Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Some reflections on my recent trip to Europe


Attentive readers of Ethical Musings will have noticed an almost three-month gap in my postings from mid-April to early July. I appreciated a couple of concerned friends querying whether I was ill during that period. I was not ill and, to the best of my knowledge my cancer remains in remission. Most of that time, I was traveling in Europe, spending about a week and a half in England, four weeks in Venice, and four weeks in France (the rest of the time I was traveling in the U.S., visiting friends and family).

 In the late 1990s, I lived for two years in London. Since then, I’ve traveled frequently to Europe, most years following my 2005 retirement from the Navy spending one or two months there.

On this trip, my first trip to Europe in three years, I noticed some interesting changes.

First, almost all French and Italian sales clerks, restaurant wait staff, museum personnel, etc., began the conversation in English or immediately shifted to English if I started the conversation. Previously, both in Italy and France people appreciated tourists at least exchanging greetings in the local language, initially attempting to conduct business in the local language, and only then shifting to English to aid a floundering tourist.

Some restaurants insisted on providing me an English language menu in spite of my expressed preference for a menu in the local language. Restaurant menus often have misleading if not inaccurate translations; my restaurant Italian and French are sufficient for me to read most menus in the original language.

Perhaps a combination of two factors explain this shift. People may be adopting the faster pace of American life (see below). Concurrently, English is also rapidly becoming the global language, at least in Europe. For example, when an Italian or French person and the individual with whom they were trying to communicate lacked a common language, everyone immediately shifted to English. People from other countries with whom we spoke routinely described studying English as a part of their curriculum from the first years of school through high school.

I suspect that Americans’ lack of bi- or tri-lingual skills will become a handicap as globalization increases because not everyone in every country will truly be fluent in English.

Second, the pace of life among the French and Italians has seemed to quicken. Illustratively, McDonalds now sells more hamburgers in France than the French sell of their previously most popular sandwich, a baguette with ham and butter. Street food is more common. Locals now eat while striding purposefully rather than stopping for a long lunch. On a couple of occasions, wait staff or sales clerks actually apologized for keeping me waiting, something that I never before experienced in Europe.

Third, smartphones appeared to be omnipresent. Indeed, companies in the travel business (airlines, train companies, hotels, and others) now presume that their customers have a smartphone. Not having a smartphone, which I don’t, sometimes required utilizing awkward or time-consuming alternatives. And by extension, European companies are as diligent and intent on collecting all possible data about their consumers as are U.S. firms. Similarly, I was as bemused in Europe as I am at home in Honolulu by tourists focused on a smartphone instead of visually enjoying the place they have paid to visit.

Fourth, based upon my observation the number of beggars in both France and Italy has increased over the last three years. In Italy, most of the beggars looked as if they were Roma, i.e., gypsies. In France, a disproportionate number of the beggars were black. However, in neither France or Italy did the beggars appear to be as numerous as are the homeless in Honolulu. Furthermore, the beggars did not obviously include the mentally ill or substance abuses so evident among the homeless in Honolulu.

Italy and France are apparently more compassionate than is the U.S., offering more appropriate and adequate assistance to the mentally ill and substance abusers than we do. The increased number of beggars points toward ka fraying social safety net in Europe and, in France, toward a recognized need to improve racial integration and upwards mobility.

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