My husband and I were supposed to pick up our new Prius yesterday. Ha!
We'd taken our time shopping for a car, too, after the leaf spring on my beloved old Isuzu SUV broke in early December.
Earlier this week, I was walking my daughter home from school and idly thought, "If we were Europeans, we wouldn't be buying a second car."
Of course, if we were Europeans, there would be excellent mass transit to every sleepy little village in the vicinity. But we're not. Still, we do live in a walkable city, albeit a small one of 25,000 people. We've been doing just fine over the last two months splitting one car between two adults, using the occasional taxi and a rental car once when my husband needed to travel for work.
I know about Europeans, because my mother is one. And when I first went to spend a summer with my Aunt Rose in Germany at the age of 11, I was shocked by the austerity of her life compared to the suburban splendor in which I lived.
Rose shared her ancient house with her in-laws. Actually, they shared the top floor. The bottom floor was broken into two apartments and rented out. Frugality ruled. There was no telephone in the house. There was one bathroom for seven people. There was only one car, and no competition for it, since Rose had never learned to drive. Rose did not have a closet full of clothes. She had housecoats for everyday, and for special occasions, a few superbly fitting dresses custom-made by a local dress-maker.
DId Rose feel as if her life were nunlike? Absolutely not! There was a giant vegetable garden full of gorgeous produce in the backyard. There was a beer garden in town for socializing, with bands and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. She had an amusing extended family, and my cousins regularly showed up unannounced in the afternoon for coffee and the excellent cakes she baked. Rose's husband Fritz was not only the handsomest man who ever lived, but also so dryly funny that he made us kids laugh our heads off.
In New Jersey, my family had two big luxury cars and a sprawling house with velvet couches. Rose, on the other hand, had some quality I'd seen very little of to that point. Let's call it happiness.
Despite the intervening 40 or so years, austerity is still the flavor of domestic life in Europe. The houses and apartments are small, utilitarian, under-decorated, impersonal. They use a fraction of the energy of our places. Appliances are not important. Clothes are important, but quality trumps quantity.
An interesting essay by Elizabeth Rosenthal in Yale Environment 360 argues that Europeans' greener lifestyles are explained not by a lack of interest in creature comforts, but a different definition of what comfort really means. She points out that in France, the per capita carbon footprint is a third of that in the United States. She doesn't mention nuclear power, which clearly explains part of the gap, but there are also fewer cars and smaller houses.
In France, they have excellent food and complicated sex lives. In the United States, we have granite countertops and whirlpool tubs and a steady rain of brown boxes from online vendors. You choose. Which group of amenities is more meaningful?
I think it's entirely possible that we Americans are at the beginning of a transition to a more austere, whirlpool-free, European-like domestic style. We've got severe economic problems. Thanks to an almost unbelievable lack of political leadership over the last ten years, we're doing nothing about our greenhouse gas emissions. Add in some spiking oil prices, possibly a continuing decline of our industrial base, and maybe a climate catastrophe or two, and we may well have to live far more simply in the near future than we do today.
Of course, gardeners are by definition wise about happiness. We'll probably bear up a lot better under enforced simplicity than, say, recreational golfers. We might even enjoy the lack of pressure to shop and consume (as long as nobody tries to tell us not to spend a fortune every season ordering bulbs from Brent & Becky's).
My husband and I called the Toyota dealer yesterday afternoon and explained that regarding the Prius, we've decided to just …wait. Not for trustworthy brakes. But for proof that we really need the car.