I’ve only been back in the United States for a week, but I’m already missing a few things about Eastern Europe that I think they do better than we do in the US…
- Slow food (or coffee or drinks)… In the United States, we tend to be fast eaters. Going out to dinner typically goes like this: get seated by a host, greeted by a server, order drinks, order food, get food delivered all at once, eat, ask for the bill (if it wasn’t delivered when the food was served), pay the bill and leave. In my experience, all of that takes place in about 30 minutes on average, an hour if I’m lingering over a drink or if the restaurant is really busy. In Eastern Europe, you get seated and order drinks. The drinks are delivered and you sip, chat, sip, chat, ponder food choices, and then call the server over to order. Food is brought and you sit, sip, eat, sip, eat, chat, sip, watch people walking by, sip, socialize with people at the next table, order another drink or coffee or espresso or dessert, and socialize some more. The server never brings you a bill. It is considered rude for them to do so. Restaurant patrons are left to eat slowly, to drink slowly, to enjoy each others company and the scenery. One of our local guides (Barbara) told us her record was sitting at a cafe for three hours over a cup of coffee! Only when you ask for the check, will the server bring it to you. There is no rush to get patrons to pay up and move on so the next ones can sit down. It took us a few days to get the hang of this, but by the time our trip ended, I was enjoying the leisurely pace of eating out in Eastern Europe and already miss it here in the US.
- Fast food… We all know about McDonalds here in the US. I wouldn’t eat at one if my life depended on it. And gas station food, never! Call me a snob, but the food at most fast food joints and gas stations here is awful. Not so in Eastern Europe. We stopped at several petrol stations and one McDonalds restaurant for bathroom breaks on our trip, and the food choices at each one included fresh baked breads and pastries, salads, yogurts, and local fare.
- Public transportation…maybe its out of necessity, or just common sense, but Eastern Europe has some of the best mass transit I’ve ever seen. Bus, tram, train, subway – all easy to use, cheap, and convenient. Our first day in Prague, we took the bus from the airport to our hotel in central part of the city – a 30 minute ride for less than $2 US. In Budapest, we used the subway, tram, and bus with a single ticket – validated (by getting it stamped using a machine on the subway of our first ride) for the time we were in the city. People get on and off wherever they need to, using the honor system. No ticket takers or turnstyles to slow you down at most stations or stops, but “controllers” wearing purple armbands do monitor on occasion and ask to see your validated ticket (we got asked twice with no problems). It helped to have local guides give us some pointers on what to expect, but we encountered no issues and were pleased with the ease of use of all the public transportation we encountered. In Ljubljana, Slovenia, they even had an urban tram (pictured above) that picked people up from outside the inner city and brought them into the pedestrian streets of the central city.
- Pay-to-pee public toilets… Some folks might disagree with this one, but I was impressed. In Eastern Europe, there are no free public toilets, so, it’s important to always have a few coins in local currency available to use to pay either an attendant or a machine if you need to go. Even restaurants sometimes charge for patrons to use the toilet (or sometimes you got a ticket with a code for the toilet door when you ordered something at the restaurant). Why do I like this? Because all the toilets are clean and private. I used a lot of public toilets on this trip, and all of them were very clean and very well-stocked, unlike most public toilets I’ve encountered in the United States. The stalls in Eastern Europe are also completely private, meaning the walls went from floor to ceiling with no way for anyone to peek under or over or to hear you from the next stall. In any case, call me weird, but sometimes its the little things, right? They also call their restrooms toilets or water closets (and think it strange that we call them bathrooms or restrooms).
- Universal healthcare and social insurance and systems that support families… in all the countries we visited, universal healthcare and free education is a right, and the people seem very happy about it. In the Czech Republic, for example, working people and their employers co-pay about 30 – 35% tax for health and social insurance. In return, everyone has free health care, free college tuition, limited unemployment benefits, and parental leave that pays 75% of regular pay rate for up to four years (for either the mother or the father or both if they choose to share their parental leave time) for each child they have. Parental leave years also count toward their work/retirement years and their jobs are held for them when they return from leave (unlike me – who lost work years by staying home with my son and received a lower pension because of it). In Eastern Europe, people are generally healthier, live longer, and gladly share in the burden of cost for the good of the whole population.
And a bonus: Long-haul trucks are not allowed on the roads on Sundays. Really! Can you imagine that happening in the US? When we stopped at a rest stop in the Czech Republic on our way to Poland one Sunday, the lot was filled with transfer trucks because all the drivers had to park and rest all day on Sunday until they could continue driving on Monday. It kept the roads open for automobiles and buses only and made the drive much easier and quicker (and perhaps safer).