Those Crazy European Drivers

On our flight over to Europe, I watched the recently released movie called Spy whereby the main character, Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy. is a desk bound CIA analyst who volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent a global disaster. The movie has a very funny driving scene where an Italian agent named Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law, picks Cooper up and drives her to her hotel. During that scene the Italian agent, driving a sporty convertible speeds through the narrow streets of Rome, paying more attention to the girls he is passing by than to his driving. The scene is very funny and typifies the way Europeans drive. Anytime I’ve watched scenes like this, I’ve always thought that the movies must be majorly exaggerating drivers in Europe. After returning home, I no longer think that.

IMG_1172Based on our experiences in Europe, it would seem that the stereotype, perpetrated by Hollywood movies,  that European drivers are crazy is true. Have you ever seen an intersection packed with cars at all different angles, none of them moving, many of them tooting angrily like it will possibly help? Well, we did in Paris when our shuttle driver entered the very large round about that encircles the Arc of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe).  There were no clear lanes and cars were everywhere and numerous horns were tooting. This is just one of the many driving experiences my wife and I, along with our friends, experienced when we visited Continental Europe. Even though I was aware of the stereotype, I was still “shell shocked when witnessing it”.

Our first taxi ride was on the island of Santorini, one of the Greek islands.  After a nice dinner at our hotel, we decided to visit the nearby village of Kamair, so we had the hotel call a taxi for us.  When the taxi arrived, My wife and our friends got in the back seat, and I got into the front with the driver.  No word of a lie, the driver put the “petal to the metal” and the car accelerated quickly.  Now in Greece, there are no side walks so pedestrians walk on the narrow roads.  There was a group walking down the road as the taxi driver sped toward them, showing no signs of slowing down.  The pedestrians scattered very quickly, as you might imagine.  The village was two kilometres from our hotel. and our taxi driver speeded the entire way there.  Thank God, we made it to the village alive.  We all were so shocked that all we could do was laugh. I would label this taxi driver as one of those stereotypical crazy European drivers.

IMG_1166Like the driver in Santorini, the taxi driver who took us to the airport in Athens “floored it” at every opportunity.  At one point he narrowly missed a car door that was opening. What made the situation even more humorous was the fact that just before the taxi arrived, a huge thundercloud moved over the city and a torrential rainstorm occurred as we were driving off.  Now as in many cities, Athens does not have the infrastructure to handle torrential downpours, so needless to say the streets of Athens were semi flooding, or in some case fully flooded.  That didn’t slow down our taxi driver.  He just sped through the water sending water everywhere.  Now we were nervous to say the least and I suspect our driver must have sensed that since he put in a CD of Greek music and “cranked” it up.  It worked, as we did relax and started swaying to the music. This driver fit the stereotype.

IMG_1738Being a pedestrian in Europe is truly an adventure.  Really you take your own life into your hands every time you step out onto the street as there was no other choice since sidewalks are rare in Europe.  There were many, many times when our friends and us would be walking in what we assumed was a pedestrian zone only to be shocked when a vehicle would drive through scattering all the pedestrians.  That happened in Florence and Sorrento in Italy, Mykonos town in Greece, and Bayeux in France, to name some places we experienced this.  In fact, at our vacation rental in Sorrento, the gate opened right onto the road, and I’m not kidding when I say the vehicles did not slow down on that road.  Numerous times we literally ran to cross the road for fear of getting hit by a car.  It was most entertaining when you watched some else doing so.

In places like Rome, Paris and Athens it is common to see the narrow streets jammed with unruly drivers, streetcars, buses, mopeds, and double-parked trucks.  It is also common in these cities to see massive horn-honking traffic jams.  The mopeds and motorbikes were plentiful on the streets and would weave in and out of the vehicles, and often would drive between two vehicles to get ahead.  There didn’t seem to be any sense of abiding by rules and such.

IMG_2752Then there is the parking.  In Rome and Paris, for example, you would see vehicles parked in every which direction.  There would be trucks parked in lanes with their flashers on.  We saw this often in Paris on the shuttle.   Vehicles would be parked up on sidewalks, if there was one, and it was not uncommon to see cars double parked.  Vehicles would just park beside other parked vehicles and turn on their flashers.  It just seemed liked chaos to me.

Now I realize that the reason drivers are so aggressive in Europe and why people park in any available space they can find in cities is because Europe does not have the space that North America has. Most of the cities in Europe are ancient.  To give you some perspective, parts of Rome are truly ancient.  If you look at the famous Roman Colosseum and inquire when it was built you would learn that it was commissioned around A.D. (CE) 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian. Paris existed long before Notre Dame Cathedral was built and the cathedral began its construction  in 1163 AD (CE). The site of Athens has been inhabited since before 3000 BC (BCE). The earliest buildings date from the late Bronze Age, about 1200 BC (BCE), when part of the town spread to the south of the citadel on the Acropolis. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel (fortress) located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and contains the remains of several ancient Greek Temples.  So as you can see, these cities are truly ancient thus explaining why the city streets are narrow.  They were built in times before vehicles were around.  These cities were never intended to have modern vehicles on them.  In fact, many of these streets are still cobblestone. Space is at a premium over in Europe.

Then there is the population factor. Italy, for example, has 60,808,000 inhabitants and is 33 times smaller than Canada and the United States. Canada’s population is about 35 million and the population of the United States is approximately 319 million. Now that doesn’t mean much until you compare the number of people to the land area, otherwise known as their population density.  According to the World Bank Data Website Italy has a population density of 209 people per sq. kilometre (km) of land area.  Canada, on the other hand, has a density of 4 people per sq. km of land area and the United States has 35 people per sq. km of land area.  So as you can see, Italy is much more densely populated than either Canada or the United States. In light of these statistics, it is easy to understand that Italy has much less space to handle its vehicles and pedestrians.

After returning home, I have come to appreciate  the amount of space we have in North America.  Our wide streets, our sidewalks for pedestrians our large, straight highways, our open space in rural areas  are so refreshing after being in Europe.  All the while we were in Europe we heard about the refugee crisis.  It was on the news.  It was in their news papers.  We even witnessed a demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees in Athens. North America has so much more space and fewer people when compared to the European nations, therefore we should not be afraid to take in more of the Syrian refugees, especially in light of the fact that Europe is experiencing a refuge crisis right now. North America can easily encompass more inhabitants.  We have the space!

What is with the Stereotypes?

Well, I’m back from my European adventure and I have many stories to share with you in this and future blogs.  This is the third time I’ve been over to Europe and every time I come back amazed by the ancient historical buildings there and how different the culture is from North America.  I can never get enough of that wonderful continent.

A common stereotype of the French people is they’re rude and snobby.  Articles such as Common French Stereotypes and French Stereotypes allude to this stereotype, I would like to share some of my thoughts on France.  I have just visited this country for the third time and I cannot say enough good about this beautiful country and its citizens.

Over the years, and not long before leaving on this trip, I had many people tell me how rude they found the French people, especially the Parisians.  People often would tell me to expect the French people, especially in Paris, to be rude and snobby.  Well, I can tell you in all honesty that I have never experienced this during any of my three visits to France, and yes I was in Paris all three times.  In fact, I found French people to be most kind, welcoming, and always helpful.  Let me give you some examples from our most recent trip.

IMG_1207While still trying to “get our bearings” on the first day in Paris, we stopped in a wine shop to ask for some directions to the Metro.  Since neither my wife or myself speak the French language, the first words we would articulate would be, “Parlez-vous anglais?” that is, do you speak English?  Almost everyone we asked this question, replied, “Qui”, and then proceeded to speak to us in English.  We were always very grateful for this.  Anyway, this particularly kind man in the wine shop told us where to find the Metro, how to use the Metro, and where to purchase tickets.  Now that doesn’t fit the stereotype.

On another occasion, while making our way to the Palace of Versailles, we were helped by a very nice young man.  To get to Versailles you take the RER, which are the Paris commuter trains as the palace is about 28 kilometres away. Commuter trains are like the Metros in the sense that they make numerous stops along the way. Anyway, the stop to get off at is a stop called Versailles Rive Gauche, Chateau de Versailles. Knowing that the stop was Rive Gauche, when we arrived at the Viroflay Rive Gauche stop,  we panicked and got off;  two stops too soon.  Standing there wondering if we were at the right place, likely looking like confused tourists, a very nice young man came up to us and asked us something in French.  My wife responds with, “Parlez-vous anglais?” and the nice young man responds in English, “Can I help you?”  We explained our dilemma and he quickly got us straightened out.  We got on the next train, and were in Versailles in no time. This young French citizen didn’t fit the French stereotype.

The previous evening, while in the Paris Metro, my wife and I were discussing how to get to the Palace of Versailles. My wife is very meticulous and has a need to know exactly where she is going before embarking on an adventure.  While we were standing there, looking at a Metro map on the wall, some random older lady walks up to us and says something in French.  We gave our usual response and then speaking in English she explained to us how to get to the palace.  Keep in mind that her actions were of concern for us as we did not ask for help.  She explained to us to take line C of the RER to Versailles, and to get off at Rive Gauche.  We thanked her and started walking to our exit.  A minute later this kind lady comes running up to us and asked us if we wanted to go to the castle or the city of Versailles.  We clarified and she explained that she wanted to make sure she gave us the right stop.  This Parisian lady took time out of her I’m sure busy day to run and catch us so that we would not get lost the next day.  That was an action of kindness, not snobbishness.  We were very thankful for this lady did not fit the Parisian stereotype.

Outside of Paris was no different.  We were always greeted with kindness and friendliness.  Allow me to share some examples, again from our recent trip. When we arrived in Bayeux, France, a city near the Normandy D-Day Beaches, we were tired and hungry. We ventured out on foot to find a restaurant.  Using a map to navigate to the city centre, as was often the case we got confused and therefore lost.  A man, obviously a local, along with his daughter and dog were walking towards us.  We stopped him and asked if he spoke English.  Thankfully, he did and he directed us in the right direction.  He was most kind and most friendly.  He didn’t fit the stereotype.

IMG_3359While driving from Bayeux to Lievin, France, we stopped in the French village of Aumale as  my wife liked the town.  We parked and walked toward the huge church, which every village has.  As we turned the corner around the church, we discovered a market.  Walking about the market we came across a table with croissants on it so my wife asked if she could have one.  The lady at the table spoke no English, but understanding what my wife was asking, answered, “Oui”.  Then the lady points to the coffee urn, says something in French,  and looks at me.  Understanding that she was offering me coffee I said, “Oui”. This pleasant, friendly lady then pours my wife a juice.  The people of Aumale were most gracious and hospitable to us, the strangers in town.  The people of this French village certainly did not fit the French stereotype.

Just before arriving in the wonderful village of Aumale, we were stopped at an intersection.  Drivers around us were pointing at our vehicle and we immediately presumed that we had done something illegal or that something was wrong with our vehicle.  Then one man gets out of his car, comes running up to our vehicle and says something in French, while pointing down by the car door.  My wife, driving at the time, rolls down the window and looks out the window and to her horror discovers that her coat was hanging out the car door. This kind man had made the effort to alert us to our carelessness.  We were truly thankful for this man who was not stereotypically French.

While coming into Lievin, France, where our Bed and Breakfast (B&B) was located we drove to where our GPS said was our B&B, yet we couldn’t see it.  We walked down to the intersection and spotted a lady working in her yard.  Unfortunately, she didn’t speak English but we showed her the address and she pointed us in the right direction which was up the street.  It turned out that we had not walked far enough up the street.  She didn’t hesitate to help us lost tourists.

Our B&B lady was most welcoming and helpful.  She did speak English although with a strong French accent.  In fact, she kept apologizing for her accent.  We assured her that we could understand her.  She went out of her way to make us feel welcome and to help us plan our days.  She would even put addresses into our GPS of sites she recommended we see, such as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.  Any time we tried to put in an address, our GPS could not find it.  It seems there is a certain way to put in French addresses. This lady was a fantastic hostess; not stereotypical at all.

IMG_3744While walking to a recommended restaurant our B&B person told us about, our GPS took us to a residential area.  The GPS said we were there, but there was nothing that looked anything like a food establishment. So we started walking back.  We first asked a random stranger standing at a street corner who also could not speak English where the restaurant was, and using gestures he pointed us down the street.  We kept walking, unsure of where we were going.  Seeing a lady in her yard, we asked her if she spoke our native tongue.  She did not so we showed her the name of the food place.  She rambled on in French and pointed us down the street.  We walked further down the road and lo and behold, there it was.  Those kind, non stereotypical people helped us move in the right direction.

Now I could go on and on with many more stories of experiences with friendly, kind and hospitable French citizens, but I’m sure you get the picture. The bottom line is the French people we encountered definitely did not fit the stereotypical mould of being rude and snobby.  Quite the opposite really. Ed Koch, an American lawyer, politician, political commentator, movie critic and reality television arbitrator once said, Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart”. That is so true. When you’ve been to France and see that their population is so diverse, you realize that not all citizens of France fit the stereotypical mould, although I’m sure they have some that do.

It just isn’t right to stereotype all French people as being rude and snobby, just as it isn’t right to stereotype all Americans as being arrogant and boastful, even though we did meet a couple of Americans who were.  Having said that, we met far more Americans who did not fit that stereotype. It’s equally as wrong to stereotype all Canadians as being extremely polite.  I have met my fair share of Canadians who are not stereotypically polite.

What is the matter with our youth?

niBBgppxTOver the last few years, because I was a veteran teacher, I’ve been asked many times if kids or youth of today are different compared to those when I started teaching.  That is a really interesting question; a question I have pondered for a while. There is no doubt that there are differences in the youth of today compared to say 35 years ago when I began my teaching career, or even 15 years ago for that matter.  But does that mean young people are different from the youth of previous generations?  That question always brings me back to a couple of quotes I first read in a book many years ago.

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint”.

So have “kids” changed?  Are the youth of today different?  I don’t believe the youth of today are any different from the youth of previous generations.   Children have always been mischievous.  Young people have always been self-centred. Kids have always rebelled against authority when they could.  There has always been a generation gap. All one has to do is remember the beatniks and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s  The two quotes above also illustrate this.  Does the first quote sound like something an older person of today might say?  You bet it does!  The surprising thing is it is actually a quote from a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in  C. E. (A.D.) 1274.  That was said 741 years ago.  The second quote is reported as being said by Hesiod, a Greek poet in 8th century BCE (BC).  He is generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC. so that means he said this well over two thousand years ago.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds like youth have not changed in thousands of years.

So why does the youth of today seem so different compared to previous generations?  I believe there are two key reasons for this.

The first reason is due to the fact that today’s culture is very different from previous generations, and the biggest difference is technology.  The generations of today have all sorts of technologies that were not prevalent 20 years ago.  Today we have cell phones, computers, calculators, and the World Wide Web, otherwise known as the internet.  When I was in school in the 1970s, there weren’t even calculators.  We had to use slide rules when attending high school math classes. For you youngsters reading this, that was a ruler-like contraption that was used primarily for multiplication and division, and also for functions such as roots, logarithms and trigonometry. Addition or subtraction had to be done using pencil and paper. In my experience, computers did not really start appearing in my world until the 1980s when the Commodore 64 came out in 1982. I never had one, but I was envious of those individuals who had one.  The internet became available to the world in 1991.  So the youth of yesterday did not have access to the vast amount of knowledge the internet provides.  For the most part, people still had to rely on libraries to get information. Today, the culture is very different. Young people have come to expect things instantly.  They expect instant calculations using calculators.  Kids expect to find the answers to their questions within seconds and not to look in books to find them.  This is why the youth of today are not as patient.

The second reason has to do with parenting.  Today there are so many parents who “smother” their children.  They are always hovering  and waiting to swoop in and rescue their child whenever their child whimpers. We in the teaching world call these parents “helicopter parents.”  The kids of today for the most part are not allowed to “fall flat”.  They are not allowed to learn from their failures because their parents are always rescuing them.  This is why we are raising a generation that may not know how to handle failure.  Young people need to fail from time to time so that they learn how to be stronger; so that they learn from their mistakes.

Not only that, sometimes kids need to be taught values like respect through discipline.  They need to be taught that some behaviours are undesirable.  When I went to school, my parents always reminded me and my siblings that if we got in trouble at school, we would be in trouble at home. And they meant it. In my experience, this doesn’t happen much any more. They typically blame others for their child’s behaviour. So many parents of today do not “parent” their children.  They give children whatever they want.  This creates a generation of entitlement. The youth of today expect all things immediately, such as a new car or a new house.  Previous generations just accepted  this would take time to get and would have to work for it.

So, are young people different today compared to the youth of generations past?  The short answer is NO!  It is the parenting that is different and the culture that is different.  Kids learn these behaviours and develop traits like impatience from the older generations. This is why children behave differently.  So don’t blame the children, blame the parents; blame the culture; blame the adults.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of great parents out there who don’t always give in to their children and who believe in strong discipline and not of the corporal kind either.  It’s just that they are in the minority.  Parents need to be parents. There are lots of great things about our culture and its technologies.  We just need to learn as a society how to use the technology appropriately and respectfully.

Change is inevitable!

I recently received this quote in an email and the quote got me thinking. The quote was:

Change cannot be avoided in life. So do not resist change, embrace it!

There is no doubt that life is changing all the time.  I’ll use myself as an example.  This year, 2015, has been very much a year of change for myself as well as my family. As I mentioned in some of my other posts, I retired as a classroom teacher after 35 years of teaching.  So to say that this is a huge change for me personally is an understatement.  Really, retirement is a new beginning; it is the beginning of a whole new journey.  For me, that has meant following some of my passions.  One of those passions is writing which is why I started this blog.  I needed an outlet for my writing.  I needed a place to share my stories and my opinions.  It means change because now there will be no more having to get up for work unless I decide to work somewhere.  Working is more of a choice now, rather than a necessity.  That is a good change.  I’ve heard it said, “some people work to live and others live to work”.  I was always one of those that worked to live.  I needed to work to support my family and to feel useful to society.

My wife and I have three wonderful children,  All three of our children have gone through some sort of change this year.  Our eldest daughter has moved to a new place to live after being in her previous place for five years.  That was a major change for her as she is not a person who freely embraces change.  Our youngest daughter is returning to university this year after living and working for the past year in her home town.   Our son is also off to university after spending two years at the local community college.  He is excited for this change as he has been living with us while getting his Diploma.  So as you can see, there has been much change in my family.  The only one that is remaining at her same job is my wife.  Having said that, she has taken a three-month leave of absence from her work place so that we can do some travelling this fall.  So even she has to endure some changes, although they are good changes.

If you listen to the news regularly, then you would also know that the day-to-day conditions on our planet are changing now in ways we could not have anticipated.  Climate change is one of the biggest changes our planet has had to endure.  Every year seems to be reported as the hottest on record.  Storms seem to be getting more and more frequent and progressively more violent.  According to the Union of concerned scientists, “As the Earth warms, the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms has risen nearly 20 percent on average in the United States—almost three times the rate of increase in total precipitation between 1958 and 2007.” That is definitely change, and not good change. Our planet needs help.

Changes the world will endure, according to the article, 5 ways the world will change radically, are:

  1. The world is becoming over populated.  The article states that,” India’s population will overtake China’s around 2020, and Africa’s population will overtake India’s by 2040″  That is not change to embrace since Africa is one of the world’s most poverty-stricken continents.
  2. Urbanization will rapidly increase.  The article says, “the number of people living in cities will climb from 3.5 billion today to 6.3 billion by 2050”  That means there will be much less farmland to grow food to feed the people.  That is not good change.
  3. Conflicts over water shortages will probably play out on our planet.  That is not positive change, for that means many people will die because the world is running short of fresh water.
  4. At this time in history, there isn’t enough energy being extracted from known sources of fossil fuels to sustain 10 billion people. That means humans will be forced to turn to new energy sources before the end of the century.  In my opinion this is good change as hopefully these new sources will mean less pollution.
  5. The article maintains, “biologists [not all biologists] believe that with the current rate of extinction, 75 percent of the planet’s species will disappear within the next 300 to 2,000 years”.  That is just sad as this planet has so much biodiversity.  That definitely is not good change.

So the fact of change is real!  The quote at the beginning says, So do not resist change, embrace it.”  When change happens to us individually, then yes it should be embraced.  As it has been said, “A change can be as good as a vacation.”  I think there is truth in that.  Many spiritual writers will say that when change happens to an individual, it is God’s or the universe’s way of forcing you to do what you are not choosing to do yourself, because God knows what is best. Having said that, sometimes individuals need Ostrichto resist change such as when individuals or groups of people are being forced to do something against their will. An example of this might be when groups of people are forced from their homes due to conflict like what we are witnessing in areas of the world like Africa and the Middle East.

However, when it comes to changes affecting this planet, such as climate change, or loss of biodiversity, then change needs to be resisted.  It is time for us humans to “get our heads out of the sand” and start resisting planetary changes that will only cause our planet to be less desirable to live in.