August 20, 2006

The Vacation and Entitlement Continent

Posted in Europe at 5:40 pm by billdawson

[hat tip Pajamas Media]
At Political Animal, Kevin Drum mentions a NY Times report about Americans taking less vacation time than ever. And he says the following: “[B]ack when I worked closely with Europeans, this was probably the most common area of incomprehension.”

Amen to that. There is an enormous disconnect between “us” and “them” on this topic. And it is not just vacation time — there are also an ungodly (no pun intended) number of holidays here. It’s astonishing to me that businesses manage to complete projects.

My wife has so much vacation time that she can’t possibly use it all, unless she wants to stay home and twiddle her thumbs. I am an independent contractor so I get no paid vacation, and that makes me a strange animal indeed in these parts. But I prefer the freedom of doing what I want when I want to the “security” of so much of what the social state here offers.

You know, it would be one thing if the massive amount of vacation time means that there is a large body of refreshed and therefore happy and efficient workers here. But instead I think the more prevalent attitude is one of what I guess would be called “entitlement”, which is not surprising to anti-social-statists such as myself who believe that nannyism leads to such attitudes. Here are some anecdotal impressions of mine:
Closing time is closing time. I have had the experience of walking into a store at 6:29 to quickly buy a greeting card and being told point-blank that “Feierabend” (a much-beloved word meaning the time after work) is about to happen so I can’t make the purchase. In the States, I would think it much more likely that people would want the business and stay an extra minute to finish a transaction.

“It’s not my responsibility.” Too many private businesses here seem like public offices (Post Office, DMV) in the US. The Customer is certainly not King. The workers are there to make it through the prescribed number of hours with the minimum amount of effort. Long lines in the grocery are shortened by opening new lines only after much huffing and puffing — much more huffing and puffing than is usually required in any grocery I’ve been to in the US.

“It’s not on the menu.” This is the classic example here. Just try customizing a food order in Austria. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but more likely you’ll get rolled eyes, unintelligible grunting or outright “No”s. My favorite personal example: I took friends from the US to a rather popular restaurant downtown here in Vienna. One of my guests had been in the Air Force and stationed in Germany, where he learned to love Jägerschnitzel. Jägerschnitzel is not common in Austria, whereas Wienerschnitzel (obviously) is. Wienerschnitzel is breaded and not served with any kind of gravy, of which my guest was fully aware. So he asked for a side of mushroom sauce (similar to what you would get over a Jägerschnitzel) in addition to a Wienerschnitzel. Having perused the menu, we knew already that there was offering of a side (Beilage) of the mushroom sauce, however we could see from other items on the menu that mushroom sauce was at least present in the kitchen. But the waitress, as expected, demured. “Wienerschnitzel doesn’t come with mushroom sauce.” We explained the situation and that we already knew that, etc. “But Wienerschnitzel isn’t like Jägerschnitzel”. Yes, as we said, we know that already, we were just hoping to get a side of mushroom sauce. We’re not asking you to pour the mushroom sauce over the Wienerschnitzel (that would surely have been some sort of aberration). “Well we don’t have the mushroom sauce as a Beilage.” Yes, we see that too. We are certainly willing to pay for a small bowl or saucer of the sauce. …

On and on. He gave up and ordered the Wienerschnitzel as-is, with no side of gravy.

Well that strayed a bit from the topic of vacation, but somehow I see all of this kind of thing as tied into the whole idea of entitlement.

Getting back to vacations: a frequent theme seen in newspapers and magazines here these days is that more and more people complain that they cannot actually do anything with all this vacation time because they cannot afford to travel. I believe this was in fact the cover story in a recent edition of the magazine that gets sent to the members of the Arbeiterkammer (AK), the “workers chamber” to which basically all workers belong to. And of course from the point of view of an organization such as the AK, this is the fault of employers who are paying low salaries.

Finally, last night (or the night before) I saw a silly TV magazine bit (no doubt on RTL) about couples on vacation who look bored out of their minds and don’t even talk to each other. The hidden cameras followed three different couples and filmed them as they sat sipping cocktails or dining in places such as Ibiza. The “worst” of the couples set the record with something like 33 minutes of complete silence. And all three couples — all six people — looked as though they weren’t really enjoying their vacation (though, of course, when confronted later they denied that.)


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