Other various notables from the Europe trip:

  • It is amazing how quickly I’ve taken the indoor smoking ban for granted here. Those laws have not been enacted in London, Brighton or Paris as of yet. What a difference. Some of the establishments are better than others in making non-smokers as comfortable as possible, but some pubs and restaurants were absolutely untenable. I am not even being melodramatic when I say that it took me 30 seconds after I walked into one pub in particular before I literally felt ill. I’m also glad that I don’t have to deal with my clothes reeking of smoke anymore, too. The good news is that London’s smoking ban goes into law next spring.
  • Another obvious difference: the complete lack of SUV’s and battleship-style automobiles in both cities. It took mere hours for both Steph and I to notice this. I am pretty sure the horrific gas prices in both London and France (equivilent to about $5-6 U.S. per gallon) play a big role in this, but narrow streets must also factor in somehow. I mean, some of the streets in London and the English countryside – no way you can pilot an SUV through those! In fact, what amused us to no end was just how small some of the cars were! I mean, looking at some of them, I honestly felt like I could pick them up and throw them. Which isn’t to say we saw no SUV’s, though – there were some and a Boston Globe article I read last Sunday indicates that SUV sales are on the rise in England.

In trying to decide what book to bring along for the trip, it was a decision between the 700+ page Neil Young biography which has been looming over me for a year now, or the shorter Nickel and Dimed. Overwhelmed yet again by the prospect of a 700+ page book, I opted for Nickel and Dimed, where the author investigates the life of minimum wage workers in America by “going undercover” and taking various jobs (waitress, maid and Wal-Mart employee) in three different U.S. locales. The book ended up being the correct choice.

There is nothing better to humble the privledge of being able to travel the world than to get a better understanding of how the minimum wage worker lives their life – and it is not a pretty scenario at all. In fact, check out this story from the New York Times that ran on Monday – incredibly sad. I try my very best to never take for granted what I have and I’ve been so lucky (seemingly to the point of ridiculousness at times) during the last 5 years working for Ask.com. This book provided the perfect companion as we ate and traveled our way through two very expensive cities.

The book was a quick and terribly interesting read, with the most thought-provoking piece coming at the end, with the author’s overall summary. The summary looks at how welfare reform may be one of the causes in the growing class of minimum wage earners, otherwise known as the working poor. Minimum wage is clearly not enough to sustain a single parent who have children living with them and it’s even arguable that it’s enough to sustain just one person, as the author found out in her experiments. Those points can be debated for eons, really, and it’s a subject I don’t want to touch here.

Where the book really hit home for me, however, is the last two paragraphs, where the author briefly ponders how we, the upper and middle class, feel about these human beings. How are we supposed to feel and/or interact with the people who clean our hotel rooms and serve us food? Why is it that many people can’t even look maids in the eye or even speak to them as they’re cleaning our homes? I’ve seen first hand on my endless string of business trips how some other business travelers treat them and it is dispicable. While I certainly cannot make the claim that I walk up to waitresses or hotel maids and hug them and thank them for their service, I certainly do make it a point to say hello and ask how they’re doing and I thank them properly.

The author provides a different and somewhat eye-opening way to look at it:

Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel? But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame – shame at our own dependancy, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – than she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life. The “working poor” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect….to be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.

Biting and thought-provoking words indeed, although I cannot bring myself to entirely get behind the whole “major philanthropists” thing. While the statement is undoubtedly true for a great number of humans who work these jobs, I’d hesitate myself to blanket all of them with such unbridled sympathy and praise for giving up everything to please the classes above them. Some, hopefully most, are certainly working hard and doing their best, some simply have no other choice and others, and this is a sad truth, are probably capable of much more, but lack the drive or ethic to make something of themselves.

An interesting and recommended read.