Peter and I were just now talking about “slimming down” on ICQ – about getting rid of a lot of the various “stuff” we keep around the house, neglected and gathering dust on shelves and in cupboards or rotting in bulbous Rubbermaid crates stacked in the garage, and it reminded me of this rant that I wrote after returning from eastern Europe last summer. As I never posted it to the journal for peoples’ contemplation, I thought perhaps I would do so now.
Yvonne and I just returned from a 3.5 week vacation in the eastern part of Europe – the countries we ended up covering were Germany (though only because we arrived in Frankfurt – we immediately took an overnight train out of there), Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary – in that order, with Austria slipped in once again between Croatia and Slovakia.
While we were out there in the eastern part of Europe (Austria is excepted from this as it’s not truly a part of eastern Europe – simply somewhat eastish in location), we spent a lot of time living in peoples’ homes. This was partially due to the fact that Yvonne had some friends living in Hungary, with whom we spent some really good times, and also due to the fact that it seems that the best and most affordable places to stay while traveling throughout eastern Europe are the sobes – private rooms in peoples’ houses that are offered to travelers by the locals. In the countries that were once part of the Communist bloc, we were able to find some really nice places – apartments with kitchens and bathrooms – that cost us about $20 American per night.
Though we didn’t travel for long enough for me to fairly make any judgement calls about how people live out there, seeing people living in those former Communist countries gave me cause to look at the way we live our lives here in the United States. I’ve always realized that we live our lives quite “fat” here in the States, as I am sure have all of you. But I suppose that while traveling I realized that the reasons behind our living this way is that our culture truly demands it of us. It’s what makes the United States such a superpower, and it makes everyone quite wealthy with arms full of “cool stuff”, but in a way I think that it also makes us slaves to our own system.
For example, two friends of Yvonne’s live in a small town in Hungary called Koszeg, in a tiny flat above a row of stores. It’s very small by our standards – perhaps 600 square feet of space. But between the two of them they don’t need much room to live – and they’re going to have their place paid off in another three years. In the States, I find that a lot of people buy bigger and bigger houses full of space that they don’t particularly need. If you’re going to have children you’re going to need more space than 600 square feet of course – but 3200 square foot houses for two or three people is simply not necessary. The main problem is not that the houses are too big, but that in order to get these houses, people in the States subject themselves to 30 year mortgages – and due to the way interest rates work, during the first several years of the mortgages not very much of the monthly payment goes toward principal – most of it goes toward interest. Combine this with the fact that people seem to move every three years or so, and you see that not much money is earned even though these houses are touted as “good investments”. In Hungary, people really like to own things outright, due to the oppression they faced in their past – and I think that owning things instead of borrowing things is a good habit to get into.
Transportation is another matter entirely. In eastern Europe, SUVs are extremely rare (I did see a single Ford Explorer and a Chevy Blazer while I was there). Everyone drives small cars – a lot of this is due to the high prices of gas. But if everyone drives a small car, then there is no stigma to owning and driving a small car, and people are content. In the United States it seems that everyone needs to make sure that their Lincoln Colonizer is bigger than their neighbor’s Cadillac Soccer Bus. I’m not even talking about the effect this sort of thing has on the environment – that’s another discussion entirely. But we simply don’t need these huge and expensive vehicles and the intense montly payments and high gas bills that accompany them.
Another problem is credit card debt – it seems that in the States it is acceptable and very common to have very large credit card debt, a necessary negative side effect of the amassing of stuff. Many people think that it’s okay to have credit card debt, because practically everybody else does (though I don’t). But if you maintain a constant credit card balance and only pay the minimum required payment every month, you’re throwing away money. Everyone realizes this, and yet they still tend to do it.
When you put this all together you realize that people need to work – even mothers (or fathers) with very young children. Day care prices are expensive and not very flexible – due to day care contracts, people aren’t allowed to stop payments for day care even if they take their child out for a period of time. And the amount of time the child spends with its mother after it is born and before going to day care is often a scant three months, due to the government’s stipulating that mothers must be allowed to take this time off – usually without pay – so after this time, if the mother goes back to work, the child doesn’t get to fully bond with its mother, which is perhaps a reason that children in the States are having so many disciplinary problems in schools and on the streets. In Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, things are different. When a mother has a child in Hungary, they are allowed to stay home with their child and retain a percentage of their pay (70%) for three YEARS. If they time it properly and have two children, that is six years in a row paid that they can stay home with their children. True, perhaps they don’t make as much money as we do or are taxed more because of this sort of luxury, but truly, the ability to raise your child properly and not to HAVE to go back to work due to stacks of bills will help mothers (or fathers – either one can be the one who stays home during this time period) raise their children properly and to build an important and stable family dynamic.
Finally, it seems that in eastern Europe, peoples’ attitudes toward what is important in life are quite different. Perhaps the former Communist regime did something to inspire such attitude, but it seems that people in Europe don’t care as much about their things as they do about living a good life. Hardly anybody is overweight – people eat in moderation and prepare their own meals. People will go for long walks everyday just to enjoy being outside in the sunshine. Shopping is something that is done for what is needed and not a hobby like it becomes in the States.
Of course, there are exceptions to these points, and I’m not trying to lump everyone in the States together and everyone in eastern Europe together and to start making judgement calls about them. But it does seem that regardless of what is true about what I’ve said about these two groups of people, many of us here in the States enslave ourselves in our own lifestyle, paying huge bills every month and foresaking “family” for “stuff”, living in a manner imposed upon us by our culture. I too am guilty of this and am not being hypocritical by saying it. We deem it necessary simply because that’s how everyone else lives, and we need to keep up with everybody else. It helps the United States to have the strongest economy in the world by putting a necessity on its people to work harder and harder to pay their monthly dues at the expense of their families.
I think that sometimes, simpler is better. Perhaps if our competitive culture slowed down a bit and started focussing on each other rather than on what each other possessed, it would be a positive step.