No place like home

Published 2:35 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2009

New Mexico is far below as I make my way to California less than a week after returning from Europe.

For the last two weeks I have given a report of the wonderful travels we had in France, Spain and Italy. This week I would like to reflect on some of the similarities we saw as well as some of the differences.

Some of the differences are obvious such as the languages. As we moved from one country to another we learned the most basic of phrases, such as hello, goodbye and thank you. Restrooms were universally called toilettes, which made that question a bit easier.

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In fact, some of the greatest differences were in the restroom facilities between countries. Most were very clean, which wasn’t the case on my first trip years ago. Perhaps if we charged people to go in the men’s room as they do in many places, it would be easier to keep things clean. I learned to always keep some change in my pocket.

Cars were almost universally smaller with only a few mid-size SUVs on the road. With the exception of the few interstate-type highways, the roads were all much smaller. Parking in the cities was almost impossible, but everyone seemed to know how to parallel park in the tiniest of spaces.

Scooters were everywhere. They were smaller than our motorcycles and came in many shapes and sizes. Some had two front wheels but only one rear wheel. They darted in and out of traffic seemingly without fear, and parked everywhere on the streets.

In Spain and Italy, many people rode bicycles, including senior citizens. They had cute little bells they would ring to warn you if they were approaching behind.

All the major cities had multiple subways that were excellent in getting you around. It seemed to be the most popular mode of transportation when available. With the price of gasoline around $11 per gallon in more remote locations, it is easy to see why people have learned to do without big automobiles. In one of the most obvious differences from Southwest Georgia, there were no pickup trucks at all.

Outdoor dining is very popular, as it is in some American cities. However, the gnats in our part of the world make this a risky endeavor most times of the year. Many restaurants would make an attempt at having a menu in at least partial English, but the farther away from tourist areas the more likely things would only be in the native language.

Their breads are wonderful and come in many different textures, mostly with a hard crust. Most eat their bread without butter, perhaps with cheese, but the butter is great when you get it.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that unless you ask for “ice,” your water or beverage will come at room temperature. When requested, you’ll likely get two or three cubes at most.

Ninty-five percent or more of the people in Paris were wearing black. Black sweaters, shirts, pants and shoes, along with a black hat and scarf. My red sweater the first day stood out like a yellow raincoat so glaring was the difference. Baseball-type caps were also very rare, making the Ponder men stand out in any crowd.

Off the main streets, the shops are small; much like small town Georgia must have been like 50 years ago. They often carried only one thing, such as gelato or ice cream, or perhaps leather or ceramic tiles.

The conversion of Europe to the “Euro” or common monetary system of the European Union has certainly made traveling easier. Each country we traveled in used the Euro almost exclusively although credit cards were welcome in the most obscure places. ATMs gladly welcomed my debit cards, leaving me to make mental calculations of what the exchange rate was that day.

Hotel rooms almost always have only one bed or two twin beds. The makes it challenging when traveling with seven people. I have never really been sure how European families with a lot of children did their accommodations. The second floor is always known as the first floor. You press “0” to go to ground floor in an elevator.

McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut and surprisingly Kentucky Fried Chicken were common everywhere we traveled, but the local food was always so good that even the kids didn’t eat too much from back home. Wine came with every meal, lunch or dinner, and was more common than a glass of water unless you asked.

Coca-Cola was the first sign we saw after arriving in Paris and continued its presence everywhere we went. Minute Maid orange juice could be found in the oldest, most quaint cafes. It goes without saying that we never saw grits, sweet tea or southern vegetables like we love, but part of the fun of traveling is trying new things.

Christmas decorations were being put up everywhere since they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but then that doesn’t seem to stop us from putting up decorations early any more either.

So now I am on to Southern California, a place I am much more familiar with but still different from home. This is my last trip of the year and the rest of this month will be spent with my family and friends enjoying the season. Even though I enjoy traveling, when you get right down to it, there is no place like home.