This week, I just completed my annual pilgrimage to Europe, which I combined with a research trip for my book on longevity. The first stop on my trip was Barcelona, Spain. Spain is ranked #6 in the World Health Rankings (European Region), with citizens living to the age of 82.1 on average. Spain nearly always ranks in the top ten countries for longevity worldwide, and on my second day there, I got a glimpse as to why.
I sat in a little coffee shop and started talking with a woman who looked to be in her late 60’s. She was eating some kind of pastry and I commented how good it looked. “I like sweets, but don’t eat so much now,” she said in broken English. We began small talk about my vacation and Spanish art. She said she was on her way to meet her granddaughter. After 40 minutes, I began to feel like I was dominating her day. I said, “I had better let you go. You mustn’t keep your granddaughter waiting. Besides, you haven’t finished your pastry.” “I had my taste. I’m satisfied,” the woman replied. “And my granddaughter, she wait. This is good conversation.”
The woman’s response struck me. It made me reflect on the marked differences in how Spaniards and American going through their days, For starters, I would have woofed down that pastry. The Spanish woman, on the other hand, “had her taste” and was satisfied. The more significance difference may have been the fact that she spent 45 minutes talking with a complete stranger and didn’t stress about keeping her appointment, but more about that later. By the way, she turned out to be 81.
The next day, a very nice driver named Carlos took my wife and me to the beach town of Stiches. We talked with Carlos about American food, and when I asked him what he typically eats, he said, “I eat the fruit and cereal in the morning, have the big meal at lunch, then at night I eat a small omelet or bowl of fruit. We eat normal compared to Americans.” His last comment piqued my curiosity. “What do you mean ‘normal?” I asked.
“When I go to New York City, I order appetizers and dinner for one man and they bring meal for a family for three days! But you Americans have this good concept we don’t have called “the take away box.” I do a takeaway box and my family eats for three days.” No wonder this man accustomed to eating an omelet and small bowl of fruit for dinner feels shocked when he sees what Americans consider a normal meal for one—a plate of buffalo wings, 20 ounce rib-eye, and a baked potato with trimmings. I saw why Carlos says, compared to Americans, he “eats normal.”
Our understanding of meal portions in the U.S. is inflated. Our sense of how much fuel we need is more psychological than physical. Do we really need 16 ounce steaks? No mere mortal needs eat that much…but we do.
After Spain, I was off to Italy and the isle of Capri. Italy is ranked #3 in the World Health Rankings (European Region) with an average lifespan of 82.3. Italy is almost always at the top of the list for longevity. And perhaps it is because Italians live such long lives that it’s impossible to get anything done quickly there. It takes forever to get your check in a restaurant, no one makes their appointments on time, and even the airlines embrace the philosophy of “a little late is OK.” The world slows down in Italy where coffee breaks are two hours long, five-star service doesn’t exist (at least not the way Americans understand it), and it’s absurd to expect a sales person to “go the extra mile” for you. Nonetheless, Italy possesses a magic that’s impossible to ignore.
One night, I witnessed three men, ages 18 to 80, walking down the street all holding hands, embracing each other, even stopping to kiss each other and laugh. Another day, I saw an elderly woman walk from the Capri Harbor to the town center, a vertical ascent of about 1000 feet that nearly killed me on a 90 degree day, yet she made this climb in 40 minutes, slowly mind you, but she didn’t seem bothered at all. The people of Italy have their own speed. Maybe this slowed pace has something to do with their long lives.
Last on my tour of European cities was Berlin. Unlike Italian cities, Berlin runs like clockwork. The trains are precise, the planes are precise, and the people are precise. The city is clean. It feels… American. And here’s the interesting part: Germany ranks 18th for longevity and the average German lifespan is a bit over 80 years old, compared to Spain and Italy’s 82 years. Germany has world class health care and an incredible economy. It is the model country for Europe, and some might even say the Germans, who have strived for perfection, have attained it. But if all that precision was bought by sacrificing two years of longevity, is the prize worth the cost?
I think we can all learn a lot from Spain and Italy.