7 things Americans don’t understand about Europe

I don’t understand Americans in Europe. Actually, I don’t understand them in their own country as well. I mean, I don’t get baseball, NASCAR, American gun laws, the American insistence on using an archaic measurement system and above all I don’t understand ice in whiskey. But I think Americans do not understand Europe either. Not all of them, of course, but I think the average American has no clue about may things that are quite common in Europe. Here’s a small guide to the visiting American, helping rectify the most common American misconceptions about Europe.

What most European cities really look like

What most European cities really look like

  1. Europe is a continent, not a country
    “Europe is my favourite country” – how many times have I not come across this statement? Admittedly, the last one I saw was made by a Canadian, which only serves to prove the point that Canadians (and Australians) are a bit of Americans in disguise. Perhaps for people from countries the size of a continent it is difficult to understand. But Europe actually consists of more than 50 countries (depending a bit on how you define “country”). They have their own flags, anthems, culture and for what its worth their own foreign policy. Lumping them together is like saying “animals are cute” – sure they are, but a bit overgeneralizing.
  2. Europe is not the same as the European Union
    Its true that by now the majority of Europeans live in EU-member states. But there are still dozens of countries in Europe that are not a member, and the EU still covers less than half of Europe’s physical area. Besides, contrary to what Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike would like you to believe, the EU is not a super-state. Its members are independent countries who largely run their own affairs.
  3. Europe is more than the tourist hotspots
    Sadly, most Americans who visit Europe, and even many of those who live in Europe rarely leave the beaten track of old town centres, business districts and tourist top destinations. Their impressions of Europe are limited to Paris and Venice, and perhaps a bit of the countryside of Tuscany or the valley of the Loire. Their image of Europeans is therefore that of sopisticated, cycling, latte-drinking fashionistas. Sad truth is that most of Europe is less like the Champs-Élysées and more like the suburbs of Dusseldorf or the Bulgarian countryside – full of moustached people in jump-suits, who drink beer for lunch.

    What most of Europe's countryside really looks like

    What most of Europe’s countryside really looks like

  4. The UK is not a part of Europe
    This is actually what the British themselves believe, and their Anglo-Saxon cousins have inherited this belief. However, the UK is separated from the European mainland by a stretch of water just 33 km wide and less than 50 meters deep. People have even crossed swimming! The UK has been a part of the EU for over 40 years. Culturally, economically, socially, ethnically, religiously, geographically – any way you put it – the UK is firmly a part of Europe. Dear Britons – you are Europeans. Get over it. And mention it to your cousins, will you?
  5. Europeans have more than two parties
    In the USA it is simple – you’ve got the Republicans and you’ve got the Democrats. Europe is a bit more complicated politically. In most European countries its an elaborate game of multiple parties and coalitions. I know Americans like things simple, but European politics just doesn’t work this way. But don’t worry about this one, most Europeans don’t get it either.
  6. Football – no, its not soccer, its FOOTBALL
    Americans don’t even understand the name of the game that drives Europe crazy. They think they have football and what the Europeans play is soccer. But seriously – American “football” is played with the arms and hands mostly. Even if the occasional kick is taken into account its “limbsball” at best.

    What football really looks like

    What football really looks like

  7. European social system
    “Social=socialism=communism=DEVIL” – that’s pretty much the line of thought of the average American. “Europe” is in the USA a symbol of all that goes wrong when the government takes over. In reality, in the USA government spending is ~47% of the GDP and in the EU government spending is ~49-50% of the GDP. Hardly a difference, isn’t it? True, in Europe poor people get various benefits and social subsidies. But in the USA the system is pretty much the same – the benefits are just called “tax credits” so that it sounds more business-like. But how can people who pay no taxes get tax credits? A-ha! That’s just social benefits in disguise!

So dear Americans – whether you’re visiting Europe, or just hearing some news about “Europe” – do keep in mind that things are a) a bit more complicated and b) perhaps not that different than at your place. And if you have stories of European misconceptions about the USA – I’d love to hear, I’m sure there are plenty.

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A virtual tour of my Rotterdam

The Markthal at night - inside is the biggest art work of the Netherlands

Rotterdam’s newest and already the most popular attraction -the Markthal at night – inside is the biggest art work of the Netherlands

The last few days, spring has been in the air. The sun is shining, temperatures are in the double-digits, crocuses, narcissi and tulips are blossoming everywhere and a small army of orange jackets is trimming bushes all over the city. Other, less appealing signs of spring are the intense smell of fermented manure being sprayed on the fields and me getting a hay fever, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Rotterdam is firmly on the map as a tourist destination in its own right. In the last couple of years, the city I live in has scored big-time in international awards and “top destination” lists. And the publicity is bearing fruit – Rotterdam is literally swarmed with tourists. I am seeing more and more of them, gaping at the sight of the Markthal or standing at a street corner trying to figure out the map in their hands.

Spring is in the air and on the ground

Spring is in the air and on the ground

For the past 3 years or so I’ve been doing my best trying to help visitor find the best spots in Rotterdam by contributing to Spotted By Locals. But I’ve recently thought about it and realized its all very nice writing about spots, but that I think there’s more to it. I would actually like people to have the opportunity to experience Rotterdam the way I experience it – in a coherent, connected fashion. So whether you’ve been following my writings at Spotted By Locals or not, if you’re just visiting Rotterdam or lived here your whole life, let me take you on a city trip along my favourite spots. I’ve put them together in 3 “theme” days, so that if I inspire you, you can either get just the main highlights in 1 day, venture outside the city centre if you have another day, and should you be staying for longer, perhaps see a bit of the greater surrounding. Click on the day headers for the map of the day.

Day 1 – Downtown Rotterdam

Centraal Station - befitting Rotterdam's reputation as architectural capital of Europe

Centraal Station – befitting Rotterdam’s reputation as architectural capital of Europe

Cube houses at the Oude Haven

Cube houses at the Oude Haven

Since you’re probably arriving by train, don’t forget to look back as you exit the spectacular shining new Centraal Station. From here its a short walk to the Dudok, to start the day with a cup of coffee and Dudok’s iconic apple pie. If its Tuesday or Saturday, you’ve got the chance to experience one of the biggest outdoor markets in Europe, on other days the brand new Markthal is a good alternative. After exploring the market(s) and the weird architecture Rotterdam is so famous for, Seth’s Poffertjes are a perfect spot to lunch and do some crowd-watching. Walk to the river and cross to the Noordereiland over the Willemsbrug, that offers a panoramic view of the city’s skyline. Stroll along the south bank of the Maas past the Erasmus bridge (aka the Swan), not forgetting to pay your respects to the Holocaust victims at Loods 24. Take the water taxi at Hotel New York, moving back to the north bank, to the Veerhaven. If the weather is friendly, go up the Euromast for an unrivalled view of the city and the harbour, on clear days as far as the sea. And if its raining, take an indoor trip around the world at the Wereldmuseum. By now its probably dinner time. If you’re made of money, you can dine at the Michelin-starred restaurant of the Wereldmuseum. Those on a more reasonable budget can dine at the Wester Paviljoen, where you can also close the night with drinks. If, after all these efforts, you’re still up to it, in the wee hours Rotterdam gravitates towards the Witte de Withstraat, where De Witte Aap is the focal point.

The view from the Euromast is spectacular on a clear day

The view from the Euromast is spectacular on a clear day

Day 2 –  Ol’ Rotterdam (or what’s left of it)

Dragon boat race on the Kralingse Plas

Dragon boat race on the Kralingse Plas

Somewhere in Kralingen...

Somewhere in Kralingen…

As you might know, the centre of Rotterdam was pretty much levelled by the Luftwaffe in 1940. And what was left standing was torn down under the disguise of “urban renewal”. The old town was replaced with glass, concrete and steel and these are, in their turn, being replaced by even more glass, concrete and steel. But outside the city centre, the “old school” Rotterdam is still there. But first, its back to the Dudok for a solid breakfast to start the day. Its one of the few places that serve breakfast, so there’s not much choice anyway. Simit Saray just down the road is perhaps a bit more budget-minded. From here, take the subway to Voorschotenlaan, at the heart of Kralingen, Rotterdam’s rich suburb since about forever. Walk through the alleys following the pattern of ancient waterways to the Trompenburg botanical garden (don’t miss picture-perfect Slotlaan), where you can spend some time exploring the pathways. If you can find the tea-house, you can have lunch here in classical Continental style (which requires a lot of patience). Weather-pending (it’s a recuring theme, isn’t it?) take a detour to see the Kralingse Plas pond and perhaps feed the zillion ducks there, walking through a neighbourhood where kids on lunch breaks play tennis rather than football, I kid you not. Mme Masette is a wonderful spot to enjoy the sunset with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine (they’re good at selecting those) before heading back to the centre through Rubroek, practicing your bird-watching skills along the way. Back in the centre, all you have to do is decide whether you’re in the mood for French, Spanish or Italian – and go to Pierre, Barcelona or Due Tonine. But regardless of where you dine, end up at Bokaal.

Day 3 – Beyond the city limits

Boompjes promenade

Boompjes promenade

The Water Bus is the best way to get to Kinderdijk

The Water Bus is the best way to get to Kinderdijk

Its time to see some of Rotterdam’s surrounding country side, and the best place to go to is of course UNESCO World Heritage site of Kinderdijk with its classic windmills. Rent a bicycle, get your groceries at the nearest supermarket and sit at the Boompjes for a breakfast in full view of the river. Board (with your bike) the Aqualiner water bus to Kinderdijk. Touring the windmills will probably take the best part of your day, but if you haven’t had enough pedalling, you can disembark on the way back at the Stormpolder and cycle the extra 10 km to Rotterdam. Back in the city, cross the Earsmusbridge again to the Kop van Zuid, and choose your spot to enjoy the sunset – Hotel New York, the rooftop terrace of nHow or just sitting on the quay wall. The Lantaren-Venster filmhouse is an excellent place to say farewell to Rotterdam, closing off with a dinner, a movie and/or a concert.

Hotel New York is flanked by modern high-rise

Hotel New York is flanked by modern high-rise

Its a boat... its a bus... its... SplashTour! Hotel New York's water taxi is on the background.

Its a boat… its a bus… its… SplashTour! Hotel New York’s water taxi is on the background.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of Rotterdam and perhaps will be inspired to visit for real.

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Israeli politics for dummies (2015 edition) – the morning after

Just a week ago, I’ve published a summary of the Israeli political system titled “Israeli politics for dummies (2015 edition)”. And its so good to be able to say “told you so”. The opinion polling in the run-up to the elections has failed spectacularly, again. This failure includes the exit polls, who predicted a draw between Likud and Zionist Union, with 27 seats for each – the outcome was… slightly different.

Benjamin Netaniyahu might keep his job after all.

The exit polls

Party name – results {exit polls} (last preliminary polls) [current number of seats]

Likud – 30 {27} (21) [31 – together with Yisrael Beiteinu]
Benjamin Netaniyahu, like a phoenix, has risen again from the ashes, and stands a real chance of retaining his seat as a PM. The clear winner of these elections, Likud has beaten the polls for who knows which time. In football they say “you play for 90 minutes and the Germans win”. In Israeli politics, apparently, you wait for the final results and Likud wins.

Zionist Union – 24 {27} (24) [21 – with Hatnua]
Isaac Herzog, the darling of the left, son of a President, the leader of the Zionist Union wakes up to a massive hangover. His campaign to oust Benjamin Netaniyahu seems to have been fruitless, despite support from pretty much everyone, including Barack Obama. Obama increasingly turns into King Midas, with the slight difference that everything he touches turns not into gold, but into shit. Still can’t eat it, and it smells. Perhaps Obama should stop supporting people.

The Joint Arab List – 13 {13} (13) [11-divided among 3 parties]
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, will not be heading the opposition as a unity government of Likud and Zionist Union seems unlikely, which means the Zionist Union will lead the opposition. The Arabs of Israel have shown their true colours by refusing to pretend to support the Zionist left, making the Joint Arab List the third largest party in the Knesset. Whether their elected leaders will actually start taking responsibility, instead of shouting from the sidelines, remains to be seen.

Yesh Atid – 11 {12} (12) [19]
Yair Lapid is the shlemiel of these elections. Crash and burn – no other words. Having pulled the plug out of the cabinet Yesh Atid (“There is a future”), can now change its name into “No Future”.

Jewish Home – 8 {8} (11) [12]
Naftali Bennett was the first person who Benjamin Netaniyahu has called after the exit polls. The Jewish Home has paid the price for keeping Likud in power, but Netaniyahu will reward its political frenemies.

Kulanu – 10 {10} (9) [0]
Moshe Kahlon considers himself a longstanding member of both Israel’s “national camp” and its “social camp”, so he can be appropriately described as a national-socialist. Not the best of associations, but he’s got only himself to blame here. His populist agenda has put him in the head of a major political party. Based on the exit polls, Kulanu was in the position to make or break governments. The final results though give Bibi a wide array of options to choose from, and Kulanu will have to work hard to prove its a reliable partner.

Shas – 7 {7} (7) [11]
Aryeh Deri is the other phoenix of Israeli politics. Convicted for corruption, he served major jail time, returned to head Shas, and has split with former “crown prince” Eli Yishai. The split has left Shas critically injured but alive. Yishai seems to have bet “all in” and lost (see below).

United Torah Judaism – 6 {6} (6) [7]
Yaakov Litzman‘s ultraorthodox party was left out of the previous government. This time, things might be different. But there are long-terms concerns. The huge increase in potential voters due to explosive birth rates in the ultraorthodox community has not increased the party’s political power. Is the youth secretly voting against the advice of the Rabbi’s?

Yisrael Beiteinu – 6 {5} (5) [together with Likud]
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister and the left’s favourite boogie man, has all the reasons to be pleased. And he will probably be rewarded for his support of Bibi by being offered any post he wishes (Minister of Defence, that is).

Meretz – 5 {5} (5) [6]
Zahava Gal-On is the first casualty of the results. Barely passing the electoral threshold, she admitted failure and resigned. With the Arab support waning, the party is increasingly out of touch with reality. Its most vocal supporter, the antisemitic Jew, Haaretz writer Gideon Levi has already said that “if this is what the nation wants, we need a new nation”. With this kind of attitude Meretz will not be in the next Knesset.

Yachad – 0 {0} (4) [0]
The Israeli extreme right has learned nothing from the mistakes of the past. In 1992, Tehiya has just missed on seats in the 13th Knesset, leading to the loss of the right-block’s majority and indirectly causing the disaster of the Oslo Agreements. Exactly as I thought last week, the extreme right, this time as “Yachad”, just failed to pass the electoral threshold. Again. The right-block is still victorious, but not thanks to Yachad.

The final results

When all the votes will be counted, the picture might still look different. The Bader-Offer method and the surplus-votes agreements can add or subtract a seat or two, just tipping off the balance of power. But the changes will be minor, if any. What’s next?

The coalitions

Since no party has the majority, a coalition government has to be formed. And its not as simple as the largest party providing the PM. After consulting the fraction leaders, the President assigns the task of forming a government on one of the MP’s. That person has to try and put together a coalition, that is to say, find at least 61 MP’s to have a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Here are some possible arrangements:

National Unity Government – Likud-Zionist Union-Yesh Atid/Kulanu/both – 65/64/75 seats
The exit polls indicated this a likely scenario, albeit one that would require the partners to swallow a huge amount of pride and forget an even bigger amount of pre-election insults. The final result, though, is Likud’s resounding victory, and a right-wing coalition is much more likely.

Same-same but (a bit) different – Likud-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Jewish Home-Yisrael Beiteinu – 65 seats
Presuming that the 10 seats of Kulanu are gained from the losses of Likud and Yesh Atid, the partners in the previous coalition have now together approximately the same amount of seats they had before the elections. Find the coalition agreement from the previous elections, re-print it and put the same people back on the same posts. Probably the cheapest option and apparently what the voters want. With 5 members, perhaps a bit too wobbly to be a first choice. And Yesh Atid is not exactly Bibi’s favourite after they brought down his last cabinet from the inside.

Anyone but Bibi – Zionist Union-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Jewish Home-Israel Beiteinu – 59 seats
Based on the exit polls, there was a possibility that in an attempt to be true to its name, the Zionist Union could try and forge a union of Zionists with centrist, right secular and mildly religious parties. This betrayal of its traditional ally Meretz would not go down well with the party’s left wing, but again – its politics, so a scenario that includes a betrayal was actually more, not less, likely. The final results mean that the Zionist Union will not be forming the coalition, as there is almost no possible way in which it could get a majority.

Left-winged with a vengeance – Zionist Union-Joint Arab List-Yesh Atid-Kulanu-Meretz – 63 seats
Theoretically, a left-leaning coalition is possible. In reality, the Joint Arab List will not sit in a Zionist government, and even if it would, Kulanu would probably refuse to join to such a coalition.

All-right – Likud-Kulanu-Jewish Home-Shas-United Torah-Yisrael Beiteinu – 67 seats
This is the coalition that is most likely at the moment, as the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid are too shell-shocked to be even considered and have said too many times they won’t sit in Bibi’s government. But the right-religious-nationalist camp is splintered and shattered. And there’s no love lost between its members. Besides, a coalition of 6 parties that can be toppled by any of its members – such a house of cards is too difficult even for Bibi to build and hold together. And satisfying the substantial financial demands of the ultraorthodox parties and the national-socialist populist agenda of Kulanu (pun intended) might break the back of Israel’s economy.

So Israeli legislative elections 2015 – drama? Yes. Surprises? Plenty. Newcomers? In abundance. Real change? No. The winners are the same (Likud), the losers too (Labour and extreme right). When are the next elections?

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