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An American in Paris

Rapt at Unwrapped Bread
Dennis Nyback

From The West Side Spirit (New York City) June 10, 2004

While standing in line last week in a grocery store in New York, I
noticed the man in front of me was buying a gallon of water. I asked
him how much it would cost. He said $3.79. I thought to myself,
there’s the signal difference between America and France. In France,
red wine costs less than Coca Cola. In America, gas costs less than
water.

Every year I travel in Europe for a month or so, taking my films on
tour. I don’t stay in hotels; I stay with the people who have booked my
programs. I have been doing this for nine years. When I hear George W.
Bush say we are fighting in Iraq for “our way of life”, I know exactly
what he means. We do live differently than they do.

In Europe escalators work on demand. They do not endlessly run while
no one is using them. They sit idle when not needed and start up when
you approach them. Apartment building stairs are not lit twenty four
hours a day. When you step into a dark stairway you will see a lighted
switch. You turn the switch and the lights go on for as long as it
normally takes to climb the stairs. They then go off, until they are
needed again. European apartment kitchens and bathrooms use small water
heaters that work on demand. In America, big water heaters keep
hundreds of gallons of waters hot and ready twenty four hours a day.
Many European apartments have a clothes washer. I have seen only one
with a clothes dryer.

In America everyone gets a bag with every purchase to be later thrown
away and take up space in a land fill. In Europe people provide their
own cloth bags when shopping at grocery stores. Unwrapped loaves of
bread peep out of cloth bags or are held nakedly in hands. At small
patisseries and frankfurter stands your food is handed you on a small
square of paper. Paris streets have very little trash, but the trash
you do see is from MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut. It is a
peculiarly American practice to put a hamburger in a Styrofoam
container and place that inside a paper bag.

Gasoline in Europe costs roughly twice as much as it does in America.
In cities people walk or take public transportation. Many smaller
cities in Europe, Munich and Nuremberg for example, have subways.
Trains criss cross the continent. They are comfortable and they run
on time. Danish trains cross bodies of water on specially designed
ferries. Train stations are in the center of the towns and are reached
by public transportation or on foot. On average people are slimmer
than Americans. Could it be walking and not eating fast food has
something to do with it?

I wish more Americans would travel in Europe. I’ll bet that George W.
Bush never went to Europe before he could fly on Air Force One. Maybe
if he had walked through Berlin when he was young, he would have a
deeper understanding of what can happen to a country which prioritizes
putting itself on “war footing”. But Bush is not a curious man.
Overall, Americans are not a curious people.
Only fifteen percent of all Americans have passports. That means only
fifteen percent of us are in a position to judge for ourselves the wide
variety of possible meanings for the phrase “our way of life”. In
France it is affordable wine. In America it is affordable gas. Both
require price supports. Both are national policy. But French soldiers
are not dying to guarantee that a Frenchman can buy a bottle of wine.
In Europe, many small things are done to conserve energy. I’ve seen
how they work. To Europeans, our decision to pursue our abundantly
fossil fueled lifestyle at all cost, without taking these same
conservation measures at home, must seem nothing short of insane.