down and enjoy life.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts! What do you guys think? What are some European characteristics you wish North Americans would adopt? Or vice versa?

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan July 17, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Yeah I heard short distances can take hours to travel in the US sometimes because there are so few connections. At least in urban areas, there’s usually lots of different ways to get around in Germany like buses, trams and local trains.

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Michelle Michelle July 21, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Yea it’s true….and flying can be really expensive here! Budget airlines here are still way more expensive than Ryanair unfortunately!

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Rika | Cubicle Throwdown July 18, 2013 at 3:15 am

Great list!! I haven’t even been to Europe but I already think most of these things :)

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Michelle Michelle July 21, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Thanks! I hope you’ll get a chance to visit soon :)

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Frank @ The Wondernuts July 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Universal health care for Americans, better retirement packages, work to live instead of live to work attitude, restricting % of outsourcing in jobs and goods, buying a car base on your needs instead of an SUV just because, the wrongful attitude that America is somehow…more free… the list goes on… I love the United States, but our douch-y attitude is embarrassing.

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Michelle Michelle July 21, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Yea you’re right! There’s so many things to improve on that gets ignored unfortunately.

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Susinko September 27, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Frank, I agree with you 100%. I love the United States very very very much, however there are many changes that would make the country better. I’m looking at you universal heath care (among other things).

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Amanda July 20, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Each of these are so very true… it’s funny how places do try to be more “American”, but in the end we should be more European! The education one is probably the most important as more than a Bachelors is needed for a lot of jobs now, and yet it’s so difficult to pay tuition and living for one.

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Michelle Michelle July 21, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Yea it’s true! And these days, a masters degree is suppose to be the new bachelors degree, so everyone’s student loans are going to be skyrocketing!! yikes! :(

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Andrea July 20, 2013 at 7:00 pm

I see and agree with your points but having lived in Europe I have to tell you many of these would be a stretch to incorporate in the US without raising taxes significantly. And just because education is free to all doesn’t mean the people become smarter or more productive (I could name examples but I’ll be nice). Would you want to pay what it costs for everyone to go to university? Would you be happy with the decline in quality that could come with the mandates that go along with government regulation? I definitely agree on the environmental and car issues, but Europe is a lot smaller than the USA. Sorry to be contrarian and maybe I’m just getting old and losing some of my idealism, but if you change one thing you change everything…

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Michelle Michelle July 21, 2013 at 10:11 pm

It’s true about taxes….Europe’s known to have some of the highest taxes in the world. In Germany, it’s like 19%! I think education should be accessible to everyone…. In the US, there are people who get accepted to Ivy League universities but end up going to a state university instead because they can’t afford tuition, which is such a shame!

We pay a lot of taxes in North America but I think a lot of factors really hinder us from being able to spend our tax payers money on more “important” issues. There’s lots of frivolous spending in the government, and (especially in the US) so much money gets spent on the military when it could be put towards education.

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Frank @ The Wondernuts July 22, 2013 at 10:46 pm

I am not sure why people think Europe pays “a lot ” more taxes. WE are American and My wife pays 23% and I pay 25%. on top of that I have my corporate taxes. After write offs and money back an average total would drop down to 14-17%. And the only benefit we have from that is some crappy social security when we retire. I honestly would rather pay 19% if it means much more. We Americans are so brainwashed by the media to further benefit the fortune 500s.

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Andy September 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm

19% is the VAT.
If you’re not a freelancer who has to pay for his own social security and pension funds, you’ll pay around 20% of your income on these two, and every one (who can’t pay a tax accountant) will pay up to 42% on taxes. If you couldn’t write off the most ridiculous things, an effective tax rate of more than 50% would not be uncommon for people earning €60k to 80k year.

Great article, BTW, Michelle. I would have chosen the same things, from the other perspective — travelling from Germany to the States (although I’ve not stayed there for an extended time yet, two months has been the most).

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Michelle Michelle September 9, 2013 at 3:20 am

Thanks Andy! It’s true….I heard in Denmark income tax can be as high as 55%! That’s more than half your salary! But their living standards are also very high so maybe it balances out well. Even in Canada actually, income tax is around 40% if you make over 60K i think, so Americans have it lucky!

2 months is a good amount of time in the US! :) Where did you live?!

Savi of Bruised Passports July 24, 2013 at 10:51 am

Agree with a lot of what you said, but cars are essential in America, what with the crazy distances. Europe is much smaller, so public transportation is way more feasible here :-)

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Michelle Michelle September 9, 2013 at 3:21 am

It’s true….especially in the suburbs! Without a car, something simple like grocery shopping would be such a burden!

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Miriam July 26, 2013 at 11:01 pm

The way a city is laid out in Europe is different I feel in Canada for example. In the suburbs sometimes it is really a necessity to have a car to get to places. Things are not laid out one beside the other. But yeah even walking 25 minutes to work people would open their eyes real wide and ask why?! Because a $3.25 or whatever the fair is 2 minute bus ride is not worth it. 😛

I agree about vacation time though..Switzerland is amazing for it. Though summer vacation is shorter.

I found it so strange to be walking and eating on the street. I looked around me and thought people must be staring. 😉 It was so strange, but I am so used to it back home. Grabbing something and eating it on the bus. Here I learned to love food and sit down and relax when eating. Enjoy it.

About transportation, much cheaper in Europe, and such good fare and overall transit systems. I feel like we are developing so slowly on this. Of course money and other issues arise but our system hasn’t changed since I moved to the city. 😛

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Michelle Michelle September 9, 2013 at 3:25 am

Yea and it’s crazy how it even costs $3.25 in the suburbs for a bus ride! In New York it’s $2.50 to go to any of the boroughs haha. In Germany I paid 37 euros a month for a transit pass for the buses, trams, and trains that go to about 10 cities and even to France! It’s the most amazing deal I’ve ever gotten for transportation haha.

Its true! In Canada, I would always grad something to drink on the go, and in Europe I hardly see anyone doing it.

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Arianwen August 12, 2013 at 4:49 am

Hehe. This makes me appreciate being European a bit more! I heard it was tough working in the States. I would be run into the ground with barely any paid leave!

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Michelle Michelle September 9, 2013 at 3:26 am

Yea, and there’s a strong work mentality, like it is in Toronto. I know people who don’t even choose to take their 2 week vacation, because they don’t know what to do when they’re not working!

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Agness September 8, 2013 at 6:55 am

I agree with Arianwen that after reading this post I appreciate being European :). I have never been to North America, but education is not entirely free in Europe. I am planning to start my Master’s Degree in Holland and it will cost me more than 2.000 euros per year. England charges a lot for even bachelor’s degree, much more than Holland. I agree, North America needs more bikes and fresh air!

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Michelle Michelle September 9, 2013 at 3:28 am

Yea England does charge a lot!! But maybe you can study there through an Erasmus exchange! But even at 2000 euros a year, it’s still way cheaper than the 30K most US universities charge! Where will you be in Holland? I’m going to Amsterdam in 2 weeks! :)

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Leo April 27, 2014 at 8:45 pm

I definitely agree with your article! I´m from Germany and I´m currently doing an exchange year in the U.S. I also definitely agree with Miriam about European cities. I live in the central valley of California about 2 hours away from Sacramento and San Francisco and I personally feel like every U.S city looks pretty similar. Of course everyone has different attractions but the structure is basically always the same. I also feel REALLY depending on other people since I dont have a drivers license (I´m 16). In my town in Germany we have about 5 bus stops, a train stop and at both a bus or train stops once per hour to bring me to bigger cities. After the first couple weeks of staying here I realized how awesome it actually is to live in Europe, where it is common to travel to other countries/ cultures/ languages etc. I feel like I have seen in my 16 years more of the world (Most of Europe, India, Thailand and now US) than the average American will ever see. On one side it is kind if sad and on the other I love it!

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