Couple weekends ago I was in the Scottish Highlands.
Scotland is known, at least among me, for its unexplainably high rates of obesity and alcoholism. One of the reasons I wanted to go there was to see if the liquids and solids environment was really so extreme.
This is basically vacation as confirmation bias. In the last 10 years I’ve become a weirdly dogmatic structuralist.
When I moved to Europe I weighed 1.5 times as much as I do now. I lost 60 pounds my first year here and never put it back on again.
It’s not that I magically had the willpower to eat better and exercise more. It’s that a Mountain Dew in Denmark costs four dollars, a Big Mac Extra Value Meal costs fifteen, a monthly bus pass costs — well, I never even checked. More than biking.
Not drinking pop, learning how to cook, cycling everywhere, they weren’t signs of some new Euro-fortitude. They were just my habits adjusting to my circumstances.
I went to a lot of grocery stores when I was in Scotland. Here’s a mini-mart in a working-class (or at least working class-looking?) neighborhood of Inverness.
It’s what you’d expect. Shelf after shelf of worryingly cheap alcohol and snacks.
Flanking a meagre little corner with actual groceries.
‘Does anyone ever buy the bananas?’ I asked the manager.
‘Nah,’ she said. ‘We usually just throw them out.’
It wasn’t just the prices in Denmark that made me change my habits. All of my friends cooked their meals most nights, ate out reluctantly, biked everywhere. And looked amazing. Being surrounded by beautiful skyscraper Teutons, it turns out, is powerful motivation to skip seconds.
Sometimes I wonder if constantly looking for structural explanations means I don’t believe in personal responsibility. A skinny Dane isn’t more virtuous or hardworking or sophisticated than an overweight Scot, goes my brain. He’s just choosing among the options available.
‘If you’re fat it’s because you eat too much,’ my Danish friends would say when I brought this up. ‘Just stop eating so much. It’s that simple.’
And it is. And it also isn’t.
Sometimes I feel like some sort of left-wing caricature for thinking this way: it’s not your fault you’re fat, it’s your country’s fault.
And shit, I probably am, in more ways than just this.
But there’s being right and there’s being nice. Sometimes choosing between the available options means paying attention to one, and completely ignoring the other.