When we set out on this trip we weren't sure what to expect. We had been to Europe at least a dozen times, always on trips about two weeks long, and always with a rental car. We had just completed a three-month driving tour of eastern Canada, and found that trying to learn about the regions we visited gave a focus to our travel. We liked the discipline of preparing daily reports; it helped us to remember what we did, and gave us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our experiences.
There's only so much to be learned by visiting tourist attractions, so we added two features: reading and talking to strangers. These were both pretty important parts of our learning, and a lot of our conclusions are based upon them.
We found ourselves intrigued by specific topics, e.g., De Gaulle, the politics of today's France, the current responses to neo-Nazism. It was hard to find good English reading material on these topics; in fact it was hard to find good English nonfiction (one exception was Amsterdam.) But there are a several good reads on these subjects in the booklist, q.v.
We didn't see all of Western Europe in three months. Most of our time was spent in eight countries - Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, and Italy - and about half the trip was spent in Germany and France. We didn't go to Scandinavia, Iberia, or the British Isles, nor anywhere in Eastern or Southern Europe. Therefore our conclusions are based on a limited look at parts of the Continent.
That said, we have deepened our understanding of Europe, and gained a better appreciation of the United States as well. We realized that we had forgotten or never learned important ideas and events of European history. We discovered that research methods and access to materials have improved greatly during the past half century, giving the study of history and political science greater depth and relevance.
The parts of Europe we visited were deeply involved in the spread of Christianity, marked by the construction of great stone churches and monasteries. Here the Catholic church gained great power, through the marriage of church and state in the Holy Roman Empire. The Palace of the Popes in Avignon gave us physical evidence of the incredible temporal power and wealth of the Church. We learned of the splits in the Church, which led to the evils of the Inquisition, and the ultimate creation of separate Protestant Christian denominations. We saw how these religious disputes were reflected in the destruction of Church art during the Reformation, and saw the rise of Renaissance and Baroque art later on.
Because of the continuous chain of history tracing back to classical civilization, we had tended to think of Europe as old, therefore settled and stable. But, having been taught history from an American point of view, we had not understood the impact of twentieth century wars on European soil. The current condition of virtually every part of Europe we visited is due in large part to events occuring in the last fifty-five years. From this point of view, Europe is new, much newer than the United States. It is difficult to overestimate the effect of WW II on Europe and its people.
It seems to us that Europeans are accustomed to more government than Americans. This probably has to do primarily with the boisterous expansionism in America as hordes of immigrant Europeans spread across North America, overwhelming the less powerful native tribes. Meanwhile, in Europe, land has been under the control of aristocratic families for centuries, and the middle class developed not as homesteaders but as artisans and merchants. Whatever the historical reason, there is a greater reliance upon and acceptance of government in Europe. This actually means that many things that are accomplished by private enterprise in the U.S. are done by government-owned corporations in Europe. In other words, we see Europeans looking to the government to fix things that Americans would try to fix through private enterprise. We also see virtually all ordinary European men and women thinking quite bureaucratically; they are quite willing to accept delays, inconveniences, and inefficiencies created by their governments. They expect their lives to be filled with complications caused by government regulations, and they think that is OK, because they believe the government in turn is looking out for them.
We spent a lot of time studying the holocaust. We are beginning to comprehend the magnitude of the event, but to explain its origins is more difficult, and it is deeply disturbing to us. Where did the anti-semitism originate and how was it propagated? Were the Jews hated merely because some of them were successful and attacked merely because most of them could not fight back? How does the genocide of the Jews compare with more recent genocides in Bosnia and Ruanda?
Each country we visited was afflicted with a significant amount of anti-Semitism in the 1940s. Citizens of each country willingly assisted the German Nazis in sending Jews to an almost certain death. We believe Germany itself has the strongest educational program to deter future hate crimes and to fight genocide. But genocide continues today in several parts of the world, and the Europeans seem no better able than the United States to intervene in time. Questions of providing troops and military equipment to UN and NATO efforts are daily debated in the major European newspapers, as individual countries grapple with the responsibilities of participating in multi-national organizations.
Many European countries are struggling with the social problems caused by immigration. With European birth rates low, guest workers from nearby countries find lucrative jobs waiting. Many immigrants bring their own visible cultural practices, which can bring them into conflict with the host civilization. Cultural and ethnic diversity was very apparent to us during our travels. The key issues for debate in European forums include monoculturalism versus multiculturalism, and resisting the effects of globalization. These issues are exacerbated by a European employment structure that places too much of the burden of unemployment on youth.
The attitudes about change and diversity are definitely affected by the slow but steady efforts in the direction of European Union. By providing for free movement of goods and peoples, and a common currency, Europe's political leaders are speaking out for a multicultural Europe. Certain national votes, such as the recent Danish refusal to enter monetary union, say that many of Europe's ordinary citizens are speaking out for monocultural nation-states. The intellectual tension is evident.
We certainly do not pretend to understand all the nuances of these issues. But we do believe that the rate of social change is accelerating, and that efforts to preserve all the "old ways" of any particular culture are doomed as long as people with different cultures must live and work together. So the old ways of the European country and the old ways of the birth country of the immigrants will each be eroded in part. Societies are developing and evolving fast. As global communications get faster and easier, and as global movements of peoples get faster and easier, there will be more social and cultural interaction, which will cause still more change. We can only hope that those opposed to change do not resort to violence.
We have commented so favorably on the vast number of Europeans who speak English that we may have neglected to state the obvious: an American traveler in Europe is still visiting foreign countries. We learned this on a visceral level, and didn't realize how it affected us until we returned to the United States. We went into a newsstand in Boston, and had a little joke with the clerk, because we only put out a one dollar bill for an eleven dollar purchase. Well, we said, that would be nice, and everybody laughed. The point is, that body language and tones of voice and facial expressions all contributed to the understanding that it was really a funny mistake; but body language and tones of voice and facial expressions are things you do only in your mother tongue, not in a foreign language. So all of a sudden we realized that we hadn't joked with a sales clerk for three months. Even though the clerks all had enough English to carry out the transaction, there was no joking around.
So what that says is that there's a certain strain in being in a foreign country, because you can't be fully relaxed, because you're not speaking your mother tongue. The strain would be alleviated if you were travelling with a group; to a lesser extent if you were travelling, like us, with a friend or spouse. It could be quite severe if you were travelling alone. We only got this understanding because of the length of our trip. We have decided that we'd make a more serious effort to learn French and German by going to school if we came back for another extended trip (Elsa, who is fairly comfortable in French, finds that her French is dated and not sufficiently colloquial).
There is a great similarity between European transportation systems. By the end of our trip we felt confident that we could enter a European city and get around by train, subway, tram, and bus without any difficulty. We also could find out what sights to see and walk to them. So our trip made us experienced European travelers in a way that our frequent short visits by car couldn't do.
After travelling by train for a while, we noticed that the Europe we were seeing was different from the Europe we saw on previous trips by car. America is such a young country that this comes as a surprise. In Europe most cities are very old, and the center is likely to be filled with narrow twisting streets and old, decorated buildings. But if you go out in the country by car, you see supermarkets and malls and motels and modern buildings that look much more similar to those in the U.S. After visiting one old city after another for weeks, we got to saying, "We're seeing Europe 1. Europe 2 is out on the freeways."
Those are the major things we gained and learned from our trip, but we'd also like to share some of the practical knowledge. We've already included a special section on trains; here are some other items.
Drug stores are difficult in Europe. Of course we had brought a complete supply of our prescription medications with us. We believe that if we had lost a prescription, we could have had it filled by a process of telephone and fax communications with our doctor in the U.S. What we didn't realize is that a large amount of the over-the-counter medications we were accustomed to buying in the U.S. are simply not available. For example: Citrucel, hydrocortisone skin cream, and Tums. Even vitamins are commonly sold only in pharmacies, and at much lower dosages than we commonly find in U.S. supermarkets. The next time we'll bring a three-month supply of our non-prescription medications too.
Using electrical appliances, including our laptop, is tricky in Europe. Europeans use 220-volt power, and their outlet receptacles vary from one country to another. They also use different telephone connections, which in some countries may mean different voltage or polarity, and the telephone outlet receptacles vary widely from one country to another. To deal with all this, we carried adapters, transformers, test kits, and converters, which was more junk to lug around. But it worked.
Europe doesn't go 24/7 to the same extent as the U.S. This is especially important if you're going to the grocery store. We actually had no trouble finding supermarkets, although they were often smaller and more cramped if they were in the city. Often a department store would have a supermarket, too. But we were careful to watch out for stores that opened late, closed early, were closed on weekends or during lunch.
There were few places in Europe 1 where one could enjoy wide boulevards with beautiful sidewalks for pedestrians. This is because Europe 1 was built before the age of invention, when the streets only accommodated pedestrians and horsemen and horse-drawn carts. But now those same streets try to handle cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, roller blades and the occasional petrified visitor.
Self-service laundries were hard to find and expensive, and we had our laundry done at the hotel more than once. We don't wear expensive clothes, so it always bothers us to spend a lot on laundry. But we don't wear dirty clothes, either, so what the heck!
Hooking up to the internet is not free. We had been spoiled when (a) we lived in the U.S. and (b) we had a home phone. Then for $15 or $20 a month we could get unlimited internet service with a local provider. We took advantage of U.S. phone rates which typically provide unlimited local calls included in the flat monthly charge. Being on the road costs more, especially when some hotels (either in the U.S. or Europe) charge exorbitant amounts for local calls. But it's like the laundry - we needed to be on the internet, so what the heck!
We (especially Bob) are morning people. We get up quite early, and go to bed early. Our doctor says we should try to go to bed at least two hours after our last meal. So we'd like to be finished eating by 6 p.m. In the U.S. this is no problem, but in Europe it is - especially in Southern Europe. Our solution was not to eat dinner in restaurants, but to bring some food into the hotel room. The minibar worked as a refrigerator. We'd often eat lunch in a restaurant to sample the local culinary specialties.
We recommend the idea of staying several days in one city, long enough to see that city and to take railroad excursions to nearby cities. We found a one-hour train trip in the morning, followed by a sightseeing walk, followed by another one-hour train trip in the afternoon, worked very well. The advantage is you get settled in one place and aren't moving all the time. In fact, we think a stay of one week is about perfect for this kind of rail travel. So in three months, you might only stay in 13 cities, which is not very many.
So those are some practical tips that worked for us. Which brings us to the final questions: are we glad we went, and would we do it again?
Europe is big; it has 350 million people and a lot to see. We didn't buy the Eastern European supplement to the Eurail pass, because we knew we'd have enough to do in Western Europe. Even limiting our travel to Western Europe, think of all we missed: Berlin, Heidelberg, Brussels, Florence, Rome. All of Spain and Portugal. All of Norway, Sweden and Finland (Yes we got to Malmo for a couple of hours, but that hardly counts.) Greece. The islands, including Corsica, Sicily, and Sardinia. Ireland. The U.K.
Clearly we couldn't do that all in one trip, either. So yes, we enjoyed ourselves, and yes, we have lots more exploration to do in Europe. But we might not buy another Eurail Pass. Instead, we might buy a local pass, which are for sale to cover Scandinavia, or Spain and Portugal, or the U.K. Or we might want to see more of Europe 2 and travel by car. But, the Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, we'll be back.
We do like to correspond by email, and we'd be happy to answer questions about our trip.