I’ve always had a love affair with Europe, ever since I was a kid and long before I first step foot in the Old World. In recent years I have found myself there more and more often, somewhat on purpose as there are few places I enjoy being more. I often get asked my favorite country in the world, which is an impossible question, but Europe just may be my favorite region and continent. There’s something very special about being there but on a recent trip I tried to think of the exact reasons why I enjoy spending time there so very much and came up with these ideas.
I’m a big fan of public transportation systems around the world, just the travel geek in me I suppose. And while the US does a fairly good job at having comprehensive systems in major cities, the moment you leave town you’re on your own. But in Europe it’s different, you can get just about anywhere without ever driving a car. At the crux of this is the European train experience, something that is a rite of passage for most American tourists. While most Europeans have since moved on to using the cheaper budget airlines to get around the continent, we refuse. We can do that anywhere, instead when we’re in Europe we want to take the train as often as we can. Luckily for us, we can. While it may take a few connections, even the smallest of European towns seems to be connected via rail line making them all easy to visit and explore. While sometimes late, the schedules are generally kept to making it efficient as well as fun. I also think it’s just more pleasant to leave from the middle of a town and arrive into the middle of another town. Airports are fine, but they can take so long to get to and navigate through that trains, at the end of the day, usually don’t take that much more time. There is also just a natural romanticism to train travel that appeals to us all on a very base, human level. As people we’re fascinated by the mechanics of it all and for me it’s a core part of my European experience no matter where on the continent I go.
Perhaps this is a little too obvious, but if I had to choose a last meal it would absolutely be centered entirely on European cuisine. Thanks to the diversity of cultures in a small space, the choices seem to be limitless and the differences stunning. It’s an amazing concept that you can travel just a couple of hours and experience food that is vastly different from each other. For as much as I eat in Europe though, I never gain weight. Sure, part of it is thanks to the extra walking around towns and cities, but it’s also thanks to the quality of ingredients. I have always noticed a stronger reliance on fresh, local foods, something that’s a trend in the US but certainly not the norm. Chefs walk down the street to local markets and the food on your plate was either alive or in the ground a few hours earlier. It’s this high quality that makes it so healthy, and it’s also my own proclivity towards avoiding mass-produced foods while visiting as well. Sure, there are McDonalds all over Europe, but I never eat at them, instead opting for something local and therefore fresh. Ignore the health benefits for a moment, and the food in Europe is iconic and delicious. Unlike so many other areas of the world with nondescript or even boring cuisines, European food is well known, distinctive and delicious. Starting off my day with a fresh pastry and robust coffee, enjoying some market or food stand food for lunch, snack on cakes in the afternoon and finishing up the day at a local brasserie – that is my idea of the perfect foodie day in Europe.
This is a gross generalization and definitely varies from country to country, but on the whole I find the European mindset to be much more positive than the American thought pattern. Even in the most high-strung of European countries, there’s a basic understanding that balance in life is important. In the US most of us don’t use all of our vacation time and when we do take breaks to schedule in “work catch up” time in between visits to the beach. In Europe, most people understand that work is important, but so is time off. In France it is mandatory that Sunday is a day off and in Spain, hanging out with friends over a long lunch is the norm instead of an abnormality. Even in Sweden, the afternoon coffee tradition of fika belies an understanding that slowing down and catching up with friends is an important part of life. I believe that combined, the amalgamated mindset makes most Europeans more productive in the long run than their American counterparts. Sure, we may literally work ourselves to death, producing a lot in the process but by the time we retire we wonder what happened to our lives. My mother used to tell me that in life we should do everything in moderation, and it’s a lesson we should learn from our European cousins.
When compared to North America, Europe isn’t that big. But within that compact space is an amazing degree of diversity spread out amongst dozens of different and distinct countries and cultures. That’s an amazing fact if you stop to think of it. Centuries of history and geography have created traditions that may be separated by only a few hundred miles, but are as different from each other as Thailand is to Canada. It’s as if in the US, Virginia and Maryland spoke different languages, ate different foods and had completely different histories. It’s a wonderful part of the European experience and thanks to that degree of diversity, makes traveling even a short distance fun and endlessly fascinating. I think this is something that most Europeans take for granted or just don’t think much about, but for non-Europeans visiting the continent it provides a lifetime of enriching experiences. I could easily spend years visiting Germany and France and not see everything, but I can’t say the same of Iowa or Indiana. That’s the difference.
So those are just a few of the many reasons why I love Europe and traveling around the Old World. What other reasons would you add to the list?