Dressed in an arguably pink, fitted V-neck, Tobi rode up to Cajé, one of Isla Vista’s busiest coffee joints, and locked his bike. He walked right up to my table, introduced himself, sat down, and lit a cigarette. Tobi is a graduate student from Switzerland studying economics, and he is here for four months.
He lives with an odd mix of people in a small house in Isla Vista: one other UCSB student, two Santa Barbara City College students, and the 70-year-old landlord and his 30-year-old son — different from typical Isla Vista households to say the least. The six roommates barbeque a lot with their neighbors and other passersby.
John (not his real name) is one of the frequent passersby. Their 40-year-old neighbor, Martha (also not her real name), invites John over for food every few days. After their first outdoor meal, Tobi was shocked to discover that John is homeless. His humble appearance did not resemble the transients he’s seen on State Street, he told me.
“In Switzerland, there are almost zero homeless people,” Tobi said. “Everyone has a job or a government paycheck.” From maternity leave to accident coverage, the social security system across Europe is much more expansive than the one in America. Copays of $30 sure keep plenty of Americans out of the doctors’ office.
On my study-abroad semester last year, I found subsidized sidewalk washers and trash collectors on nearly every block in Paris. One day I read in Luxemburg Park for two hours, and a garbage man in a compact vehicle stopped twice to empty the contents of the plastic bag in a nearby container. There was little more than an apple core and a couple cigarette butts in the second pickup. I was floored at the excessiveness. I felt as if I were living in The Sims.
Of course, we have street sweepers and garbage men in America, but the number of government jobs does not compare to the public-sector work available in Europe. Homelessness is fairly outrageous from Tobi’s European perspective.
At the same time, Tobi said that he is “pretty glad that Switzerland is not in the European Union” because of its recent difficulties and its undeniable future obstacles. Unlike many Europeans, he believes in competitive free markets. But meeting John exposed Tobi to the real-world implications of America’s relatively laissez-faire economy. Perhaps it’s one thing to believe in free markets while living in Switzerland where poverty is scarce and another to witness the tangible repercussions of America’s dependence on self-reliance.
Tobi’s friend, Steffen, also studying abroad, is here from Germany. He’s also a frequent barbeque participant. He joined our table at this point and chimed in. “America does have more charity here than I’ve ever seen in Europe,” he conceded. He’s noticed soup kitchens, grassroots organizations, foundations, and nonprofits here. But ultimately, Steffen jabbed, “In Europe, the government takes care of people.”
Tobi, on the other hand, is not here to rag on America, but he is also critical of the severe consequences of limited federal assistance. John is not the only one without a home in Santa Barbara.
Ideally, a mix of capitalistic America and quasi-socialistic Europe would be best, they finally agreed. Steffen added, “I’ve never met anyone who abuses the system. I’m sure it happens, but it’s rare.”
But Europe’s sizable handouts and America’s capitalistic traditions both have repercussions. In Europe, inefficient use of funds and excessive trash collection will not be able to last forever. But in America, the system’s lack of welfare leaves people like John without a place to sleep. In Europe, John could most likely secure a government job. Fortunately, we have generous individuals like Martha to compensate for the government’s deficiencies.
Tobi and Steffen confirmed that America often gets a bad rap in the international world — the Welfare State is just one example. But they said Europeans tend to view Californians as forward-thinkers, especially compared to the rest of Americans.
“Most people I’ve met here are excited just to talk to me after they hear my accent,” Tobi said. “People are really interested in international cultures.” Most Californians I knew abroad were sure to introduce themselves as Californian rather than as American.
It’s easy to dismiss Isla Vista as a tiny student town full of sloshed delinquents. But the unusual housing arrangements do allow for communal living. Unique barbeque dinners with random assortment of guests probably do not happen in most American suburbs.
Perhaps Isla Vista is both dreadful and groovy, anarchic and advanced, chaotic and civilized. Perhaps the craziness of the petite student city is unlike any other place in America. About to graduate myself, I am surprisingly sad to leave the place I often considered a beautiful nightmare.
They say to never bring up politics or religion. The infamous social welfare question is a tough one. I realize I am basically setting myself up for failure for attempting to address such a complicated topic. But Tobi and Steffen’s economics background and European viewpoints give the left-right debate another dimension. Plus, a boon for California is always worth mentioning.
Before we all got back on our bikes, I asked both of them if they could imagine living here permanently.
“No way,” Steffen said. He proved to be the bleeding-heart liberal of the two. After all, he is looking forward to leaving this drunken town and getting home to his girlfriend in Germany.
Tobi, on the other hand, does not have a girlfriend back home. He’s in no rush to leave.
Tobi mentioned more than once that Californians are open. I don’t think he was just talking about minds.
But that is another story.