I’m pretty sure what my family is doing is not unique, but it certainly is unusual.
My daughter Nicole graduated from Santa Monica High School in June, and July 11 we were airborne for Düsseldorf, Germany, the first step in the realization of a dream four years in the making: to travel as a family for one year, camping, in a very small VW Westfalia camper, all over Europe — without killing each other.
Lots of Europeans go camping on their holidays (vacations), which often last a month. Some throw a tent in their car and go from camp to camp, or hang out in one or two. Others have caravans (campers), some of them so big and well equipped they rival our small Ocean Park condo. A VW Westy has a small stove, refrigerator and sink, and can sleep four (cramped), but that’s it. If you want any breathing space, you have to leave the camper.
What 17-year-old girl could endure such deprivation for even a month, let alone the prospect of being with her parents constantly for a year? Nicole’s response: “Europe? For a year? Free? And I don’t even have to drive? I’m in!” (When we return she’ll start at Santa Monica College.) Quite a few people who heard of this scheme have been inspired, and vowed to jump out of the rat race and do something like it.
The idea didn’t come out of thin air. I made a very similar journey in 1972-73, when I was 25, married to someone else, and had a 2-year-old son. It changed my life. My wife Dian initiated this far-more-complex version, because it sounded like such a great life adventure that she wanted to experience it, because she knew what an education it could be for a 17-year-old, and because as a cancer survivor she knew life was meant to be lived to the fullest — right now.
So here we are, three months in, no homicides attempted, and we have had the most amazing adventures. As the newly-minted Santa Monica Daily Press European correspondent, I will be writing occasionally about things done and observed. Publisher Ross Furukawa, the ultimate Santa Monica booster, told me he is especially interested in the contrasts I observe as a quarter century resident of Ocean Park. Here are a few, some trivial, some not.
The cars are smaller. Much. Even BMW, Audi, Volvo are smaller than their American counterparts. There are more brands from more countries than you can imagine. A couple weeks ago I spotted the sports car model of the Smart Car; looked like a very small Italian race car. (Smart still doesn’t beat my Prius for mileage.)
You’d think you could easily get Internet access all over Europe. Not so. Same with phones, no easy/cheap solution if you’re on the move.
Architecture is stunning here, wildly creative in every country we’ve been in. Also, public art is considered a necessity of life here, not a luxury. Visited our cousin Henri’s CSI police office in Eindhoven, Netherlands and remarked on the nice art on the walls. Well, he said, it’s part of the operating budget; it’s required. Meanwhile, back in SoCal, we’re firing arts teachers.
While highly-taxed European societies provide services undreamed of in the U.S. (complete, no-cost, high quality health care, free education through post-grad university level, constantly repaired infrastructure), one thing they charge for that doesn’t sit well with Americans are the restrooms.
Bikes rule Holland, and make driving difficult for Yanks and those in other countries, but to a lesser degree. Subways, trams, buses, pedestrians, bikes, scooters, skateboards, and of course cars are all on the same roads with varying rights of way.
The drinking age is 18. Bakeries are everywhere, sometimes several on one block. Clothing styles are behind SoCal, unless you’re in Paris, Rome, London. Money: not all EU countries use the Euro and it gets confusing as you keep crossing borders. “OK” is the one American English expression used everywhere.
Kill all the lawyers: so many great places we’ve visited with open ancient stone steps to walk or no guardrails where I’ve thought, “couldn’t do this at home for fear of lawsuits.” Here you’re expected to use common sense and not sue when you don’t.
Language, of course, but it hasn’t really been a problem. No matter what country you can always find someone who knows enough English to help you. Friendliness and willingness to help a stranger seem, so far, universal. Often people will go to a lot of effort to lend a hand.
Billboards, trash and clutter are almost non-existent. It wasn’t until the southern edge of our 10th country, Croatia, that we saw even a little; still nowhere near U.S. levels.
Prices: so far almost universally, sometimes shockingly higher than in the U.S., with two precious exceptions: great cheese, and beer. Great beer at cheaper-than-Coors prices.
Charles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org