Saturday, August 3, 2013

some final thoughts

It is not possible to sum up in one post our experience of the last eight weeks, and I will not attempt to do so here. As those of you have been kind enough to read this blog know, we had a wonderful time. Lauren and Owen exceeded our expectations in almost every way. The places we went, people we met, food we ate and stories we heard will stay with us for a very long time. We are so lucky to have had this experience, and we are so appreciative to all of those who helped us along the way.

I'll finish here with some thoughts and observations on some of the things we encountered. I doubt there is much insight in any of these, but Keri and I thought it important to share nonetheless.

Air conditioning. We had problems with the air conditioning units in every single hotel/flat that had one. This cannot be mere coincidence. Rather, I am certain it reflects the total lack of regard most Europeans have for artificially cooled air. I don't care what they say. When it comes down to it, most Europeans don't believe in air conditioning. I heard from one person that her German co-workers think it causes illness/injury (actual example: "I have a stiff neck because I used the air conditioning unit in my car yesterday"). As a result, many office buildings and other semi-public spaces have no air conditioning, even though those the cities where they are built can go weeks on end with temperatures approaching 90. Europe has many fine qualities, but it can get hot in the summer, and if you plan to vacation there between June and September, prepare to sweat.

Washing Machines. We do a lot of laundry in my family. I think Keri washes more loads in one week than I did in four years of college. Knowing that, we tried to rent flats with washing machines. We figured those machines would be slightly smaller than ours at home, and would have a dryer function, as well. Wrong and wrong. I still have no idea how a family of four washes their clothes in the places we visited. I tend to think they don't do so very often, as it is really impractical to do so with a machine the size of an Easy Bake oven and a rack-drying system that leaves all of your clothes with that lovely starched feeling. (Pictured here is the washing machine from the kitchen in our London flat. It only looks large because it is next to a European-sized refrigerator.)

Laundry Services. Because of our laundry issues, we ended up sampling bulk clothes washing services in London, Edinburgh, Rome and Pontresina. They ranged in price and quality. Bottom line is you get what you pay for. London was among the cheaper services, but I had a shirt ruined and we did get our laundry back fresh out of the dryer -- as in, someone literally dumped the clothes into a bag right from the dryer and handed back to us our bag filled with clean, wrinkled clothes. Pontresina had, far and away, the best quality, but we had to spend a portion of the kids' college fund to use it. I'm sure they'll understand when we explain it to them years down the road.

Bathrooms. Every place we went had some version of public bathrooms. They call them toilets or water closets and, like the bulk laundry services, there is a real difference in quality in the places we visited. Most of the bathrooms in the United Kingdom were good -- clean and functional. Those in Italy, on the other hand, were pretty dicey. Keri reports several times where she had to do her business into a small porcelain receptacle that stood about a foot over ground level. Good for building up quad strength, I suppose, but not for comfort. Switzerland, although is shares a border with Italy, does not share the Italian preference for toilets that make you never want to drink any water. To the contrary, I'd be shocked if Swiss bathrooms were not the finest in the world. George Costanza, American sitcom legend and a true connoisseur of public bathrooms, would appreciate the Swiss attention to the quality of their toilets. (Pictured here is my mother-in-law seated on a toilet in the tower within the Tower of London. Fittingly, I missed seeing this toilet as I was with Owen searching out an actual bathroom.)

Showers. This is one area where I am glad to report substantial progress on the part of our European allies. Years ago, one actually had to bathe -- literally -- to get clean in the Old World. Stewing in your own filth, as I like to call it. Every place we stayed had a shower, and not just the kind of afterthought, I'll attach a hand-held shower head to this tub faucet and let you try to use it without the benefit of any kind of shower curtain situation, as many of you have probably experienced in the past. With the air conditioning and laundry issues, it was really, really important the the Europeans at least employ an effective self-cleaning system, which they now have. Kudos.

Food. The food is just better in Europe. I don't know whether it the preservatives American companies put in everything we eat, but our food is just nowhere near as good. Fresh baked bread. Incredible fruits. Delicious cheeses. Tasty meats. Desserts so good that our desserts should be ashamed of themselves. (Note from Keri: Given that I pride myself on my baking, I'll try not be offended by that last statement. And, consider your Sunday night dessert buffet -- American style -- over before it started.) Really, I cannot think of a single item we ate in Europe that was worse than the same item in the States. (Pictured here is the Hotel Walther dessert buffet. Judge for yourself. I regret nothing.)

Hamburgers. Scratch that. The Europeans still have not a clue what a hamburger is supposed to taste like. In the early 90's Whit Stillman film, Barcelona, the local Spaniards think Americans are idiots, in part, because our national love affair with the hamburger. The only hamburgers the Barcelonans have tasted are, of course, total dreck; ergo, Americans cannot be trusted. At the end of the film, three of the Spanish women are introduced, lakeside in Wisconsin, to real American hamburgers, which tastes nothing like they have eaten before. Maybe these Americans aren't so stupid, after all. Sadly, this situation has seen little improvement. I have no idea why some enterprising American restauranteur has not opened up a serious burger joint in Europe, as it would change everything, raising the bar for all hamburgers across the continent -- and improving American foreign relations. A win-win. Maybe on my next sabbatical.

Exercise. Europeans exercise differently. There are some gyms, but nothing on the order of what we have here. (Nor did I see a single Lulu Lemon. I have no idea how these people call themselves civilized.) We saw some people running in London, but not really anywhere else. We saw lots of cyclists in rural Italy and, of course, lots of cyclists and hikers and mountaineers in Switzerland. Despite the apparent absence of daily, systematic exercise factories, Europeans appear to be in pretty good shape -- at least better than we Americans. I think most of this can be attributed to the benefits of having to walk everywhere. The food may have something to do with it, too. Really, I don't know, but there is something to be said for the European lifestyle.

Beds. I wrote about this a little before. European beds are about 4000% harder than their American counterparts. At just about every place we stayed, Keri had to place blankets/comforters under her side of the bed. I have no idea why there would be this different approach to bed firmness. Perhaps, the Europeans think softer mattresses are akin to air conditioning. More likely they simply don't know beds come in firmness levels other than Fred & Wilma Flintstone.

Bra fitting. [This is Keri's contribution.] What do Italian women have against under-wire bras? Everywhere we went in Italy, we were confronted by Italian boobies. And, not perky, young boobies. More like the old woman from Something About Mary with a thin, see-through tee shirt added to the image. Similar to Tim's nascent hamburger business idea, all we need here is one enterprising American brassiere mogul, a measuring tape, and some time. This will work. And the women of Europe -- and their breasts -- will thank me.

Television. American television is ascendant. It is our most innovative and important form of storytelling and satire. There are too many good shows to watch. European television, based on our very small sampling, is very much the "vast wasteland" Newton Minnow railed against when he was FCC chair. Take CBeebies (please) -- the BBC children's network. Start with the worst shows on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, remove anything funny or non-annoying and you are about halfway there. These are the people who brought you the Teletubbies. Now, they feature such shows as Grandpa in My Pocket, Magic Hands, and Andy's Wild Adventure. They are clearly up to no good. Owen was fascinated with this channel during our two weeks in London, so we saw a fair amount of it. I don't know that I'll ever recover.

In Switzerland, I watched the opening credits to a German language medical drama. No fewer than forty people were featured -- name and picture -- in those credits. Curiosity compelled me to watch the first five minutes. I speak not more than a few words of German, but I can sure as hell recognize abysmal acting in any language, and I saw an epic amount it in the first two scenes. And, yes, the Europeans do borrow some American programming, which they dub into their local language. Although this would seem to offer some potential for importing quality American programming, the results are opposite, as most of the shows are bad shows from the 80's and 90's. I think this may be part of a broader conspiracy -- along with the hamburger -- to make the people think that Americans are total dullards. There is no other explanation.

And with that, I bid you all adieu. Thanks so much for reading, and stay tuned, as you never know when vacation and inspiration will conspire to force me back to my blogging ways.

1 comment:

  1. You brought tears to my eyes knowing that your blogs are no more (for now). I do want to thank you for your wonderful renditions and especially your sense of humor. I know how much time and effort you put into this to share your amazing trip with us. Love Baba