Saturday, August 13, 2005

Solidly European?


Two conversations yesterday stick in my mind (the definition of yesterday, in this case, is a bit fuzzy, since I am back in Japan and missed half a day). One with a colleague as we were stumbling home very full from a wonderful meal of duck and rice at the Red Lantern, very near the station. When he learned that I am originally from Oregon, he went into rhapsodies about what a cool place that is. Near the end of the rhapsody, he described Portland as the most European of cities he has been to in the U.S. I don't really know much about the whole U.S., but understood why he said it: The wide avenues with parks in the center in the area of the library and art museum; the downtown areas, with their brick buildings; the trams; the comfortable co-existence of the old and new. I hadn't really ever thought of that, but his view was interesting.
The other conversation was with the desk man at my hotel, The Burns Art, and we were talking about the Japanese population in Düsseldorf. He said that it was both Düsseldorf's centrality, and the tolerant attitude of the locals towards outsiders that had caused it. Many of the Japanese expats live in the older homes on the other side of the Rhine, many of which are 200 square metres with high ceilings, and very expensive, and this particular desk man, with an oddly strong British accent and proclivity for words like 'blast' and 'crikey' seemed somewhat envious. I told him that I had recently bought a house in Japan that was 130 square meteres, and considered large. We both generally agreed that North American homes were probably the largest, but he said "in Europe, houses are built to last hundreds of years, whereas in North America they are built of flimsy wooden frames."
I have heard this before, and I sort of wonder about it. I grew up, in rural Washington state, in a house that was more than 100 years old, and was built on the wood frame model. It was not without issues: The foundation had also been built out of wood, so that needed to be replaced. Painting needed to be done fairly regularly, and the interior wiring and ceiling material had been replaced. The Burns, for example is completely floored in marble, and is, of course, stone on the outside and brick underneath, as are most German buildings. It is definitely solid and doesn't require a large amount of maintenance. In a big earthquake, a lot of people would be crushed under the weight of these large, heavy building, but that is not much of a worry.
My great grandfather owned a brick factory near Forest Grove which produced the brick for those European-style buildings in Portland. He had come from Scotland as a young man, and I think it would be fair to say that he brought an old-world belief that buildings should be made of solid materials.
There is something very comforting in this solidity, and every time I go to Europe, whether to Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, or Sweden, I get this sense of solidity, a sense completely and utterly lacking in Japan, and not as common in the U.S.

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