Wednesday, August 31, 2005

European Oddities

Hi Ho America,

I just got back from one of my treks to Europe including a short visit to the land my ancestors left back during the great pasta famine of the early 20th century (yeah, I'm talking about Italy). I love Europe (at least the countries I've visited to date). I love the ambience, the food, the history, the language, the women (to look at, not take home); I even love the Euro although the conversion rate made the trip a lot more expensive than it used to be when the Euro and dollar were one-to-one. I don't consider myself Americentric but am puzzled by the way Europeans do certain things. Here's a few of my European Oddities:

Elevators: Even in new hotels with shiny lobbies and marble everthing, European elevators resemble tiny hall closets. With luck and persistence you might be able to squeeze two people and their luggage into these things. Once inside (at least at one hotel where we stayed) the light was so dim it was difficult to find the button for the floor you wanted (and hard to get ot it if you were wedged in with your luggage). This hotel obviously catered to English-speakers because at every floor a heavily-accented woman's voice would announce the floor. Once the elevator stopped and the inner grate opened you had to remember to push the outside door open. If you stood there like an idiot (like I did at least once) the elevator would soon be on its merry way.

Showers: Even in the cheapest flea-bag European hotels, the bathrooms are (at least in my experience) all marble walls and floors. The shower is usually one of those hand-held affairs with, occasionally, a place to hang the shower device so you can shower hands-free. But for some reason, Europeans don't seem to mind water splashing every square inch of their bathrooms because shower curtains are as rare as Starbucks in Rome (really, if there's a Starbucks in Rome I never found it). In one hotel where we stayed there was a glass partition that covered about one quarter of the length of the tub so if you were very careful you could keep most of the water in the general vicinity of the tub. I figured out that Europeans really want you to sit down when you bathe but I could never get used to the idea.

Toilets: You've probably heard this before even if you've never experienced European toilets yourself but in Europe, toilets are fundamentally different in one special way. Without being too indelicate, the waste drops onto a little shelf instead of directly into the water like the toilets here in the States. Consequently, European toilets always appear unclean even after a healthy flush (toilet brushes are omnipresent, thank goodness.) I can only speculate that Europeans, who are much more attuned to their general health than we are, want to inspect what's come out of them before assigning it to the sewers. If anyone knows the real reason, I'd be interested to know.

Toilet Paper: I've only experience this in Greece and there's probably a reason for it (although no one ever explained it to me) but for some reason they discourage putting used toilet paper into the toilet. Next to every toilet in Greece is a little trashcan where you dispose of your used paper. As much as I try to go native in foreign countries I couldn't abide by this particular curiosity. If the sewers in Athens and elsewhere in Greece are, at this moment, backing up, I'm really sorry guys.

Public transportation: In most major European cities the public transportation system is fantastic and easy to use (albeit a great place to lose your wallet if you're not careful) . But, in a couple of the countries I visited, they use the honor system with regard to tickets. In the US (New York, DC, even Atlanta) you've got to have a ticket to get through the gates or onto the bus. In Rome and Athens it's a little different. They assume that you buy a ticket, have it validated on your own and otherwise abide by the rules. There is a slight threat that someone might ask to see your ticket (the fines for not having one are quite high) but nobody ever asked to see my ticket. Come to think of it, I never saw anyone checking tickets anywhere. Can you imagine how that system would go over in the States?

The European Union: This is my problem. I used to travel to Europe before the EU changed the way you come in and go out of EU countries and I can't quite get used to the new system. Back in the day, every country had its own border security (as well as its own currency) so you had to show your passport every time you crossed a border (and got a stamp proving that you were actually there.) These days, when you fly from America to Europe, wherever you land is your EU entry. Flights between EU countries are like domestic flights here in the US so in our case, we flew into Munich went through passport control and then caught a connecting flight to Rome. If there was the usual customs anywhere along the route I never saw it. I didn't have to fill out any paperwork...nothing. Now, on the way back to the States via Frankfurt it was no-nonsense. It seemed like we went through security three times. Everyone in my group was thoroughly wanded and they confiscated the little pair of scissors I had in my first-aid kit (the same scissors security in Athens waved through without a second thought.) We had to fill out customs forms detailing everything we bought (which no one ever does, of course) but everybody in my group sailed through customs without even a curious look.

For the moment, that's all I can think of but I wanted to remark on a curious American phenomenon. Landing at JFK a number of my fellow passengers applauded. I've noticed this before on several flights and always wondered if this was a particular type of patriotism or whether the European Oddities were just too much for some people. Me, I'm ready to go back if someone would buy me a ticket (and provide hotels and food and show me around.) Ciao Bella