We're No. 1!
But only when it comes to domestic appliances.
As a U.S. citizen who has just returned from a decade in Europe, I can't report much good news about the relative standing of the American dream. My experience is that—despite their own economic crises—Europeans have far less reason to worry about job security, health care, or unpronounceable ingredients in their food. Their public transportation is better, their roads smoother. Their working hours, vacation, and parental leave are staggeringly more family-friendly. We're falling behind. Debts and wars, income inequality, a curdling political culture, and Charlie Sheen have knocked us off our national stride.
But even at this late hour of our empire, I can bring one unmitigatedly good tiding home from my wanderings. Our domestic appliances—washing machines, ovens, etc.—are way better than Europe's. I have but three words for those flag-torching ingrates who don't know how good we have it in the homeland appliance department: We're No. 1!
Let's start with usability. Most European appliances seem to be designed by engineers with serious communication disorders. Exhibit A is the German-built microwave I owned in London. Let's say you're at home one night in Europe and you'd like to make some popcorn. Put the popcorn in the microwave and turn the microwave on high until it sounds like it's done, right? Ah, but my microwave had no "high" button. No "low" button, either. Instead it offered me a choice of nine precise, oddly-spaced wattages: 150W, 300W, up to 900W.
I suspect most Americans don't know what a watt is—although they might guess it has something to do with the metric system. I doubt many Europeans know, either—although it might be one of those things that their schools teach instead of creationism. But whatever a watt is—and please don't tell me; I really don't want to know—my point is that on movie night, no normal human wants to have to think about how many hundred euro-electric-units they need to make popcorn. At its core, the American dream is about getting what you want, and the American people have made their wishes clear: give us buttons that say "high" or even better, "popcorn"—or give us death.
You could always do as your ancestors did and make popcorn on the stove. But then you'd have to turn the burner on. That's easy in America, where the burners tend to have controls labeled with words such as on (or lite and low, high, etc.). Many European ones have no words at all—just a combination of symbols, letters, and numbers. There's no snappier summary of the cultural divide between Europe and America than the pricey German stove whose burner controls are marked 0, 3, 5, 8, 12, and A.
Ditto for ovens. Rather than words such as bake, broil, clean, European ovens almost always mark their controls with a library of comically obtuse Euroglyphics. Some of these symbols indicate whether the oven's heat comes from below or above and are relatively easy for a chump from the colonies to guess. Others are harder to fathom: the P with swirls around it, the P with somewhat larger swirls, the swirls inside a circle between two horizontal lines, the snowflake (odd for a device that we generally expect to heat its contents), and the weeping asterisk.
And in the seemingly-trivial-but-nevertheless-irritating department, nearly every appliance I encountered in Europe would beep when it finished its cycle to let you know it was done. Then it would keep beeping, until you opened it and turned it off. If I turned on our washing machine or dishwasher before bed or before going out of town, I'd hear it beeping when I woke up or got home. (The mystifying exception was the oven timer, which beeped a few times before going silent, even though repetition might actually have come in handy. Those raised in the cradle of haute cuisine may possess some congenital sixth sense about whether they've left the oven on, but I burnt dinner more times than I can count.)
Then there were numerous quality issues in the appliances I encountered during my decade in Europe. Glasses wouldn't stand up in either of the two dishwashers I owned—they simply fell over, unless I packed them in so that they leaned tightly against each other, which regularly resulted in one or more shattering. (I offer this metaphor freely to critics of European notions of social welfare and urban planning.)
Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter.