Driving in Europe

November 28, 2011

I’ve been driving around Europe for over 2 months now through 8 countries and finally feel ready to make some general observations about driving in Europe. Here is a taste of what we’ve been experiencing.

Route Planning

Once we’ve decided where we want to go (an entirely different process), we need to plan how to get there. This usually involves a choice between taking a freeway (if one is available), a secondary road, or a scenic route.

The freeways are the most direct and the fastest. The use of tunnels seems much more common here, and freeways tend to go straight through mountains rather than up and over. Speed limits on freeways are higher than in Canada, typically 120 or 130 km/h. However, extra payments to use the freeways are very common. In some countries this is handled by purchasing a ‘vignette’ (a sticker) that must be displayed on the vehicle window and that allows use of the freeways or roads for an entire country (e.g. Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia). They typically cost $5 to $15 for 7 to 10 days and they can be purchased for longer periods. In other countries tolls are paid roadside (e.g. Italy and France). These tolls can be very expensive, from $5 up to more than $30 for each segment of road, so being conscious about which road you are taking is important.

The secondary roads are generally more interesting and enjoyable. They take longer, often much longer. But if there are tolls on the freeways, the extra fuel cost is usually balanced off by the saving of the toll. The driving on these roads is more challenging as they are often narrow (with no shoulders), windy, hilly, or traffic congested. Scenic routes, usually along the coast or through the mountains, are more beautiful and the driving sometimes even more challenging. Despite these trials, we recommend taking the secondary and scenic routes where possible.

On the plus side, the distances in Europe are not great compared to Canada. We drove from Munich to Berlin in about 6 hours on the freeway, which is about half the distance from the northern to southern end of continental Europe. If you could drive all the way on freeways (which isn’t always possible), you could drive all the way across Europe in under 2 days.

Navigation

Navigation seems to be more of challenge here than in Canada. Perhaps it’s because there is a plethora of roads in densely packed Europe relative to the sparse hinterlands of Canada. A GPS (‘satnav’) navigation system is essential. Even with this, it is a challenge to drive and navigate at the same time. I recommend that the driver have a co-pilot/navigator at all times to plan the route, refer to maps, help with the GPS, and also to watch for signs, lights, and hazards.

Our borrowed GPS (Thanks Lee!) seems to be fairly accurate when estimating travel times on freeways. When taking the secondary roads, it usually takes us longer than the GPS predicts (sometimes much longer). Occasionally, like in Germany, the narrowest cart path will have a high posted speed limit, which fools the GPS into thinking it is a viable option, when in fact we’re only able to average about half of the posted limit.

A great feature of the GPS is that it allows you to avoid things like toll roads (a money saver in France). Depending on the device you have, it can also be used to locate a wide variety of points of interest like parking, gas stations, tourist information offices, grocery stores, etc.

Driving

I find driving to be both more interesting and more challenging in Europe. I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that I’m driving an RV with right hand drive (i.e. the ‘wrong’ side in countries where people drive on the right as we do in Canada), and with a manual transmission (which requires shifting with the left hand). I’ve pretty much got these things mastered now.

The road signs are different in Europe than in North America. The only two that seem to be the same are Stop (Red Octagon) and Yield (the inverted triangle). The signs here follow an international standard and are generally consistent throughout Europe. It took some time to get used to them. Also, it seems that there are many more road signs here. Perhaps it is because at home I can view and process most road signs almost subconsciously, whereas here it takes a more conscious thought process. But I suspect that there are just more of them. For example, there will often be very short sections at a particular posted speed. The speed might increase for just a couple of hundred meters, and then drop back down again.

Standard warning sign with exclamation point and unknown description of hazard below "Debardage"What’s unnerving is that although the signs here are standardized, the descriptions that accompany them usually aren’t. This is most troublesome on warning signs other than the common ones that have their own standard and understandable images (e.g. slippery when wet, wildlife, falling rocks, etc.). The standard warning sign here is an upright triangle and usually underneath it are some words to describe the hazard, which are of course in a language we usually can’t read. One then needs to be hyper alert, on the lookout for any and all possible hazards – you never know what it could be.

On the German autobahn, there are sections with no posted speed limits. It is common for cars to pass at astonishing speeds (150 to 200 km/h or more). On the autobahn, I always drive in the right hand lane, venturing out into the second lane only when I need to pass. I never drive in the leftmost lane where cars come out of nowhere from behind and have to brake hard to avoid colliding with anyone going less than 150 km/h.

It is common to have no shoulders on roads, even on highways. Secondary roads are sometimes so narrow that they do not have a dividing line (even though traffic is two way). In these cases the sharing of the road with oncoming traffic is a negotiable matter, often decided by an elaborate game of ‘chicken’, where oncoming vehicles try to dominate the center of the lane moving aside only at the last moment. Some roads are not wide enough for two cars to pass abreast (e.g. in Saxony and Tuscany), requiring one to pull over somewhere to allow the other to get past. We’ve been on streets so narrow that we had to fold in both parking mirrors to squeak through the parked cars. We’ve also been on small roads so steep and with such corners that 1st gear is required to make the turn.

Unlike Canada, most countries in Europe don’t use different colours of painted road lines to indicate traffic going in opposite directions. So, unless you saw a sign when you entered a multiple lane roadway, you can’t tell if it’s one-way or two ways by looking at the lines on the road. As a result, it isn’t always clear if you are about to change lanes and about to pass. If in doubt, I always drive in the right hand lane!

It’s annoying that there are often no stop lines at intersections. If there are, they are sometimes very far back from the light to allow trucks to turn on the narrow streets. In most countries, the street lights are not hung above the intersection, but sit on a post on the right side of the road before you enter the intersection. This means that if you advance too far (due to the lack of stop lines), or once you’ve entered the intersection to make a left turn, there are sometimes no lights visible to the driver. There are also no secondary lights on the left side of the road on the opposite side of the intersection (as we have in Canada), which are essential when you’re in the intersection making a left hand turn (when all the other lights are behind or above you). In these situations you have to ‘go by feel’ as to when the light has turned green (to proceed) or red (to complete your left turn). It’s helpful to stop well back of the intersection to avoid the first problem, but the second seems unavoidable (unless one doesn’t advance on the green when preparing to make a left).

In Europe it is not permissible to make a right turn on a red light, unlike most of North America. So, if the light is red, one waits. Sometimes there is a special green arrow indicating that you can turn right or left, but not drive straight through.

Traffic circles are very common. Some of them are huge in diameter and may have as many as three lanes going around, with optionally one cutting across the center (in Spain) and/or bypass routes around the outside. There may also be traffic lights within in the circle. Knowing in advance which exit you’ll be taking is key (information provided by a good GPS with accurate maps). A nice feature of traffic circles is that if you’re not sure which way you’re turning, you can keep going around until you figure it out from the signs or GPS. Traffic circles work well when the traffic is light. When it gets really busy (like in rush hour traffic) they tend to clog up and it is difficult to both get in and out of the circle.

In the cities (especially in the Northern countries of Europe), bike lanes are common. When turning right, it is important to check your right side mirror because there is often a nearly imperceptible bicycle lane running down the right side of the road (or even down the sidewalk) and there may be bikes in it that are going straight through. They have the right of way as the bike lane is considered the rightmost lane of traffic.

In some countries (especially Italy) there are a lot of scooters and motorcycles piloted by aggressive drivers. They often split lanes (i.e. pass between two cars) or pass on the right. At stop lights, they weave their way through the cars to get to or near the front. When the light turns green, they beat the cars off the line and use the distance created to change lanes or turn in the intersection across the path of the cars coming behind them. It is necessary to look for motorcycles and scooters on both sides of the vehicle before changing lanes or turning.

There are a greater variety of vehicles on the road here. In addition to the many motorcycles and scooters, we’ve seen three-wheeled cars, motorcycles with twin front wheels (3 in total), and motorcycles with roofs (fairings that go all the way over to the back of the bike). In some countries they also license quads for the street. They’re only allowed off-road in Canada.

Parking

Parking is often a challenge. In congested cities with narrow streets, it is very difficult to find a place to park. There are very few large, open, free parking lots like in North America. In most cities, every available inch of space is used for parking. Because of the narrow roads, in many places it is expected that you will park partially on the sidewalk…

Sign showing car partially on the street and partially on the sidewalk

Sign showing to park partially on the sidewalk

or fully on the sidewalk, which is tough to do with a larger vehicle.

Parallel parking spaces are delineated on all sides to make sure that people don’t stick out too far into traffic. In tight spaces, it is essential to fold in your parking mirrors or they will be removed for you by a passing car.

Roadside Services
Emergency telephones are common on the side of major roadways, providing a way for people to seek assistance in the event of a problem. In the age of cell phones they’re perhaps becoming obsolete, so we’re unlikely to see them in Canada any time soon.

Rest stops on the freeway are often elaborate affairs, far superior to what we have in Canada. In addition to being much larger with room to park 50 or more semi-trailers, they are often equipped with public bathrooms, gas stations, food stores, and nice restaurants (not just fast food). Sometimes they even have hotels there, accessible only from the freeway! In Germany, these elaborate rest stops occur much more frequently, about every 20 kilometers or so.

Enforcement

Many fines for traffic violations in Europe are levied on-the-spot, which means you must pay the police officer immediately at the roadside (“with that be cash or charge?”). Although this probably has the greatest deterrent effect by closely associating the violation with the penalty, I can’t see how this could possibly result in anything but more corruption.

The allowable blood alcohol percentage for driving varies across Europe. Some countries (e.g. Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary) have zero tolerance (0.0%) and others (e.g. Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) have percentages so low (0.01 or 0.02%) as to be effectively zero. This means that after only one drink, you’d better not drive until the following day. In most countries, the allowable limit is lower (or zero) or the consequences of a violation more severe for younger drivers. Most countries have fines that begin at 0.05 percent with greater penalties and driving bans at 0.08.

Radar use by police for speed control seems less common than in Canada. Radar detectors are illegal in most countries. Radar cameras are more common (we no longer have these in British Columbia) and there are a lot of signs warning about electronic speed controls. Interestingly, in some countries it is illegal to use the feature in your GPS navigation system that warns about upcoming radar camera locations. If the goal is to get people to slow down, does it really matter how it is achieved?

The Costs of Driving

Fuel is expensive here, over $2.00 per liter. More cars and vans use diesel than in North America, but it costs almost the same as gasoline. With the added costs of tolls and vignettes, the overall costs of driving are higher. However, when the costs are shared among 2 or more people, as opposed to buying multiple separate train or plane tickets, it becomes more practical.

Renting a vehicle can be done for a reasonable price, especially if done for a longer period of time (a week or more). If you purchase or borrow a vehicle, it can also be difficult or expensive for foreigners to get motor insurance and this definitely needs to be arranged in advance.

Benefits of Driving

Outweighing the challenges and costs are the many benefits of driving in Europe. With our own wheels, we can go almost anywhere, seeing things that most tourists do not. We can stop virtually anywhere, whether to take a photo, make a purchase, or stretch our legs. Overall, the benefits greatly outweigh the challenges (some of which are exciting in their own way!)


The Spanish Schedule

November 27, 2011

On the whole, Spanish people wake later than North Americans. They don’t eat a big breakfast, perhaps coffee and some toast, before beginning their work day around 9 AM. Later in the morning, around 11 AM, they take a break and have a snack, often accompanied by some wine. They stop work for lunch at around 2 PM, returning home if possible for a heavy lunch (2 or more courses) followed by a siesta. The siesta is a short mid-afternoon nap usually taken on a couch rather than in bed, for a maximum of 20-30 minutes.

Most Spanish adults (about 80 percent) keep with the custom of having a siesta in the middle of the afternoon. They then return to work around 4 PM and work until 7 or 8 PM. Dinner is eaten around 10 PM and is less filling than lunch. It is often followed by a walk. So they Spanish stay up late. Spanish prime time television on week nights does not begin until midnight! The average Spaniard sleeps about 40 minutes less per day (in total) than the average European. Perhaps this is why then need a nap!

Some people don’t follow the tradition of the siesta. Children have school hours similar to those in North America, returning home in late afternoon around the end of their parent’s siesta. But they stay up late like their parents, eating dinner at 10 PM, and can often be seen playing in the street after this time (on a school night!). Also, people working for multi-national corporations typically keep the American work schedule.

The siesta developed in an age when most people worked close to their homes. Those who commute long distances to work today are often without a place for siesta. They can be seen wandering about or napping on park benches while they wait to return to work. Apparently beauty salons and day spas are popular as people go there after lunch for a manicure or pedicure and a quick nap while receiving it.

As a result of the siesta, shops and government offices typically open at 9 or 10 AM, close for 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon, and remain open until about 7 or 8 PM.

Restaurants don’t usually open for lunch until 1:30 or 2 PM. Any restaurant serving dinner before 9 PM is strictly for tourists. The staff don’t even sit down for their pre-work meal until after 8 PM. If you want to eat before 9 or 10 PM, a good option is to eat several tapas while enjoying a drink in a bar.

Although both the Italian and French take long lunch breaks, the Spanish are the only ones to make a habit of the siesta. It’s perhaps a natural by-product of the hot summer weather — rest when it is hot in the afternoon and be more active in the evening when it is cooler.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
Indian Proverb

If I’m going to eat a big meal, I think that it’s probably healthier to have it in the middle of the day (but when I’ve tried this, I often end up eating a big late dinner also, so that kind of defeats the purpose). I think it also lowers stress to take a break in the middle of the day, step away from work (even for a short while), and relax.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
From the Latin “si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi” meaning, “if you are in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there”.
Advice given by St. Ambrose to Augustine of Hippo in the 4th Century, AD.

So, how have we adapted to the Spanish schedule? We’ve found that we’ve naturally started to stay up later and sleep in later. We’re also eating our meals later. It’s 10:15 PM now and Diane is just serving our supper. When we went out for lunch the other day in Barcelona we had a 3 course meal, and even though it was vegetarian, we were stuffed for hours afterwards, requiring only a light dinner. So far, we haven’t retreated back to the S&M Motel for a siesta, but perhaps that’s next.

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Proverb

I think I’ll go take a nap.


Andorra

November 20, 2011

Leaving France on our way to Spain we decided to visit the Principality of Andorra on the way. It’s a tiny, land-locked, mountainous ‘country’ surrounded by Spain except for its northern border with France. We set out from Limoux, France after a night of enjoying Blanquette and then sleeping in our van down by the river (video link). 

We knew very little about Andorra beforehand (wasn’t she Samantha’s mother on ‘Bewitched’?). We vaguely knew that Andorra was in the area of the Pyrenees, a mountain range that forms the natural border between France and Spain. We naively followed the advice of our Garmin GPS, which soon had us off on a narrow track climbing the foothills of the Pyrenees. Absolutely beautiful country on a glorious sunny morning had me grinning from ear to ear and Diane squirming in her seat squeezing the arm rests because of the steep switchbacks.

We arrived at the Andorran border sooner than expected, after buying some outrageously priced diesel in a tiny village to ensure that we didn’t run out during our jaunt through the back roads. The Pyrenees unfolded before us in all their glory at the tiny ski resort of Pas del la Casa. We stopped at the tourist office and made a quick tour of the town which was busy with French people shopping despite the fact that the ski season doesn’t begin for another 3 weeks.

Our RV parked at ski resort Pas de la Casa

The Alpine S&M Motel

Andorra is known for two things – skiing and shopping. In the summer, you can substitute hiking for skiing and continue shopping. We think that our friends Kevin and Annette would really like it. It’s actually a very weird and interesting place.

Andorra is very small (468 square kilometers or about 5 one-hundred-thousandths of the area of Canada). but it is still larger than 5 other European micro-states (Malta, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City). It has a population of about 85,000 people, about a third of which are Andorran nationals, and almost as many are Spanish (source: Wikipedia). Despite its small size, diminutive population and virtually no arable land, Andorra is a prosperous country due to its tourism industry and because it is a tax haven. About 80 percent of its economy is derived from tourism, serving over 10 million visitors a year, with much of the remaining activity coming from its banking sector.

Andorra has no airports, no railways, and no ports. The only way in or out is by vehicle (or private helicopter, but we left ours at home). There are only 200 kilometers of paved roads in the entire country, with a single main road running between the Spanish and French borders along the bottom of a valley. Part way along this road is the only city in Andorra, called Andorra La Villa. It is known for its shopping and its traffic congestion, as the entire town is squeezed into the narrow valley.

Andorran License Plate

Andorran License Plate

Andorra is not a member of the European Union (these days, who would want to be?), but enjoys a special relationship with it, allowing certain goods to be traded with EU countries without tariffs. Andorra does not have its own currency and uses the Euro. As a strange by-product of its interesting history, Andorra has two co-heads of state – the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell (i.e. the current Catholic bishop of Catalonia, Spain). This means that one of Andorra’s monarchs is elected, but not by the people of Andorra, and the other is appointed by the Pope. Thankfully. they also have a Prime Minister. The parliament meets in his garage (just kidding).
Andorra has a small army, and all able-bodied men who own firearms must serve. All members of the army are treated as officers. The army’s main responsibility is to present the national flag at ceremonies. It all sounds a bit like a Monty Python sketch.

The roads were clear, so we climbed up and over the pass at 2408 meters (7900 feet). After our recent car troubles, we were very pleased and a little relieved with how the S&M Motel performed. We then began a steady descent down through a series of 6 villages to Andorra La Villa. Paralleling the road for the entire 33 kilometers are chair lifts and ski chalets. It’s like the entire country is a single long ski resort!

Andorra La Vella shopping

Shopping in Andorra La Vella

We stayed at the only campsite in Andorra La Villa, which also happened to have a November special (i.e. it’s too cold for the hikers and the ski season hasn’t started yet). The weather was cool, dropping to just above freezing at night. We walked into town and were shocked at the number of stores. There are apparently over 2000 shops in town, one for every 40 residents of the entire country. Everything is duty free, which means that tobacco, alcohol, electronics, clothing, perfume, watches, and other designer goods are all about 25 percent cheaper than in nearby Spain or France. No wonder people flock here. Even the grocery store we visited felt like a feeding frenzy, with people buying in bulk, some of them pulling around 2 shopping carts.

After a few hours of wandering through this retail orgy, we’d had enough. Back to the S&M Motel to watch a movie on our giant 15” screen, and enjoy a nightcap of Grand Marnier (purchased duty-free in Andorra!)


The Trim

November 20, 2011

Diane and I stopped for the afternoon in the quaint French town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, located on a small island in the Sorgue River in the Provence region of southern France. L’Isle sur la Sorgue is known for its antiques, markets, and working water wheels. In this town of approximately 20,000 people there are over 300 antique and second hand shops!

Because we arrived during the long French lunch break (typically 2 hours), we started by walking the perimeter of the small island, which is a bit larger than Granville Island in Vancouver. Afterwards we wandered the interior streets looking for the Benjamin bakery which was recommended to us by an Aussie foodie we met, who claimed that she had had the best croissant of her life there. Unfortunately, we didn’t find it, so we can’t comment on the veracity of her claim.

What we did find though was a small barber shop. A hole-in-the-wall on a side street with 2 chairs and a group of young men waiting on the stoop who said it was a good place with a good price. I haven’t cut my hair since just before Ironman in mid-August, so I figured it might be a good idea to get a trim. Diane agreed that I was in need of one.

Patrick and Diane in Venice, with Patrick's hair blowing in the wind

My hair blowing in the Venice wind as much as Diane's

We sat down and waited for a long time while the young guys had their cuts. Both they and the barbers appeared to be of middle-eastern descent. They were all having ‘razor cuts’, trimmed short on the top and shaved with a razor on the sides and back. These cuts are elaborate events that took longer than I would have hoped.

While waiting, I jokingly bragged to Diane how fortunate she was to have married a man who, in his mid-forties, still has most of his hair with nary a grey one in sight.

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Proverbs 16:18

When my turn came, I was glad to get the barber who had longer hair, styled in a carefully orchestrated, deliberate mess. I sat in the chair and explained in broken French that he should cut it “a little bit”. I clarified, “2 centimetres maximum” augmenting with hand gestures. He pointed to his head and said something that I took to mean, “like mine?” Although I didn’t want his style, the length was about right, so I nodded in agreement.

I knew right away that things were going badly. He started with a large electric trimmer, lopping off large sections of hair at the rear. I called Diane over to consult. She too sensed the problem, but there was little to be done at this point. You can’t leave the top long when the back is gone (can you say ‘reverse mullet’?). She returned to her seat, and I bit my tongue while the barber finished the job. I worried when he went after my eyebrows with pair of scissors. More so when he used the same scissors on my nostril hairs (how many other noses had they been up?). I got really worried when he pulled out a straight razor to shave my neck and behind my ears.

In the mirror, I could see that Diane couldn’t wipe the smile off of her face. Was she thinking that it was finally time I got my hair cut? Perhaps she was just amused with my torment.

Hair at the front of my head doesn’t grow as quickly as it once did. Like trench warfare, every inch is hard fought and I’m hesitant to lose any ground. So I was pleased when he left it longer (a relative term) on the top.

Anyhow, here is the result.

Patrick sitting in S&M Motel after 'The Trim'

Probably the shortest hair cut that I’ve had in 20 years, and much shorter than what I’m accustomed to recently. I left in a mild state of shock. I’m still recovering. I’m hoping it stimulates Diane’s latent ‘men in uniform’ fantasies…

I went to the early morning market the other day and my head was cold. I think I’ll start wearing hats.

Patrick drinking wine at picnic lunch in Avignon

A votre santé!


Impressions of France

November 14, 2011
  • The stereotype of French people as snobbish hasn’t been our experience. Most are nice to us.
  • French people kiss when they greet and say goodbye. Usually an alternating kiss on both cheeks, with an optional third kiss on the initial cheek. Both men and women do this, with members of the same and opposite sexes. I saw people at a large business going around and kissing everyone in the morning as part of their daily greeting.
  • We haven’t seen a lot of berets, but both men and woman like to wear scarves. Many men also carry shoulder bags, which can resemble purses.
  • Most of the people Patrick speaks to in French voluntarily switch to English in short order, or give him a blank stare as if his pronunciation is so terrible as to be unintelligible. Perhaps he should have studied harder in high school.
  • People prefer to shop for small quantities of fresh food daily. There are markets several times a week in almost every city, and people pick fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses from the fine selection offered (smaller shops but more selection).
  • Bread is purchased daily. Fresh baguettes cost about 1 Euro ($1.45 Canadian). They have no preservatives and seem to retain their amazing fresh-baked crustiness for 4 to 6 hours, after which they are fit for toasting only.
  • Pain au ChocolatThe baking is excellent. There are even more bakeries (boulangeries) and pastry shops (patisseries) than in Italy. They serve a variety of tasty treats, including the chocolate croissants (pain au chocolat) that Diane can’t get enough of.
  • Yes, they really do eat frogs’ legs and rabbits here. We were in the market this morning and we saw a butcher with a large selection of whole skinned rabbits and rabbit parts in his display case. Diane was shocked when she saw three whole dead rabbits in the case also, still in their fur. The butchers also seem to carry a greater variety of meats including hearts, intestine, etc.
  • French people will drink wine at any time of the day. We’ve seen what appear to be normal people drinking wine at 9 AM at brunch. Generally though, the French aren’t big on breakfast, preferring an espresso and a croissant or other pastry.
  • In many places, McDonald’s doesn’t open until 9 or 10 AM. They don’t serve breakfast either, but they do have free Wi-Fi and cheap coffee for Diane.
  • The famous bouillabaisse (seafood stew) of France’s second largest city Marseilles is too rich for our blood. One serving costs about 50 Euro (about 75 dollars), with cheaper imitations of soupe de poisson (fish soup) abounding.
  • French people are not good at cleaning up after their dogs. In some cities (yes, you Marseilles), you need to be vigilant as sidewalk turds are commonplace. We even saw one that had a small flag fashioned with a toothpick pole stuck in it, perhaps a political statement from a crap crusader. It seems like it would be easier to just clean it up than to raise a flag on it. It reminded me of India, but cow shit is easier to spot.
  • Like in Italy, almost everything is closed on Sundays. Only a few restaurants, some museums, movie cinemas, and the occasional bakery stay open. Museums and some other attractions are often closed on Mondays. Closures and holidays need to be considered when planning what to do.
  • There is a lot of Roman history in Southern France. Some of the best preserved examples of Roman theatres, amphitheatres, arenas, and aqueducts are here. Two thousand years old with little or no maintenance and still looking good. I wonder how long my house would stand if I did no maintenance? 40 years?

European Handball

November 14, 2011

We had the opportunity to attend a game of European Handball in the German town of Baudsen. My friend’s first cousin (once-removed) plays on a men’s team there, but is currently out of action after knee surgery required to repair a handball injury. He and his family continue to support the team and so they invited us to attend a match. I didn’t know what to expect. I had barely heard of European Handball. I did play something called that once in gym class in high school, but I was equally thinking that we might be going to watch American handball which is similar to squash but you hit the ball with your hand rather than a racquet.

It turns out that we were there to see European Handball, also known as team handball or Olympic handball. It’s a team sport played in a gymnasium with 6 players plus a goal keeper per side. At either end of the playing area, which is about the size of a basketball court, the keepers guard their nets which are bigger than an ice hockey goal but smaller than a soccer net. The winning team is the one with the most goals after two 30 minute periods of play.

European Handball court, players, goal, and referee

The game is fast, dynamic, and extremely physical, played by tall, big guys who can take a pounding. I would describe it as a cross between basketball, soccer, and lacrosse (but without the latter’s sticks or padding). The game is played with a ball approximately 20 centimeters in diameter, which looks like a small volleyball. It is covered with a slightly sticky resin to improve the grip, making it look dirty as it collects sweat and grime with use.

The teams run back and forth down the court, trying to get free of their defenders. Fast breaks are common. Players can hold the ball for 3 seconds before passing, dribbling, or shooting. After receiving the ball, they can take up to 3 steps without dribbling, and three more if they dribble. Once they stop dribbling, they may take a further 3 steps and then have 3 seconds to pass or shoot. if that sounds complicated, it looks much simpler in practice. Like in basketball, dribbling is kept to a minimum anyhow because passing is much quicker.

Players pushing to get to the 6 meter lineThe real action happens at the 6 meter line, which extends in a semi-circle around the goal like the 3-point line in basketball. Neither defenders nor attackers are allowed to enter this zone. The offensive team wants to get as close to this line as possible and have a player in position and undefended to shoot on the opponent’s net. Like in basketball, they try to do this with a mix of rapid passing and quick changes of direction. To get as close as possible, more often than not, the shooter runs head long into the defenders and leaps into the air to shoot, often with disastrous consequences. More than once we saw a shooter slammed down to the gym floor on his back by the defenders.

Defender on the ground

We watched in a gym that had about 1 meter of space around the perimeter — so close that you could smell the action while simultaneously facing the very real threat of getting a ball in the face or a player in our laps. In typical German fashion, beer is sold in the school gym lobby to quench the throats of the screaming spectators, adding to the revelry.

Playing leaping to shoot

Excited by the action, I went out onto the floor at half time to give it a try. The ball felt familiar (I played basketball and volleyball in high school), but a bit sticky. I could hold and bounce it well enough. And so I ran up to the 6 meter line, leapt in the air, threw the ball into the net, and pulled my right groin. Apparently European Handball is a young man’s game.


My Struggle with Stuff

November 6, 2011

I’m a hoarder by nature.  Not a ‘reality television, can’t move around in my house and as a result they are taking me away’ kind of hoarder, but a ‘you never know when you might need it’ type.  I’m hesitant to get rid of things for an abundance of reasons, real and imagined.  As a result, the natural trend in my house is to gradually accumulate more and more things over time, unless there is a concerted effort to counteract it.

When my wife and I returned from our last big trip, where we each lived out of a small backpack for 10 months, our home and the stuff in it were overwhelming.  The space was simultaneously refreshing (after many months in tiny rooms) but also daunting.  Our stuff, unused and unmissed for most of a year, seemed excessive and overpowering.

Currently, we have our possessions in a storage facility.  For your information, virtually everything we own squeezes into a space 10 feet wide by 30 feet long by 10 feet high.  The combined accumulations of our lifetimes fit into 3000 cubic feet.  I figure that’s at least 1000 cubic feet more than it should be.  I think our stuff could be down-sized considerably.  Ironically, we pay a non-trivial amount of money each month to store and insure these unused belongings.  Over the anticipated period of storage, we will have paid thousands of dollars to store things that we don’t need, and yet didn’t get around to purging before we left.

I feel like George Carlin in his famous comedy routine with stuff strung out all over the world.  I have a house (currently rented) with a few possessions inside.  The bulk of my stuff is in storage 10 kilometers from that house, and I have some things on loan or stored at the homes of 4 different friends over a 40 kilometer radius (can you believe it?).  While traveling, I have a carefully selected subset of my things with me, the majority of which are stored in the S&M Motel.   But I was staying in a guest house in Germany for a week, where I had some of this stuff spread across 3 rooms (bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen).  And, when I left for the day, I took a backpack of only the most critical items with me.  I’m a bit like an intercontinental rodent with stuff squirreled away across several time zones.  The time and effort to manage this pack train seems silly.  Reconsolidating and organizing my things, should I ever choose to do it, would require 5 to 15 days of solid effort and thousands of dollars.  But paring my stuff down to what I really need would require even more effort and likely some emotional trauma.

While traveling, and to a great extent while we’re at home, the things that I use on a regular basis are pretty basic – clothes, toiletries, the items necessary to sleep and eat, and a few things that I use for recreation.  My needs are simple and few.  My wants are unbounded, ever increasing, potentially unsatisfying, and move constantly out of reach.

Distinguishing between a need and want is often a challenge.  I need air, water, food, clothing, shelter, and security.  Pretty much everything else is a want –- house, car, bicycle, television, etc.  My wants often include things that I confuse with needs — e.g. “I need a car”, “I need a job”, even “I need my spouse”, or the famous and often repeated advertising slogan, “I need a vacation”.  These are all wants, and I find it useful to remind myself of this fact, in the same way that I find it useful to remember that some things are privileges rather than rights.

For much of my life I have been too materialistic, having more concern for material things than spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or cultural values.  I want there to more to my life than ‘more’.  It is better to emphasize other, more important areas of growth such as thought, feelings, relationships, nature, philosophy, the arts, sport, and science.  There are paths of progress other than growth, expansion, and conquest.  e.g. peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, beauty, a healthy sustainable environment, family, friendships, community, meaningful work, leisure time, good health, fun, and making significant contributions that help others.

Research has shown that having lots of stuff doesn’t buy happiness, in the same way that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it can perhaps rent it for a while).  The spice I get from buying things dissipates rapidly, leaving the aftertaste of reality again, but now with an added dollop of remorse.  So I’m frustrated with consumerism, a preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods, even though I sometimes get swept up in it.  Shopping should be neither recreation nor sport undertaken for the short-lived high it provides me.

The trend to bigger houses, vacation properties, larger and more cars, and more stuff to fill all of them seems to be never ending.  The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950’s.  I too have a big house.  This has occurred during a period of growth and general prosperity (despite how much people complain about the economy) but has also been achieved at the expense of more work, more stress, and less family time.

Having a lot of stuff also conflicts with my desire to sustain the planet.  It’s contrary to the first item in ‘Reduce, Re-Use, Re-Cycle”.  Even if I buy things used or made of recycled materials, it still requires a lot of resources to make, house, and heat them.  Like many of us, I had a whole room in my house full of junk that I never used.  On this topic, if you haven’t seen the short video The Story of Stuff, I highly recommend it.

George Carlin was accurate when he compared one’s house to a waste processing facility.  New stuff comes in the front door where it is cherished (or hopefully at least used) for a while in the core rooms of the home (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, family room).  Eventually that stuff makes its way to the lesser rooms of the home (guest room, junk room, etc.) before finally arriving in the garage, the last stop on the way to the garbage heap.  Everything is a consumable item, some just take longer to consume than others.

Some might say that I’m “the pot calling the kettle black”, because I spent most of my adult life trying to acquire resources, and now that I have some, proclaim that this is somehow a baser pursuit.  To this I say, you might be right.  I now have the luxury to place more of my focus on other things and I am being critical of some of the very behaviours that got me to this point in my life.  This is true.  I am struggling to free myself from the rat race of acquisition and retention.

Like it or not, as we age, we all begin a process, gradual or otherwise, of downsizing our stuff.  With many seniors this can be sudden and traumatic when they can no longer live on their own and have to give up not only their house but the things that they’ve accumulated over a lifetime.  It is far better to take ownership of this process while I still have the faculties to manage it.  I don’t want to live in an aging shrine to my past life, dreading the day when they come to take it all away.

What do I really own?  At best I am but a temporary custodian of the things around me.  I do not own them any more than the air I breath.  At some point, everything I have will transition to someone else.

You can’t take it with you. Anonymous

This fact is even more apparent in my case because I don’t have children, so I don’t even have the illusion that my things will ‘remain in the family’, the artifice of somehow retaining ownership across generations.  Now, as on our death bed, we own nothing.  And yet they sit there taunting me, costing me money, and filling my space and thoughts…

Do you struggle with stuff?  How do you deal with it?