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Altered States

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For today's geo-quiz, as NPR has been known to phrase it, we're looking for a country that is fast adopting the four-day work week. Gas prices are high, so people are buying smaller cars, even as petite as the SMART car and the Austin Mini. Though this nation is still one of the leading economies in the world, they're starting to look like a sloppy second or third compared to other growing nations. And soon they'll all be drinking Belgian beer.

Where are we? All evidence would seem to point to Western Europe, yet oddly enough the above describes the state of a millennial era United States. It seems as though, the U.S. has inadvertently received a European makeover. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has even made the long overdue suggestion that maybe Americans should bother learning another language or two so that when they travel abroad they're able to say a few respectful phrases in native tongue. Lucky for those lazy linguists among us, few Americans can afford to go to Europe these days. They'll just have to settle for imitation as the sincerest and most ersatz form of flattery: the faux Eiffel Tower at Paris Vegas.

It's a pity that John Kerry isn't running for president in '08 because maybe in the wake of this Euro-tinted era, his alleged "Frenchness" would resonate with voters.

The latest news of Anheuser-Busch being purchased by Belgian brewer InBev has a lot of red-blooded (and red-faced, ahem Lou Dobbs) countrymen up in arms. The King of Beers might as well already be dubbed, Le Roi de Bières. InBev is buying the company for about €32 billion Euros. That's $52 billion dollars for anyone who cares to know what that is in chump change, or what I like to call the U.S. Peso. For God's sake, even rap artist Jay-Z's hip to that--he flashes Euros NOT Dollars in his video "Blue Magic."

And of course THEY are flashing those Euros all over town, buying up hot property like New York's Flatiron building--while we Americans, especially Californians, suffer in the wake of a real estate meltdown. At least we can be proud of our 'country within a country'--Google--which continues to keep us relevant. Silicon Valley may in fact be all we've got. The rising price of doing business in the Irish "Valley" has even forced I.T. giants like Dell to make large cutbacks on European operations.

Essentially Europe and just about every country that's NOT the U.S. has become increasingly culturally and economically relevant. One need not read the tome-du-jour The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria to notice that all things non-American are it.

Just a few months ago, the New York Times proclaimed Indian contemporary art a hot commodity on the heels of Chinese art's years-long boom. The Japanese can boast that Toyota is the world's largest auto maker thanks to their foresight with the Prius (a brand name practically synonymous with 'hybrid'). Reva, a company in Bangalore, that's Bangalore India, folks, is the leading global producer of electric vehicles. But just wait until 2009 when Norway introduces the Th!nk EV to the U.S. Sure, we've got the Silicon Valley-birthed Tesla Roadster--but typical of our 'no bling left behind' nation--it's a flashy sports car few regular working Joe's could afford (at 100k per vehicle).

As a sort of bridge between East and West, Europe in particular is experiencing a new financial AND cultural Golden Age. When some ECO-nomists sing the praises of hydrogen to solve our energy problems, they're singing an old tune that the French and Icelandic have been playing for years--making them time-tested experts on fertile ground. Even Amsterdam is enjoying a renaissance. The petite North Sea city is the advertising industry's little darling hot spot. Dutch boutique agencies like 180 and Strawberry Frog have already opened up offices in New York and L.A.

Don't get me wrong. American has also recently influenced Europe. Let's not forget the smoking ban. That sure squelched some indigenous culture in the City of Lights, yeah!

I recently took a trip back to Amsterdam (where I had lived for four years). I was looking to reconnect with old friends and to drum up business that could actually earn me pay in a currency of value. Were it not for the kindness and generosity of my local acquaintances, I might have been traumatized by large expenditures--like buying a sandwich. I will never forget the pitying look on their faces as they offered to pick up bill after bill--breakfast, lunch and dinner. I felt like a gypsy pauper who had just asked them if they could spare some change. Yet, there was something right about this 'oh so wrong' feeling. It was addressing the imbalance that had been in play for decades with America cast as the 'popular kid' and all other nations just lowly geeks attempting to catch a smile or a wave from the big man on campus.

Years ago, I was in Hong Kong for my cousin's wedding and this very topic came up--America's slippage to second or third place. A successful New York businessman chimed in that it wouldn't be the end of the world--we'd get used to not always being #1 and maybe it would even make us a happier nation. His prescient words ring truer today than ever for me.

As a dual European/American citizen--who was born in London, grew up in L.A., went to French school, American university and Dutch grad school--it's not that I want Europe to make mince meat of the U.S. That would be as stupid as fighting myself. I'm just suggesting that we take this opportunity--this coffee break (and we love those)--to reframe and get a little perspective. When you don't have to be #1 there is a lot of freedom: freedom to enjoy one-month vacations, and freedom to sit back in a café for hours, drinking Belgian beer, chatting with strangers, (NOT smoking your Gitanes)...taking it all in and living a slow-paced, well-balanced, healthy life.

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