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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.

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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 QuinnsCommentary.net. 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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Lynne
Lynne
2 months ago

I retired to Mexico several years ago, and my local friends find Americans pretty interesting. Many new expats, for instance, turn up asking about storage units to rent. Having excess stuff isn’t a thing here. Almost anything you don’t want any more can be left tidily in front of your house, and someone who can find a use for it will quickly take it away.

And although Mexico’s political system leaves much to be desired in other ways, every citizen is registered to vote. Your voter number is a key form of ID, used for bank accounts, etc. Elections are on Sundays, to make it easier to vote. And citizens are summoned, like jury duty in the U.S., to man nearby polling stations. Funnily enough (to an American), alcohol sales are banned the weekend of elections so people don’t vote drunk!

CJ
CJ
2 months ago

I generally agree wholeheartedly with your articles – they’re terrific. Particularly the ones re: financial discipline, self control and the sad lack of it.

But as a first gen American who has traveled abroad and whose parents, raised elsewhere, faced extreme horrors and hardships, this post was a big miss for me, with all due respect.

The tone felt elitist and condescending. And quite simplistic/naive in how you assess other cultures’ quality of life, as you compare them to the U.S.

This reminds me so much of the cliched American tourist who pokes around in different cultures for a week or two, then feeling ever so worldly and wise, now sees the need to school the yokels back home re: their duty to travel and educate themselves.

It IS great that some kids get to see the world. But many more who can’t can still learn empathy, kindness, gratitude, appreciation, etc without leaving their hometown if they have good parents. 

Bonus: it’s also far kinder to Planet Earth vs jet planes and cruise ships. Have you read about the surprising regeneration in nature, wildlife and air quality during 2020 – the year no one traveled?

And I have to close with my favorite american tourist – who sounds a bit like Mr. Quinn lol:

Ellen: This is so dangerous! We have no business being in an area like this!
Clark: This is a part of America we never get to see.
Ellen: That’s good!
Clark: No, that’s bad. We can’t close our eyes to the plight of the cities. Kids, are you noticing all this plight? This will just make us appreciate what we have.
(gun shot heard outside the car)
Clark: Roll ’em up!

I still love your articles, lol. Look forward to ’em.

Last edited 2 months ago by CJ
Philip Stein
Philip Stein
2 months ago
Reply to  CJ

The gist of Richard’s article is that many of us don’t appreciate the blessings we enjoy as Americans until we travel abroad. His article is not intended to denigrate other cultures.

If you want examples of people who are truly grateful to be Americans, look at pictures taken at ceremonies where immigrants receive their American citizenship. Look at the faces of these people, many of whom are clutching tiny American flags. It can bring tears to your eyes, and make you feel ashamed of your own lack of gratitude.

Chazooo
Chazooo
2 months ago

One of the most telling factoids in the article to me, is the number of storage units in the US. Why do we do that – it is not like we are creating manufacturing jobs for our own citizens. That was eye-opening for me as I had no idea. Having been to Europe and the Middle East and 2 countries in South America, I cringe every time I hear some obese American whining about how bad everything is when our “poor” are better off than 95% of the world’s population. Where would you walk 1500+ miles to in order to improve your life??

Brett Howser
Brett Howser
2 months ago

Dude, with all due respect – you were just a glorified tourist. Good on ya that you had some deep thoughts while on your luxury cruises, but if you really want to understand the world go live in it for awhile. Stand at the petrol pump in the UK. Wait in the A&E of a Spanish hospital. Walk the non – tourist streets of Paris. Actually have a job in a foreign land. Then, maybe, you’ll have an opinion worth hearing.

Chazooo
Chazooo
2 months ago
Reply to  Brett Howser

That’s an unfair comment…of course it helps to “live it” but even a two-week tourist visit (not so much a group tour) is an eye-opener for any American who is paying attention. Just like “Hollywood America” is not what most of us live day-to-day.

Brett Howser
Brett Howser
2 months ago
Reply to  Brett Howser

Because when Americans talk about freedom & equality, they have no clue. Live somewhere else and you’ll feel no less free or equal than here in the US of A. Probably more. We get so much propaganda all our lives that we can and will believe any silly thing we read or hear. Go somewhere else and believe what you see, not what you read on FaceBook.

Newsboy
Newsboy
2 months ago

Well played, sir…well played!

Sonja Haggert
Sonja Haggert
3 months ago

Great article! My parents emigrated to the United States when I was very young. Many trips overseas have reminded me of how lucky I am to live here. My mother’s family home was taken from the family during WWII.

Bob Wilmes
Bob Wilmes
3 months ago

I’ve found out (after having made trips abroad) that what really makes the trip even more enjoyable is doing just basic research about the interesting places to visit. My wife and I have been able to visit some special places like vineyards and art galleries by making reservations weeks or months in advance. The added value of the effort was worth our time and trouble.

I totally agree with Richard Quinn that the vast majority of Americans really don’t appreciate our own country. A guy was shopping near me last weekend in our local market complaining about the cost of bacon. I told him the cost of live cattle hit a record last week of about $2.90 a pound. Earlier this summer, cattle in Brazil hit about $4.50 per pound and the government banned meat exports for 30 days to cool inflation. Last week Australian cattle hit around $7.50 per pound, so our US prices are a bargain in comparison. We have no idea how lucky we are to be born and live in the USA.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
3 months ago
Reply to  Bob Wilmes

I completely agree with the first paragraph. I like to go beyond the typical travel guides and read something about the area we are visiting, like a novel, travel journal, history, or other non-fiction. For example, I read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” before our first trip to Paris. We ended up eating in a restaurant that he wrote about, and was still around in the 90s.

An
An
3 months ago
Reply to  Bob Wilmes

If you shared the global pricing of hogs/pigs he may of been more impressed.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
3 months ago

Great article, as usual . I may not have travelled as extensively as you but I have many relatives born in southern and western Europe as well as Africa that I talk to regularly . My good fortune is due to the fact that my grandparents on both sides emigrated to America and their’s did not . We’ve been sending financial assistance to some of them for generations now . Quite sadly , in Madagascar where one branch of my family lives, there is no covid vaccine. When it ever becomes available, each resident will need to buy it, unlike America where it is free. One of my French cousins will buy it for the Madagascar family .

An
An
3 months ago

Don’t fool yourself, the vaccine is not free in America. At best it was prepaid, at worst the government borrowed the money & will collect later.

R Quinn
R Quinn
2 months ago
Reply to  An

Nothing is free, that’s a given. Perhaps we should say, no direct out of pocket cost.

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Travel within the US also has great value. I have been to 48 states and it is amazing how different people are. I was standing on an overlook at the Badlands talking to my wife. And a woman said “You are from NJ, right?” Yes, how did you know? “I heard you speaking.” Do I really talk funny?

Charlie Warner Jr
Charlie Warner Jr
3 months ago

Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer. Anonymous 

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
3 months ago

Please don’t use facts…it disagrees with the feelings of victims from an unjust society…great article.

Guest
Guest
3 months ago

Thank you for the reminder Mr. Quinn. As usual you are right on the mark.
About 15 years ago we traveled around the world with our 2 kids for a year to 22 countries. The kids were ages 6 & 7 at the time and naturally we heard all the arguments from family and friends about how dangerous it would be and not worthwhile for such young children. We knew those arguments were of little value. Travel (that big trip and more after that) for the 4 of us has been so valuable. Nothing we could have done as parents did more in helping shape our children into becoming the grateful, patient, tolerant, caring, confident, unselfish adults they’re growing into. And they still love to travel with us so that closeness of our family is priceless. How fortunate are we who can travel and explore!

Last edited 3 months ago by Guest
Rick Connor
Rick Connor
3 months ago

Great article Richard. My wife and I love to travel and have had similar experiences. I’ve also been lucky enough to do some business travel in Europe for a number of years. One of the best things you can do is instill a love of travel and learning in your children. We’ve done it with our sons, and they’ve already exceeded the number of places they’ve been. I think the biggest benefit of travel is ridding one of the fear of the unknown or the fear of “the other”. Learning to navigate a different culture, language, transportation, currency, … builds confidence and knowledge that will serve you well in life.

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