Saturday, June 28, 2008
Travel Notes-Europe 2008
One of the things that we almost always take for granted, is the ability to travel the world in relative comfort and safety. I don't need to remind people of my generation that global travel was once reserved for the privileged. The past half century since the end of World War II and the Cold War has led to an explosion in travel. Roadblocks to travel today, pale in relationship to travel just a short half century ago. I urge all who are physically able to take every opportunity to see the World and discover something new out of something old.
I just recently returned from a trip to Europe, where my wife and I spent three weeks traveling and enjoying a family reunion in Germany. Now you might think that my wife was German from the way this story is going. But in fact she is from China, where her parents still reside. Her sister and brother-in-law, have lived in Germany for the past fifteen years and are German by all accounts of language and culture. Their children are being raised to speak, German, Mandarin, English and for their teenage daughter, French and Italian. I am not writing this to brag about my niece's linguistic skills, it only shows that the effort to create a global person is well underway. She is not the exception, her classmates are all required to take language classes in English, French and other languages, and this before entering high school.
Over the next few weeks I will be posting observations about our trip. We began in London and continued on to Paris, before making Munich our base for two weeks. From Munich, we took road trips to Venice, Prague and Vienna. Our method of travel included every mode sans horses. We stayed in European hotels and never ate in a MacDonald's or sipped a Starbucks. The experience was both refreshing and eventually gave us a longing for our homeland. I will refrain from making political comments about the countries we visited and will write only about the impressions and observations of people and places we visited.
My last visit to London was decades ago, and the first impression upon return is the level of how multi cultured England has become. The Tube riders looked as if they were being shuttled from a United Nations meeting. My wife remarked how strange it was when a traditional English gentleman, suited and umbrella in hand boarded the car. Later, when visiting the Tower of London, the soldiers on guard were of African descent, and the next day during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace the guards being posted, were from the Malaysian Army commonwealth forces. A lot has been written about the blending of cultures in England and how it rents the fabric of English identity. Seeing is believing, the people we saw were British in every sense.
The famous landmarks do not change, and the feeling of grandeur only fades with the realization that much was lost to the raids in World War II and earlier massive fires that destroyed most of medieval London. For a historian, every surviving site was a primary source to savor and think about the events that took place so long ago. These relics, exist amid the towers of modernity and sound of sirens announcing the passage of ambulances. Take away a few buildings and statues, London becomes New York, Chicago or Tokyo. Still a city that should be on everyone's list to see and explore.
London had a reputation for bad food, where Fish and Chips or Bangers and Mash, washed down by tepid bitter ale was the common fare. This has changed with the introduction of dishes brought from their far flung former colonies. London's Chinatown, boasts several great Dim Sum restaurants, every bit as good as those found in Hong Kong. And the East End, the haught of Jack the Ripper' is home to people of Britain's former Indian colonies,Whitechapel where curry is king.
Leaving London on a bright Sunday morning we boarded the Eurostar train for a cross-channel journey, Channel Tunnel to Paris. The trip, covered the distance in a little over two hours, something that with high gasoline prices, might encourage planners on the crowed eastern seaboard to consider for inter-city travel. The trains, Class 373 trains are powered by electricity and travel at speeds of 186 MPH. In Europe and much of the urbanized world, all rail transportation, both surface and underground are powered by electricity. The amount of energy is drawn mostly from Nuclear power generating plants, something that the United States is rift from continuing to develop. Case in point, France Électricité de France produces 75% of their power from nuclear energy. And Japan, home of the first human lab experiment of nuclear destruction, powers its country with 55 reactors, and is the third largest user of nuclear power in the world. I said that I would refrain from political comments, but this seems to be a common sense observation that we re-open our discussion about power generation in the United States.
The trip across the French countryside as we approached Paris, reminded me of how farmland in the United States used to be. It is a place where small farmers still toil the soil and send their product to market, as their ancestors had done for a millennium. I also thought back to a time over half a century ago when Allied forces battled the Germans for every square inch of the countryside from the channel to Paris. The marks of war are gone, but hedge checkered countryside, will always hold the story in the bosum of it's bloodied soil.
As a postscript: During the time of our travels, one of the people I link in my blogroll, Victor Davis Hanson was in Europe and filed these observations.