Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

My European Vacation I

So, I drove through Germany, Austria, France, and Italy. I spent several days in Verona and Rome each, and a day in Venice and day in Paris. I can’t speak for all of Europe, or even all of Germany. I don’t fell I can speak with any real authority on any of these places, because I haven’t been there long enough. Even my statements about things like the roads can’t be take in whole of the network, but merely the roads I drove on, in the late summer of 2009.

The very first thing I learned is that “European” is not the east of the Atlantic version of “American”. In the States we tend to think of Europe as a lot more ideologically cohesive then it really is. People say things like “This is how they do it in Europe”, or “European style”, or “Already for sale in Europe”. When we say “American Way” we aren’t talking about the way Canadians, Mexicans, El Salvadorians, or Argentinians do things. Though those countries are, in fact, part of the American continent, thats not what we mean by American.

We are talking about the US of A way of looking at things. Because we are a nation of immigrants, more than any other nation, the adjective “American” means consistent with a certain ideology, a certain world view. For other nations, “German” or “French” means a racial type, a religion, or ancestry. There is no “European” view point, at least not yet. Maybe after another 250 years of the Union, but right now I would say a small town in Mexico and and small town in Minnesota have more cultural similarity then a small town and Germany and small town in Italy. There is no such thing as a European outlook.

Americans too, are convinced that Europe has far higher taxes then the US. It’s a stupid thought for a lot of reasons. First of all, there is no such thing as European taxes anymore then there is State social security taxes in the US. Each nation has its own way of doing things. Second, inflation is a form of taxation on future tax payers. You have to include inflation, the national debt, etc, when you figure taxes. Also, the US uses lower Federal level taxes, but our local taxes are much higher, making up almost 50% of total government income. If you really run the numbers, Germans pay only about 5 to 10% more total taxes then Americans.

Fuel (diesel in our case) is expensive everywhere we went, about 6 USD per gallon, making it twice what we normally pay. I’m not sure why though…Petrofuel is about the most fungible commodity on earth and traded very aggressively. Economy of scale being what it is in such an industry, the real cost of fuel varies by a few percent worldwide. The huge difference in cost is caused by the level of subsidy or tax placed on the fuel. The countries with the cheapest fuel have the greatest subsidy, and the countries with the most expensive fuel have the highest tax. Where is all that tax going?

Not the roads, near as I can tell. Germany, at least, doesn’t do gravel roads. If a road is government sponsored, its paved. The cost of paving and maintaining paved roads being what it is, they save money on the secondary roads by making them 4 to 8 feet wide, and contour following, which means they are pretty much just poured where ever without grading or cut and fill. The speed limit on them is often around 30 mph, and you have to slow to a crawl and pull of into the brush to let someone coming the other way by.

The roads (outside of Germany) are heavily tolled. I’d say I spent at least 100 USD going 1200 miles on tolls alone. And most bathrooms cost about .75 USD a person. The publicly supported ones were atrocious. Never in a America have a seen anything bathroom as disgusting as tax funded ones in Germany and Italy.

The interstates here (Autobahn in German speaking countries, Autostrade in Italy, Autoroute in France) are not that great. I’m sure in the US, you’ve been driving down the interstate looking at the ¼ mile of cleared right away on each side of the interstate as well as the 100′ wide median and thought, “What a waste of space! What do they need all that extra land for?” Well, growth. No, not every 4 lane interstate is going to grow into a 16 lane (at least we hope not. Yuck.) but lets say gravel road is paved making for a convenient new place to exit. With all that clearance, it’s east to put in a big, gentle, off ramp. Not here.

You usually have about 500 feet to go from full speed to about 18 – 40 mph to hit the turn. Often as not, the turn is banked…the wrong way (For minimum footprint, I guess.) Exits for both traffic flows go to the same side of the interstate, making for long, slow ramps. Since they can’t just lay the road where ever, those dual exits sometimes turn into a mile of highway making odd, sharp turns every could hundred feet (To fit on the existing rightaway between farmers’ fields) before you get the road you were exiting to.

The worst issue with the lack of right-away is construction. In the US, when you have long term repair to make, you just grade the shoulder or median, pour some blacktop and make a new lane while you work on the old one. Not an option here. When they need to close a lane, the have just put the road down to one lane. The individual lanes are so narrow they can’t use F-barriers. (, so they use pre-fabbed aluminum barriers that about 12” accros and 18” high. This makes your narrow lane even narrower, and is the only thing separating you from oncoming traffic. Also, they just slow thing way down. My average speed on the Autobahn/Autostrade from Trier to Verona was 75 KPH, about 46 mph. Bleh.

But the very, and truly worst road experience is reserved for the interstates into big cities. You see, they don’t have emanate domain over here. (In may come to a surprise to many Americans, but the US Federal government has significantly stronger property rights over it’s citizens then any nation I am aware of over here.) So the interstates go right into the center of town, and just sort of die…There you sit. Your interstate died, you are in the middle of a mideval tangle of alleyways, and don’t know how to get out.

Or you could take the train. Rail travel is subsidized here So you would think it is super cheap. Actually, flying is cheaper. The trains are great when you want to go a certain distance, to far to be close, and to close to be far, and where parking is very expensive. Berlin is about 8 hours from here, and the train is perfect for that. It’s about 150 dollars round trip, and you don’t have to worry about paying for parking for a week. But the trains are surprisingly slow. Since passenger rail service is provided as a public utility, the train must stop in every one horse town along the way, even if no one is there to get on board. Since this is Germany, it is rare that you find a spot more then 5 miles long without a stop for ramshackle old train station in some back holler.

Maybe the most surprising thing about this whole trip, (and I feel stupid for needing this shown to me) is that to the people who live there, its just somewhere to live. Some parts of Venice are very nice. Many parts are not. Public bathrooms have poop on the wall in Paris, just like in Washington DC. Over all I had a great trip, but Europe is (over all) much shabbier then spy movies taking place in Europe had led me to believe. Europe is just a place to live. As continents go, it’s pretty nice: pleasant temperature and a lack of anarchy or poisonous fuana make it far more attractive then say, Africa. But it’s not magical.

Rome was great, and probably my favorite part, but it lead to my other big realization. It’s a funny place, because everything you’ve seen your whole life that was supposed to make an area look expensive is in Rome, not looking expensive. Rome doesn’t have 17th century fountains to show off it’s wealth. It has 17th century fountains because in the 17th century, they thought the place could use some fountains. It has Renaissance sculpture because during the Renaissance, people in Rome made sculpture.

In short, Rome doesn’t have all of those icons of “expensive European city parts” to be an expensive European city. That’s why US cities have them. Rome has those things because it must. There are gorgeous fountains in Rome for the same reason there are curbs, stop lights, and fire hydrants in DeKalb Illinois: because when they were put in, it was the best thing to do at the time. Old European cities don’t have quaint winding streets and fascinating back alleys to be quaint and fascinating. They have them because that was the best way to do those things at the time they were done. US cities don’t for the exact same reason. Europeans  haven’t preserved them because of a morally superior relationship to their own history, but because of a tax and income climate that favors preservation rather then replacement.

Prarie Skyscraper, Alton, Iowa

Prairie Skyscraper, Alton, Iowa

In short, specialness is where you choose to find it. The bubbling fountains of Rome are beautiful, and though you can find copies of them all over the world, no city wears them as well. But, then again, the huge, grain elevators of Iowa, white and tall against the endless sky, are beautiful as well. I’ve seem nothing like them in Europe.

September 21, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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