Learning by Going

Richard Quinn

SINCE FIRST VENTURING outside the U.S. 14 years ago, I’ve come to realize the tremendous value that travel offers.

I began writing this article in Buenos Aires 18 months ago, shortly before a cruise around South America. We sailed on March 6, 2020—and it didn’t turn out so well. But I’m not deterred. As Mark Twain observed, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” I second that.

I once asked a wealthy man his favorite place in Europe. “Never been out of the country and have no interest in doing so” was the curt reply. I was shocked. Had he any idea how good he had it? He isn’t alone. Forty percent of Americans say they have never been outside the U.S. And, no, a week in Cabo or the islands doesn’t count.

Can Americans appreciate our standard of living until they experience life in other countries? We have lower taxes than most European countries, but we can’t save because our lifestyle often exceeds our means. I’m guessing most Americans think a VAT is a large tub. The U.S. median income is above all but one tiny European country, not to mention several times the world average.

We like to compare our health care system and medical spending with other countries, but fail to consider we’re the developed world’s most obese country. Try giving an American a sandwich with one slice of ham, as is typical in Europe.

Russia, the Ukraine and the old Eastern European countries highlight the differences. I spent three weeks in Russia traveling by river from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Along the way, we stopped in villages which seemed unchanged since the 19th century. We visited the home of a widow living on a pension of $150 a month, half of which went to rent. Her bed—a cot—was in what I’ll describe as a closet off the tiny kitchen. The median household income in Russia is $11,724, roughly a sixth of that in the U.S. And yet, in Moscow, Mercedes and BMWs are parked on the sidewalks.

In the Ukraine, I asked a young bartender what her dream income would be. She replied $1,000 a month. That isn’t even equal to our minimum wage.

Most Europeans make do with far less than what many Americans consider necessities. There are smaller homes, smaller cars and fewer possessions, and yet they’re just as happy, maybe more so. I was amazed at the parking garages in Amsterdam with a 20,000 capacity—for bikes that is.

There are an estimated 2,391 self-storage facilities in all of Europe, or about 75 million square feet of storage space. That compares with more than 52,000 U.S. facilities offering 236 million square feet. We are the United Stuff of America.

How about individual savings rates? Isn’t it curious that Europeans generally earn less, pay higher taxes and yet save more than Americans?

Outside the U.S., the view of life and government is different. In Spain, I visited a horse farm and learned it was once confiscated by the Franco government. Our guide showed us his government-issued health insurance card and explained how it was all he needed to get “free” care, but also noted that the government assigned doctors and a hospital. Still, he was happy.

In Israel, a Palestinian woman described how her family home was taken and given to others.

A woman in Buenos Aries explained what it was like living with uncontrolled inflation, a fear of banks and why she welcomed U.S. dollars, which she hid in her home. Meanwhile, Americans holler if their Social Security cost-of-living adjustment isn’t as large as expected.

In Morocco, I rode a camel. The owner wanted a bigger tip. I think it ended up at about 25 cents. He was happy.

Look at the ads for Caribbean resorts and they show paradise. Yeah, not so much. Travel beyond the gates of your resort and what you see is extreme poverty. Costa Rica is beautiful, but it depends on where you’re looking.

I’ve been chastised in Europe for tipping. Typically, tipping isn’t expected because wages are sufficient. I admit I don’t get the different prices charged by restaurants based on where you sit. In Italy, I ordered a cup of coffee and then sat at a table outside. Yikes, did that ever rile up the server. It costs extra to sit.

I cruised on the QE2 once and had several enjoyable hours chatting with Europeans as we discussed issues in our countries. Then we had dinner with several American couples and tolerated their bragging about stuff, planned next cruise and their generally materialistic attitude.

Many Americans are isolated from the world around them and thus have a limited perspective on living standards, taxes and government. Travel outside the U.S. provides a valuable education—and an antidote to our less endearing traits.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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