Having recently returned from travel in Europe, I realize we have much to learn from "the old country." Lessons range from how to better enjoy life to more serious issues of conservation and infrastructure.
For one thing, Americans need to get a (cafe) life. Unlike Europeans, we don't have a true cafe culture. While we may enjoy outdoor drinking or dining, we don't take time to simply sip coffee in the morning or wine at night, people-watching for the sheer fun of it. Such activity seems to Type-A Americans as wasting time. In Europe it's essential in the course of a day. My bet is cafe sitting is as healthy a thing to do as exercising regularly.
Along with that pleasure comes "savoring the sauce." In other words, Europeans cherish their regional and national cuisine. They take time to prepare food, to feast on a meal as if it were their last, and to enjoy it with family and friends. Dining, no matter the setting, is a communal celebration of life. Here, more often than not, we eat to live. There, they live to eat. It is part of a delicious cafe-based, culinary culture!
Europeans have also mastered some instructive aspects of travel and transport. For example, they get Ring-Around-the-Rotary. For some reason, we don't use rotaries sufficiently, despite their proven advantage in keeping traffic flowing. No matter the size of the circle, they move cars in an orderly, safe fashion and often eliminate the need for traffic lights. Europeans also have some of the most sophisticated, inviting mass transit systems in the world. Whether rapid trains like France's TGV or electric trolleys in urban areas, we have much to learn about how to move people quickly, efficiently, and in energy-saving ways. And bikes are big in Europe. Whether in cities or rural settings cycling is still prevalent. Many cities have bikes that can be rented for a small fee at one location and returned to another, as if taking a shopping cart from one supermarket and leaving it at one closer to home. Some American cities have been slow to pick up this idea. More need to consider it.
Speaking of grocery carts, what about the park-it-or-pay-for- it system that many European supermarkets use? Similar to airport carts, patrons pay to remove a cart from the kiosk where they are kept. In order to get their money back, they must return the cart, attaching it to other carts in the queue in order to get a refund.
Ah, kiosks. It's lovely to pick up a newspaper at one, but sad to see the rampant commercialism that seems to have overtaken every piazza and park in Europe. For anyone who first experienced, say, Venice's magnificent San Marco Square in the 1960s or 70s, the shock of schlock there now is heartbreaking. And the rampant development in places like Tuscany's hill towns or the French ski resort of Chamonix is enough to make older travelers weep. The lesson here? Resist commercialism and overdevelopment. It's okay, for example, to set limits on tour buses or to have walking areas with no vehicles permitted except for handicapped transport. If we must build something new, make sure it blends with the old. And if increasing tourism needs must be met, be respectful of the past and tasteful for the future.
But back to the positive lessons from Europe: Satellite those cells! Pitch the plastic! Have two-speed flushes!
Everywhere I travel, cell phone reception is clear and available, and that goes for the beaches in Phuket, the high mountains of Peru and the countryside near Paris. So why won't my "mobile" work here? The answer is that they use satellite technology while we rely on towers.
Restaurants all over Europe are now prohibited from serving water in plastic bottles. Want Perrier or Evian? It will come to your table in reusable glass carafes. True, stores can still sell spring water in plastic, but just limiting them in restaurants makes a huge difference. So does eliminating plastic bags. Increasingly, shops are providing cloth carriers for those who haven't brought their own "carry bags." And kudos to airlines like Lufthansa that have eliminate plastic eating utensils in economy class!
As for toilets with two flush buttons - not all flushes require as much water -- bravo to that technology. And to the windmills that grace the landscapes of Europe, dancing their unsynchronized ballets in the breeze.
European countries are not perfect. (Italy could use a lesson in road signage, not to mention driver etiquette.) But they are older than America and like wise grandparents they have things to teach us. We shouldn't, as adolescents are prone to do, turn our backs thinking we know better.
When traveling abroad, we need to look, listen, and learn. What better place to contemplate those lessons than in a sidewalk cafe, sipping cafe au lait or a glass of chilled pinot before a superb meal in the local tradition?