Bryan Caplan  

The Best Things European

The Under-Principled Life... Richard Florida on Location in...

Tonight I'm headed to Europe for the first time since 2001. Unlike Tyler Cowen, I can't provide lists of the five best long-haired archaeologists from Monaco. So you'll have to settle for my list of the Best Things European. Here goes:

1. Population. Europe has a lot more people than the U.S., with all the predictable Simonian benefits: Far more variety in architecture, lifestyle, culture, and so on, plus great roads, and short travel times.

2. History. European civilization is thousands of years old, and it shows. It's got castles. Lots of castles!

3. Rural beauty. Much of the rural U.S. is poor and ugly. Rural Europe combines natural beauty with culture and affluence.

4. Better groceries. European groceries taste better than American groceries. Grapes are bigger and sweeter. The cookies are really yummy. The bread is fantastic. Especially here. The excellence of European groceries, combined with maddeningly slow restaurant service, lead me to have at least one picnic meal per day.

5. Open borders. Within the EU (plus Switzerland), you can cross national borders at 100 miles per hour. Crossing from Switzerland to France is as easy as driving from Virginia to Maryland. Seriously.

and last:

6. The Alps. Awesome.

You probably won't hear from me for two weeks, but if you see me there, I'd love to meet you.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Luke G. writes:

My list would include perfect espressos and mostly especially the staggering amounts of ancient history around every corner.

LemmusLemmus writes:

If you happen to hold a public talk in Hamburg, please let me know.

dearieme writes:

Be sure to try the Eurostar if you haven't already.

Most of what you says excludes the enormous chunk of Europe in the east. Go visit rural Slovakia, Poland, eastern Germany, etc. You can say all those nice things about the U.S. if you exclude alot of it.

Steve Y. writes:

A thoughtful list, but (Western) Europe wouldn't be as attractive without homogeneity within borders. Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain, etc. each have their distinctive culture, language, and history, and as you point out it only takes a few hours to travel from one country to another. Let's hope the European Union doesn't evolve much further.

Sumeet Kulkarni writes:

I am probably too late but may I recommend this place on the German side of Alsace? Fabulous food and excellent hospitality (not saying this just because the owner is my uncle-in-law) at non-French prices. All the French from across the border go there.

Snark writes:

Bryan speaks fondly of castles, rural beauty, and the Swiss Alps, but we all know that Oxford, Cambridge, and LSE top his list of priorities.

michael gordon writes:

"Much of the rural U.S. is poor and ugly. Rural Europe combines natural beauty with culture and affluence."

Huh? I guess where I live on the California coast is poor and ugly; or maybe the Sierra Madre mountains inland; or the great national and state parks in California, or maybe the wine-growing areas above Santa Barbara and all up and down the western and mountain areas of the states; or the great forest areas in the mountains and the north. Or maybe Oregon? Or Washington? Or the Utah, Nevada, and Arizona deserts and mountains and Indian villages. Or possibly New Mexico and its mountains and villages. Or the Rockies further north. Or Montana? Or possibly the Appalachian mountains or the . . . well, you get the idea.

Maybe you mean, "some", not much. No castles though. No aristocracy either. No medieval history. No autocracy, except when it was overthrown in the late 18th century.


As for food, I would have agreed that in the late 1950s --- when I first went in my junior year abroad -- food was generally, not least in France than here. Nowadays, you're lucky to find a decent restaurant anywhere in France that won't charge $100 minimum for an edible meal. Family bistros have disappeared since the late 1960s. The French, with far more affluence and more choice in spending their money, don't put out 70% of their disposable income for food as they once did. Most chefs are foreign --- no, not Italian or Spanish, but Arab. The other backbone of French cuisine --- the wife-mother who spent hours shopping and cooking each day --- has also disappeared. As many French wives work as American wives do, and their cities are so choked with traffic that hardly any go home to eat, let alone find mom there to prepare a two-hour repast.


In short, you can prefer what you like. I think some things are done better in Europe myself --- above all, trains and train travel (suitable for small crowded countries). For the rest, it sounds pretty naive to me though; and corny.

-- Michael (Gordon), aka, the buggy professor:

PS Be careful when you go to a cafe. You're liable to pay $10 for a cup of coffee. As for wine, you will find as in the US that most Europeans now prefer New World wines --- Californian, Oregonian, Chilean, Australian, and so on. Far less expensive, far tastier for the price. Oh, by the way, back in the mid-1970s, a famous British wine-expert has a dozen French experts taste, blindfolded, 10 Californian wines and 10 French. The outcome? All 10 first place ones were Californian.

He repeated the exercise about three years ago, with the same wines . . . only aged three decades. The results were the same.

Is food better in Italy or wine? It was better than in France until the early 1980s. It is now about as expensive and medicore as in France itself . . . unless you want to spend $300-400 for a dinner for two.

Otherwise, enjoy!

Aaron writes:

I was just in Europe and I didn't find the groceries to be any better than what I can get in the US. I think its the novelty factor which is seducing you. Don't feel bad. It gets me, too. I love shopping at supermarkets when I am in a new country (beer section always a must) and Costco re-creates this to some degree as well.

Aaron writes:

Oh, and train travel varies by country. I always sigh in relief when I finally get on DB in Germany, because its great. The trains in Holland, eh, not so much.

Independent George writes:

The last time I was in central Europe, I composed this list of my 5 favorite things:

1. Women
2. Women
3. Women
4. Women
5. Women

michael gordon writes:

Bryan: One more caution as you start your European vacations, on the continent of culture, refinement, good groceries, and a beautiful countryside.

In case you're Jewish, say Orthodox and wear a yarmulke, be very careful. You are invariably bound to be insulted and abuse in virtually every European city these days, whether by Islamists, Arabs or Iranians in general (probably lots of Turks in Germany), neo-Nazis, skinheads, National Front guys and their equivalents everywhere, and by people soured by bad sex.

In some cities, you will even be jostled or assaulted. It has happened to four of my Jewish friends and colleagues in the last three years --- only one of whom actually wore a yarmulke. The other three went to the aid of Jews wearing yarmulkes on trains or in European streets.


Any hard evidence here? Yes, alas.

The Anti-Defamation League --- whose annual surveys of anti-Semitism have been structured and advised for decades by academic social scientists --- carried out surveys in the EU earlier in this decade, with the assistance of academics there. Anti-Semitism, a European sickness --- only ducking into the shadows between 1945 and the early and mid-1990s --- is rampant just about everywhere . . . only far worse in France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Austria than elsewhere in West Europe, although (amazingly!) it is now rife and vicious in Holland, traditionally the most pro-Jewish country in Europe. Last all, opinion surveys showed that over 50% of the Dutch would never vote for a prime-ministerial candidate who was Jewish!

As for East Europe, be doubly careful. Those countries don't need Jews to be experiencing a powerful revival of anti-Semitism. About the only exception is Poland, where a pro-Semitic movement among the young has sprung up.


And be sure to avoid any discussions even with academics about Israel. Everyone knows it is the new Nazi-state incarnate, in fact the greatest threat to world peace (several surveys have shown this to be European opinion for years now) and actually practicing genocide against the Palestinians. Strange genocide, no? The Palestinian population surging in numbers since the Israeli (partial) occupation of the West Bank and of Gaza until recently.

Otherwise, enjoy!

-- Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor:

Ethnic Austrian writes:

Neo-Nazis mostly dwell in boring rural areas with little exposure to tourists or immigrants.

I believe that Europe is becoming increasingly pro-Israel, since we have experinced our own share of problems with some middle easteners.

In any case, don't talk about politics, especially not to academics with mediocre english skills. It is only going to ruin your vacation.

Switzerland is not a Schengen country, so no open border. Ireland and GB aren't either. Norway however is, despite not being an EU member.
And the Swiss are well armed, so I would better stop at the border. ;-)
They also strictly enforce their speed limits. So no 100 mph.

Max writes:

Where exactly are you going? France? Britain? Germany? Italy? Spain?
If you come anywhere near Karlsruhe or Lyon, let me now, perhaps I can come by =)

michael gordon writes:

Ethnic Austrian:

Thank you for your clarifying remarks. Alas, they aren't backed by survey data or up-to-date reportage.

1)Israel: Alas, not the case that it isn't regarded as a big threat to world peace and --- get this! --- to the EU's. Here is a summary of the 2007 Pew surveys:

"At the same time, the Pew survey also concluded that in countries such as Germany, Spain, France and the UK, the percentage of people who regarded Iran as a grave danger was three times greater than in a similar poll three years before. A BBC poll of Western European attitudes conducted in March 2007 found Iran's nuclear program to be a greater threat (although by a small margin) than Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and North Korea's nuclear development.

"While the polling data indicate an increasing awareness of the Iranian threat, the surveys also show that Europeans appear to perceive Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories almost as menacing to world peace as are two emerging nuclear powers. These European public opinion trends (which are obviously affected by particular events and when specific crises erupt) raise the question about the degree to which Europeans would be willing to act upon such a threat, through military action, economic measures, sanctions or other steps"

2) Neo-Nazis (as opposed to what? skinheads?) are in remote rural areas.

Alas, not according to this May 7th, 2008, NY Times article on Budapest, Hungary, where over 1000 extremists (neo-nazis and their ilk-followers) demonstrated before a ticket-agency run by a Jew, whose place was ransacked, because he refused to sell tickets to neo-nazis who wanted to attend a large rock-concert given by a Jew-hating rock group. Click here:,%20anti-semitism,%20&st=nyt&scp=1

These anti-Semitic right-wing rock bands flourish all over Central Europe and parts of West Europe.

You can enter cafes in, say, Marseilles and find posters and people wearing tee-shirts that read: "Avez-vous faim? Mettre un juif dans le four" Hungry? Stick a Jew in the oven.

If anti-Semitism isn't more viciously visible in the EU, it's because it is contrary to the law on the Continent (as opposed to Britain, with its common law traditions). And the centrist mainstream parties will condemn it, as was the case, fortunately, in Budapest where the Prime Minister and the police protected the Jewish ticket-agent.

Possibly, in Austria, the neo-Nazis are out in rural areas. Can't say. Their vicious followers --- Skinheads, followers of the extremist Jew-baiting Haider (and his very popular political party), xenophobic National Front types in France and Belgium, thinly disguised Nazis in Germany (the party is outlawed), and on and on --- are on the upsurge, feeding on the rife anti-Semitism that exists even in the media (however disguised).

3) Oh, Bryan: One other point.

Even if you're not an Orthodox Jew wearing a Yarmulke, you need to be very careful in walking the streets at night of any European city. UN statistics on crime-victims --- surveys carried out every four years after 1989 (the new one hasn't yet appeared) -- show you are 5 times more likely to be mugged in London these days than in New York city. In Rotterdam, it is worse. In most big German cities, it is almost as bad --- depending on where you are. In Bordeaux --- where I taught for two years at the university there in the mid-70's --- you will not be able to walk along the edges of downtown (or in parts of it) without being assaulted and possibly killed (happened not long ago).

In those crime-victim surveys, the US ranked toward the bottom quarter of industrial countries in violent crime. Australia led the pack, followed by Britain. Germany and France and Sweden --- oh, be very careful there too! -- were much higher than the US.

Similarly, Americans were found to have the most confidence in their police, and the least concerned of the 23 industrial countries about going out into public spaces, day-time or night-time.

Otherwise, as I say, enjoy! And be sure to go to the theater in France or Germany: even though the plays are in German or French, they are almost all English or American. Britain, alone, fortunately, the only big European country to sustain vigorous creative literary, artistic, musical, and theatrical (as well as film) creativity since WWII.

-- Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor:

Ethnic Austrian writes:
Alas, they aren't backed by survey data or up-to-date reportage.
Well your survey data and inferences draw a grotesque picture of Europe that just isn't consistent with everyday experience and knowledge of an informed European.

The Austrian Interior Ministry recorded exactly eight antisemitic criminal offenses during each of the years 2005 and 2006: Verfassungsschutzbericht 2007. This report wasn't disputed and was in fact referenced by the main austrian anti-racism organisation ZARA, which in turn is supported by the FGA ("Forum gegen(against) Antisemitismus")

There is a visible jewish community in Vienna, including ultra-orthodox and hashemite jews in the 2. and the neighouring 20. district, which is also the home to many muslims. Now the most explicit and "traditional" antisemitism is largely a muslim phenomenon nowadays, yet this doesn't translate into daily attacks either. (There was one last year in Berlin. These incidents make the national news)

The likelyhood of Bryan being attacked in western european, cosmopolitan cities or tourist destinations during a couple of weeks of vacation for wearing a yamulke is extremely low. Possibly lower than an american girl being raped because of a skimpy outfit.

There are also surveys that show that many Europeans hate Islam and suspect Muslims of being terrorists. This doesn't translate into progroms either.

The most popular ex-chancellor in Austria was and is still Bruno Kreisky who was a Jew. He held office for 13 years and got absolute majorities. And he is held in high regard by the "jew-baiting" Jörg Haider and Heinz Christian-Strache, leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (Haider formed a new party called BZÖ)
Does that mean that antisemitism doesn't exist in Austria and that Austrians are pro-jewish?
No, certainly not. Single data points like that just dont't tell you much about the overall situation.

I haven't seen a single skinhead in the streets of Vienna for more than five years. They only come in for singular marches or rallies. The reason for outright neonazism and skinheadism being a rural phenomenon is that these young men didn't have first hand experience of growing up with foreigners. Eastern Europe might in fact be different, since these countries have not experienced significant immigration of visible minorities yet. This includes Eastern Germany.

Violent crime differs from country to country and region to region, much like North Dakota is probably a safer place than South Central LA. (I assume)
Muggings are mostly cell phone muggings. The victims are almost always kids, as are the perpetrators.

Travellers should not leave their common sense at home. But don't let paranoia ruin your vacation.

Kv writes:

Switzerland has joined Schengen, but is waiting with it's implementation till after the European Soccer Championships. That said, I have never had to stop at the Swiss border. You just slow down, and if they like your face you get waved through. Even better if you come by train, where a border guard will just walk through and check some persons at random. I've never had to show my passport.

I you really want to cross a border at high speed, try the Brussel - Paris HST, which crosses the French - Belgian border at 300kph. Probably the fastest surface border crossing anywhere in the world.

Things are different however at the EU's external borders. I was recently in a train that got held up a full hour at the Croat - Slovenian border...

JanissaryAustin writes:

Next time I hope you can visit one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, Bosphorus University in Istanbul!

Alex Martelli writes:

As a European (Italian, with substantial experience in many other countries) who immigrated into the US (California, with substantial experience in many other states) a few years ago, I find the "top 5" list and the comments quite peculiar -- I also travel to Europe (mostly Italy) regularly, indeed I just landed back from a visit to Italy, so I don't think I'm "out of touch" with my birth-continent...

I can easily buy better groceries here in Silicon Valley -- at local farmers' markets, and at a large local grocery store founded by Italian immigrants and now run by their third-generation descentants -- than I can most of the time in Italy; for example, I get unfiltered olive oil here that tastes just like the oil that my uncle in Tuscany used to make -- it's now illegal to sell that kind of oil in the EU (it's greenish, opaque, far beyond the legislated limits in acid content, and incredibly tasty and yummy...!!!). [[[Nowhere except Bologna and Ferrara can I get bread that really makes my heart jump - but, that applies to all of the rest of Italy, and even more so Europe, so, I wouldn't count it!-)]]]

As for rural beauty -- totally-flat, undifferentiated plains' countryside doesn't tend to be particularly beautiful anywhere, including my native Pianura Padana as well as most of the US heartlands... verdant hills (such as those which make Tuscany and Umbria so heart-breakingly beautiful) and even arid ones (such as much of the Appennines, and many Californian hills) are just prettier, and it's a matter of geological luck which kind of terrain you end up with!-).

The Alps are indeed awesome, but the Rockies, the Smokies, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascade Ranges, are hardly less so -- yeah, the peaks aren't quite as high as the Alps', but that's a geometer's quibble... the subjective experience is on the same order of magnitude.

I'll happily concede your points on people and history (though open borders are roughly a draw between Europe and the US today), and second the commenters who pointed out Europe's awesome trains (the high-speed ones, at least) and (alas) the fact that racism, and anti-semitism in particular, IS still quite widespread in Europe (parties with such roots, partly hidden but not all that much, keep winning elections in many countries -- one did in Italy quite recently -- and even where they don't actually win, such as in France, they get much closer to power than would be conceivable in the US -- just 6 years ago, Mr. Le Pen did get into the presidential run-off, after all).

Josh Hansen writes:

The "Best Thing European" ever experienced by me was without a doubt the Spanish siesta. The institutionally-supported chance to rest body and brain each afternoon is heavenly. And that sort of regular nap has been shown to be good for heart health. Oh that we could adopt such a practice here in stressed-out, sleep-deprived America!

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