Twelfth-century churches and 15th-century chapels and chateaus are very impressive, but my wife and I saw many ordinary things — some little things and some big things — that really impressed us on our recent visit to Europe.
Handicapped parking spaces near stores and offices are also available to parents with small children and pregnant women. What a nice idea.
Gasoline is about $6.50 per gallon, but the fuel costs for operating vehicles are not that much higher than in the United States. Cars are generally much smaller, there are no big pickup trucks and very few large SUV’s. We made several trips of one or two hours with other couples in our Fiat 500, which worked out surprisingly well. All of their vehicles get much better mileage than ours, and they have many diesel-powered cars.
Meals are very important, both for the food and the fellowship. Lunch “hour” is actually two hours, from noon to 2 p.m., and not just for white-collar workers but also for blue-collar workers. We enjoyed lunches alongside workers from the fields, utility linemen and construction workers. Two French families told us about how much their elementary school children enjoyed their school lunches and “loved their school cooks.” Not surprising, they have four-course lunches at their schools.
Despite all of the good food and wine, the proportion of the population that is obese or overweight is much smaller than in the United States. Maybe it is because there is so much walking. In the villages and towns we visited nearly every street — except the very narrow medieval lanes — had sidewalks on at least one side. Parking lots are on the edge of town, not right downtown. Pedestrian crosswalks are very prominently marked.
Their municipal services keep things cleaned and well maintained. The town where we rented an apartment — Beaune, France (pop. 22,000) — has a street market every Wednesday and Saturday. Within two hours of the close of the market, the sidewalks are swept (nifty vacuum cleaners on a pull-along wagon), streets have been cleaned and trash receptacles emptied. The town parks and gardens have many beautiful flowers and well-manicured bushes. There are recycle drop-offs (they look like mailboxes, one for glass and one for paper) in every neighborhood. But that was not just in Beaune, we saw the same things in villages that were much smaller.
There is not any litter along the roads, not even on the roads between towns. I don’t know whether people just don’t litter or if they just pick it up, but we didn’t see any crews picking up litter along the roads.
They don’t tear down buildings. They remodel, renovate, repurpose or expand old buildings so they can use them for hundreds of years. The apartment we rented was at least 200 years old, maybe much older. It had modern bathroom and separate toilet (another good idea), a modern kitchen and updated radiator heating (but no air conditioning). Our friend lived in a house that was built in 1611.
We found the education system interesting also. Children generally attend elementary school in their village, even if the village only has a few hundred inhabitants. After sixth grade the students attend school in a nearby larger town, going by bus. Virtually every student has the opportunity to attend post-secondary education either at universities or vocational/technical schools.
Access and affordability of health care is simply not an issue. This was not just the case in France. People we talked with from other European countries and New Zealand and Australia all said the same thing — good health care is available to everyone, usually through a combination of public-tax and private-insurance funding.
I don’t want to leave the impression that everything is rosy on the other side of the ocean. Most countries are dealing with sharper and more intense political divides, just as we are here in the United States. Wage stagnation is a big problem for a large segment of their populations, and immigration is a huge issue for them.
The rest of the world is doing some things differently — and better in my opinion — than we are. We should not be shy about learning from others to improve our lives here in America.
Bret Baker is a resident of Grove, Okla.