Monday, May 30, 2016

Walking Into A World Of Difference

An interesting article was published on Yahoo a few days ago concerning impressions of Americans on European customs.   It is always interesting to learn what people think when they encounter differences.    I am hoping  it will make a good blog post.  

Actual Portion Size You Get In The Veneto
Half The Size Of American 
Preparing for my first  European visit (1974)I was completely unaware of my prejudices and preconceptions towards what I would find in Europe.   That summer I was schooled!  Arriving across the pond, I didn’t realize that the only people in a restaurant before 7:30 would be  Americans, or that it is not a crime against humanity for food portions to be so much smaller.  
On of the BEST in Rome for pasta!
yet totally GSp

I had to get used to not having air conditioning in public vehicles.  I had no a clue about those strange traffic signs and the various driving regulations, or that people didn’t have eggs and bacon for breakfast, and you would not be served a coke with ice.  I didn't trust greasy spoon looking places, and ended up missing out on some great food.  I had never seen people eat an apple for dessert using a knife and fork.   I didn’t know that it was atrociously bad manners to try speaking German to a Dutch person in the hope to be understood.  I had no idea that people in Barcelona would stay up past 2:00 AM and keep me awake. 

No Taste In Clothes Back Then
Wish I Still Had That Shirt
  I was a complete idiot!   I had  the mental competence of a stump!  That's me on the right, a mere babe in the woods, badly dressed for the 60's and needing to be schooled!

(There is a British tv series, Idiot Abroad, starring Karl Pilkington and written by Ricky Gervais about differences in culture—it is outrageously hilarious and worth a look!)  

Back then  there were far fewer  tourists in Europe.  You might have the whole compartment in the train to yourself, which allowed you to sleep on the train at night by pulling out the bottom of the seats to make a couch.  (Not possible nowadays—they fixed that to increase profits)  I didn’t have to stand in line with hundreds of tourists to see the Roman Coliseum, pay to see the Forum or get into a massive line for  the Vatican Museum.  There was no line up for a  visit to the Tower of London, or to visit St. Marks in Venice. 

McCarthy Wanted to Stop The War
Americans were seen by European people with more curiosity.  Now we are sometimes viewed as a bother.  Three times, while in Lisbon, people walked up and touched my arm as if to say that they had touched an American.  (I did the same to Senator Eugene McCarthy who in 1968 ran for for President.)  

I had some wonderful personal encounters with people.  At a bus stop in Berne while I was counting pocket change the bus arrived and a total stranger  reached in his pocket, took out change  and pushed me onto the bus while paying my fare.   A few weeks later, another  stranger in Rome gave me directions and then invited me to his home for a visit that night to meet his family.  In contrast,  later that month while my train was stopped in France, being very thirsty and having no French money, I offered to give a seller all the change in my pocket, (at least 7 dollars worth) for a bottle of water.   This was a huge pile of coins from other countries.  He refused my request! 

My favorite jaw dropping memory is when, during  the first week of my trip, a  Dutch farmer learned of my musical degree and he directed me to the back where he quickly opened his barn,  to show me a pipe organ that he had built after the war.   He had spent his war years in Italy repairing organs and came home with his dream to build one.  One look at his gnarly, dirty farmer’s fingers made me believe that he could not play it, but he removed his wooden shoes and sat down to play some Bach.  —And he played Bach wonderfully,  even with his hunt and peck style.  These impressions of Europe, the good and the bad,and sucked me into wanting more.  Three months with a back pack and a Eurail Pass had me hooked forever.

Traffic Sign in Tuscany
One thing that was mentioned in the internet article was the fact that in Italy pedestrians have the right of way.  I learned this the hard way during my driving school lessons as I nervously drove through the traffic in the center of Padova.  While dodging traffic, reading the traffic signs and worrying about correct speed I saw two people standing at a middle of the block where there was a crosswalk, not regulated by a light.  It looked like they were talking and one was lighting a cigarette, so I kept going forward, while I heard “No!” from my instructor as he applied the brake.  The pedestrians suddenly woke from their conversations and walked across the street.  On all non regulated crosswalks with a light,  if there is any person there, even a bicyclist heading that way, you must stop.  All Italians are trained to stop for pedestrians.  They follow the rules—except for stopping at stop signs!

There are more smokers in Europe than America, although greatly reduced from the past.  Because of airport security, there are no back doors or outside stairways where smokers can sneak off for a quick smoke; therefore, a sealed room is provided where smokers can congregate and puff away.   If you have the habit, you don’t even have to light up, you can just share smoke from others.  The grey cloud of smoke is so thick they should hang a health hazard area sign on the door.  

Rowing Quietly Near My Home with the
Volcanic Hills In the Background
One person, when questioned, replied that he noticed in Sweden a calmness, no loud music, no cars with music blaring, no dogs barking, no horn honking, and people were not seen to be talking on cell phones.  Maybe he was from New York,  yet I have to somewhat agree with him about tranquillity here in Italy.  The difference would be that Italian motor scooters here are an irritation!  Why they don’t force riders to have a muffler that actually functions to muffle the sound.  They do this with all motor vehicles except scooters.  Italy allows no hot rod sounds, and car engines are not allowed to be “souped up”!   My biggest complaint is the so called "romantic" church bells waking me up every Sunday morning at 7:00.   Those priests want to make sure no one gets any extra snooze time!  In America somebody would take this to court, for sure!

It is a shock to see beer being sold to teenagers in a McDonalds.  One of the questioned responded that she was shocked to see beer being sold in museum snack bars, and also from vending machines.  She said it seemed like a world created for adults, not children.  Beer is sometimes cheaper than Coca Cola.  Wine is sent from the barrel to the tap at the counter.  

It's About Body Size!
Body shapes were mentioned, saying that there were far more lean people in Europe, and fewer muscle men.  People were shorter in Europe and waist sizes were not so large……..I agree as when, in Italy,  I stand in a bus, or sit in a train I notice that I am at least a head taller than 90 percent of others (I am 6 feet tall).    (My wife wants me to be sure and mention that I am also LARGER than most others!)    When I return to the states I notice a reversal of difference seeing people who need “larger” chairs, larger automobiles, and hope the airlines won’t again reduce the size of seats on their airplanes. 

Lastly there was a mention of the attitudes of Parisians.  Here is the quote, “Parisians are assholes, they are even mean to each other.”   It also stated that outside of Paris the French are far more gentle and polite.  I have also found this to be true statement.  As far as the Italians, I find them quite gentle (molto gentile).  

Weak Drivers BEWARE!
However,  in the south of Italy, drivers behind the wheel are not so molto gentile in behavior.  They seem to sense weakness in other drivers and take advantage of it.    They will try to enter traffic and if you hesitate, thinking of a possible collision, they will jump in front of you.   They drive in two lanes at the same time, cut in front of others, pass a car in a no passing zone,  drive while using a cell phone all the while having a conversation with a passenger, and challenge oncoming traffic in a game of "chicken".

In another example of gentleness,  I find that Italians are helpful and even try to give directions, even if they don’t know where the place is you need to go.  Knowing their behavior causes one to end up asking several people the same request for directions.  That way you can average it out and then hope for the best.  This works about 50% of the time.  It's a crap shoot for sure.  The positive outcome is that you get to meet and greet a lot of "normal" Italians.  

During your European experience have you had any interesting experiences?  I would like to hear about them.  Please make a comment below.  Thanks for reading.  

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