Friday thought #46 The wonder of the EU

It’s a commonly discussed fact amongst Brits that ‘70% of Americans don’t even have a passport’. Whether or not this is factually correct nobody is really sure, but it’s one of those ‘facts’ that everybody seems to know, most likely because living in Europe, the thought of not owning a passport is utterly ridiculous.

2 months ago I think I would probably have agreed, how could anybody live without owning a passport? Flying is so commonplace for us Brits, and with our country being so small, to fly pretty much anywhere means to leave the country. Our passports are somewhere close by at all times. For many years I lived in France and worked in Switzerland, so crossed the border twice a day without giving it a second thought. But I must admit that spending some time travelling around the States has made me view the no passport issue in a completely different light.

The USA literally has everything you could ever need with regards to landscape, climate and sports. It has coastlines and beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, snow and sun; meaning that every sport from skiing to surfing is possible somewhere in the States. Within Europe, if you wish to ski, you need to fly to a country which has mountains and snow, if you want a beach holiday, countries such as Spain or Greece are an obvious choice. People in Europe take it for granted that they can jump on a plane and in less than 2 hours be in a completely different climate, scenery, culture and language. But what they forget is that the entire continent of Europe could fit neatly in to the outline of the USA with an enormous amount of room to spare. The distance from one side of Montana to the other is approximately 560 miles. As a comparison, if you were to start in Milan, Italy, and drive north east for roughly the same distance, you would cross Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Germany, finally ending your journey in Prague, deep in the heart of the Czech Republic. That’s 5 European countries versus not even leaving one of America’s 50 states.

Many Europeans would consider themselves well travelled, worldly people, after all, they may visit 2 or 3 different countries each year. Yet although it would be an impossible statistic to calculate, I would be very interested to know the percentage of Europeans who have never left Europe. I’d guess the vast majority. Europe contains approximately 50 countries (debatable due to questions such as whether to class the UK as one country or 4 separate ones), the USA contains 50 states. I would hazard that most Europeans rarely leave Europe, most Americans never leave America. It’s really not that different. Europe is made up of countries, the USA of states. It’s a big expense and a long journey to leave Europe and travel to Australasia, Asia, Africa or America, so we tend to stay within the confines of the continent. This is presumably no different for Americans. If you live in Texas and want a ski holiday, why fly to France when you have Colorado just a short flight away?

Being in the States also brought it home to me just how unique the European Union is. I completely take it for granted that despite being British, I’ve lived in France for the last 9 years, worked in Switzerland for the past 4, and am about to move to Austria. No visas needed, no green cards and no need to make a special application. You can move around freely within all the countries in the EU, working and living. In no other place in the World does this happen, and we are so very fortunate that we have this available to us.

Put in perspective it becomes a lot more clear why so many Americans would choose to stay within the States. Europeans must simply count themselves lucky that they have such a diversity of cultures at their doorstep and the freedom to move around amongst them, and cut their American friends a bit of slack!

A comparison rarely considered...
A comparison rarely considered…

Friday thought #43 America’s RVs

One of the most commented on sights throughout our US road trip was not just the amount, but the sheer size of the RVs flying along every highway. I guess being British we’d notice them a lot more as we simply don’t have vehicles like that where we’re from. For starters they simply wouldn’t fit on the roads. Your average European road is firstly too narrow and secondly, far too busy! I would love to see one of these trying to fit down a narrow country lane in rural Wales! (in fact the pick up trucks alone wouldn’t fit, let alone an RV!) But not only are they enormous, I also observed that when stationary, they also extend out to all sides and angles, making them even more gigantic. And much to our delight, we also spotted many of them towing a 4×4 truck behind them.

It put our tiny tent to absolute shame on the campgrounds; I’d hazard that some of them are considerably bigger per square metre than many residential apartments, especially those found in either ski resorts or large cities. We loved watching these blast through Montana, Idaho and Utah in their thousands, but it really did leave us wondering, just how much space does an average couple need when on holiday??!

Check out all the extra compartments!
Public coach or single family holiday home??
Obviously towed by the obligatory giant truck!
Of course, we’ll need our mobile house AND a pick up truck whilst away…!

Friday thought #42 The Great Salt Lake

I have to admit before coming here I knew virtually nothing about the Great Salt Lake. I’m not sure I even knew it was in the State of Utah. But I can now happily admit that my mind has been blown by this astonishing natural feature, sitting contently in the middle of the vast land mass that is America, so very far from any kind of sea!

I have since discovered that it is 75 miles long and 28 miles wide, the biggest lake in the United States that isn’t part of the Great Lakes range further north. I was confused as to how a body of water this far from the sea could be an actual salt lake, so being the curious English tourists we are, we asked someone! The lake has no outlet other than evaporation, and is fed by 4 major rivers which tumble down to it from the mountains. Just like rivers flowing in to the sea, these carry huge amounts of rocks and minerals containing salt, which remains in the lake when the water evaporates. Due to the sheer quantity of salt arriving in this lake, and the fact that it is so much smaller than the sea, the salinity is vastly higher than that of the sea, 7 X to be precise.

We had to test this out, so after a bit of research we headed for Antelope Island, the biggest of the lake’s 10 islands, for a couple of nights. Utterly stunning would be one of the many ways to describe it here and would still not come close to doing it justice. To access the island you drive across a long, purpose built causeway, with the salt flats rolling away on either side. We came across various tourists pottering round at the visitors’ centre, but predictably enough, as soon as we left to explore the rest of the island we were pretty much on our own. The Bridger Bay campground had arguably one of the best views of any I’ve ever stayed on, and provided 2 of the most relaxing days I’ve ever had; a feeling I very much cherish. There’s something rather magical about swinging in your hammock, reading a book in the sunshine, with wildlife and the gentle lapping of the lake as the only sounds.

So, back to the Salt Lake. For starters the temperature of the water was 28 degrees, not much like the sea in any way (and certainly not in the UK!) It was shallow for a long time so one has to wade out quite a distance to get above knee deep, but yes indeed, once you immerse yourself and take your feet off the bottom you do in fact float in any position you wish to try! It’s difficult to describe, but it’s one father weirdest feelings I’ve ever had. You just float! Imagine sitting in a pool on a lilo, happily floating around, but there’s no lilo. I feel like it is what astronauts must feel like. You can simply barrel roll round and round without even a hint of sinking. You can happily swim along using just your arms, legs just floating out behind you. We couldn’t get enough. Plus, if you scrub your skin whilst in the water, once you’re out and blasted clean with cold water, you feel like you’re skin’s been born again. People pay a lot of money for exfoliating skin treatments that make you feel like that!

I can’t recommend it enough, it’s one of the most unusual and most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had. During our time on this island we’ve also had the opportunity to see close up; bison, antelopes, wild deer, eagles and wild hare. Hard to knock. Antelope Island will be tough to leave behind, but we’ll be back, I’m sure of it!

Wild Antelope on the island named after them
Wild Antelope on the island named after them
Wild bison, what cool animals!
A wild bison, what cool animals!
Not a bad camp spot, as they go
Not a bad camp spot, as they go. Salt Lake in the background
The Salt Lake itself, no-one around but us...
The Salt Lake itself, no-one around but us…

Friday thought #34 How very British…!

The longer I’m away from the UK, the more I feel an affinity to it every time I’m back there. No matter how long you spend away from your home country, I don’t think you ever lose where you came from, and perhaps it is just a British thing, but there is something so very quaint and charming about the British people, and being one of them, I feel I am allowed to draw attention to the quirky nature of the Brits. Recently mentioned on the radio was a Twitter account called So Very British, which, upon hearing some of the anecdotes, I just had to look up for myself. It’s so simple and honest that I genuinely laughed out loud reading these as they are so true of the British public. I’ve listed some of my favourites below, but feel free to go and check it out for yourself, there are hundreds. If you are a Brit you will know exactly what they mean and will also laugh out loud as you imagine yourself and everyone you know doing the same thing. If not, the following comments will most likely sound very bizarre and make no sense at all, but rest assured that this is a pretty accurate representation of the British people, and long may these quirky traditions last!

Brilliant! So fantastically polite!

– Becoming so cross with someone that you beg for their pardon

– Entering into mild panic if unable to pick the correct amount of change from your hand within three seconds

– “Anyway, I’ll let you get on…” – Translation: Please go away

– Really going for it with your “I’m enjoying my look around” act after entering the wrong shop

– Gearing up to order with your menu closed, then opening and pointing at the very last second

– Being unable to concentrate as someone gives you directions because you’re so focused on looking like you’re paying attention

“Well anyway, just an idea…” – Translation: I can see you all think my idea is terrible, I’ll be quiet now

– Unknown number rings phone – Brit sits perfectly still in terrified silence until it goes away

– Attracting a waiter’s attention by apologising to them

– Hovering your finger a millimetre from the train door button, so everyone knows you have the situation under control

– Worrying you’re going to be arrested as you present your perfectly valid train ticket to the inspector

– Being unable to place your items on a shop counter without saying “just these, please”

– Whispering “come on” at cash points and ticket machines, to assure the queue you’ve done all that you can

– Being unable to leave the office without first staring at everything on your desk and saying “right”

– “After you” “No, after you” “Honestly…” “Go on…” “Please…” – Brits go for the door at the same time, chuckle, then begin again

– Holding your hand to your chest while hiccuping, to assure everyone that you know it’s annoying and you’ll be stopping ASAP

Keeping fit and healthy and making your own choices

Having only recently watched for the first time the documentary ‘Super Size Me’, I am truly shocked to witness the severity of the obesity epidemic sweeping not only America, but also a huge number of very surprising countries (Syria is number three; who’d have thought?!) Of course it’s something we hear about on the news all the time; child obesity, healthy eating, dieting and weight loss, indeed some of the most popular programmes on television nowadays are based around cooking, baking and weight loss.

It seems the general public are fascinated by people’s size. It makes the front covers of magazines, the headlines of national newspapers, and is something that occupies the minds of so many of us. People are constantly watching what they eat, feeling guilty for overeating, buying yet another diet book, and throwing their money down the drain purchasing pointless detox plans and pills which have no beneficial effect whatsoever. I am genuinely intrigued at the way in which reality television has evolved so that we now take sheer delight in watching overweight people attempt to shed those pounds by being forced to eat less, under the watchful eye of a so called ‘dietician’.

Yes indeed, size and weight have become a first world obsession. Everyone wants to be thinner, and many will claim that they have ‘tried everything’, but still can’t lose weight. But what strikes me is that there is a common theme running through all these weight loss books, diet programmes, and food advice forums. What should we eat? What should we cut back on, what important food group should we avoid? But how many of them tell you to go and do some exercise?

Surely as a child at school we were all taught that we should eat healthily and take regular exercise? But why as adults do so many of us forget this? It’s hard to stomach just how much money is spent each year on faddy diets, detoxes, miracle pills, and weight loss programmes, but has it never crossed anyone’s mind to perhaps walk to work, or cycle instead or drive? Or to go out for a jog in the evening instead of watching television? Or perhaps get out and explore their local area on foot rather than going shopping at the weekend?

Of course many people wouldn’t consider themselves ‘sporty’, and the thought of donning a tracksuit and going running is distinctly horrifying. But what people don’t realise is that even the smallest change to their daily routine can make a huge difference to both their waistline, and their mental state. Exercise releases endorphins which make you feel happy, healthy and energised. I have yet to come across one diet book or television programme which encourages people to simply do more and eat less. It seems like such a simple solution. But to so many it is much more pro-active to have a shelf full of expensive books, and take those important pills every morning. Surely people must realise that they are kidding themselves, isn’t this just the easy option, which simply requires as little effort as possible? Every one of these programmes tells you to think carefully about what you eat, calorie count, and be ashamed of eating the wrong things, but do any of them mention the benefit of exercise? Not that I’m aware of.

It was truly shocking watching the effect that MacDonalds had on Morgan Spurlock, star of ‘Super Size Me’, but what I found even more disturbing was the tale he told of a pair of girls who tried to sue the afore mentioned fast food chain, blaming them for their obesity. Of course no one can deny that eating fast food every day is bound to have a negative impact on your size and overall health, but are we not the ones responsible for what goes in to our own mouths?

I felt genuinely speechless that this case had actually made it in to court, and a lawsuit had been filed against the food chain. It should have of course been immediately dismissed as total rubbish, and thank goodness in the end it was, but surely this is no different to suing a clothes chain for your overflowing wardrobe, or blaming the ocean for making you wet? Have we genuinely created a world where people are no longer accountable for their own actions, and are so affected by marketing ploys that they are coerced in to doing things they don’t want to do, and can no longer make their own choices?

I sincerely hope not, and I intend to continue to surround myself with others who see the benefit of being fit and healthy and can thankfully still make their own decisions as to what they might eat for their evening meal…

National identity and a sense of belonging

I am fascinated by the idea of national identity, and where people claim they are from. I am intrigued by those who don’t feel any sense of national pride, versus those who fiercely defend their family’s heritage, regardless of whether they have ever lived there themselves. I spend a lot of time with children from a whole host of backgrounds, religions, nationalities, and with more spoken languages than I can keep up with.

Across my small class of 18, we have 13 nationalities, and 8 different mother tongues, and what makes it all the more mind blowing, is that each one of these children speaks fluent English as a second, third or even fourth language. This never fails to amaze me, as they have no real concept of just how impressive this is. Without so much as a second thought, they will speak one language to mum, perhaps another to dad, a third to their teacher, and even a fourth to a nanny or a cleaner.

In addition to this, although some of them may have lived their whole lives in one place, the majority of these children have spent their short lives moving from city to city, school to school, and have lived in more countries than the average person has holidayed in. They have the most wonderful stories, a whole wealth of life experience, and more knowledge about the world around them than you could ever imagine from someone three times their age.

On the face of it, this sounds like such an exciting and fascinating existence, wonderful preparation for the future, second and third languages on a plate, and exposure to children from all corners of the earth, so prejudice and bullying is almost non-existent. But when you scratch the surface of this enviable existence, where do these children come from, and who are they?

It is interesting for me to watch where their allegiances lie, which football teams they follow, and which country they will support of given the choice, because it is not always so clear cut. When it suits the situation they will back the USA no questions asked, but will fiercely defend the Spanish if needs be, or the Ecuadorians if the issue is raised. One of the most interesting parts of the school year is sitting down on the first day and asking the class what their nationalities are, and what languages they speak at home. You would imagine this would be a 5 minute task, yet in reality there is so much to discuss, and so many children that just aren’t sure, that before you know it, an hour has passed. Is your nationality where you were born, where you live, where your parents were born? Because for some this could provide up to four different choices.

I am in two minds as to what I think about these phenomenally bright, interesting, multi-lingual, multicultural children. Are they living the dream, a once in a lifetime opportunity reserved only for the lucky few? Or are they lost souls, destined for a life of globe-wandering, never sure who they are or where they’re from? Do we need a national identity? Is where you come from really that important? Or is it enough to just be?

The need to belong
The need to belong