Tomorrow marks the beginning of our spring semester at Bethel, which should officially make me stop thinking about our recently-concluded three-week travel course in England, Belgium, France, and Germany and force me to focus on, oh, writing syllabi for the classes I have to teach. So as a farewell to January’s journeys, a few things that I will (and won’t) miss about the Old World:
Excellent train networks
I actually rode a lot of Amtrak in grad school, but once you’re out of the Northeast corridor, you’re confronted again with the abysmal state of passenger train travel in this country. So above all else, I’ll miss Europe’s inter- and intra-city rail systems: extensive, timely, reliable…
And did I mention, affordable and convenient — at least as contrasted with automobiles and airplanes? Check out this Freakonomics post by Sanjoy Mahajan, comparing a flight from Boston to New York with a train trip from Paris to Lyon: altogether the former is twice as expensive and twice as slow as the latter (factoring in all the time it takes to get to the airport, through security, waiting to depart, waiting for luggage, etc.).
Alas, Mahajan points out, the US (like the UK) network is barely half the size it used to be. Which hit home while I constructed a Seattle to Miami route on the iPad version of Ticket to Ride — while I breezed along on the TGV from Paris to Munich.
Throughout the first week of the course, I fretted that scheduling the trip to open with eight full days in London was a mistake: too much time in one place, students would run out of things to occupy their interest…
As it turned out, it was an exceedingly good way to start the course. Not only did it ease our students into the experience of living out of a suitcase in a foreign (but English-speaking) country, but what is otherwise an extraordinarily expensive city is blessed with an abundance of excellent museums that request a donation but don’t require a fee. In addition to the no-cost visits to the Tate Britain, Museum of London, and National Army Museum (in place of the also-free Imperial War Museum during its renovations) that were required components of our course on World War I, students didn’t have to shell out pound one while they conducted project research (or simply indulged nerdy interests) at museums as diverse as the Victoria & Albert, Tate Modern, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, London Science Museum, British Library, and British Museum. (The British Museum!!)
The Continent isn’t quite as friendly to the tourist-scholar on a budget, but we put together a pretty reasonable Holocaust history tour in France and Germany: spending five euros at Nuremberg’s Nazi Party Rally Grounds documentation center, and zero at Dachau or Paris’ Shoah memorial/museum. And you can spend an arty Sunday in Munich visiting the three Pinakotheke for one euro each…
I’m as big a fan of free-form DJing as (almost) anyone, but I don’t think you could program a Commodore 64 to do a worse job of putting together a playlist of background music than what you’re bound to hear in almost any European hostel or coffee shop, where a deep cut off the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack forms an ear-baffling sandwich with the latest single from One Direction and the least memorable track from In Utero. Or worse, where the Best of Peter, Paul, and Mary spins in toto, with nary a lounge jazz track or Eurosong runner-up to interrupt the flow.
(My co-instructor Sam respectfully disagrees, and thinks that every single song played somehow fit its moment. He also got excited to see a Last Action Hero pinball machine in our hostel in northern France.)
Pubs and beer halls
As someone who grew up in (and works in) a tee-totaling culture, there’s invariably a moment of hesitation preceding my entry into eateries where the sale of food, historically, has been peripheral to the sale of alcohol. But that moment got shorter and shorter the more we experimented with London pubs and Munich beer halls. After a disappointing dabble in pub chow last year, this time we ate well (and affordably) in the former: just within the seemingly limited range encompassed by “meat pie,” I enjoyed rabbit in a cider sauce, leek sausages with caramelized apples, and steak and mushrooms. And while it no doubt shortened my lifespan by at least a year, five days of Bavarian cuisine proved so memorable that the first meal I prepared when I got home was… Schweinebraten (fantastic! the rub includes ground caraway and celery seed, and I substituted dark beer for half the broth) with Blaukraut (already an old standby in our household) and potato dumplings (much less successful — between this disaster and an earlier gnocchi fiasco, I’m about ready to give up on the concept of dumping sticky lumps of dough in boiling, salted water).
Feeling like a giant
I’m not sure if I’ll miss this or not, but I think it really hit my colleague Sam and I when we found ourselves crammed into the lift one night at the Covent Garden Tube station. We’re both tall, but not remarkably so (6’3″/190cm). Yet we towered over every single man, woman, and child in that elevator by a good head. And I’ve got a big head.
(This also hit home anytime we walked through a preserved or recreated WWI trench built for early 20th century Europeans — as we learned at the National Army Museum, Sam and I were over half a foot taller than the minimum height required to pass muster for Britain’s elite “guards” regiments. My main takeaway: I would have either died within minutes in 1914, or snipers would have looked at me and said, “Nah, too easy.”)
All of which made it remarkable that most of the shower fixtures were at or near an appropriate height. (Beds, too! Neither was true of my months living in Britain and France in 1999-2000.) But more than that, I resolved once again that, if my wife and I ever have the wherewithal to renovate our upstairs bathroom, we’ll be using Grohe products. I’m not sure there was a single hotel/hostel bathroom I saw that didn’t use them, and they’re both reliable and attractive.
This post brought to you by GROHE, which reminds you to Enjoy water®.
2 thoughts on “What I Will and Won’t Miss About Europe”
Traveling around Britain by train can be far from excellent. Trains are routinely over-crowded, the cost is astronomic and the service sub-standard. Certain routes are nothing more than cattle trains and it’s a fight just to get on, let alone find a seated area. I’ve used trains in the UK most of my life, and it’s always been like this – yet at one time we used to be the envy of the world. I would not bring my American guests here to suffer the same routes I do. Yes, there are good routes, but they are few and far between. The major hubs are over-congested and the infrastructure itself is falling apart at the seems. And it’s been like this for decades. We are an over-crowded nation (and rising still thanks to immigration), and our entire transport infrastructure cannot cope. The only lesson I would give to your students is simply, do not make the same mistakes we have. Our rail system is damaged beyond repair.