Sunday, 20 April 2014

Culture Shock, Coming over the Alps

For the best part of seven months we have lived in this van; from late autumn to early winter in  England, and then from middle December onwards we have as per all the preceding posts been rattling around western Europe like bad pennies in a big yellow tin can.

For almost the entire duration of this journeying we have been in the company of adults, usually older than us. A weekend or so ago as we abode in Bad-Bellingen southwest Germany, we were verily surrounded by people our age or younger and with what seem to us hordes of children.

They are noisy, they are noisy in a foreign language, and I’m reminded of my son when he was younger and we went traditional camping with tents and tent accoutrements. These children arrived from different places in different forms of transport; cars caravan combis, motorhomes, and maybe tents (though tents were in a different part of the park). The children clumped together in loose bands of bantering, boasting, bossing groups, either sitting or cycling, laughing and tearing round the place without a parent in site.

This is a thing with camping; only rarely does a child come back bawling his eyes out because some other child has been a turd ... usually they come back bawling because they’ve been too daring, and are usually attended by the entire group who witnessed the accident. With breathless explanations from all quarters both to inform the parent in charge of the fallen; of the injury sustained and the mode of injury ... and to exonerate themselves of any blame for the accident preceding the child coming back to base: scraped, having bitten through their tongue, bleeding profusely from the nose, head, knee ... etc ... I don’t think I’ve ever seen the wounded carted off to A&E in my experience. They usually get wiped down, cleaned up, fed watered and then off they jog for round two.

So anyway that’s children, we haven’t seen any properly for quite a while, it’s a for taste probably for what’s to come when we get home and do the summer around England.

The other thing that’s changed as we’ve come over the Alps is: Everything.

We were very close to Switzerland, but closer to France and the Black Forest (all are literally a stones throw away). Germany is clean, almost everywhere is immaculate. To clarify this we did a short walk around the first campsite and nearby golf resort; we counted one banana skin, one Philip Morris cigarette packet (empty) and three boiled sweet wrappers . Around Pompei and Vesuvius there was what looked like a picturesque patch of wood with a picnic area. But once you looked over the hedge, the entire place was strewn with every form of shop bought litter you could imagine. We’ve already mentioned the ubiquitous plastic water bottles all over Spain (same problem in Portugal, that or overflowing street bins, then picked over by crows). The only place we went in Italy that was spotless more or less, was the Parma area just before we crossed Switzerland.

The dominant conifers of southern Europe are gone and spring this side of the mountains is absolutely rampant. In the Schwarzweld (Black Forest), there is an even mix of conifer and deciduous trees, it’s hard to tell how much is plantation. Clearly there is forest management and timber production, but the area we have been looks wild, even with the odd stack of 25metre long cut pines. There is a very light touch to woodland management and conservation generally, in absolute contrast to Portugal’s Eucalyptus Armageddon.

We’ve hit spring this side of the Alps at around the same stage we left it, as we came across Spain from Salamanca to Zaragaosa and then Southern France. To us this means seeing blossom in profusion yet again (not that we’ve really been without blossom since Cartagena in January). We are seeing the first leaves on Oaks, Beeches, Hornbeam’s, bursting buds on vines (in Northern Spain that stage passed around the 19th or 2th of March or around three weeks ago). Deciduous trees dominate outside the wooded part of the forest (that’s the correct definition of forest, not the one that people apply to a place with lots of trees, that’s just a wood), oaks, Ash, Beech hedging, ornamental cherries, Pears, Apples, Sycamore, Japanese Acers (Sycamore is an Acer, but clearly vast compared to an ornamental Japanese Acer). The grass here is different, softer finer bladed. I’d be deviating from the truth if I didn’t say northern Italy isn’t similar in terms of flora, but still the mix is still dominated by conifers almost all the way to the mountains, and then of course through the Alpine passes we took, conifers demonstrated their toughness and adaptability yet again.

These things mentioned so far are change enough to make one feel ... if you like; `like you’ve stepped through the looking glass’. We came by sea to Santander the change in environment was almost instantaneous and clearly way back in December we must have had a similar culture shock, but back then every mile was a culture shock, every turn a new view. What’s happened as we’ve come back over the Alps into northern part of western Europe is that we have virtually come home. The land looks the same, the people look the same as us we are no more than background noise, we are greeted in German, the assumption it seems on the part of everyone we meet is that we are just visiting from somewhere else in Germany ... until we speak. It’s odd, the fact the Germans we’ve met in Spain during the winter have often just ignored us, this side of the mountains they couldn’t be more hospitable if they tried; accommodating our lack of language skills by switching in almost all cases to very passable English ... clearly the small amounts of German I did get taught at school have stuck, and I find myself able to deal with the absolute basics.

I should mention that my learning of foreign languages was brief. In my first year of secondary school I did around two or three terms of German, then our German teacher left to have a child, then we had several supply teachers who weren’t language skilled. They were just there to keep us in order. Then we had a man called Mr Carter who was something of a con man who slipped into the school by some means. Then blagged his way through a few months pretending to be a teacher and then did a runner with some funds (I don’t remember what). Eventually when it came to exams most if not all of us failed both the written and practical exams and were then unable to take languages as an option come the third year. We got to do European studies instead. So it’s not for want of trying, the education system let me down. The proof that you need to get languages in early is the fact that at 46yrs old, I can still pick the gist of conversation based on nine months of lessons from age 11.

So anyway, were are back on the 21st century side of the Alps, with all the goodies that go with it. Toilet seats on toilets, toilet paper in toilets, hand washing soap in toilets, chemical toilet emptying facilities that don’t require the wearing of a HAZMAT suit in case you get splash-back from your own excretions, or far far worse other peoples, or put your back out lifting a full size man-hole cover using a re-modelled coat hanger as a handle. Showers that are adjustable, and don’t need a button pressing every ten seconds to maintain a flow, hot water that is hot, shower heads that provide even cover, and aren’t encrusted with rust, mould or limescale. Washing machines that clean and spin your clothes so that they don’t need re-rinsing in a sink and or hanging out for a whole day to drip dry, because they were too wet to put in the tumble dryer even if you wanted to use it. Washing up facilities where hot water is the standard, not the pleasant surprise. WIFI that costs €2 for twenty four hours or more ... not €5 for an hour, or worse paying €8 to €10 for twenty four hours. WIFI  that actually allows you to get stuff done in minutes,  without having to leave your laptop on all night propped at a jaunty angle to maximise the signal handshaking, only to find out eight hours later that your connection failed and your ticket and or password has expired and there are no refunds.

There are very stark differences between the north western parts of Europe and the southern bits. There is a road network that connects us all, even via the English Channel. That road network in the main connects seamlessly, and apart from a Portugal where roads are frankly poor we have a freedom to move and explore terrain and culture like nowhere else in the world. We can’t all be the same, the differences between the peoples is what makes the place worth exploring. And by and large most of the people we’ve met have been terrific regardless of origin. But it is so very nice to back in 21st century Europe.

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