I thought it would be good for me to note some of the cultural differences I've noticed between Holland/Germany and the U.S. during my trip so far, if nothing else to try to understand the people in this part of Europe a little better:
- Cars: At first, it seemed very odd that there was not one SUV anywhere, on any roads. But I've gotten used to seeing the many small cars everywhere. It seems to me that one might have a harder time driving around in a large car or minivan anyways, as the roads are typically a little tighter. The most interesting car I've seen is the 'Smart' car; it looks like someone took a sort-of tall car, then chopped it off halfway (it's a non-reclining two-seater) and put a back end on it; space is limited, but it's probably pretty efficient.
- Gas: It's no wonder cars are so small and efficient when gas prices are so high! Gas has cost around 1.80 euro per liter while I've been here—that translates to about 7 euro per gallon, or $10 per gallon! That's quite a premium to pay for gas. This is probably also the reason I see so many people riding around on Vespas, motorbikes and bikes.
- Public Transit: Probably also because of the gas prices, the train system here is much more efficient and comfortable than those I've been on in the States. The trains are almost always within five minutes of the scheduled time (even with the 900,000+ World Youth Day participants!), and they get to their destination quickly and smoothly. All the trains, under and above-ground, are light-rail (meaning they have an electrical wire above that gives power to the trains) like the MetroLink in St. Louis, but they have less obstructions, and don't have to keep blowing their whistles at street crossings (mostly because there are none!).
- Religion: Unfortunately, you can see signs of the irreligion in Europe everywhere; not only do Catholic Churches have stagnant attendance (even the largest ones), but there are also very few Protestant churches around. Many of the protestant churches I've seen were 'welcoming to all,' and some have had rainbow banners flying next to their other flags. People seem to treat their churches more as tourist attractions (things to be used to make money) rather than sacred spaces where one can lift his mind and soul up to God.
- Sexuality: I didn't expect to see quite the things I've seen so far while I've been over here; if storefronts in upscale, busy shopping districts are any indication of the 'acceptance' of Europe, it looks like almost anything is 'accepted.' Many storefronts have hard-core pornography publicly displayed, and even seemingly innocent stores (such as one marketing flags to tourists) had pictures of scantily-clad or naked women. From many people I've seen on the streets in most towns I've visited, it looks like Europe (or at least parts of it) is being hit harder by the 'Sexual Revolution' than most areas of the U.S. As I said in an earlier posting, a lady in Holland said that lack of respect was a problem; it seems to me that there is little respect for a woman's body or for Catholic teachings on sexual morality here.
- Food: The most interesting difference for me has been the food; breakfast in Europe is a much more magnificent affair, with many meats, breads, cheeses, and drinks arrayed on the table. Hagelslag, a kind of chocolate sprinkle, is very popular for putting on a slice of bread in the morning. Unfortunately for me, many of the foods in restaurants I've visited aren't very Crohn's friendly, so I've not been able to try too many of them. Lunch seems to be a quick, less-formal affair (usually a little bag of odds and ends), and dinner is mostly as it is America, with the exception of the drinks they have; bubbly beverages are more normal here (not Crohn's friendly, either!), and wine and beer is much more readily available.
- Health Care: If I needed any confirmation that a completely-government-run healthcare system is not a great idea, I have found it. After talking to a few different people about healthcare, I've found that the government-run systems in many places are not very efficient, and many benefits we take for granted in the U.S. are not even available! Many of the newest treatments, prescription drugs and medical equipment (such as the watch many diabetic people use to measure insulin levels) take a long time to become available to citizens. Another interesting observation is the lack of pharmacies in the areas I've been; instead of a Walgreens (or something similar) on every other street corner, there is usually only one or two pharmacies every kilometer or two.
- Euros: Euros come in different denominations than dollars, and it was quite confusing for a few days; there are 1, 5, 20 and 50 cent coins, 1 and 2 euro coins, and 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 euro paper bills. I am not too fond of coins, because they are heavy and they rattle quite a bit, but I think one dollar coins wouldn't be so bad. Because my bank has international affiliations, getting euros from an ATM (with no transaction fee) was no problem. I would recommend you bring a VISA card for larger purchases (they don't accept them for small purchases because credit card systems aren't up to par with America's), and an ATM card to get cash for smaller (20 euro or less) purchases.
- Odds and Ends: My iBook, iPod and camera chargers all hooked right into the power system here (with appropriate adaptors, of course), and my iBook can get on any typical computer network. However, light switches and power outlets are much larger here than in the States; they usually have panels that are about two inches square for one switch our outlet. Most bathrooms I've been in have had no fans; only open windows (thus, they typically have a certain stench). Toilets don't have the familiar 'flusher' that U.S. toilets have; the more modern ones have a large square 'paddle button' on top that you press to let a plethora of water attack the toilet; you can stop the flush by pressing on the other side of the paddle (a nice feature!).
All in all, people in Europe are %99.999 the same as those in the U.S. (they breathe, we breathe, etc.). Some of the differences are very upsetting, and others are good for making me think a little more about certain habits I have, so I am very glad to have come here to see the cities (especially before the WYD events began, when I stayed in Posterholt, Holland). I hope to someday travel to other regions of the world (such as Africa, Asia, or South/Central America) to see more cultural differences.