Editor¬ís note: Longtime Santa Monican Charles Andrews is traveling across Europe in a camper van for one year, with his family.
For almost a year I¬íve sent in columns dealing with the differences from home that I observed throughout Europe and north Africa. More could be said. But now I¬ím home and it¬ís time to notice how that feels and looks.
L.A.. is big. Huge. Spread out. Gray. Not so green. I knew all this, but it hits you once you start hitting the freeways again. Athens is huge and spread out and most of it not so pretty. To some extent, also Rome. Madrid, Berlin, Naples, Vienna and Salzburg.
But when you get to a city¬ís core, Eurocities always win. Of course, they have centuries or even millennia head start on any American city, but they treasure it, they preserve and restore it, they don¬ít rush to tear it down for something new (and more profitable). And even beyond the core, you¬íll often see startling (in a good way) public art, in some otherwise nondescript residential area. How many sculptures or fountains have you counted lately in Culver City, Wilmington or even Mt. Washington or Silverlake?
Billboards. I¬íve always hated billboards. How dare we be constantly subjected to ugly huge advertising thrust into our faces, polluting our vision of the blue skies (when we have them), the mountains, the beautiful coastline? Just for the profit of a few. You think the free market can¬ít operate without pervasive advertising? They seem to manage throughout Europe, where we rarely saw a billboard. On the highways, businesses get maybe one official small brown rectangular sign, the size of your leg. And guess what? If you¬íre looking for something like that, you want a restaurant, you see the sign and you pull off where it points. Isn¬ít that enough?
Driving is crazy here. Argue if you will but I have lots of experience, and I¬ím here to tell you Americans are, as a group, some of the worst drivers on two continents. Oh, plenty of Europeans are crazier. Italians love to pull into your lane as they pass you with maybe a few inches clearance, and a couple seconds avoidance of the truck coming their way. Germans often have no speed limits, and the cars to test them. Most of the rules of the road are ignored in Morocco. French truck drivers frequently cause you to exclaim the name of your chosen God. Northern Scotland¬ís ¬ìhighways¬î turn into one-lane guessing games. And Greece is a road adventure you have to experience.
But having said all that, when Eurodrivers pull in front of you, they always go faster than you do. You rarely have to hit your brakes. Traffic flows smoothly. L.A. drivers seem to think that once they¬íve hit the lane they want they can relax and take their foot off the gas like there¬ís no one behind them (that they just cut in front of).
Ever see all lanes of traffic creeping because two cars decide 30 or even 50 is a really nice speed? In Europe, if you¬íre not going faster than everyone around you, better get into the slow lane or you¬íll get flashed and honked for being so thoughtless.
Too many traffic signals here, not enough (ha! any!) traffic circles. Plenty of the latter everywhere in Europe, even on highways, very few traffic lights even in cities. As a result, traffic flows there, to a rhythm, and traffic slows and halts here.
It¬ís rare to see cars pulled over in Europe because of an accident. Credit the flow. Credit the demanding, expensive process to get licensed (six months, six grand or more). Credit severe penalties for drinking and driving (easy to lose your license for life for one violation). I say credit also a shared agreement on driving. Rarely does anyone drift out of their lane, or run a stop sign or fail to yield, or break other rules. Why do we?
Cops. As soon as I got back I picked up the fear of the black and white again. Corny as it sounds, cops are rarely seen and not feared by most Europeans. They don¬ít lie in wait to catch you breaking some traffic law. Maybe they have better things to do. More traffic cameras there.
As I observed Americans again on their home turf, I thought, what¬ís different about us? Could I pick out an American now, anywhere? I think, yes. We walk and talk with an air of confidence, a can-do attitude. Sure that tips over sometimes into ugly American-ness, but the flip side of that is a contented assurance that you don¬ít see in most Europeans. Very hard to explain, but I see it. And it¬ís good.
We have some new young friends from Holland who are visiting in Chicago for an extended stay, and they say they are having the time of their lives enjoying our food, our culture and even our fast-paced way of life. And being treated very well by Americans. Since we were treated so wonderfully all over Europe, that news really makes me feel good about us.
You can follow the Andrews family¬ís daily blog at anandrewsadventure.blogspot.com