Travels to Europe shed light on life in the U.S.
My wife and I had the opportunity to travel to Scandinavia and the Baltic region this summer. Each country was fascinating and expanded our horizons greatly. However, we constantly were reminded of how lucky we are to live in New Hampshire and the United States. A few examples of these reminders are as follows. We spent a week in Norway, a beautiful, affluent and educated nation. We were struck by the fact that, using the money received from North Sea oil and the rather strong economy, prices were higher than ours, energy costs substantial and, notably, the fact that Norwegians have cradle-to-master's degree-level free education, free health care and healthy retirement pensions. Many commented on the lack of incentive young people seem to have.Also in Norway, we had the opportunity to spend time with the U.S. ambassador and his wife, Barry and Eleanor White of Newton, Mass., and Sunapee, N.H. The Whites are gracious hosts and represent the United States well.We visited the Nobel Peace Prize Museum and Oslo City Hall, where the prize is given. The most recent recipient, President Barack Obama, is the subject of an exhibit that discusses openly the controversy surrounding his receiving it. His acceptance speech which stressed the fact that sometimes there are things more important than peace, made us stop and think.Another beautiful country, Sweden is sort of Norway writ large. Again, the people are intelligent, friendly, and we were struck by the institutional buildings housing Parliament and the royal family and the beautiful city hall where all of the other Nobel Prizes are celebrated.In all the other countries we visited, they made note of the effect of World War II. In Sweden, they noted that they had been at "peace" for 200 years. That sounded nice, and the lack of rebuilding following World War II enhanced the environment, but the realization sank in that that meant they had been neutral or worse while Hitler and the Nazis held power in Germany and terrorized Europe. President Obama was right. Finland was the third Scandinavian country in which we noted the number of rather expensive pleasure boats on the waterways, high standard of living, bustling economy and beauty of its capital, Helsinki, as well as the countryside.Monuments to those lost in World War II were sobering, and the many Protestant churches a reminder of the Reformation, which changed ancient structures from Catholic to Protestant, largely on the decision of the government. Each population has its own personality and the Finnish seemed diligent, sober and hard-working, but not as full of fun as those in Sweden and Norway.St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. However, while Russia now is freer than under the "Soviet era," as they call it, passport control, monitoring of trips, restriction to buildings that tours attended and other reminders of a more regulated society were constant. More importantly, the eloquently able English-speaking guide we had minced no words when she talked about "the events of October 1917" and, when speaking of the Hermitage Museum, indicated that the reason it has 3 million items in its collection is that the items were taken from noblemen and other wealthy Russians during the revolution and "nationalized, which means 'stolen'." The changes in Russia, however, are startling.The small country of Latvia was charming, and its capital, Riga, interesting both in terms of history and architecture. What was most telling about Latvia, along with St. Petersburg and Poland, was that this country seems to have been at the whim of others throughout most of its history, having been governed by the Nazis, the Soviets and other conquerors. Visiting Gdansk, Poland, the signs of people throwing off oppression are everywhere. Our tour took us past Lech Walesa's house, Solidarity headquarters, the Solidarity Monument and the Gdansk Shipyard, where resistance to Communist rule began. The guide spoke about Pope John Paul II, the valiant Pole who helped with the liberation of Europe, and pointed to the fact that freedom came there in 1989, while 1991 is the year mentioned in Russia and Latvia.The effect of changed borders, Nazi occupation, Soviet rule and other external forces on Poland's history were everywhere and reminded us how lucky we are in the United States not to have suffered similarly in our history.Not only does a visit to northern Europe expand one's understanding of the world, but it also makes real the history learned in school - a tangible reminder of the value of living in the United States.Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.