Thursday, August 5, 2010

My GREEN Experience in Europe

The jet lag has worn off, and the Japanese house guests left this morning, so what else is there to do (don't mention the laundry or lack of food in the house) but put up a new blog post?  (I suppose it's time to stop crying about the lack of good baguette or St. Julien cheese, and don't even get me started on the coffee or I'll break down for sure.)

Do you remember when I went on and on about how much GREENER things are in Europe?  (I mean in the ECO way.)  Well I certainly kept my eye out for those kinds of things as we traveled for the month of July across France and Italy (Belgium was such a short stay but I do have a note about that too) and I was surprised at my findings.

I went in expecting everything to be super GREEN.  I wasn't disappointed when we arrived in France and were greeted both there and in Belgium by GIANT, futuristic-alien-like looking wind turbines.  France has the 3rd largest European resource of wind power after Germany and the UK.  (*Stat and photo courtesy of wikipedia.)  Excellent.  In Belgium I discovered that when I made a purchase in Bruges, I was asked (in Flemish) if I would like a bag with it.  No idea what she said so a head nod, smile,  and a bag plus my receipt.  The little plastic bag cost me $0.05.  I noticed in France that EVERYONE had their own bags, especially going to market.  Nice.  I'm wishing I'd bought some of their very cool bags to bring home (the fancy ones they sell in the gift shops but also the straw bags they use for going to the market.)  Now Scott knows what to bring home for me (filled with Balisto bars of course!) next Spring!

The friends we stayed with in Bretagne, St. Lunaire specifically, had a very GREEN feature in their home, which was a very expensive high efficiency air-source heat pump.  I don't know that this is a product we would choose where I live, but in a moderate climate this is a very eco-friendly choice.  You can find more information on them on the U.S. Dept of Energy Website.  This website, BTW, is fantastic.  Seriously, you should check it out.  Tons of good information.

What I didn't see a whole lot of in France was recycling.  We visited some parks in certain towns where there were beer bottles and other bottles (both glass and plastic) all over the ground, spilling from garbage cans, you name it.  I'm thinking they don't have the 5 cent refunds and what a difference it would make if they did.  Not only good for recycling's sake, but for the beauty of the towns & cities.  It sure made me appreciate it.  I also gained a new appreciation for our home recycling set up.  Having a dedicated pull-open drawer the same as we do for trash in our kitchen really makes it just so easy.  Pat on the back for thinking of this the 10 or so years ago when we planned our kitchen.

In the Provence area we found it interesting that lawns were forbidden in an effort to conserve water.  Plants growing were drought-tolerant.  A local friend pointed out that behind some of the high walls and privacy fences neighbors were hiding little lush green lawns that would surely get them into trouble were they discovered by authorities.  Such rebels!

Italy, dear, dear, Italy, was like taking a step back in time.  Our beautiful villa didn't have TV or Internet.  We couldn't find WiFi anywhere (unlike in France where everyone has it because it's so cheap.)  Being forced to disconnect was actually a good thing for most of us.  Apparently the "old English lady" as the caretaker referred to her, didn't think those things belonged here, in a place of relaxation.  (The "old English lady" was married to an ambassador - pretty cool, right?  I see why this was their quiet getaway place.)  In the places we visited, no one carried their own grocery bags.  It was plastic, plastic, plastic.  We did finally figure out that there is recycling available, it just took us a long time to figure that out.  No one gets their coffee to go, so there are no mountains of paper cups to be disposed.  What I still love about Italy is the excellent public transportation (a group of 9 of us or so upon exiting gave a standing ovation to one particularly excellent female bus driver who drove us through the busy streets of Rome without even once fearing for our lives!) and the feeling that Italians just use less energy than we do.  They are natural conservers of energy.  It's the lifestyle and I'll say it again - I love it.  They shut everything down during peak heat hours (and oddly a few of the grocery stores we tried to frequent would close on random days like Wednesday afternoons?) take a rest, then go full speed again at a reasonable hour when temps have cooled.  In Rome, our friend Monica pointed out a restaurant she knew I'd love, which featured only local foods cultivated at 0 kilometers.  Well, not exactly 0 kilometers, but you get their drift.  It was about the direct line from farm or vine to the table.


 (skinny French friends)

I am happy to report also, that despite a month of eating 4 course meals twice a day, complete with wines and cheeses, and the mandatory gelato or 2 per day in Italy, that I gained all of half a pound.  Astonished is the better word.  Sure, we did a lot of walking, but we also did a lot of metro or bus riding in the cities.    Perhaps it was the ridiculously difficult pushing of the cheap travel baby stroller over cobblestone streets that helped?  Or carrying that same stroller up and down every staircase in Paris?  How do our European friends all stay so slim with such a rich lifestyle?  Is it the fact that they're eating fresh, for the most part totally unprocessed foods?  They drink liters upon liters of water (usually sparkling) and eat small portions compared to what we are served here.  A new Italian friend, Fabrizio, explained that for him, the portions are the big deal.  He says that when he comes to the States he always gains weight because of the enormous portions and his unwillingness to leave the food on the plate.  He explained that the "doggie bag" is an American phenomenon and it's not really done in Italy.  I was also surprised to hear him say that he loves American food and has learned to cook it!

One other way I see Europeans as GREEN is with the use of bicycles as a method of transport.  In many places in France we saw kiosks where you could rent a bike for free for the 1st 30 min., then pay a minimal charge for additional use.  Return them to any kiosk when you're done.  There are also electric assist bikes, which hubby is crazy about.  Especially in Bruges, so many locals rode their bikes to work, and had child seats on the front of the handlebars then big saddle bags on the back.  I had the silly idea it would be fun to rent one of the family electric assist bikes to explore the Villa Borghese (Rome's version of Central Park) and didn't have the foresight to see that Scott would drive like a madman speed demon throughout the park and I'd be screaming my head off but giggling at the same time.  (The kids LOVED going that fast and screaming their heads off too!  It might have been their favorite part of the trip.)

The last big difference I'll note is on the cars and use of gas/diesel.  Sure, gas is expensive, but the cars all seem to get much better mileage.  The cars on the road in Italy & France are for the most part, cars you've never seen in the States.  With the exception of Smart Cars, Ford and Toyota (although totally different models than the ones here) you'll see Renaults, Citroens, Peugeots, Opels, Fiats, and a bunch of others.  For the most part, they are tiny.  We drove a fantastic version of a mini van, very much like my Mazda 5, called the Renault Scenic, diesel engine.  Incredibly smart car that we'd buy in a heartbeat if it were legal and available here.  What a difference it was driving from the south of France, near Nice and Cannes, into Italy, where Italian drivers drove like it was a race and they were frantic to win.  Gone were the nice, courteous French drivers and the electronic speeding cameras that kept everyone in check.  I was relieved to see Scott didn't go into Mario Andretti mode himself.

Our European adventure with the kids was all that I expected it to be and more.  We are so blessed to have so many European friends who are all so generous and welcoming to us.  Thanks to our gracious hosts we were able to give the kids a more authentic experience.  Of course we did the very touristy things like the Eiffel Tower & the Louvre, Uffizi, Basilica of the Holy Blood, Colosseum, Pompeii, and other sites not to be missed, but it was also the days on the beach, visiting little villages, going out for evening walks, the markets, dinners with friends, etc., that made it such a rich experience.  We also made an effort to be GREEN in our travels and to minimize our "footprint" as well we could (the kids bathed only when necessary - pools count as baths anyway, brought our Sigg bottles along, public transport as often as possible, very little laundry, etc.)  Amazing trip - can't wait to do it again!

*Important Disclaimer* This post is based on my own personal experience traveling in Europe with my family in the month of July, 2010.  What I observed may or may not be exactly the case.


Christopher Zurcher said...

Hi, ... If you're green and in Connecticut you might want to follow CT Environmental Headlines ... we're basically everything green in Connecticut.

Christopher Zurcher

KJ said...

Love this post. It sounds like you had a wonderful holiday. I hope to post about geothermal in Iceland. It was eyeopening!!