Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Thoughts on Europe

We have just returned from a wonderful trip to Europe with our friends from Alexandria, Virginia. We flew to Amsterdam, spent two days there, then rented a car and drove along the coast, visiting the beaches at Normandy, south to Tours, through the Loire Valley and on to Paris. Spent three days in Paris and then drove straight back on the freeways to Amsterdam for our flight home. We traveled slowly and took the back roads (not worrying about getting lost because of our GPS which Bill thoughtfully provided), stayed in little out-of-the-way hotels and gave ourselves time to ponder on the differences between the European way of being and our own.

It took us a little while to get used to the idea that the Euro was worth more than the dollar. I can't remember going anywhere that the dollar was less than that country's currency. Now, here we were in a place where the Euro was worth about $1.35 Not only that, but we were shocked when a cup of coffee was about $3.00 and it was a small, almost espresso-sized cup! Breakfast in our hotel was about $17.00 each. The good thing about those breakfasts was that there was plenty of bread (baguettes) and lots of lunch meats and sliced cheeses, so we could make a sandwich for lunch and sneak it out of the dining room so that with some fruit and a pastry, we had lunch almost free. As we traveled, it became clear to us that if you wanted to sit at a table and have someone wait on you, you paid for it. If you wanted to go into a grocery, or bakery, or deli, you could purchase food and drink much, much cheaper. But you had to eat in the car, in the hotel room, or picnic. As we thought about it, this made a lot of sense. The high prices were charged in order to pay the staff a living wage (you do not tip in Europe) so being a waitress or waiter or cleaning person was not a job for unskilled, uneducated workers, but rather a job you could be proud of. It's a fair system, too, since customers pay for what they use. Real estate on the Champs Elysee is very expensive, so if you want to have a snack at one of those charming outdoor cafes, you'll pay $30.00 US for a cheeseburger. If you don't want to pay those rates, then wait and eat closer to your hotel.

We were struck by how neat and clean everything was. The streets, the subways, the sidewalks, the parks, the stores, the rooms, everything. We saw lots of workers sweeping the streets, cleaning the chairs in the subway, wiping down the public water fountains, doing anything that was needed to present an environment that was pleasant, colorful, full of art, and welcoming to people. Everyone seemed to respect their neighborhood, their home, their country.

The public transportation was to die for. Inexpensive, efficient, easy to understand. Americans would hate living in such small spaces as the Europeans do, with no yards, barely even a sidewalk or balcony to put a flower pot on. But, the upside is that neighbors and friends gather at the outdoor cafes and linger over a beer or coffee rather than inside their homes. The parks are filled with families picnicking or going to the art museums or just soaking up the sun. Everyone is surrounded by great art (with no graffitti!) which must give them an appreciation of beauty in the world.

One more thing and then I'll quit. In Amsterdam everyone rode a bicycle. There are bike lanes everywhere and if you insist on walking in a bike lane, prepare to be scared witless! They will run you over (almost). But, obesity is not a problem there, in spite of the fabulous food. We could take a lesson, huh? Photos to be posted soon to illustrate the points in the above paragraphs.