Columns » Max Brantley

Call me Eurotrash

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Turns out Barack Obama, despite his basketball skills, isn't a wholly regular guy. His Ivy League background shows. You won't catch him knocking back a shot of rye at a tavern or dunking a doughnut at a diner. A varietal wine and a plate of kiwi fruit seem more his speed. He's also had the gall to suggest Americans would do well to speak a second language.

This is all fine by me. We've endured  eight years of a fake cowboy who, before his election, seemed to be proud he'd never had an interest in the world beyond Beaumont, Texas. You know how that turned out.

We can learn much overseas. A friend of mine just returned from a trip to Europe. He sent to family and friends a photo of his gas receipt from a Dutch fill-up. The price (after decimal system and currency conversion) was a bit more than $10 per U.S. gallon. That makes $4 per gallon seem a bargain.

Or does it?

My friend landed in Amsterdam. An airport train took him to the center of town for about $5, with a train running every 10 minutes. From the main station, he could reach any spot on the continent. If he'd been the healthy type, he could have packed a bicycle and cycled into town on one of several bike paths built to link the airport and the city. Don't try this in Little Rock.

Had my friend been stopping in Amsterdam, his public transit choices would have been cheap and efficient, day and night seven days a week. It was no different at his main  destination, Prague, where he said it took no time to understand the Czech trams like a native.

He had many choices of overnight train routes back to Belgium for the final days of his vacation. In the U.S., long-distance train choices are few, slow and prone to erratic schedules.

Back in Belgium, my friend rented a car. Yes, the gas was expensive. But wait. When you're driving a car that gets 40 miles a gallon and up, the European price isn't so far removed from the equivalent amount of fuel necessary to take a Suburban the same distance in the U.S.. Large cars are a rarity on European highways. They are, I can testify, an impossibility in the crooked narrow alleyways of medieval center cities.

You're crazy to drive in the cities anyway, given that most sights are either within walking distance or easily reachable on good public transportation. The transit directions are generally intuitive, even if English is your only language.

Transit flourishes because the cities are densely developed. Beautiful parks provide the green space the apartment blocks and townhouses lack. These parks are integral to city development, not starved afterthoughts, as they are here.

The high fuel prices come from high tax rates. The taxes pay for things like mass transit, splendid rail systems and integrated transportation hubs with seamless linkages between plane, train and even bike transportation.

European perks don't end at the bus stop.  Fall off your bike in Europe and a universal health care system is at your disposal. It's cheaper than the U.S. system, everyone is covered and everyone lives longer. That's a topic for another day. Today, I'll stick with my inclination to trade $10 gas for European-style amenities, even leaving out Amsterdam's “brown cafes.”

 

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