Europe Through Canadian Eyes


PARLIAMENT< So I just spent a month in Europe. I assume my readership is expecting incisive observations. Of which I have none. Surprise, surprise. Europe just isn’t that different anymore. Sort of a pity. But don’t worry. The human race still contains enough variety that just having many of them speak at least a little English doesn’t precisely make visiting foreign climes a walk in the park. Although they do have a lot of lovely parks. So here are my observations, as a Norte Americano travelling in Europe: 1. Behind the Rusted Curtain I was interested to see what it would be like in the former Soviet Empire. I recall East Berlin in 1970: the grey buildings, empty streets, guards with machine guns on the train platform. Well, things have changed. The guards with machine guns now stand around in American airports. No sign of them in the Czech Republic or Hungary. The Czech people have had one reaction to their freedom that is easy to spot: colour. All the communist-era apartment buildings have been painted bright hues. I never did like bare, grey, cement. I don't think it suits the human soul. So the Czechs have humanized their cities, restored their monuments, and the country looks great. 2. Prague A beautiful city, especially the Old Town, which consists of cobblestone streets and squares surrounded by four- or five storey buildings, all couple of centuries old. They specialized in doorway architecture in those days, it seems. A relatively unadorned 18th-century building will have a front doorway with huge caryatids worthy of the Parthenon. The ground floors consist mostly of huge arched buttresses, creating arcades at street level, with few doors or windows. Restaurants tend to be deep in the middle of the building somewhere, with doors in several directions. So you pass a restaurant, go down the street, turn a corner, and there's the same restaurant. At least another entry. But all is not heavenly in the former Workers' Paradise. Beggars (mostly men in their 30s) kneel with their elbows on the street and hands pointed in supplication, the cup at their fingertips. And scoot rapidly away when they see the police coming. 3. The Changing Scenery It is interesting to take a train trip from Prague to Budapest. Out in the Czech countryside everything is clean and very tidy. There seem to be no old buildings. In rural France every third field has decrepit barn or storage shed, and every once in a while you will pass a disused farmhouse with the roof caved in. It seems the Communist era Czechs cleaned these buildings away and put their stones to useful purposes. But now everything looks prosperous. No small family fields: just large, single-crop ones, giving the impression that the farms are all multi-million euro businesses. Sort of like Northern France. Or North America. As the train moved into Slovakia (the poorer sister after the breakup of Czechoslovakia) everything got smaller, poorer, and more ragged. Graffiti on the fences surrounding the train stations increased. Once into Hungary things looked more prosperous again, although not up to the level of the Czechs. 4. Budapest Budapest is another jewel of a European heritage city, with hands down the most beautiful waterfront I have ever seen. The city contains a huge number of impressive, late-19th century buildings. Once you look into the history of Hungary the reason appears. It seems the Hungarians have been fighting for their independence for the last thousand years since they arrived on the scene, and mostly failing. For about half a century, when they managed almost-equal status with Austria in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there was a fantastic building boom, and most of the edifices in Budapest date from that era. Then came WWI and the Empire fell, and that was it. As far as travelling, Hungary (once you get out of the capital) is still quite cheap. We had a great 2-bedroom hotel/apartment in a new development on Lake Balaton for Can$60, including breakfast. An interesting note. The car rental company in Budapest normally takes a 1,000 euro damage deposit. Since we didn't go with their collision damage waiver, they took a 1,500 euro deposit. It does put one under certain amount of pressure not to scratch the car. 5. France We spent the second half of our trip in southern France, around Avignon, and it was a bit of a change, that's for sure. The TGV trip south from Paris, at speeds close to 200 kph, was a dream. The whole way everything was green and prosperous. Once we were in Provence, everything (except the vineyards) was on a small scale. But the biggest difference came in the number of trucks on the roads. Compared to Central Europe (It isn’t Eastern Europe any more. That name is reserved for Romania and the really poor folks) France has a much more bustling economy. Trucks all over the place, even on the smaller backroads. Work trucks, highway haulers, you name it. Notes of a social nature: 1. Body Art We saw a great number of tattoos in Czech and Hungary. Mostly on young people, but not all. Budapest rivalled Toronto for the number of decorated limbs and other body parts. Not that much in France, but we weren't in large cities, so I can’t say we saw a really good cross-section. Of course, we don't see a lot of ink in Tsawwassen, B. C. either. 2. Clothing As expected, European young people take considerably more care with their dress than their North American counterparts. Nothing changed, there. Even in the poorer areas we visited, every young person on the street looked carefully turned out. For those younger readers who are looking for the next fad that will be rolling out of the fashion mills of Europe in the next few years, try this: too-tight white dress shirts. This is young people in the streets and workers in the service industries. We saw many young men with shirts that bound against their muscles, young women with blouses that strained across other parts of their anatomies. This is the old tendency of southern Europeans to wear their clothes tight, but taken to an extreme. Whichever gender, it made them look like poorly-stuffed sausages. I'm sure they think it's marvellous. 3. Men’s Haircuts. Of course, everybody knows the "reverse mullet" haircuts that we've been seeing on professional soccer players for years. Well, now everybody has them, taken to the expected extremes of shaved sides and floppy, well-greased-down topnots, like fallen Mohawks. It won't be long before someone with social media clout comes up with a derogatory term for them and suddenly nobody who is anybody will be caught scalped in one. 4. Women’s Braids. I don’t know much about women’s hairstyles, and maybe this has been around for years, but I’ve never seen it before. It looks like cornrows, but instead of the usual three-strand braid, the hair has been twisted to look like rope. Not dreadlocks, but clearly defined thin strands of rope. Very impressive. So that's good old Europe. It fulfilled our expectations: a bit of new stuff to keep us interested, and bit of old stuff to enjoy. Have to go back soon.

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