Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Observations & Thoughts from Our Recent Trip to Western Europe

My wifey and I recently returned from our two-week honeymoon in Amsterdam, Bruxelles (a.k.a. Brussels), and Paris (a.k.a. “the city of love!” as a jovial bartender in Bruxelles named Junior referred to it). Here’s some observations and thoughts I generated from our trip.

Wanna Have a Good Time at Customs in Holland?
Donning our backpacking packs, two sets of greasy hair from a transcontinental day of travel, a red carry-on suitcase and passports in hand, Mari and I must have appeared like two studious nerds ready to embark on a studious touristic visit of Europe. When it was our turn to approach the customs agent at Schiphol Airport, ten kilometers outside of Amsterdam, I took out the trip itineraries from our suitcase. They were tucked into a sheet protector. Before long, the agent gave us a 90-mph fastball over the plate: what was the purpose of our visit?

“We’re on our honeymoon,” Mari said.

It was ever so slight, but the agent crinkled an eyebrow.

“Honeymoon in Amsterdam?” he said in a classic European accent.

Throughout our entire trip—including an unplanned, eyeball-popping stroll through Amsterdam’s Red Light District—I would imitate the customs agent’s thick accent and say to Mari: “Honeymoon in Amsterdam?”

So there you go: if you ever find yourself flying into Schiphol Airport with your partner, just tell ‘em you’re on your honeymoon. They’ll think you’re freaks.

I encountered my first toilet seat sanitizer at the Schiphol Airport. I’d never seen one before; didn’t see one during my previous trip to Europe in 2003.

Throughout our vacation, here and there, I came across these sanitizers in the bathroom stalls. I found them refreshing to use. (To be transparent—perhaps a bit TMI—I’ve always been rather comfortable taking a crap in a public restroom.) I’m not a health scientist, or a versed germaphobe, but I’m willing to bet that they’re more sanitary than toilet seat covers. But more importantly—as far as I’m concerned—they negated the need for toilet seat covers; that means less paper and resources are being expended. Less waste is subsequently created, and this restroom practice is inevitably gentler on the sewage system with less waste to filter through it. I wish we used toilet seat sanitizers in the U.S.

On a related note, it was hard not to notice that the European restrooms I visited were more likely to have dual-flush toilets than public restrooms in the United States. I thought this was wise and practical as well. It was hard not to think of California when I used those dual-flush toilets. We’re currently suffering our worst drought on record. After reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed this past spring, I learned that two environmental calamities tend to lead to a society’s collapse: deforestation and severe drought. It is key, on both the societal and individual level, to react appropriately to an environmental crisis. I think it’s great that water-free urinals seem to be more prevalent in California in recent years but why don’t we advocate the usage of dual-flush toilets to lessen our water usage? Why doesn’t our state government become more proactive about providing incentives for dual-flush toilets? (After doing some online research, I found that municipalities such as EBMUD have begun providing rebates to encourage consumers into purchasing high-efficiency toilets). No one knows how long this drought will continue but I think it’s imperative that our state and local governments mandate or incentivize the usage of toilet products that can significantly cut down our usage of water. This would be a reactive and preventative measure. (There will inevitably be more droughts.) From a historical standpoint, these are the kind of high-level government decisions that make or break their societies.

But back to more observations from our trip:

The Urban Cycling Capital of the World
Amsterdam is the urban cycling capital of the world! It was astounding to behold. Our third-floor apartment outside Amsterdam’s centre provided a superb view of a three-way major intersection. Every 5-10 minutes the #1 tram rolled by through the middle of the street. Two lanes of vehicular traffic flanked it along with accompanying bicycle lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. (I like to call them “peds.”)

From what we observed during our four days in Amsterdam, it didn’t really seem to matter what time of day it was—morning, afternoon, or night, or what day of the week it was—but we almost always saw more cyclists than motorists and pedestrians COMBINED. Being a long-time urban cyclist, this was a monumentally fucking beautiful reality to witness. (Perhaps needless to say—and for various other reasons—I was quickly smitten with Amsterdam.)

No Monster Trucks Here!
The largest single-user vehicle we saw during our trip: a black Range Rover in Amsterdam. And it was a small one compared to the SUVs you typically see in ‘Murica.

Food in Amsterdam
File this under “Welcome Surprise,” but Mari and I ate some damn good food in Amsterdam. We had one so-so meal, and that was eating a doner kebab and frites from what looked like a fast-food chain restaurant.

“Don’t Mess with a Dutchman’s Dairy” (Our bike tour guide in Amsterdam said almost these exact words in recounting the hippie camp-out days in Vondelpark back in the 1970s.)

Speaking of food—holy shit! (or heilig stront!)—I had the yummiest yogurt and soymilk ever in Amsterdam. Mari concurred. I don’t know what they feed their cows, or where that soymilk came from, but sweet baby Jesus it was glorious. (And if you’re already thinking, no, it wasn’t the Amsterdam pot that skewed this subjective assessment.)

Bike Helmets in Europe
Hardly anyone wears a bike helmet in Europe—at least the three cities we visited. I can count on two hands the amount of people we saw wearing helmets. (In Amsterdam, where I often found myself staring out our window to watch street traffic flowing by, I saw a woman in her mid-late thirties wearing a helmet; two kiddos donning helmets rode behind her so clearly she was being a Proper Mama Cyclist. Other than those three, I think I saw two other cyclists wearing helmets in Amsterdam.) When I pointed out the lack of cycling helmets to Har, our kind host in Amsterdam, he smiled and said, “Yes, we’re free here.”

Never Saw a Used Rubber on the Sidewalk in Sodom (or Amsterdam’s cleanliness)
Amsterdam is famously known for its legalized prostitution and tolerance of marijuana usage but I wish it were renowned for its cleanliness. Sure, we saw a few empty beer bottles standing on the curb on Saturday morning, and some trash floating in the canals, but the city was surprisingly clean.

On a related note, Mari and I didn’t see any homeless people in or around the city’s center. It was a remarkable contrast to San Francisco. I’m not sure why this was the case; they do have homeless people in Amsterdam, but they weren’t visible during the daytime or off of Overtoom—the street we stayed on—during the night. Are they better cared for in Amsterdam? Je ne sais pas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. The Dutch seem far more practical and humanitarian than your typical American.

Parks and Biergartens
Amsterdam’s largest park, the beauteous Vondelpark, has seven biergartens according to our guide at Mike’s Bikes. When I visited Munich back in 2003 I drank a stein at one of the lovely biergartens in the Englischer Garten. Why can’t we have beer gardens in parks in the United States? People are gonna brown-bag it at a park anyway, so why not civilize the whole act for everyone involved? Is it mentally impossible for Americans to think of a large civic park as a place for childrens’ recreation and a place for adult leisure? Although Mari and I didn’t indulge, a stop at the beer garden for a break from a stroll or cruise through the park can assuredly be chillaxing.

Domino’s Pizza

Domino’s in Amsterdam sold pizzas with hot-dog-stuffed crust. During our time in Amsterdam, Mari and I occasionally joked about going down the street to pick one up. But really, we thought it looked gross. ( Pizza Hut UK first began to sell hot-dog-stuffed pizzas in 2012. Thailand and Japan sold such pizzas before.) I can’t even picture it as stoner grub, man.

Coffeeshops (You know which ones I’m talking about)
Speaking of sweet mother green, it is difficult to find a regular coffeeshop in Amsterdam that, you know, serves coffee and croissants.

Marijuana in Amsterdam: Was it like the Outro of Jimi Hendrix’s “House Burning Down”?

In my humble opinion, marijuana in Amsterdam was as potent as the medical marijuana I have smoked in California. (It certainly inspired us to buy some sweets!) Maybe it was a smidge stronger? According to the Amsterdam.info webpage, “Dutch Nederweed contains about 15-18% THC, while foreign weed only contains about 7.5% THC.” Pure Analytics, a cannabis-testing laboratory states: “The Nor Cal cannabis market is characterized overall by THC-dominant cannabis with an average THC potency level between 16-17%.”

The Dude Abides

If Amsterdam wasn’t cool enough, their beer scene is superb. A pair of locals named The Cinema Brewers have a Lebowski Ale! It was pretty good, too. I may be fickle, but that pretty much made Amsterdam the coolest city on Planet Earth for me.

Before we embarked on our trip, Mari and I wondered if Europeans would be as absorbed with their smartphones as people in California. Our prediction: we would see slightly less smartphone usage in public areas; we figured this since Europeans tend to be more community-oriented whereas our hyper-individualism is a hallmark of Americana.

Although we only visited three major cities in three Western European countries—from what we observed—it seemed like Europeans were noticeably less entranced and beholden to their mobile contraptions. (For what it’s worth, I found that smartphone penetration—the litmus for smartphone usage—is a bit lower in most of Western Europe in comparison to the United States.) On the subways and trams we rode people didn’t get sucked a smartphone vortex for prolonged periods of time like many riders I’ve seen on BART. At the restaurants and cafes we ate at we never saw a pair of people convene only to thumb away on their phones for the majority of their meal. Instead, we rarely saw people on their phones in restaurants, let alone clicking away picture after picture of their food—or themselves—before devouring their meals. That’s not exactly standard behavior at all restaurants here in California but it is hardly an unusual occurrence nowadays. (A few months back, Mari and I sat next to a pair of Asian girls at Fentons Ice Creamery who hardly exchanged words during their meal. For the entirety of their meeting, each one clicked and navigated away on their smartphones. When their food was brought out, they were prodded into physical action, taking picture after picture of their ice cream, selfies of themselves with their food, pictures of their friend with their food, and in between, a few words were exchanged. Months before, we saw about three groups of young people doing the same thing at a trendy restaurant in Santa Monica.) We never once saw such antisocial behavior in Europe. Instead, people who met at terraces and cafes and restaurants convened to utilize their mouths, ears, and vocal cords to converse like human beings.

The Usage of Mobile Devices in Museums
Speaking of the usage of mobile devices, Mari and I had a difficult time viewing paintings on the main floor of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum without standing next to someone snapping a picture of the artwork with their cell phones. I saw a guy standing in front of a painting while he took his sweet time taking a self-portrait with his iPad. This behavior soured our experience. The museum seemed like a place where these cell-phone-totting idiots could take picture after picture of artwork they—in all likelihood—didn’t know jack shit about yet still felt compelled to document.

YouTube Ads
And speaking of iPads, Mari and I couldn’t help but notice that we hardly got any ads before playing YouTube videos in Paris. Ditto for Bruxelles and Amsterdam. Not that I kept count, but I’d say one ad played for every ten video clips I opened. (Wasn’t YouTube viewing in America once this delectable?)

Parisian Footwear
Podiatrists must make a killing in Paris. The City of Lights is truly obsessed with style and outward appearances. Thusly, women often wear heels and shoes that can’t be kind to their feet—like an older woman we saw in Le Marais with a huge bunion on the side of her right foot. (Pobrecita.)

I Love [Insert Name of City] shirts
On one of our last days in Paris, I saw a pudgy dude on the metro wearing a baseball hat that said “Paris.” That made me realize that I never once saw any Parisian wearing a “Je t'aime, Paris” or “I Love Paris” t-shirt, or similar paraphernalia. I find such shirts to be stupid. Apparently Parisians do too. Or, at the very least, they’re too chic to wear a shirt that their mere physical existence in Paris validates.

Best Time to Visit Paris
In my humble opinion, I believe fall is the best time to visit Paris. Here’s my supporting evidence:

1. The Jardin du Luxembourg was absolutely magnifique to see with the colors of autumn dotting the park’s foliage. (I had to summon energy to not take pictures of the park with all its fallen leaves of brown, crimson, and gold.) I don’t remember it being so exquisitely beautiful when I visited Paris during the hot summer of 2003.

2. French author Michel Houellebecq’s narrator in The Map and the Territory—a resident of Paris—says, “It is only in autumn that Paris is truly a pleasant city, offering short sunny days where the dry and clear air leaves an invigorating sensation of freshness.” See, there!

Le Cinema
Parisian filmgoers are a serious breed. At least that’s my hypothesis. Here’s what I wrote about my experience watching a film in Paris back in 2003: “The audience was perfectly quiet during the screening. Before, they were chitchattering loudly.”

On our last night in Paris, Mari and I watched Wim Wenders documentary about Sebastião Salgado. The audience chitchatted quietly before the trailers started, but they were quiet throughout the film. It was a reverent silence. The documentary had some horrific, disturbing, slit-your-wrists-depressing pictures. With the exception of one young man who left halfway through the film, the audience unflinching stared back at the celluloid images without leaving. I was impressed. The theater, with a capacity of about one hundred, was nearly sold out on a weeknight. I’ve been to my share of art house film screenings in the Bay Area for many, many years and I doubt I would ever see such a turnout during a weeknight. Who else but the French—and myself (and subsequently Mari)—would willingly spend a lovely evening watching a documentary with such depressing imagery?

Cops a la France
The French version of Cops is mighty different than the American version—and their law enforcement methods are far different than our brute, gun-totting ways. Mari saw an episode of Cops which centered on (drum roll please): a middle-aged man keying another person’s car. When a police van—which sort of resembled a family minivan—rolled up to the residence of the accused party, an officer and the car-keying Frenchy got into a shouting match; ultimately, that was the most violent moment of their encounter. Before long, another patrol unit rolled up for back-up. (This is a worthwhile place to remind you that the alleged crimes are: 1) keying a car, and 2) possible drunk driving.) The shouting match ended. The suspect was not bludgeoned, slammed to the ground, or even handcuffed. Instead, he confessed to keying the car and a Breathalyzer demonstrated that he was indeed driving drunk before he rolled up to his residence. From there he willingly walked into the backseat of the police van, which did not have a divider between the driver. A police officer took a seat beside the man. Shortly after, the van drove off to the precinct where he was fingerprinted, officially booked, then released after an officer gave him a stern lecture.

Can you imagine? This counts for a heated encounter between police officers and a law-breaking citizen in France. (Crazy fucking Frenchies!)

Seating Guidelines on the Paris Metro
The Paris Metro has seats by the doors. (Best metro I’ve ridden! Though we never stayed out late at night, we never had to wait more than five minutes for a train.) A sign above them states the seats are reserved, in order of priority for disabled war veterans, the handicapped, the elderly, and pregnant women. In practice, it’s probably a largely symbolic listing; I doubt there are many disabled war veterans riding the Paris metro nowadays, but I think it says something about their society that they are listed first. I respect that quite a bit.

Europe and the United States
The last observation I will note from our trip concerns three separate cycling accidents I witnessed. One was in Amsterdam during the bike tour Mari and I participated in; the second was in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, and the third one I saw (and heard) in Paris while I sat at an Internet café. In each instance, in each locale—ranging from a canal crossing, popular urban park, and a side street in a super-posh part of Paris—a small flock of people stopped what they were doing to attend to the person who fell off their bike. Each time, passersby gasped and expressed concern before helping the fallen.

I have been a regular urban cyclist since 2005. I’ve had some spills—some minor, a few nasty ones. I had one in Golden Gate Park which was far, far worst than the one I saw of a middle-aged woman falling on a side street in Le Marais. When I fell, a man standing nearby hesitated a few seconds before asking me if I was okay. Although I was physically shaking from the hard fall (I was cycling over 22 mph when I hit an unmarked speed bump that sent me sailing sideways through the air), I told him I was all right as I took a seat to hunch over on the curb.

In Paris, a group of at least five pedestrians came to the woman’s aid. The sound of her bicycle clanging against the sidewalk had been loud. They helped her stand. I saw a few people put their hands on her back. The owner of the fashion shop/Internet café were I sat at sped over to the fallen woman with a chair; she placed the chair on the left side of the street, the part designated for cyclists so the woman could sit. It was humbling to see this communal reaction for a woman who merely lost control of her bike and fell on the sidewalk. From my experiences, I found it hard to imagine Americans ever reacting in this manner, let alone in a fast-paced metropolis like, say, New York City (which is the only American city that can hold a candle to Europe’s great cities).

On a related note, I observed, on a daily basis for one week that Parisians would go out of their way to hold the exit door open at the St. Paul metro station for the stream of people walking behind them. I pointed this out to Mari as symptomatic of a culture which is more community-oriented than our own in California. Maybe it’s different in small towns in California but I have never witnessed such considerateness anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or in the Southern California cities I have visited over the years. I have a hard time picturing New Yorkers doing the same at a subway station.

In all, I couldn’t help but feel that Europeans, in a wholly general sense, seem more considerate and compassionate toward one another. (Call me crazy, but maybe that’s partly why they don’t have nearly as many mass shootings as the United States?) Their police don’t kill people of color—and get away with it. Their governments provide universal healthcare for their citizens; I don’t think this is debated like it is in the United States; it’s simply a right their citizens have. Most European countries have far more generous laws when it comes to time off from work, especially for paternal leaves. With all this in mind—and there’s so much more that could be said—it’s hard not to juxtapose the United States and the European Union and come away believing that Europeans revere life more than Americans. By comparison, the United States is a wild, barbaric frontier where people are apparently only valuable if they’re working. (This is reflected in the fact that one of the first questions American strangers typically ask one another is what their vocation is.)

Though it was only two weeks, our visit to Western Europe gave me, for the first time in my life, the earnest desire to leave this country someday. Wouldn’t it be good to live in a country where my taxes aren’t being spent to maim and kill brown people on other sides of our planet? Wouldn’t it be a reprieve to live in a country that is not at constant war? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to live in a country where people understand and support policies to serve the social good? Wouldn’t it be a rejoice to live in a country where people—and their governments—do more to try to live within their means? Wouldn’t it be great to live in a country with a saner government?

I know I am simplifying this—even fetishizing these differences. But still. Still. A society's priorities are inevitably reflected in their laws, and the United States is fucking cuckoo-town, man.

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