This essay was originally posted in December, 2010, following a Danube River cruise from Budapest, Hungary, to Passau, Germany.
The Captain’s Dinner
At the end of the cruise, there is always the “Captain’s Dinner.” The hotel manager had heard me speaking German with someone. The Slovakian captain was insecure in his English. And so, I was invited to sit next to the Captain at his dinner. On his other side was a German-born American passenger. Basically, the Captain was uncomfortable having to make speeches and schmooze in English with the mostly American passengers. So I had the chance to make small talk in German with the Captain, the German-American lady, and the hotel manager, who was Austrian. It’s hard to fathom that it was forty (!) years ago that I lived in Germany and learned German. Perhaps I’ve been able to maintain the language, because I learned it (difficult at the time) when I was relatively young (22). On the other hand, I believe that continuing to learn languages at an advanced age such as mine is good mental gymnastics.
All of the waiters on the ship spoke at least three or more languages. On this ship they were mostly Slovakians, who spoke Russian, German, and English. Waiters at most of the restaurants off the ship that we visited were similarly multilingual. Being a waiter/waitress in Europe is much more a prestigious and respected profession than it is in the US. The same higher standards are present in the kitchen as well. That’s one reason that restaurants are generally of a consistently higher quality than in the US, where the restaurant industry is a low wage/fast turnover industry that doesn’t nurture the quality (and higher prices) typical of restaurants across Europe.
Understanding the European Union
On the last day of the cruise, there was a visiting German lecturer who talked about the history of the European Union (EU), currently twenty-seven nations. I learned a little about the history and the current challenges to “the united states of Europe.” The history of Europe over the last thousand years is a story of wars and more wars. The primary goal of the EU is to maintain peace among its members. Beyond peace, there is the challenge of the common currency, the Euro, which removed trade barriers between the EU members, but it eased the immigration of workers from poor countries to the richer ones. (How many Mexicans would come to the US if both countries used the dollar and the borders were completely open?)
There is a declaration of the rights of citizen of the EU member states to enjoy freedom of travel. Currently, President Sarkozy of France is in violation of the EU charter, because he has deported poor Roma (“Gypsies”) people from Bulgaria. Also, immigrants travel from the poor countries to the rich ones in order to avail themselves of the better social services (welfare, healthcare, subsidized housing, etc.) in the richer countries. Finally, European Union membership requires that member states be democracies that practice freedom of religion. This has been the stumbling block for Turkey becoming an EU member. Turkey’s current government is more institutionally Islamic than the rest of Europe is comfortable with.
Of Trains and Solar Panels
Leaving the cruise ship in Passau, Germany, we took the train for the two hour journey to Munich, where we would spend our last night before flying home. Every time I travel by train in Europe, I think, why can’t the US support such a great transportation system? The short answer is that the US is a “car culture.” During the expansion of the automobile industry, streetcar systems (i.e. light rail) was abolished in many cities in the US. Population patterns in the US necessitate having a car, because distances are larger. People live much more dispersed than in thickly populated Europe. It is much easier to live in Europe without owning a car, since public transport is so much more extensive than in the US. European gasoline prices are double what they are in the states, generating tax revenues that support the more coordinated public transportation system. Anti-tax sentiment in the states probably means that our roads, bridges, and general transportation infrastructure will continue to degrade and decline.
The ironic thing is that the wasted resources of many years of millions of cars sitting in rush hour traffic around the country could have paid for a much better public transportation system than our present one, not to calculate the future costs to the US compared with the money saved under the more efficient German system. I think it’s a similar issue in comparing the US and Germany’s healthcare systems. Americans are fighting for the right to remain uninsured (cf. single occupancy vehicles) versus investing in a single-payer-national health insurance plan (cf. coordinated rail, bus, & highway systems).
During the train journey from Passau to Munich, we passed through flat farm land of the German state of Bavaria. I was amazed to see how many roof tops were covered in solar panels. We also passed two moderate solar panel farms of perhaps an acre each. When considering the large number of windmills in northern Germany, combined with the solar panels of southern Germany, it’s clear that alternative/renewable energy has been promoted and adopted much more widely in Germany than in the states. One reason for this is that Germany has no oil wells. That promotes greater incentive for individuals to make the large initial investment that alternative energy hardware systems require.
Traveling around Europe means confronting continual reminders of centuries of history. The various cathedrals, churches, synagogues, and mosques trace the constant and often adversarial relationships between different religions and national groups. Then there are the castles, castle walls, moats, and ruins of forts. Finally, there are greater collections/concentrations of historic sculptures and paintings than anywhere else in the world. Hopefully, we can all learn from history, rather than blindly repeating it.