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Black Lamb


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The poor people of Paris

Compared to Americans, Europeans live like peasants.

November 1st, 2013


In the 1970s our family worked for rich people who kept summer homes near Three Lakes, Wisc. Yard work, housework, boat and pier work — we were the avant garde of today’s Mexicans. Not exactly; we were good friends with the boss, a bank president, and he invited us to many an elaborate cook-out with porterhouse steaks the size of Frisbees and glasses of port from the 1930s.

skullscatacombsparis*Jack, the banker, loved fishing and hunting in the British Isles, and during one of his many trips there he bought some springer spaniels. He imported not only these goofy, high-strung animals, he also brought back the gamekeeper and his wife. They would stay on for the summer to train the pups and help set up a pheasant run on one of Jack’s properties.

Alan, the Englishman, visited our house one day and was amazed at what he found. A Ford pickup, a Buick Park Avenue, boats on trailers, snowmobiles, and fine shotguns hanging on the living room walls. He was pole-axed by such wealth in the hands of people who did the same kind of work as he. “Good Lord, everyone is rich in this country,” he said, as if it were leprosy. And later I heard his wife mutter, “Our last big dream was to buy a sewing machine, and we saved the whole year to do it.”

That’s Europeans for you. In spite of the Magna Carta, they never had anything and never will. And they seem to be getting worse. A bicycle ride to the cafe, an espresso and cigarette, and a conversation on Twitter. Man, that’s living! And now it’s time to pedal back home to Mama and Papa, to the same crappy apartment and small room you grew up in.

There’s a sad post-war Italian movie, The Bicycle Thief, that gives us a good view of the European urban landscape, and not much has changed except for the introduction of hashish parlors to keep the masses in check. At least there were jobs available in 1946, rebuilding the cities. Today it’s Buddy-Can-You-Spare-a-Dime unemployment, with the “buddy” being a kraut, the only productive guy still at his workbench.

There are a few European success stories. Once, on a fishing trip to Panama, we met a wealthy Norwegian who had amassed a fortune taking artistic photographs. It turns out he travelled to tourist landmarks around the world, arranged for group pictures with friends and fellow tourists, set up the tripod, returned to the group, and pulled out his wanger right before the shutter went off. There may be others — car makers and heroin-addicted rock stars — but I don’t remember their names. It’s just that the average European is such a sad sack compared to the average American. The Vespa versus the Dodge Ram. The apartment versus the ranch house with pool and gas grill that costs more than a Renault. The family picnicking on the ground outside Paris versus the forty-foot Monaco motorhome with its 52-inch television and Jeep in tow, rolling into Jackson Hole.

Europe used to have special attractions that made you go there, in spite of the high prices and the snobbiness of the French and the Swiss. Not so much these days. We Americans have appropriated their classical music and their cuisine, and there’s less and less need to leave home. Hell, we’re even training dogs to hunt truffles.
In Spain you can get hams with the hair left on, and they serve a hundred-dollar steaming bowl of baby eels in some cafés, but is that enough to get you on that Virgin jet to Madrid? The hoards of beggars would suffocate you.

At one point I thought I should go visit the Danes, because they are always cited in surveys as “the happiest people in the world.” Is that really true? I have a feeling the Danes are simply too ignorant to see how crappy their lives really are. Ninety percent of them live and die on the bus or in the walk-up flat. They could never hope to fish in Panama, unless they stumbled upon a patron of the arts who liked photos of a wanger hanging out in front of the Copenhagen pissing boy fountain. Think about it — a wino lying under a bridge in Seattle with shit in his pants is as blissfully happy as a Dane, isn’t he? I’m not crazy about hanging with either one.

There is one area of that god-forsaken continent that attracts me: Russia. A helicopter ride to the wilderness and superb salmon and trout fishing. And imagine the joy of, for once, not being the biggest drunk in the room. While you have a bottle of wine and a few shots to cap it off, your Russian buddies are glugging whole fifths of vodka as if it were Perrier. You gotta feel smug in that crowd.

“You smug sonofabitch,” you say, “someday you’ll get yours.” You’re right. We Americans are riding the most dangerous economic bubble ever, one that is far more precarious than Tycho Brahe’s happy bladder the night he died. I’m prepared. The wife and I have two bicycles in the garage and a picnic basket with colorful yellow plastic cups and matching tableware, good for a hundred trips to a nearby park. Furthermore, I’ve been researching box wines to determine the best value. We will adapt. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Europe Issue, Roberts | Link to this Entry


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