Errant European

Note: This article appears in the current issue of “Together Magazine,” a Brussels bi-monthly distributed among the European institutions. For a change, it’s not really political, since the general theme of the issue was luxury. Enjoy your weekend!


Mont St. Michel, France
Mont St. Michel, France

Luxury – especially if its antonym is “discomfort” – cannot surely be all bad. Carried to extremes however, its pursuit can become, in the term coined by 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen, “conspicuous consumption” that is, wasteful, unnecessary, and – in these days of economic down-turning – downright despicable.

Perhaps that’s why certain advertising agencies have banned the “L” word from their lexicon, as Adweek recently suggested. This has happened before: luxuria, or “lust” in Latin, was the first of the original Seven Deadly Sins; search Google for contemporary usage and you’ll find certain British rock groups and dodgy Italian politicians.

What this will mean for all those products – Electrolux® appliances, Unilever’s Lux™ brand line – with the sinful suffix is difficult to say. As a prefix, “lux” is another matter, however – nobody accuses Luxembourg of lustful excess, though the Grand Duchy might have to go some extra lengths to prove that it is no longer a haven for all those luxury-seeking tax cheaters.

Flaunting your luxurious lifestyle to excess can sometimes result in trouble – if your conspicuous spending mismatches with your tax contributions, it can even bring the taxman to your door. The French have a term for that: “signes extérieurs de richesse” – there’s a delicious moment in the excellent 1998 comedy “Le Dîner de Cons” where the imminent visit of an inspector has the tax-avoiding leading man scrambling to stuff all his expensive artwork into a broom closet.

“Ostentation is a godsend for the fiscal authorities,” says a leading expert. But in some places, flaunting wealth is de rigueur. The Principality of Monaco actively courts URIs – “Ultra Rich Individuals” – who help fuel that casino “country” on the Med. But now, even URIs are facing straitened circumstances. The Economist, which recently ran a special report on “The Rich – Under Attack,” notes that luxury goods spending has plummeted some 34 %. “Bling on a budget,” apparently, is now the way of the wealthy. The Economist’s cover illustration is a Delacroix spin-off: French Revolutionaries led by a bare-breasted maid carrying a “Get the Rich!” placard (check the anachronous Blackberry on one of the fallen aristos). Poor dears.

Okay, there are the rich, the super-rich, and then there’s you and me. For Slumdogs who aren’t yet Millionaires, paying-to-poo in the relative comfort of a Mumbai latrine might be the height of luxury. Somewhere between that – and paying £35,000 for a diamond-studded cocktail in London’s Movida nightclub – is where I’d situate the luxury range for most Together Magazine readers. So here’s a suggestion: start thinking of luxury in strictly personal terms, instead of what you think those famous Joneses are up to, for you’ll never be able to keep up with them, and will be unhappy even trying.

Instead, carve out your personal luxury space and revel in it: a distinctive Belgian “beer-of-the-month” perhaps, taken in a local bistro, in a part of Brussels you don’t yet know. A €4.50 day-long public transport ticket, to crisscross the city in the quest for that special beer… (Note: non-alcoholic pleasures are permissible, but they escape me for the moment).

Here’s my personal cheapskate luxury favourite: find a seaside (or lakeside) location facing east, make a thermos of your preferred hot beverage, buy or bake some yummy pastries, and get up early enough to watch the sun rise. Variation: trade the breakfast fare for smoked salmon on fresh bread, accompanied with appropriate bubbly, and watch the setting sun opposite Ostend, or the ever-changing play of light over Mont Saint Michel.

It will set you back a couple of euros, but so what? If unstructured time, the sound of silence, and good company are precious commodities, you’ll be able to enjoy countless luxuries that those “URIs” can only dream of. Webster’s alternate definition of luxury: “a pleasure out of the ordinary allowed to oneself.” Doesn’t sound terribly sinful to me.


Gerald Loftus writes in Blogactiv and in Avuncular American.

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