The last thing my wife and I did before we went to the airport on September 20, 2012, was go to city hall and vote. It was our last day in the US and the first day for early voting, and we felt very fortunate to be able to vote. We have since lived in the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic (and voted by mail every election since). Travel broadens your mind and changes you. Living abroad really changes your perspective—for us, the changes have been for the better.
This isn’t an anti-American screed or political diatribe. I will never not be American, but as events unfold, I am more and more detached from the land of my birth. Time and distance contribute, but there’s more to it. Maybe from my new perspective I’m seeing more clearly how the US is—a bit lacking. Hear me out.
Of course, between the pandemic and the political turmoil, the US landscape feels changed. The thing I’ve learned through living abroad is perspective, which helps me to see what is better or worse. Here are some observations about things that Europe and the US do differently. I could write about many topics, but these six stand out for me, at least today. I’m not going to trash anyone—just relating the facts as I have learned them.
I moved from my home in the US to the United Kingdom because I was very fortunate to be offered a PhD position at a great university. And even more fortunate to have a spouse willing to relocate from the only city she’d ever lived in to a foreign country. I had taught philosophy in higher education for years on my Masters degree and we had saved enough money for me finally to go for a PhD. So we sold everything but clothing and computers and moved overseas.
The moment we stepped on British soil we got free healthcare. That’s because we were there legally, mind you, but yes, if you are permitted to be in the UK, you are entitled to healthcare. The UK was the first nation to offer universal coverage to its citizens beginning in 1948. There was a reason the Brits put the National Health Service at the center of their Olympic opening ceremony in 2012. They have every reason to be proud, and they are. The NHS is brilliant.
Everything the US right-wingers say about “socialized medicine” is proven wrong by the reality of the NHS. My wife and I used the NHS multiple times each. We never failed to get an appointment within 24 hours and we were served efficiently and with quality care. Granted, we lived in a small university town and this performance is probably not duplicated in poorer urban areas (such would be the same in the US), but the fact remains that the NHS is a superior healthcare system. Sadly, under three Conservative governments, the NHS has declined in quality and service, though it still exceeds the quality of the U.S and at a fraction of the cost.
PhD completed, we moved two years ago to Prague, Czech Republic. We moved to a smaller but still quality healthcare system. By any measure, the US pays much more but gets much less back on healthcare. That is because a state-administered system is centered on delivery of care to citizens, not delivery of profits to corporations, like the US profit-based system. Even factoring in the taxes that you pay into the system, people in the UK and CR pay less for healthcare than people do in the US. Here in the CR, we pay $105 per person per month in healthcare premiums. Pay less and get more from a system that serves people not corporations. Who wouldn’t want that?
There are structural inequalities in the UK and CR, but in both societies there is a prevailing sense in the country, and through most of government, that society should be fair and open to all. The US has dim memories of such a concept, but this value has been in decline since the 1980s. The idea of The Commons originated in Britain at least 700 years ago. The idea that has run through the heart of British society since Magna Carta is that society should serve the people beyond the Elites and that the people have a right to some of the nation’s resources. I’ve already mentioned the NHS, and it is just one example of how society is structured more to help than hinder people.
I think a big difference in communal attitude between the US and the two European countries I’ve lived in resulted from the very different experiences the cultures had in WWII and its aftermath. Americans sacrificed a lot in that war, but nowhere near as much as the Brits and Czechs did. The Czech lands were occupied territory. The war was in Britain’s home towns, not continents away, and the UK had more casualties than the US despite having about one-third the population. Even after the war, the Czech and British people suffered for years more, their infrastructure and economy devastated by war. The Czechs then were occupied by the Soviets and had to scratch and claw for freedom and security including one failed (1968) and one successful (1989) revolution. The UK rationed gasoline until 1950 and food until 1954. Decades of hardship and the need to pull together as a society have had lasting effects in these countries.
Neither the Czech Republic nor Britain have ever been true collectives, or ever even socialist, despite Soviet propaganda, but I noticed some significant differences shortly after I arrived first in England and then in Prague. Emblematic was how many women were wheeling babies around. Every day I would invariably see one or more, not something I ever saw much of in the US. I had wondered about some kind of baby boom until I learned that in European countries, new parents are granted paid maternity leave. Czech mothers get 28 weeks of maternal leave, the first 2 weeks paid, and fathers also receive a week paid paternal leave. Brits get an even better deal: Mothers get 52 weeks of maternity leave, the first 6 weeks receiving 90% of their salary and the remaining weeks with a small stipend; fathers get 2 weeks of paternity leave, with a small stipend.
So in Europe, a mother doesn’t have to return to work immediately and shove the newborn into daycare—they can spend a few months caring for and bonding with their newborns. US Republicans talk family values, but they oppose parental leave. Giving families a chance to bond with and care for their new children without losing their jobs and the pay they need to live is a real family value. The US is the only developed country in the world without paid family leave.
3. Public Transportation
That European society is more communal than US society is also found in their differing approaches to transportation. In the US, it is difficult to live without an automobile. Larger cities might have bus service, and really large cities have subways, but the US public transportation system is scant and often abysmal compared to anything in Europe. The London transport system is a marvel, especially its celebrated Underground. Every 5 to 10 minutes from 6 am to midnight or later, you can catch a train from where you are to just about anywhere else in not just the inner parts of the city but also a large area beyond it. In efficiency, ease, and cost, it beats any US city’s system. But public transportation is not limited to the big cities in the UK. I lived in a small university town. We had bus service not just to the center of town, but to neighboring towns as well. There was almost no city on the whole island I could not reach by bus if I so chose, and that includes many villages down to a couple hundred people. I didn’t own a car there and had no need for one.
I love the British rail system which connects nearly every city of any size. Britain invented the locomotive, and train travel has been in their social fabric ever since. I lived and worked in a major US city, Chicago. But that city is not in the Eastern Corridor. That meant there was only one train a day for each intercity rail line. Well, two: one going west and one going east. I could have used Amtrak to go see my mom if I had wanted to board at 2 am. In my small town in the UK, I also had two intercity trains, one going in each direction, but those were two trains per hour, not two per day. Many people told me the rail service had declined noticeably since Conservatives privatized the lines. The corporate-run railways are less efficient and more costly. No surprise there. There is a push in the UK to return the rail service to its former state, though the rail corporations are required by law to invest sufficient money in the upkeep of their infrastructure; if they fail, their franchise is taken away. So this isn’t the corporations-run-amok situation the US has. Meanwhile, in the US, you can’t even get bridges repaired much less new rail lines built.
Transportation is equally great in the Czech Republic, including trains and buses to every major European city from France to Ukraine. Prague has a simple but efficient subway system. And they have an extensive tram system. I love trams. So graceful and efficient. Oh, and buses. Oh, and licensed firms that will rent you electric cars or scooters or bicycles by the hour—just download the app. Options are a plenty when society and government are focused on improving society for people.
During the 6 years I lived in Britain, they had three elections—two general and that Brexit referendum. During those three elections, I did not see a single television commercial for a politician. I did not hear a single radio commercial for a politician. That’s because there aren’t any. Unlike the US and its system of buying public office with a media blitz, you can’t do that in Britain. Each political party is given a finite number of broadcast minutes to express their ideas to the people, and that’s it. No attack ads. No commercials paid for by anonymous donors. It’s a beautiful thing.
And the whole election campaign in Britain is less than 2 months long. I was floored when US politicians were announcing for the November 2016 elections earlier than UK parties were announcing their party platforms for the May 2015 election! It all comes down to the difference between a nation that has Citizens United as the law of the land and a nation that has public financing and regulations as the law of the land. Plus, even though the UK had several incredibly contentious elections, there was never a shred of doubt about the accuracy of the results. The UK uses paper ballots. Complete, total electoral transparency and accountability. The Czechs recently had regional elections also with no media advertising, only direct mail and billboards.
5. Telecommunications and Media
Most Americans don’t realize how awful their telecommunications system is compared to what’s standard in much of the world. Here’s the difference between the Internet service I had in UK, have now in CR, and would have according to the Internet companies’ Web sites if I returned to the US today:
In Europe, the telecommunications corporations aren’t allowed to buy politicians or write regulations. Competition between corporations is enforced, and consumers benefit. Capitalism works only when there is a strong rule of law and when referees ensure that competitive, not anti-competitive, forces are at work. At my home in the UK, I had seven Internet, phone, and cable TV companies to choose from. Here in the CR I have six. In the US, I’d be lucky if I would get a choice between two.
The quality of the Internet service is much better here, too. In 8 years abroad, I’ve had only two Internet outages. Two. And both were caused by technician errors as they were installing Internet service nearby. I’d frequently get two Internet outages a month in the US.
I will say this briefly about television. I never paid for more than basic cable television in the US because it was ridiculously expensive for what one gets. In the UK, I could have paid for cable or satellite, but because there is media regulation in the UK, I got over 90 channels for free over the aerial. Everyone has to pay an annual TV license fee that funds the television networks; it’s about $180, or $15 a month. Compare that to a US monthly cable bill. In Prague, my building gets lousy aerial reception, so I do pay for a TV package over the Internet. Not a bad deal: 119 channels, with on demand and DVR, for 199 Kĉ, or about $8.65 a month.
Yes, food. It really is better here. Part of that is because, again, laws and regulations are written for consumers, not just for corporations, but the larger reasons are two-fold: size and distance. Did you know that nearly 50% of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts come from the state of California? Think of how far that food needs to travel to you and how that affects the food’s freshness. This is one reason why some Americans encourage locally sourced food, something on which the Europeans have long placed a strong emphasis. Factory farms do exist in Europe, but they aren’t the norm like they are in the US. Farmers markets and food cooperatives are much more common in Europe, and buying directly from the farmers, who are never too far away, is so much easier. And the food tastes great. I have significantly better-tasting meat and produce here in Europe. Good info on the need for family farms in the US can be found here.
In my English village, there was a locally owned deli and a cooperative grocery store. Here in Prague, I have a butcher downstairs, a cheese shop next door, a green grocer across the street, and a specialty organic food store a 4-minute walk away. This is how a city should be. Not the miserable food deserts and stultifying suburban big-box stores in the US.
In my English village there was a locally-owned deli and a cooperative grocers. Here in Prague I have a butcher downstairs, a cheese shop next door, a green grocer across the street, and a specialty organic food store a four-minute walk away. This is how a city should be. Not the food deserts and suburban big box stores in the US.
What Is Home?
I could go on, but I don’t want to be seen to be ragging on the US. It’s still home, but what home means has really changed for me. After 8 years living in two countries and many weeks of travel through 17 European countries, I’ve come to feel that home isn’t where you came from but where you feel most comfortable. I’ve steered clear of talking about politics, but looking at the news in the US, it makes me wonder if I’d feel comfortable there anymore. I wasn’t able to go back to the US this year because of the pandemic, but each time I’ve gone back, it was a strange feeling of familiar alienness. Familiar, but not home. Not anymore.
It’s difficult to form judgments without proper comparisons. Those who have lived in only one country lack perspective. They certainly have every right to love their home country, but how much do they really know? The more I travel and experience, the more perspective I’ve gained. I can step back and can now see, not that the US is a bad place, but that it is not as good as it could be.