I’m a Georgia girl, born and raised. I grew up on UGA football and yearly elementary school field trips to Grant Park Zoo, and for close to three decades, I never imagined living anywhere else. Traveling, sure, who doesn’t want to do that? But actually living somewhere else? No way, man. Not my style, I’m a GRITS (Girl Raised in the South) and proud of it.
That all changed seven-some odd years ago when my husband and I made the decision that was best for our little family and moved back to his home country of the Netherlands. Wow, what an eye-opener it’s been.
Like many people I knew, I had always assumed that “Europe” was homogenous to a point. Sure, there were all these different languages and everyone knows that the UK drives on the wrong side of the road, but it was also this scary place (to my young American mind), full of governments telling you what you could and couldn’t do. And here I was moving to a place where they sell marijuana in “coffee shops,” prostitution is legal, you have to wait months for medical treatment, and they kill all the old people (Not really, honestly). What on earth was I thinking?
I’ve grown a lot the past seven years and I’ve learned a lot more. I’ve gotten more liberal over the years and I see the logic behind and the success of many policies my country of residence has put into place. On the other hand, I still shake my head at some of the things that come out of mouths of politicians, just like when I lived in Georgia.
However, the most important thing that I’ve learned — and this is one thing that will get me to write a column in The Times quicker than anything — is that Europe is not homogenous. Not even close. The best you can say on that matter is most of those countries are on the same continent and some of them use the same currency. When journalists and columnists talk about “how they do things in Europe,” I always wonder, are they talking about the EU? The EEC? The Eurozone? Continental Europe? Roman Europe?
As a Southerner, I had always viewed the Northern states as almost a different country, with strange foods, funny accents and different cultures. Here, two hours drive is a different country, with different laws, different languages, and vastly different cultures.
France, for example, has drug laws similar to the U.S., a single-payer health care system with an option for private insurance. Everyone goes on vacation in August and, in Paris, has a total disregard for the pretty white lines painted on the roads. And when you first start driving, you have to have this big red “A” plastered on your car.
That’s about all I know regarding France, except that France, along with Germany, is a republic. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Vatican City, Liechtenstein and Andorra are all monarchies of some kind, yet even those can differ from country to country. I’m pretty sure there are more republics out there, but we’d waste the rest of this space listing them.
Traffic laws vary between countries, as well. Thank goodness they put up these nice pictogram signs at the border telling you the speed on the highways and in the cities. The opening times of shops are also different, although, it’s a safe bet that most everything except Ikea is closed on Sunday. Unless you’re in France, where the baker and the grocers are open, but only in the morning.
All in all, I can’t tell you much about day to day living in other European countries, because I don’t live there. I can tell you about the Netherlands, though. I do live, and work here. I can tell you about the government (if you have the time, it’s rather complicated), how our health care and education function, and about the work culture. I can tell you that I pay around 3,000 euros a year to insure my family of three for medical costs, with a 202-euro yearly deductible for the adults, no copays, and no payout maximum ever. I’ve never had to wait more than 24 hours for an appointment with my GP and my surgery to remove my gallbladder involved an overnight stay and cost me 3 euros out of pocket for really bad TV. I even got to keep the huge gall stone. We named him Fred.
I’ll be happy to explain how our schools work and how they focus on learning and critical thinking, how my son will get about ten years total instruction in foreign languages by the time he graduates. I’ll even translate the recent long term study done about children whose parents earned incomes under the poverty level. Turns out, 93 percent of the children grew up to earn incomes over the poverty level.
I’d love to tell you about our worker protections the Netherlands has in place. It really helps families find a good balance between work and home, and it’s good for the economy.
Yes, there are problems in Europe and things I don’t agree with, but that’s true everywhere. There are things in the Netherlands that still make me pause and ask, “But why?” Still true for every spot on this earth. I know there are certain things I now take for granted here that just wouldn’t work in the U.S., but I also know there are many things that would improve life for everyone, if the U.S. were willing to give them a try.
But for that to happen, the politicians and the columnists need to stop painting Europe as one big blob of oppression and handouts. Stop being afraid and start looking for solutions from individual countries. Those countries do have it right in some cases, and they should. They’ve been at this government thing for a while now.
Misty Walst-Kennedy is a Gainesville native now living in Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands (near Leiden). When she’s not working for an international publisher in Amsterdam, she prefers to spend time with her family, watching movies and knitting.