A Startling Impression of Europe

October 5th, 2012 · by Tom Stuart · News & Reflections

“What hath God wrought?”  Number 23:23

As most readers of my blog know, my wife and I recently returned from a month’s vacation in Europe visiting the countries of Turkey, Greece, Italy and France.  Most of our time was spent in the big cities of Istanbul, Rome and Paris but we had opportunity to travel to many smaller hamlets as well.  As an American from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul I was intrigued by a number of distinct differences, and in some cases even stark contrasts, between everyday life as we know it here in the heartland and life there.  But surprisingly, it was a few startling similarities that most garnered my attention and gave me pause.  If Samuel Morse were alive today he would be texting rather than telegraphing but his question would be essentially the same:  “what hath America wrought?”

For simplicities sake, here are my observations and impressions of life across the pond, listed in no particular order, except that I am saving the answer to the Morse question until the end.

1.  Rails – European rail systems are incredible.  Sleek, high tech subways, trams, funiculars and trains provide convenient, quick, inexpensive means of travel almost anywhere in the city or the country.  We know firsthand because we rode the rails more than seventy times, including a delightful all night sleeper train from Milan to Paris. The downside, frequently they are crowded, standing room only and great places for pickpockets to ply their trade.  I know firsthand, oh how painfully I know.

2.  Small – Because European cityscapes have medieval plot plans and buildings hundreds of years old, one immediately notices that in contrast to the New World, many things are small.  Small narrow streets and sidewalks, small vehicles, small shops, small apartments, sinks, showers and appliances, narrow stairways, small lifts (elevators) or none at all.  In Europe, where the ground floor doesn’t count, you learn quickly that carrying your luggage to the 4th floor is really the 5th floor – ugh.

3. Piazzas and Palaces– Every neighborhood and town has a picturesque piazza, plaza or park adjoining grand historic buildings, landmarks, churches, or mosques if you’re in Turkey.  Cobblestones, columns, sculptures and fountains abound.  Each city also touts at least one ancient ancestor of the modern shopping mall, a public market or Grand Bazaar consisting of a century’s old labyrinthian maze of covered narrow alleys and small shops often grouped by product.   And then there is the incomparable Versailles, where the shear scale and beauty of its palace and surrounding grounds takes ones breath away, and fittingly expresses the ego of its creator Louis the XIV.

4.  Doors – Susan and I fell in love with the unique, quaint, ornate, colorful doors of Europe.  What one immediately notices is that big or small, they are substantial, thick, solid wood or metal and the knob is often in the middle rather than the edge.  We encountered no flimsy, veneer coated, hollow core, punch-your-fist-through doors our entire trip.  The doors there actually are designed and constructed to keep unwanted elements out.  What a relief.  When you compare the quality of European residential construction to ours you quickly realize that a huffing, puffing big bad wolf is much more of a threat here than there.

5. Cigarette Smoke – Speaking of huffing and puffing, I swear the tobacco companies in Europe must be thriving.  As a pansy non-smoker accustomed to a sheltered smoke-free environment I don’t think I’ve inhaled as much second hand smoke since I was a kid living in a mobile home with two smoking parents. 

6. Sidewalk Café’s – One of the delights of Europe with its pedestrian friendly ambiance is that everywhere you go you find people strolling the streets and sharing life together at small tables outside storefront cafes.  It made us wonder if anyone drinks or dines at home.  One quickly comes to appreciate that life somehow seems easier to put on pause at a sidewalk café.  Time stands still while the rest of the world goes by.  No wonder old men while the day away sipping coffee and playing board games, couples linger over lunch, the work crowd unwinds over late afternoon drinks and everyone dines around flickering candlelight in the evening (8 or 9 pm.)

7. Multilingual – In addition to one’s native tongue, we found many who spoke at least one or more other languages, most commonly English.   It made us realize how provincial we must seem, speaking but one language, as if conceited that the whole world need kowtow to us in order to communicate. In that regard, I think Europeans in general are more urbane and worldly wise than most Americans, myself included.

Which brings me to my final observation regarding our similarities and the question: “what hath America wrought?”

8. iPhones – One of the first things we noticed from the moment we landed in Istanbul, and throughout our journeys, was the ubiquitous iPhone.  Seemingly everyone young or old, on the street or on public transportation, is talking, texting or reading something on their iPhone or smartphone.  At first it caused a double take.  For an instant I thought the plane had done a u-turn and landed back in the US.  It convinced me in a New York minute that we are indeed a global society, connected by technology with very little, other than geography, really differentiating us anymore. 

No matter where we went we saw Turks, Greeks, Italians et al in Gap shirts and Nikes sipping Coke, or fondling a Starbucks, savoring a Big Mac, a Whopper or a Subway, and watching TV’s dubbing the likes of Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day” and Scharzenegger’s “I’ll be back” ad nauseam.  Beiber, Gaga, Timberlake, Rihanna, and Obama are all as recognizable in Monterosa, Italy as in Monterey, California.

US tech firms, multinational corporations and media moguls are fervent, unabashed evangelists out to supersize, standardize, shrink wrap and blister pack our world into their image. 

My question is where are the fervent, unabashed Christian evangelists?  What is God “wroughting”?  We ran into some precious saints passing out bibles at the Sorbonne in Paris.  It moved our pastor’s hearts to see God loving Christians getting the Word out.  But obviously it is going to take much more than that to turn an entire continent around where most churches are empty or have been replaced by mosques.  May God help the Church of Jesus Christ to rise up under the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit to seize the unparalleled day in which we are living.

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