There was a time when an American returning from a trip to Europe would kiss the earth of Kennedy Airport and give thanks for being a citizen of our country.

But this is not always the case for urban dwellers these days, as they compare the quality of life in our cities with that in Europe's major metropolitan areas.

Sure, no one wants to leave this blessed country, but a recent trip to 10 major European cities left the solid impression that we have a lot of work to do before we can regain the wonderful feeling of urban life this nation used to offer.

Some impressions from a visit to European cities hit one immediately:

* There is virtually no sign of homelessness.

* There are no beggars. The only ones soliciting for spare change are young street musicians who regale passersby with classical music.

* Street crime is rare, and people feel safe walking even on dimly lighted streets well into the night. In fact, though few police are in evidence, no one seems to miss them.

* Even the availability of clean toilets in the areas where people congregate comes to an American as a pleasant surprise.

Compare this with the situation at the World Trade Center in New York, where tens of thousands of people arrive daily and where there is not a single public toilet available since the bombing. One must buy something at a coffee shop to use a rest room.

In Europe, American influences still predominate in entertainment and music. And American fast food has made major inroads. The new hub of many communities, from Prague to small ancient towns in Germany, is the MacDonald's.

It is also where Americans, tired of being taken by currency chargers, who exact as much as a 15% spread, can get a good rate on local money. A customer can pay with dollars and get change in the local currency unit.

American influences are seen in many other areas, such as banking. It was comical to walk on a back street in a small German town, look in the bank window, and see a sign that says, "Wie Funkioniert ein Reverse Floater."

Other impressions of an American banking professor include the realization that the European currency unit is going to deny a lot of hotels, money changers, and banks a lot of revenue, considering today's transaction costs on the switch from one currency to another.

But as one walks down Europe's clean streets (yes, that's something else they have) and thinks in a broader perspective, one realizes that the Europeans may have superiority in matters like quality of life, but the immensity of the United States and its diversity are overwhelming advantages.

Austria, I was told, has less than 10 million people - a number I sometimes think we can stuff into one subway train at rush hour.

All of continental Europe fits into one time zone, while we have four, exclusive of Hawaii and Alaska, and Russia has, I think, 11! No wonder the Europeans need unification if they are to compete.

And as you look at countries with overwhelming uniformity of religion (I think Austria is about 90% Catholic) and with people who still look back on hurts imposed on them by other races and tribes 700 years ago, you are grateful for our melting pot or at least our salad bowl. We are doing our best to blend and give opportunities to people of all backgrounds, something not always pushed for elsewhere.

So we still kiss the earth at Kennedy Airport when we return and show our American passports. But there is a lot we could do to regain a quality of life in America that major European cities seem never to have lost.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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