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Things I Hate About Europe

British OK with Government surveillance drones, not Google Street View

PredatorThis probably should have been posted under the “Smug superiority link-roundup” I posed a few hours back, but I just saw it now so it gets its own post.

BIG BROTHER TAKES TO THE AIR: The British are already the most watched people in the world, but it seems that CCTV cams in every doorway, subway and intersection are not enough to keep the UK safe. New plans released by the government call for a fleet of predator-style drones that will conduct surveillance from the air. Big Brother’s new air force is all fine and dandy by the British, just as long as that damn Google Street View car doesn’t come down the street.

European-style service fee lands two students in jail

The Tip

Does “Gratuity included” = Mandatory Service Fee?

America is the land of decent service and discretionary tips. Unless, that is, you’re eating with a group of 6 or more. In that case, you’re increasingly likely to find restaurants including a sizeable tip on the bill, regardless of the service provided.

And as two college students from Pennsylvania found out last week when they were arrested for refusing pay a tip when they received horrible service, “gratuity included for groups of 6 or more” actually means “mandatory European-style service fee.”

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

They were with a half-dozen friends at the Lehigh Pub in Bethlehem last month, so the establishment tacked what it called a mandatory 18 percent gratuity onto the bill of about $73, according to reports.

Pope and Wagner refused to pay.

“You can’t give us terrible, terrible service and expect a tip,” said Pope, a 22-year-old Moravian College senior who’s a Pottsville native, according to the Lehigh Valley Express-Times.

They had to find their own napkins and cutlery while their waitress caught a smoke, had to ask the bar for soda refills, and had to wait over an hour for salad and wings, they told NBC10.

Following the incident, hundreds of readers Yelp!-bombed the restaurant, posting hundreds of negative reviews of the Irish Pub online. If you think the restaurant was out of line, you can post a review here.

Why Europe Sucks €. 7: Horrible mattresses

Hostel Life

The beds are no more comfortable than they look.

For the last month I’ve been sleeping on one of those foam IKEA mattresses. You know, the spring-free pads that look so alluring when placed on the sleek, low-profile bed frames in the showroom.   I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: after about five minutes, IKEA mattresses suck. Their hard, unyielding foam and lumpy texture thwart even the most exhausted, medication-aided attempt at sleep. I think it is because they are made from the same recycled material as IKEA’s $20 coffee tables.

But of course, crappy mattresses are not an IKEA phenomenon—they are a European institution.

Don’t believe me? Try traveling around Europe for a few weeks. You’ll spend sleepless nights sprawled across several different types of mattresses. The one thing they will all have in common is that none of them are remotely comfortable.

Here is a quick guide to the different types of mattresses found in Europe:

The IKEA-style mattress: When you see these mattresses in the store they look interesting. The coil-free design is reminiscent of those memory foam pillows they advertize on late-night TV.  But after you spend a night on one of these mattresses, you’ll immediately realize that the inspiration behind their design is not futuristic space foam but rather the hay-stuffed mats that peasants slept on.

The thin spring mattress: These mattresses really have nothing to recommend them. Their narrow and thin design does not even look comfortable for a second. What’s more, the padding on the top is so thin that you can see the outline of every metal coil. I’m not sure who manufactured these horrible mattresses (perhaps they were Soviet surplus), but whoever it was managed to get them into every budget hotel and hostel in Europe. Be careful not to move to fast at night else you get a nasty scrape from one of the barley-covered springs.

The deceptively normal mattress: If you check into a more middle-of-the-road hotel or a Bed and Breakfast you might find yourself welcomed by a deceptively normal looking bed. Normal, that is, until you lay down on it and find that the springs are so shot that you’re actually resting on the bed frame. These mattresses were normal once, but their owners haven’t bothered to replace them since the Second World War. Apparently Europeans think of mattresses as some kind of family heirloom, to be handed down from generation to generation.

Next time you’re traveling in Europe, splurge for the premium American-owned chain hotel. It is the best shot you’ll have at a decent night’s sleep. Otherwise just ask for a second or third blanket at check-in. You’ll need them for extra padding. Oh, and don’t forget to pack extra Aspirin to deal with the back pain.

(Hat tip: Robin R)


The Pay-Toilet Address

Automatic ToiletI wrote this as a memorial on the 18 month anniversary of the new pay toilet installed in Madison Square Park. It is one of two pay toilets that have been installed in New York by a Spanish company seeking to undermine the right to pee for free that was hard won by the Committee to End Pay Toilets In America over 30 years ago. Thankfully, plans to install 18 more pay toilets have stalled.

One score and fourteen years ago, great patriots brought forth in this Nation, a new right, conceived of necessity, and dedicated to the proposition that all men should be able to pee for free.

Now we are engaged in a great public struggle, testing whether that right, or any right so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. Here in New York, at Madison Square Park, is the latest battlefield of that struggle. It is fitting that when we look at the new pay toilet erected here, we remember those great patriots who fought so hard that we might pee for free.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we remember them in our hearts.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot give up—we cannot capitulate—we cannot leave unfinished their great struggle. The patriots of CEPTIA, living and dead, who fought here and across our Nation, have earned their place in the American cannon, far above our poor power to add or detract from their accomplishments.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we do here today, but it can never forget what CEPTIA accomplished.

It is for us of the 21st century, rather, to be dedicated again to the unfinished work which they who fought to end pay toilets years ago so nobly advanced. It is up to us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that despite the recent setbacks we have suffered, we take increased devotion to the cause for which the patriots in CEPTIA gave their full devotion—that we highly resolve that the struggle to banish pay toilets from America shall not go unfinished—that this Nation, under God, shall have a new constitutional amendment banning pay toilets in all their forms—and that the right of all the people, rich and poor, to pee for free, shall not perish from this earth.

(Hat tip, Gothamist)

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

€1. Pay toilets

#1. CEPTIA

5 Things about New York City that make America Great (and 4 that remind me of Europe)

IMG_0060

A street vendor hawking umbrellas near Union Square.

In some ways, New York is the most American of cities. Its energy, drive and optimism are emblematic of the American spirit. It is also the birthplace of many great American institutions that have yet to disseminate across much of the rest of the country, like taxi cabs that take credit cards. But with its high density, multitude of languages and pedestrian culture, New York is also the most European place in America.

Below is my list of the top 5 things that make New York (and America) great, and the top 4 things about New York that suck (and remind me of Europe).

–Things that make New York (and America) great:

1: 24-HOUR SUBWAY

The London Underground closes at 11 PM. The Paris Metro stops service at 1AM. And thanks to shoddy maintenance, Berlin’s S-Bahn doesn’t run much at all these days. But while European countries are content to shutdown their subways every evening, New York is the city that never sleeps. Thankfully, neither does its subway system. If you either work the graveyard shift or are just part of the bar-and-club crowd, the world’s only 24-hour subway means you’ll never have to pay price cab fares or wait hours for the morning’s first train.

2: ENTERPRIZING STREET VENDORS

Every major city has street vendors selling “Gucci” bags and shoddy watches, but New York has vendors that sell things you actually need. Take umbrellas for example; no matter where you are in Manhattan, the second a raindrop hits the ground vendors appear on every corner selling umbrellas for only $5. Then there are the fruit and vegetable carts located all over town. I’m not sure about the rest of the city, but the one at my corner is open 24/7, rain or shine. Some might call it crazy or suspicious, but I like to think of it as an example of the American entrepreneurial spirit. One thing is certain: you could never buy a tomato at 3:30 AM in France.

3: FREE DELIVERY, EVEN FROM MCDONALDS

You can get any food you can imagine in New York, often at any hour of the day. And because of the high density and cut-throat competition, restaurants have to deliver—for free. This is even true for McDonalds! I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, please—delivered.

4: TAXIS TAKE CREDIT CARDS

Chalk this one up to Mayor Bloomberg. As of 2007, taxi cabs in New York come equipped with interactive terminals featuring GPS, video programming and credit card machines. Now you never need to worry about having enough cash before hailing a cab: just swipe and ride. If only other cities were so civilized.

5: BARS OPEN UNTIL 4 AM (sometimes)

While not unique to New York strictly speaking, 4 AM bar closing times are nevertheless a great institution. Back in my home state of Michigan, the neo-prohibitionists in the state legislature force bars to shut their doors at 2 AM—which means last call comes at 1:30. In New York, 1:30 is nothing more than the half-way point in a good night out. Unfortunately, increasing neighborhood activism means that precious few new 4 AM liquor licenses are issued by the city. The new norm is trending towards earlier closing times. Damn neighborhood associations!

–Things about NYC that suck (and remind me of Europe):

1: CREDIT CARD MINIMUMS

You would think that a city built on banking and finance—where even taxi cabs and street merchants accept plastic—would be paradise for credit card users. But alas, this is not the case. At restaurants and bars across the city, European-style credit card minimums are the norm. I don’t understand why the New York banks that earn a percentage of every credit card transaction allow their rules to be flouted in their own back yard. This is the birthplace of American Express for crying out loud!

2: LACK OF TOILETS

A city that houses 8.3 million residents, 2 million daily commuters and tens of thousands of tourists produces—to put it bluntly—a lot of shit. Early on, the massive market of human needs was exploited by pay toilet operators, like they have in Europe. But this inhumane practice was banned in the 1970s, thanks to the efforts of the Committee To End Pay Toilets In America. Unfortunately, many merchants in New York today do not live up to the promise of free toilets. They build small restrooms and keep them poorly signed and dirty to discourage use.  The net result is that New York City suffers from a chronic restroom shortage. Often the only place to pee is Starbucks, and the lines for their bathrooms are killer.

3: RESTRICTIVE LIQUOR LAWS

New York City might be home to the Godless East Coast Elite, but that hasn’t stopped the city from embracing puritanical liquor laws straight out of the Bible Belt. Liquor cannot be sold in grocery stores, or any store that also sells beer. The few stores that do sell spirits cannot open before noon on Sundays, and often close by 8 or 9 PM in the evening!

4: HORIBLE SERVICE

There are two kinds of waiters in New York City, the ones who are bad because they are overly smug—typically found at your pricey 3-star restaurants, and the ones who are bad because they are perennially out-of-work actors—who are found everywhere else. The horrible European-style service found across New York City is a real stroke against New York’s otherwise unparalleled restaurant scene. Instead of being a gastronomical nirvana, it is more like the snooty restaurant scene in Paris, but with hotdog carts.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

€1. Pay toilets

The American Dream is alive and well

Why Europe Stinks €. 6 – Internet Cafes

Internet Cafe in Berlin Shopping CenterThey’re dirty.

They’re smelly.

And they are chalk-full of Euro-Trash.

And no—I’m not talking about youth hostels either.

I’m talking about a kind of place that manages to be far less pleasant. A place that combines gruff service, cramped conditions, poor ventilation, rancid smells, and dated technology—the internet café.

The typical European internet café is about as warm and inviting as a truck stop on the side of the interstate. Most often, the “café” is presided over by a disgruntled man in his mid-30s who passes the day by staring at his cell phone. When you approach him to purchase some service he will simply ignore you. If you do manage to get his attention, he will gruffly inform you that they can neither take credit cards nor make change.

If the cafe itself is not located in a basement or backroom, it might as well be since the windows are invariably so dirty as to block out any natural light. And as far as the computers are concerned, they are neither modern, nor easy to use. If you manage to log into one of the grime-covered terminals and encounter an error, the closest thing to tech support you’ll find is the smelly guy in the corner who looks as if he has been camped out at that particular computer since German Reunification.

But despite their unpleasantness—or perhaps because of it—Europe (and much of the rest of the world) is plastered with internet cafes.

Why? Because internet cafes fit nicely into the European approach to the world. When faced with a scarce resource—internet access—Europeans respond by finding ways to effectively ration it. If we encourage places where people pay for internet access by the minute, then we don’t need to worry about providing people with cheap computers and reliable high-speed internet access, or so the thinking goes.

In America, we took a different approach. We expanded internet access by driving computer prices ridiculously low and engaging in a speculative infrastructure bubble that spread high-speed access to every corner of the country. Today, any America can buy a new laptop for less than $500 and enjoy free broadband internet access at countless coffee shops and restaurants across the country—not to mention cheap, unlimited broadband at home. (I am writing this post from a bar with free wifi).

Today, the only places you can find internet cafes in America are places frequented by European tourists. We keep them to make the backpackers feel comfortable.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

Why Europe Sucks €5. Different sized banknotes

Not mine.Traveling can be a stressful activity.

Not only do you need to navigate an unfamiliar place, but you also need to keep track of numerous little things to make sure your journey goes smoothly; things like passports, airline tickets, bus passes, hotel keys, travel itinerary and, of course, your cash and credit cards.

Normally keeping track of some small papers, an ID, credit cards and money wouldn’t be that challenging of an activity. That is why man invented the wallet, after all.

But as anyone who has traveled to Europe knows, keeping track of your cash and your wallet in order isn’t that easy in Europe.

Why?

Because Europeans think it is clever to have the size of their banknotes increase with the denomination. For example, the €500 note is nearly 33 percent larger than the €5 note.

On the face of it, having different sized banknotes doesn’t seem like that bad. The varying sizes would give an additional visual and tactile feedback as to the bill’s value. But in practice different sized banknotes are a major hassle for most people and especially stressful for tourists.

The wildly different sized notes means that cash doesn’t fit nicely into a standard wallet. Large denomination bills hang out over the top of the wallet and crinkle up in your pocket while the small notes get lost in between the big bills like a scrap of paper in a file full of documents.

The end result of the situation is that you always have money hanging out of your wallet and can never find the small bills when you need them. The latter point is especially problematic because of the well known reluctance of European merchants to offer even the most basic customer service, like making change.

Of course, the Europeans adopt their typical sanctimonious attitude when questioned about their different sized banknotes and claim that they do it in order to assist people who are visually impaired or blind. But if the Europeans really cared about helping the visually impaired they would accept credit cards everywhere and eliminate fees. That way neither blind nor anyone else would ever need to fumble around with a pocket full of crinkled-up banknotes again.

Why Europe Sucks €4. Inadequate air conditioning

New Air Conditioner Unit

Today the temperature was more than 80 degrees here in Michigan. This means one thing—Americans across the upper Midwest enjoyed the first warm day of the year from the air-conditioned comfort of their homes and automobiles.

Sure, some Americans popped outside for a short walk or a brief spat of gardening. But more often than not, they were back in climate-controlled shelter before even breaking a sweat.

This is as it should be.

Despite how much Americans say the love the summer, they have an intrinsic understanding that heat—like nature—is something that is best experienced in moderation. They understand that prolonged exposure to heat and sun can result sweating, squinting, body odor and general discomfort. That is why Americans invented electric air conditioning over a hundred years ago.

But air conditioning is a concept that is seemingly foreign to Europe, as anyone who has traveled there in the summer knows all too well.

It is not that Europe lacks air-conditioning technology. You can buy an AC unit there in just the same way you could here in America.*

No. What Europe lacks is a culture of air conditioning.

In America, we understand that air conditioning was invented so that mankind would not have to sweat involuntarily ever again. As a result, we use our air conditioners accordingly. When the mercury hits 73 degrees, the air conditioner automatically kicks in. And our movie theaters, malls and other public places are often air conditioned to the point where throwing on a extra layer is necessary simply to keep warm.

Europeans, on the other hand, are deeply suspicious of air conditioning. They often have a unit in their homes or businesses, but the devices are rarely turned on. This is because Europeans don’t see air conditioners as a staple of modern life, but rather as a kind of Pandora’s Box. They know it is there and they are intrigued by its potential, but they are terrified of what they might unleash if they touch it.**

The result of all of this is that summertime in Europe is truly unbearable. Outside it is hot, but indoors it is often hotter, as most European restaurateurs and hoteliers steadfastly refuse to turn on the air conditioning—preferring instead to soak in their own sweat.

So the next time the temperature crosses 70 degrees or so, make sure to crank up your air conditioning. And while you’re doing it, remember: in Europe you’d be sweting right now.

God Bless America!

*Except for the fact that you would pay 20 percent more, would receive horrible customer service and would likely be unable to use a credit card for the transaction.

**They would be much more comfortable and pay slightly more on their electric bill.

Why Europe Sucks €3. Cheek kissing

italian man

Pucker up! I just want to say "Hello"

They say that cheek-kissing greetings are a longstanding cultural tradition that shows the openness and hospitality of Southern European culture.  

This is hogwash.

Greeting someone by a kissing them on the cheek is much more intimate than a normal handshake, and also forces you to lean in and get a good whiff of the other person’s scent.

In a place as cursedly hot and shower-deprived as the Mediterranean, do you really think that people would go through the motions of kissing perfect strangers on the cheek after a long hot day just for culture’s sake? Of course not.

The truth of the matter is that, by and large, Southern European men a quite fond of the ladies, and they are keeping the cheek-kissing tradition alive became it gives them carte blanche to kiss every woman they meet.

That’s right. Cheek kissing is nothing more than cultural oddity kept alive for the sake of womanizing.

Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see people greeting old women, hot, sticky men and business colleagues alike with a kiss on a cheek. But that is just because those Southern European men are committed to keeping this tradition alive. They are nothing if not committed. As any traveler who has been to Southern Europe or France will tell you, the men there always seem to grip the waist more firmly and let the “simple cheek kiss” linger longer on young, pretty women.

So next time you’re traveling in Europe, go ahead and call their bluff. Simply offer your hand to the numerous smelly men who will insist on a greeting kiss. They already think that Americans are crass anyway, so you won’t be offending them. Besides, you know the whole cheek-kissing thing is a sham. 

Thanks to Evan B for the suggestion!

*Poor Michelle Obama. She had endure a cheek kiss from French President Nicolas Sarkosy, and she didn’t look to happy about it. The things people do for their country.**

**Note, in that same picture, you don’t see President Obama trying to cop a feel on Carla Bruni. No sir, a simple hand shake will do.  

 


What makes Europe Stink €2. Nescafé Instant Coffee

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Coffee Action

Europeans love to look down on Americans. They poke fun at our history, mock our mannerisms, and guffaw when confronted with our cultural achievements. But there is nothing that gives Europeans more pleasure than mocking our food and often-rushed eating habits. To the Europeans, our convenience-based food culture is the very meaning of uncouth.

But behind all of the turned-up noses, the Europeans are hiding a dirty little secret about their own food culture:  Europeans, the self-styled guardians of slow-food dining and coffeehouse culture, drink an awful lot of instant coffee.

When I say an awful lot, I don’t mean they drink it once or twice a week when they are in a pinch. No sir. Europeans drink a truly alarming amount of instant coffee. By one account, during the average week more than 93 percent of the coffee brewed (can you call it brewed when it is instant?) in British households was instant. And what is worse, Europeans seem to actually enjoy instant coffee. It is almost as if they don’t understand that normal coffee exists at all.

Of course, the Euro-defenders who hate America will crow that real Europeans drink nothing but Espresso.

Hogwash.

As any honest American that has traveled to Europe knows, the only coffee you can get over there is Nescafé instant coffee. They might have Espresso machines behind the counter, but these are largely just for show or special occasions. Restaurants, hotels, and coffeehouses alike all serve up Nescafé instant coffee. Sure, you could try to order an espresso, but the typical waiter would glare at you with a level of scorn typically reserved for Americans who ask to pay with a credit card.

So next time you travel to Europe, remember to savor that extra large coffee you got from the gas station on the way to the airport. As it will be the last good old American brewed coffee you’ll taste for weeks.

God Bless America!

 

ACTION ALERT: Help make Europe safe for coffee drinkers everywhere. 

Write Starbucks and McDonald’s HQ and ask them to step up their expansion plans in Europe ASAP! Be sure to mention that you’re concerned with the lack of real coffee in Europe. 

McDonalds 
2111 McDonald’s Dr 
Oak Brook, IL 60523 

Starbucks 
PO Box 34067 
Seattle, Washington 98124

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