Europe is one of the great destinations for baby boomer travellers – full of culture, beauty and great food and wine. But there’s no doubt that while we may be first cousins, Europeans and North Americans live very different lives. The worlds we created for ourselves are basically the same, but somehow we come at things from a different angle.
I returned to Europe a couple of years ago, after not travelling there for a long time. And since I hadn’t been back for many years, I looked at the place with fresh eyes. After spending some time in countries across the continent, from Belgium to Estonia, I’ve learned a few new things about European life and European history that may surprise you.
So here it is: my list of eight surprising things about Europe, seen through North American eyes.
We’ve got the names wrong
We all know the names of Europe’s great cities, but it can come as a surprise to North Americans that the names we know them by may not be the real ones. The city we call Vienna is actually called Wien (pronounced “Veen”) by the natives: add an “er” to the end and you know where the word “wiener” comes from.
Prague’s name in Czech is Praha, Warsaw is called Warszawa in Polish, and Moscow is actually called Moskva by the Russians. Use cologne? The city it’s named after is actually called Köln by the Germans – and the place we call Nuremberg is Nürnberg. Then there’s the French wine region we know as Burgundy: it’s actually called Bourgogne.
Bye bye borders
Even if you’ve been to Europe a few times recently, it’s hard to get over the ease with which you just slip across the borders nowadays. Where once there were border guards and barbed wire, there’s now a sign by the side of the road with the European Union symbol and a message that says, “You’re now entering France, or Poland, or Luxembourg”. Today’s Europe is kind of like a night club: once you get past the front door, you’re in.
This great transformation is due to something called the Schengen Agreement, which was signed in 1985 in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg. It created a no-borders area that slowly grew until today, it encompasses 26 states, with a population of more than 400 million people. The Schengen Area includes most of Western Europe and parts of Central Europe: the only real holdouts are the U.K. and Ireland. I guess they just had to be different …
And so long walls
If you travel to many old European towns and cities, you may notice a lot of them have a ring road around the original downtown. That’s because there was once a defensive wall around the town: Europe in the old days was a quarrelsome place, so you needed a big wall to keep out the neighbours when they came calling.
There are a few places where the old city walls are still intact: you can see one of them in my visit to Rothenburg, Germany. (That’s a bit of it at left.) But in most cases there’s only a few sections left — or maybe just the city gates, without the walls they were once part of. And in many cities, such as Vienna and Paris, they’ve torn down the old walls and built ring roads where they used to be. Come to think of it, you can find one of these in North America, too – it’s called Wall Street.
There are castles everywhere
Speaking of big defensive structures, let’s talk about castles. In North America, the only place you’re likely to find a castle is at Disneyland. In Europe, there are more than a thousand. In medieval times, if you had some money and some lands to defend, you built yourself a fortress. A lot of them are still standing, some in ruins, some restored, and many of them are now big tourist attractions, with guided tours.
On my cruise down the Rhine, I was amazed at how many castles there were. It seemed like every town, no matter how small, was overlooked by a massive stone structure on the hill. In some cases, they’d been turned into hotels or restaurants. In other cases, they stood like skeletons, with the wind blowing through their crumbling walls. You could probably buy one if you wanted to: but I wonder what the taxes would be …
It’s always time for wine
In North America, wine is what you drink with dinner. But in Europe, it’s what you drink any time you feel a thirst coming on. I’ve seen people enjoying a tipple in a café at 9 in the morning. Of course, they have centuries of history to back them up.
In medieval Europe, people used the waterways as sewers and there were no water purification plants, so the water supply was usually polluted. The result was that people were afraid of water – many didn’t touch it for any purpose, bathing included. So when they got thirsty, they drank wine and beer, often several litres a day. The wine in those days was much weaker, with only 4 or 5 percent alcohol, but they still must have been a bit buzzed all the time. I guess that helps explain all the wars that necessitated those walls and castles.
But the coffee is expensive
On this side of the Atlantic, you can still get a cup of coffee for a couple of bucks, but you pay through the nose for a small glass of wine. In Europe – at least in some parts of Europe — they have it the other way round. What we call a cup of coffee might set you back $4 or more; if you pay any less, you get a thimble-sized espresso. Meanwhile, a half-litre of very drinkable wine might only cost you $6 or $7, and in some places a beer runs about $2.
I’m not sure when this different beverage value system was born, or whether it’s based on the fact that local wine has always been plentiful while coffee had to be imported. But in France at least, it has something to do with the fact that people like to sit in cafés for hours nursing one coffee: it’s expensive because you’re actually renting real estate. If you want a regular-priced coffee, go to a tabac and stand at the bar: suddenly you’re drinking at popular prices.
Europe loves camping
North Americans like to think of themselves as outdoorsmen (and women), but it’s the Europeans who really love to get outside. They get a lot of vacation days each year – eight weeks in some countries — and unlike many North Americans, they actually take it. When vacation time comes, they don’t stay home: they head straight for the beach, or very often, for the nearest campground.
On my recent cruise on some of Europe’s major rivers, I was amazed at the number of campgrounds we passed, scattered up and down the banks like a trail of pebbles. Some of them were as big as small towns, with restaurants and recreation facilities. But the campers weren’t roughing it in a tent: they almost all had camper-vans. Whoever makes those vans probably takes his vacation in a five-star hotel.
And a final salute
Finally, a little trivia from my tour of all those ancient castles: In medieval times, when men were bold and smelled like horses, knights would take to the field in 50 or 60 pounds of metal armour. That included a helmet the size of a bread box, which completely obscured their face and made it hard to tell who was friend or foe. So in order to identify themselves, they took their right hand and lifted the front of the helmet to reveal their face. That gesture, with the hand raised to the brow, evolved into the salute we use today. Now you know.
Those are my eight surprising things about Europe. It can take a while for North Americans to get used to the way things work on the other side of the pond, it’s true. But I find it just makes the whole experience more interesting. As the French say, vive la différence.