Editors note: Longtime Santa Monican Charles Andrews is traveling across Europe in a camper van for one year, with his family.
Time for one last column on more differences weve observed and experienced between Europe and the U.S., particularly as Santa Monicans:
Public toilets (including campgrounds) in southern Europe, meaning the old Yugoslavia (Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia), Albania, occasionally Spain, even in France, but especially in much of Greece and parts of Italy, may just be a hole in the concrete and two footprints to line yourself up.
Cmon, you guys conquered the world and built highways and aqueducts from Britain to India, and you still dont have pipes big enough for a decent sewer system? Even when there is a standard seat (or, more likely, a bowl without a seat), youll still find a sign warning you not to put your used tissue in the toilet. Theres a small wastebasket there for that purpose. Are you sufficiently grossed out?
Everywhere in Europe you will find a small plastic brush in its small plastic holder next to the toilet, which you are expected to use to clean up after yourself.
Germany is modern, but usually you find pay toilets, and that does not sit well with Americans.
Bike paths are standard. You can see Paris quite nicely by bike. Oslo, Brussels, Prague, Lisbon (but lots of hills), Copenhagen, Berlin and Barcelona, too. Rome or Athens if youre brave. And of course the bike is king in Holland, even in the countryside between small towns.
Many cities have thousands of bikes easily available, for free or very cheap. Hop on and ride to your destination, leave it there, usually unlocked, and grab another for your return trip. Our Santa Monica beach bike path is a treasure, but kudos to Mayor Villaraigosa for taking a step to make all of L.A. more bike-friendly.
Meat. Almost all Europeans seem to be enthusiastic carnivores, but its so expensive they usually buy it in very small packages, 2 to 4 ounces only a few slices.
Spain is the land of jambon. They love their leg of boar, which comes smoked to last weeks, and complete with hoof and hair, flipped upside down for easy carving in restaurants and at home on its specialized platter with posts and screws. There are specific grades of quality and you can pay $100 or more for one, and you see rows and rows of them lined up in supermarkets and especially all those butcher shops still common throughout Europe, often hanging from the ceiling. Spaniards spend their euros on big pig, not big cars.
Driving takes a big adjustment at first. Europeans blithely declare its easy to drive there. Well, not if youre used to not only American rules, but American mentality.
In most countries they almost universally follow the rules of the road. They know it all flows nicely if you do. If someone comes right up to the edge of the road, even fairly fast, and if they dont have the right of way, they stop, and enter the flow of traffic when they can. In America, when someone comes right up to the edge of the road, you dont know if theyre going to be a bonehead or inattentive and cruise right into your path. That just doesnt happen here.
Europeans will miss each other by an inch or two and its not a problem. In the U.S., you blast your horn and scream at a guy who came too close to your precious metal. It takes many hours of classes and instruction, at high cost, to get your license in Europe. Seems to pay off. And they rarely drink and drive; one infraction, at very low blood alcohol levels and you can lose your license for life.
Stop signs mean stop only if there is someone coming, otherwise zoom on through, almost like a yield sign. No right turns on red; at signals, there will always be a turn arrow. When you see the yellow light, better hit the brakes, it will probably be very short. Most places youll get a quick flash of yellow light at the end of your red signal, warning you green is coming, start moving. Signals are always right where you stop, not across the intersection somewhere. Dont pull up too far or you may not be able to see your light (though usually there is a set of mini-lights down low, to cover that).
Many Americans hate traffic circles; I mostly love them. Theyre smart, they keep traffic moving quickly and smoothly. You can go half a day many places and never hit a traffic light. Two problems Ive had: sometimes finding the right lane in the circle to exit when I need, and listening to my GPS who often miscounts the exits when he tells you which one to take.
On highways, do not be in any lane except the slow one unless youre passing everyone, no matter what your speed. Its considered thoughtless and rude.
Cities and towns are mostly attractive throughout, with rare ugliness (even in industrial zones) and extensive green areas and so many more trees than U.S. cities. Yes, their buildings are older, from a time when it was a given that structures were designed for function and aesthetics, but they spend the money to maintain them. We rarely saw a cathedral or old town hall without scaffolding for restoration.
Some cities, like London and Rome, discourage private auto traffic by charging a hefty fee to drive your car into the center, and many more use cameras to send you a very expensive citation if you should venture there despite the warning signs (in a language you cant read). Of course they have the public transportation to back it up.
Restaurants. The meal is semi-sacred across Europe, not just a time to gobble down calories, but the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. A restaurant in Europe will never present you with the bill until you ask for it, even if its been an hour since the last item you ordered. No bums rush to empty tables for the next round of customers. Weve stayed past closing time and still never been nudged.
You can follow the Andrews family’s daily blog at anandrewsadventure.blogspot.com