Cathie and I have just arrived home after four months travelling around Europe in a Citroen C4. We drove 22,000 kilometres through fourteen countries, miraculously without receiving a speeding ticket, being in an accident or witnessing any bureaucratic hassle whatsoever. I'm still a little jet-lagged, but here's a list of impressions, in random order, of the trip.
- Alternative power - Europe is years ahead of Australia in utilising solar and wind power. There are numerous solar panels on rooftops in cold and snowy Sweden; wind turbines on the hills in Portugal; solar-panel "farms" in Spain; wind turbines on the strait between Denmark and Sweden. Even "new" European countries like Estonia and Lithuania seem to have more wind and solar than Australia. I was given a lecture on Australia's backwardness by a farmer in Belgium as we stood gazing up at one of his many solar panels (while standing beside his reed bed!) and just before eating a dinner prepared from food grown on his small farm. In Sweden, a German man told me about his business specialising in marrying wind and water energy - that is, wind turbines to pump the water uphill to massive dams where it's stored until Hydro power is needed. And here in Australia? We can't seem to be able to place pink batts in our roofs!
- The roads - We've lived in Katoomba for fifteen years. The "highway" over the mountains was under contruction when we moved here... it's still isn't finished. In Portugal (supposedly an economic basket-case), we drove over perfect four-lane highways throughout the country. In every country we travelled, except Poland, the roads were much better than here - dual-lane carriageways being the norm.
- The drivers - Don't let anyone tell you the Italians are hopeless drivers, the Spanish are unpredictable, the Germans too fast... all those cliches. Nowhere in Europe did we see any driver staying in the overtaking lane longer than required. If you loiter in the fast lane, a posse of Audis threaten. Consequently, traffic flows much faster, no-one weaves in between lanes and you always know what the other driver is doing. We drove at 130 kmh most of the time (in the slow lane!).
- The world is a safe, friendly place - We usually stayed in small towns and villages where English was not necessarily spoken (and our Estonian or Portugese or Latvian is not the best...), yet everywhere we travelled we met people eager to help and people willing to communicate, often using limited English. Nowhere was our inability to speak the native language frowned upon - we tried to communicate using hand gestures and bad mime - this was enough to get by no matter where we were. In two trips across Europe totalling nine months and over 40,000 kilometres, we have never felt threatened or in danger - I feel safer in Krakow or Vilnius than I do in the Brisbane city mall at night-time.
- The Food - Everywhere we went the "staples" of life (bread, wine, coffee) are cheap - there is really no need for "designer" bread and wine (aka: Sydney Morning Herald "boutique" food) because everyone demands good quality staples. Consequently, an espresso in Italy costs A$1.20; bread in France costs A$1.30, wine throughout Europe can be bought in supermarkets for A$4 a bottle (and not rotgut either - decent local wine). In Australia, the Herald goes on and on about our emerging "food culture" - which basically means good food at ridiculously expensive prices. We'll never have a real food culture until the working class demand good-quality staple items for low prices - not sourdough bread for six dollars for heaven's sake! And espresso for four dollars!
We discovered the best way to find good cheap restaurant food in Europe was to look for delivery vans, trucks or workman utes parked outside in the car park - if the local workers ate there, we'd be guaranteed hearty food made from local produce washed down with regional wine. Try that in Australia and you'll end up at a pub with frozen schnitzel and chips. In Italy, we dined on saffron risotto, roast pork, salad and veges washed down with a bottle of wonderful sparkling red, and coffee - two people for A$28. A real food culture must come from the ground up - not as a fashion item for the middle class.
And for our next trip?
We hope to go to Morocco and Canada and... maybe... the Trans-Siberian railway. I have a yearning to try Yak butter tea.