We could suck a lot less.

P1040920This picture is of the playground in the Parc de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.

It has been a little quiet here at a Small and Delicious life, because we spent all the carbon we had in our account on a summer trip through Scandinavia and France. The trip was life-altering, and is going to reverberate for years to come. I still feel disoriented as I try to incorporate and understand the meaning of the many things we saw and did.

But I need to break the seal, so I want to talk about what became the refrain of our trip, “We could suck a lot less.”

Yes. I am aware that frames us, Canada, and you, the United States, as sucking. The default position is we suck. That is correct. We suck.

I have been working in sustainability and urban design for quite a few years now, and so I have heard, often, about how great it is to ride your bike in Copenhagen, about how human-scale the streets of European cities are. I have heard all this, but I really was unprepared for how it felt.

P1050432I really had no idea. Amsterdam blew my mind. In fact, there are so many bikes in Amsterdam that we did not dare ride a bike. The scale of streets and buildings were wonderful in a way I could never have imagined. The whole continent seems to treat people like adults, not children. So, for example, if you climb to a ruined fortress on the top of a rocky pinnacle, you are expected to understand you should stay away from the edge of the cliff. There are no warning signs and there is certainly nothing as wasteful of public funds as a railing or fence. This photo is of a hidden stairway carved several centuries ago as an escape route from the Fort de Buoux. I’ll tell you, I hugged that left wall on the way down, but this stairway was one of the highlights of our trip for me.

P1040941And that brings me back to the Parc de Belleville. This park was recommended by a dear friend, and it delivered. We called it the Danger Park – it was designed to be dangerous – note all the bare concrete and splintery wood. It was designed to hurt kids; the point is, kids need real danger in order to learn the edges of their capabilities. It reminds me of a Japanese park I read about years ago. This park was designed by an architect to fool the eyes – for example, it has slopes that drop away, but look like they are rising. You can rent helmets at the park, and every year there are a couple of broken legs.

These are things we could never do in North America, and for that we suck.

In Amsterdam we had a drink at a cute little restaurant facing a canal. We were sitting in front of the restaurant, in the sidewalk seating area. Due to the lovely weather, they had opened more seating across the street, right beside the canal. There was no fence beside the canal, so drunken patrons could have leaned back in their chairs and fallen right in. The servers had to walk across the street to bring food and clear tables. Again, every part of this would be illegal in most of North America, and doubly illegal in the terribly-backwards-about-alcohol province of British Columbia.

We could suck a lot less.

So, here is what I want from my Nanny State. I want effective healthcare, not sickness-care. I want dental care. I want food inspections that actually keep me safe, not protect the factory owners. I want drug and chemical companies to prove the safety of their products before they are released. I want taxation to greatly reduce the gap between rich and poor, taxation that acknowledges that money is made within systems everybody pays for, and so everybody should benefit from the earnings. I want real environmental protection to slash carbon, protect salmon and preserve wild areas.

P1040930And then I want my Nanny State to stay the hell out of my way. I want to be able to walk down the street with a beer. I want to walk on the edge of a cliff, or risk falling in a canal. I want to play where I might get hurt.

I was going to end it there, but one more story came to mind. When we were in Paris, they set up a Midway in the Tuileries Gardens in front of the Louvre. It was actually a little disorienting for us as we were riding home on our wonderful Velib cycle-share bikes – ”Are we lost? I don’t remember that giant Ferris Wheel being there.”

And in additon to being very fast in Ferris Wheel erection, they also had a beer garden. Now, in the slightly larger town near my childhood small town, people would chug their booze before going to the Midway to pick fights. But in Paris they had a beer garden – with a live jazz trio.

So, I spoke a little harshly about the Nanny State. Clearly the state treats us like children because we act like children. And we act like children because we are treated like children…

Maybe here in Canada we could start with some dangerous playgrounds and some unfenced patios, maybe a little legal jaywalking – kind of work our way up to the Midway beer garden. I hate being treated like a child.


  1. Hi, there. It is a pleasure to stumble across your lovely blog for the first time, via this post. I’m an American living in Amsterdam, and your articulations are part of the reason we keep extending our time here. There are certainly problems here, as well, but life is So Good (capital S, G) for many more reasons. If you’re ever back in Amsterdam, get in touch; I’m happy to give you a tour, feed you cake, and give you reasons to love this city even more. xxx+o van A-Dam, Jess

    • Thanks for your generous offer Jess. We would love to spend years and years more in Europe. But first I need to figure out the zero-carbon way of crossing the ocean…

      Something I didn’t mention is the Dutch did the best museums we saw. Beautifully built, excellent and tasteful choices in the collection, and far and away the best audio guides. We kept saying that museums in other countries need to hire the Dutch.

  2. You point out a wonderful difference between the Old World and the New World. However, what you want, you shall not get. You’ll never get wellness care. You’ll never get parental controls removed, You’ll never be expected to be responsible.

    What I have learned from going to Europe and Asia is that the New World has learned how to manipulate us from the Old World, and as a result, will never give up the Nanny state.

    It’s just bad for business. And its a shame.

    I hate to quote a Texan I know, but he’s right, “If You don’t like it, just move away.” At least you’re Canadian, and can. Americans don’t have the luxury.

    • Brrr. I hate to think about Canada becoming so dysfunctional that moving is better. But, I have thought about it…

  3. Thank you for your thought-provoking article, Ruben. Love it! And, still contemplating how to do my small part in contributing to our community in a way that will help us to ‘suck a lot less’….

  4. First night out in Vancouver, I stared at a man waiting at a traffic light to cross the street… for more than a minute… time for the light to turn green… really??? It is 3 am in the middle of the very quiet Kitsilano neighbourhood and no car on sight…

    It really feels nice to live somewhere where structures and rules are respected, but so agree too many of them, too restrictive, too much predictability.

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