Our plane creaked, squeaked and thudded to a stop at San Francisco International Airport. A corresponding thud hit the bottom of my stomach. Europe — my home for the past seven weeks — was just a shiny memory and hundreds of pictures on my phone now.
These seven weeks weren’t just a vacation for my husband, Michael, and me; they were weeks to work, play and enjoy our lives.
We started in London, where we spent our one-year anniversary, visited The British Museum (where I got a photo with the Rosetta Stone) and saw, not one, but two Broadway shows (Aladdin and Waitress, both of which I highly recommend) and visited our dear friends Matt and Val. Mat is a professor of entrepreneurship at Cambridge University and Val is an interior designer.
From there we grabbed a plane to Barcelona, where we set up shop for four weeks, spending lots of quality time with our friends Tom and Emily, parents to a tribe of soccer stars and fashion models, with hearts as big as their welcoming smiles; Tommy and his fiancé, Taylor, who were just passing through to Ibeza, and our other dear friends who joined us for a few days from America — Mark, Asia, Paul, Avery, Matt (who joined from Cambridge) Jenn and Steven. We celebrated a birthday (Paul’s) drank far too much Spanish wine (all the tapas bars in the city) climbed beautiful hills that overlooked the city (Park Guell) and drank in the stars and magic fountain shows (hand-in-hand, sneaking kisses with our lovers).
After four delicious weeks under the Spanish sun, we gathered the few sweaters we had packed, exchanged our euros for Danish krona and our swimsuits for jeans, and flew to the city of hygge and happiness itself — Copenhagen.
It was a city of fairytales, castles and palaces, bookstores and coffee shops on every corner, promising warmth, treats and conversation. My mother flew over to join us for a week and together we explored the city, rode on electric scooters and braved the bicycle frenzy (seeing my nearly-50-year-old mother ride scooters and bikes like a pro was worth the cost of the trip for me) ate at delicious restaurants and took a train up the coast to see the castle that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It took me a good month of eating fresh, delicious food, watching concerts and riding bikes everywhere to get to a point of lovely relaxation-in-my-bones, where it finally felt like I was safe enough to thrive; like the world wasn’t out to get me; like my soul could finally unwind.
It had finally happened: I had fallen deeply in love with European culture.
After seven weeks, we flew from Copenhagen to San Francisco, and that was nothing short of culture-shock for me.
We hadn’t see a single homeless person in Copenhagen, so landing in San Francisco, a city notorious for its nearly 10,000 homeless people (up 30% since 2017) was startling to say the least. In the downtown area, every fourth person was homeless. We went from watching stay-at-home dads push their babies in strollers to watching crazy people talk to the air and perform lewd behavior on the sidewalks.
I missed Europe. More than Europe, though, I missed the feeling I had when I was there: the feeling that people were being cared for, even if it was on the populace’s dime. I missed feeling safe, even though I knew that there were still terrorists in the world. I missed eating croissants made with real wheat without a heavy side serving of guilt.
I missed the entire way of European life.
Of that way of life, I have lists and lists of items, but I’ve ranked the top five things so you can get a glimpse of what a summer in Europe is like.
Europeans (including the kids) take a decidedly different approach to cell phones.
Here in the states, it’s impossible to visit an urban neighborhood without observing multiple teenagers strolling the sidewalks whilst scrolling their phones, head bent down, every now and then popping up for a breath of air and a giggle with their sidekicks, presumably laughing over what was — ahem — on their cell phone.
I remember one particular afternoon spent with my friend, Asia, in an inner-city Barcelonian courtyard, a circular neighborhood corner with a gelato shop and several outdoor cafes. We sat on a bench munching fresh empanadas from the shop down the street and watched the locals interact together while a musician accented the four o’clock sunshine with his guitar music. Children rode their skateboards and tricycles and danced with their grandparents. Teenagers spoke to each other, sitting in groups on the ground, playing guitars, flipping their hair at each other, flirting, laughing. Lovers looked at each other, hand in hand, no phone in sight.
Our conversations over dinner with friends lasted four hours sometimes—more than twice as long as many of our American versions of the same experience. Somehow, there was more to talk about and less to be rushing to Instagram over, as if we were in a safe little bubble far away from commercialism and traffic jams and tight schedules.
And my phone? Let’s just say that most nights I forgot I even had one.
As we headed to Denmark, I was somewhat nervous about riding bikes around town, because if there’s anyone the kind Danish people get mad at, it’s a silly tourist not adhering to their biking rules.
However, the rules were common-sense enough even for me, and while we definitely didn’t fool the locals, we fit right into the bike lanes like professional tourists.
Here’s the thing about riding bikes: After a few days, you begin to forget what cars are for, why we use them so much, and how they ever were considered more fun than riding in the open breeze, sun on your face, chatter around you, dirt getting munched up by your wheels.
It’s better for the planet, yes, but it’s also better for us.
We ate a lot of croissants. I mean, a part of me would like to fib and say that we ate them in moderation, once a week or so, but that would be less of a white lie and more of a grey-outlined one filled in with black.
Strangely, I didn’t gain one pound more than I left home with. Sure, that was partly due to the amount of walking we did, but additionally, the quality of the croissiants we ate were different than anything you can find in the states. Everything from the flour and eggs they’re made with to the love they’re kneaded with is totally different and registers in the human body as actual food, versus the genetically modified, RoundUp wheat we ingest here stateside (yes, that’s a thing).
So I couldn’t limit myself to just one croissiant per week, right? (Don’t worry, I didn’t.)
It took my nervous system a solid four weeks to wind down from the fear of being out in public, going to clubs, eating out late and attending concerts.
In America, I’m constantly aware of my surroundings (certainly to an unreasonable degree) checking for exits, escape routes, odd individuals, out-of-place circumstances. But in Europe, where gun violence is practically a nonissue (aside from moments of terrorism, which you could definitely argue we have here) you realize that no one else is low-key paranoid about shootings or other similiar disasters.
In Barcelona, for example, the locals don’t eat dinner until nine o’ clock on average, and after that the nightlife begins. On most nights, we drug ourselves to bed around midnight, and that was early for many of our friends who were locals. But no one was worried about clubs being shot up. No one was grieving the recent tragedy from the club down the road, or even a club in a neighboring country.
Also in Barcelona, we walked throughout the city in the middle of the night and never felt so much as slightly threatened. I told Michael that I couldn’t think of one American city equally as large where I could feel safe enough to explore on foot at that time of night.
In Copenhagen, when we walked into the amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, my mom pointed out that none of the security officials were checking bags. The most famous attraction in Denmark — and no one was checking bags.
That night, under a sky smiling with stars, clutching my glass of pinot and cozied up under a sweater with my man and my mama, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. There would be no crazy teenager with an automatic assault rifle walking in and demolishing the crowds. That doesn’t happen in Copenhagen because there are no guns.
I realize it isn’t a popular opinion in the United States, where we are as proud of our guns as we are of our handbags, but something has to be done about the gun access mentally unstable people have.
While I was in Europe enjoying comfort and bliss, there were three mass shootings in the United States. Three. Between the time I boarded and disembarked from my plane on my summer vacation, dozens more people had been sacrificed on the altar of our proud gun rights.
One thing’s certain: things are not alright in the red, white and blue. Additionally—it’s going to be awhile before I feel safe enough to enjoy a night on the town without keeping a watchful eye. Probably not until my next summer in Europe.
Those points bring me back to the main attraction. My country. The one I pledge allegience to. The country I love.
I guess it’s funny that one of the things I loved about Europe is how I grew to appreciate America more while I was there (even while seeing clearly the things we have going wrong).
For all of its glories, Europe is still so socialist that if you have a big dream to start a business, an organization, a mission—it’s going to be at least twice as difficult to get it off the ground and make it self-sustainable. Why is that? Because in Europe, no one gives a crap about your dreams.
In the vast majority of European nations, the cultural and familial emphisis is placed on keeping and continuing tradition.
In Italy, no wants you to branch out and start a wine company in the United States, because you’re expected to work on your grandaddy’s vineyard until you die, and then you’ve got to pass it onto your kids. In Copenhagen, you’re not encouraged to be a budding entrepreneur, because you’ve got to pay taxes (and good gravy, those are high). In Barcelona, if you’re not going to be a soccer star, you’d better get a job and not complain about it. No need to strive higher.
No one is encouraging the stashing up of cash or the building of dreams. Those aren’t European values. Having fewer things is. More work and life balance is. Having fewer (but better) friends is. Living a small, but meaningful, life is.
But if we never dream bigger, get brave enough to challenge the status quo, break that glass ceiling, or—one more clichè—step outside the box, how can we grow as a human race?
The one thing America still enjoys that no other country on earth does to the same degree is freedom. If you want to start a business from nothing, you can. If you want to learn how to sing, act or dance as a career, you can. If you want to make a career painting fish for a living, you can. If you want to live out on a cabin growing your own food, you can. If you want to break the norm and follow your own path, you can. You can create your own destiny. You can make as little or as much money as you want and you can spend it however you wish.
So in the end, as much as I miss Europe, I missed America, too. The one has what the other does not, which brings me to my final point.
Travel. Go see the world. Eat all the croissants. (Please do, otherwise I will find them and eat them for you.) Ride bikes around cobblestoned streets. Drink hot cocoa in a hygge cafe. Storm a castle (with a well-rated tour guide). Kiss your lover by a magical fountain show. Take a boat trip down a lazy river. Enjoy your life like it’s the only one that you’ve got.
Because here’s a truth for you: it just might be.