Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Ambition

People often ask me, “Dave, what would you say are the biggest cultural differences between young people in the US and Europe.” Ok, only one person asked me that, and it was my mom when I saw her last weekend. But I’ll pontificate on it in my blog for you all anyway.

The first thing that shoots to mind is the level of knowledge of the world. European gen X’ers (that’s my generation right?) tend to have a much more developed knowledge of geography, politics and current affairs than their American counterparts. They also tend to have a more nuanced view on the world, seeing complexities and shades of gray where Americans, even of my generation, see black and white.

So that was the first thing that came out of my mouth when my mom asked me that question. But my second answer surprised me, because it’s something I wouldn’t have said two months ago.

“Ambition,” I said. “Honestly, I really feel like there’s a huge difference in the level of ambition.”

Friday, 23 February 2007

Communists topple Italian government

As so often happens in Italy, another government coalition has fallen apart. It still remains to be see what’s going to happen, this could actually have the effect of strengthening the Prodi government and giving it the strength to refuse the US’s request to expand the military base in Vicenza. But it could also put Burlusconi back in power.

It’s interesting because what happened last night actually pulls together a number of the things I’ve been writing about. To brief you on what led up to the Italian government’s fall, Prodi won an election nine months ago by a razor-thin margin, and formed a government by assembling a very loose coalition of political parties that ranged from Communists to centrist Catholics. The government has tried to push through a number of controversial reforms since then, one of which was granting civil union rights to non-married couples (including gays).

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Secret prisons in Europe

Europe delivered a rebuke to the United States last week, although it was hardly without controversy on the continent. The EU Parliament approved a report yesterday that accuses key European nations of colluding or turning a blind eye to the CIA practice of “extraordinary renditions” and allowing the CIA “secret prisons” to be allowed on the continent.

The report is significant because it requires the countries in question, the UK, Italy, Germany and other nations, to conduct investigations into what has been happening over the past five years. It comes at the same time an Italian judge has indicted 26 Americans and 5 Italians for involvement in the kidnapping of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar on the streets of Milan in 2003. Abu Omar was abducted in Milan, taken to Aviano Air Base and then flown via Ramstein in Germany to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. The indictment is the first time the practice of extraordinary rendition could face scrutiny in open court, with the trial set to begin in June.

So, the approval of the report by both the EU Parliament and the EU Commission is sort of the first shot in what could be a long battle between the EU and the US over what went on the last five years here. And essentially the question that could be asked is this: Has the US overstepped its bounds in its military relationships with European nations, and has Europe been too accommodating to the military wishes of the US? The question that I think needs to be asked is this. Is it time to end the US military occupation of Europe?

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Swiss weekend

I'm here in Zurich for the weekend, flew out Friday morning. It's been a nice, relaxing time. Since I've already been here I don't feel the need to run around doing sightseeing stuff, so we've just been hanging around here, sitting on the balcony as we look out at the Alps. It's insanely warm here. I've been going out with just a sweater on. But then you go about 30 minutes away up the mountain and there's snow everywhere. It's crazy.

Today we went up to some snow-covered peaks and then went to a water park in the afternoon. It's the same one I went to back in August, right on the edge of the mountain overlooking Lake Zurich. It's year-round, you enter the pools indoors and then go outdoors in them, so in theory, it keeps you warm. There's also the water slides, but large sections of those are open-air so it gets pretty freakin cold. I'm pretty convinced I'm going to have a cold tomorrow.

It's funny how normal this is all beginning to seem. I pop over here for the weekend to my family, and my grandmother, who is visiting, and we just kind of hang out. We were talking about how bizarre it is last night, all of us sitting here in Zurich. But it doesn't feel bizarre, it feels quite normal.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Top ten American/British differences












I thought around this time it might be interesting to make a list of all the differences I’ve observed between the US and the UK so far. So without further ado, here are the top ten differences I’ve seen so far:

1) Laundry

Everyone in this city has a washing machine in their flat, but pretty much nobody has a drier. Weird right? You take your clothes right out of the wash and hang them up on these drying racks and wait two days for them to dry. This is strange to me because, in New York, it’s considered a luxury to have washing machines in your building, let alone in your apartment! And if you do have a washing machine, you will always have a drier to go along with it. I’ve never seen a washing machine all on its own before I came here. But everyone has them, and they’re always in the kitchen.

2) Heat

And speaking of appliances, also in everyones’ kitchens are these big gas heat contraptions which turn on and off to eat the unit (they look very scary, there’s fire inside!). Everyone has gas heat here, which I’ve never had before. Many people have their thermostats on timers, so that they turn off overnight and during the day while they’re at work. That’s right, turn off, not even a lower temperature or anything. “Why heat an empty house?” they ask me. “But…then it’s all cold when you get home!” My addled American brain tried to wrap itself around the concept. I suppose turning it off during the day makes sense, but overnight? It’s freezing!

3) Public Drinking

It’s allowed, and quite common. It’s so strange to me to be sitting on the tube and see the person across from me sipping a beer. Not that I’m complaining! I’ve fully taken advantage of this wonderful custom.

4) Corner Shops

And speaking of corner shops, they leave much to be desired. They’re kind of the equivalent of “delis” in New York, except that there’s no actual deli so you can’t really call it that. While in New York there’s basically three on every block, here they’re not nearly as common and you can end up walking for 30 minutes trying to find one. For that reason, I can’t really pull my legendary beer trick here. Not only because it would take too long to go from the club to the deli, but also because the delis/corner shops cant’ sell beer after 11 because of...

5) Blue Laws

Probably most of you are familiar with the fact that London has these ridiculous licensing laws, what we would call “blue laws” in the Northeast. Basically there are three different licenses. One allows you to serve alcohol till 11, another till 2, and another till 4. All of the pubs close their doors at 11. Some bars (a “bar” here is basically a fancier “pub” where you can’t wear sneakers) continue to serve after that but don’t let anyone else in, and legally they have to pretend you’re just a “guest” in their “private establishment” so they can’t “charge” you. But they do. If you want to go anywhere after 11 it’s going to involve a long wait in line and a cover charge. So fun right?

6) Language

They use funny words here! A few notable examples that have tended to confuse me: “brilliant” is used here as an exclamation of approval, like “awesome” in the states (but if you say “awesome” here people laugh at you). I was quite confused when I handed someone at work a stapler and they said “brilliant!!” as if I had just discovered the cure for cancer or something. Trucks are “lories”. You don’t go to the bathroom, you “go to the toilet” (something that sounds a bit too specific to me!). Instead of saying “how are you?” you say “Are you alright?” which tends to unnerve me because in the states you would only say that to someone if they looked unwell or upset. And finally, British people have this tendency to add “isn’t it?” at the end of their sentences for no reason at all. As in, “It’s right cold outside isn’t it.” It’s not as a question, it’s a statement of fact.

7) Politeness

Everyone here is very very polite to each other, almost eerily polite (at least coming from New York!). There’s greater civility in daily life. But at the same time, people are much more blunt here than they are in the states. I like this combination of politeness and directness, it seems to me to be the ideal way to interact.

8) Customer Service

Customer service here is a constant gripe, and its high quality in the US is continually praised by Brits. After living here a month I can see why! It’s truly abysmal, at least from an American perspective. Most everything closes at 6pm, phone numbers for troubleshooting things are hard to find, and everything is done by appointment. All in all though it’s really not a big deal.

9) Voicemail

Europeans have some kind of distrust or dislike for voicemail which I cannot understand. Most people don’t even have it set up on their mobiles, and many people don’t have it set up on their work phones either, which really frustrates me at work. They all send texts rather than leave voicemails. In fact, people call me and if I don’t answer, rather than leave me a voicemail (which I do have set up) they hang up and then send a text message with whatever they wanted. Weird right? I think I’ve been left one voicemail the whole time I’ve been here, and that was from my grandma! I even got a text from my liason at the bank to tell me my account had been opened successfully. And at work, people answer my phone if it rings and I’m not here, and then leave me a note. Why?? I can’t understand it. It’s so much easier for me to get the voicemail because then they can leave exactly what they wanted. A written message only has their name and number. And, having someone else take a message for me is needlessly involving someone else in the process who shouldn’t be bothered.

10) Commercials

This cracks me up. International companies will take American commercials and run them here, but they’ll dub them over with a British accent. If it’s something that requires a good deal of on-screen actors, they’ll actually remake the exact same commercials except recasting with British actors. So right now Mac is running British versions of the “I’m a Mac” ads they’ve been running in the states. Now the ones in the states, starring John Hodgman and Justin Long, are hysterical. The British ones have one key difference: they’re stoooopid! They’re so not funny. Maybe it’s just because they’re using the same dialogue from the US versions, but these two actors are just not as funny. Here, watch one and judge for yourself.

Ok I could probably go on all day with this but I’ll leave it there.