Sure, Europe has lots in common with the rest of the Western world. But it’s the quintessential things that will live on in my memory. Like:
Road signs: In three European countries (Czech Republic, Germany and Italy), I have seen the same signs entering and leaving nearly every town — large and small: Prague,
Prague; Rome, Rome; Frankfurt, Frankfurt. I thought the town name with a line through it was shorthand for “Now Leaving _______.” At least in CZ, it’s a communication about speed limits. After the sign, city speed limitations cease.
- Street signs on buildings: Genius. Why waste time planting a pole on a corner topped with two sheets of metal just begging to be stolen and hung on some dorm room wall? Kidding. But really – here buildings often go right up the the corner of a street and bear a street sign on each side. Certainly eliminates the confusion that results when a U.S. style pole has been smashed around a bit.
Blackout windows: Purported to be a hold-over from WWII, windows in every single home have these roll down barriers. The individual planks fit together like scales, either allowing in pinholes of light or creating a solid barrier between inside and out. As such, many homes don’t have curtains. And many people are used to sleeping in complete darkness. This style would go over well in shift-work communities!
- Misnomer airports: I’m sure eventually it will be illegal, but for now airports that are nowhere near Milan, Frankfurt, Paris, etc. are allowed to call themselves Milan-Bergamo, Frankfurt-Hahn, Paris-Beauvais, and so on. I learned my lesson the hard way. Thanks, Kristin, for sorting it all out!
- Geography matters: Unless you’re a savant, it’s awfully hard to remember the geography of places you’ve never been. Now that the relative size of each European nation and the border placement impact my daily life, I’ve finally started to seal in European geography. One Jeopardy category down, five thousand to go.
- Gypsies do exist: And people are not happy about it! As with many stereotypes, I’m sure the reputation is deserved just as frequently as it’s unfair and inaccurate. But people have spoken at length to us about “fucking gypsies” and the problems they cause/are blamed for.
We’ve spent the last several weeks getting to know Italy, Italians, and their quirks. Like:
Coffee. And not really breakfast: Italians love their coffee. Obviously a morning cuppa is important, but ‘anytime’ coffee is equally so. “Bars” are rampant: usually scarce seating with a busy countertop where Italians grab a cup on the run. Not a cup. A shot. Even in the middle of nowhere, gas stations have an attached “bar” serving up gourmet coffee in tiny porcelain cups to the hordes stopping for a caffeine refuel. While the A.M. beverage is ubiquitous, morning food — especially real food — is not. “Breakfast” means a coffee and a pastry — especially when flaunted as an amenity by a hotel/B&B.
- Cemetery cities: many of the dead rest in mausoleums, which makes cemeteries look like baby villages – miniature cities with houses built nearly on top on one another. My first thought is always: Kiddy Theme Park!
Nonchalance: “Italians don’t care” – say many locals we meet. Often the statement is applied to rules. Equally, it applies to punctuality: Italians are ‘sempre in ritardo.’ When the two combine, you get a situation like our bus driver deciding to pull over at a gas station and chill out just 20 minutes before our three-hour journey was supposed to be over. Or a ticket vendor not understanding our stupification over not being allowed to purchase a ticket for a train that is an hour delayed for departure. Because the train should have left (Italian trains are often late), tickets are no longer available. Even though the train is sitting there with empty seats.
- Clicky-lights: Instead of up and down, when a light is wired to more than one switch, it clicks on and off. How cool is that?
- Swallows in the streets: in the early and late hours of the day, swallows flit for hours in the narrow space above the street between buildings snapping up insects.
Funky bathrooms: Italian loos are a bit of a crack-up. The toilets are mostly normal, except that the most common design requires per-use scrubbing with a toilet brush. Most bathrooms also include this sort of half-sink-half-toilet that Pat thought was a footwashing apparatus — a hold over from Muslim presence. Nope. “It’s for genitals.” Yes, really. A genital sink. Sit and scrub or “ride it.” And the showers… wow. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Most are normal. However, the memorable ones are some mutation of a shrunken bathtub with a bizarre step built in — so half of it is exceptionally deep and the other half is shallow. The shower head, if it’s mounted at all, is at hip level. And there are no shower curtains. Essentially you soap up and then hold the sprayer above your head and scatter water all over everything in the bathroom. I guess with a genital sink, you don’t need to shower that often.
Curly hair: Many Italian women have intensely curly locks. Not 50%, but maybe 1 in 5! It’s quite a sight to behold. I’m reverent. It’s seems like a super-power: hair with a life of it’s own. All curly-sues I know assure me it is far from a privilege, so thank you to all you lovely ladies with awe-inspiring hair.
That’s it for now. Coming soon: Eastern Europe observations! â™£
Photo credit links: city limit sign, Italian train (broken).