Sometimes it takes an active volcano. Having been otherwise engaged, I had not travelled across Europe overland for some 10 years. Last Friday, hopelessly stranded in Prague, with my family and office in London some 800 miles away, I took to the road wondering how much the place had changed.
There have been some pleasant observations. The day was glorious, with flowers in bloom, sunshine, and blue skies all along, volcanic ashes notwithstanding. Only if you looked straight into the sun could you see something akin to a haze, something a little smoky, but it could have also been tears from staring straight into the sun. Starting early in the morning, we hit an expressway five miles from my Prague home, and we were off—less than 12 hours later, we left the highway to snuggle inside a Eurotunnel shuttle (the van and all) for a 35-minute ride under the Channel that served as a nice occasion for an improvised dinner of French cheese and Czech strudel. After another 90-minute drive on the wrong side of the road, we were back in Hampstead.
We went through six European countries but encountered only a single border control in Calais, France. To an American audience this may sound somewhat esoteric, but the control was actually British although they lost Calais in 1558. Unlike going through airports—with their ticket counters and security checks—the ride made for a very cavalier sense of a border. It took some focus and observation skills to be able to tell where Bohemia stopped and Bavaria began, where the Rhineland ceased to be German and became Dutch, no, Belgian, only to become France an hour later. Only with the British it was kind of easy, driving on the wrong side of the road.
With no plane in sight and everything green, in bloom, or both, the sense of European tranquility, disturbed only by election campaign billboards at the beginning and at the end of the journey, was striking. Indeed, not just of tranquility but also of the greening of Europe. Whereas in the past you had to wait all the way to Flanders for a sight of a modest windmill, the road has now become a virtual alley of giant wind-driven propellers no Don Quixote would even dream of fighting against. Most of them were not moving because there was no wind. Luckily, in between the windmills numerous sun-harvesting fields have replaced the unfashionable, non-profitable, and non-organic crops of the past. Some of these solar miracles of efficiency are apparently so profitable it pays off to operate them at night with the help of oil-driven generators—the subsidized and guaranteed feed-in tariffs are up to five times those of commercial electricity. Not everything is as green as it appears. And not everything is as anti-green as it appears; the few nuclear power stations along the way seemed to be humming along and looking a little greener compared to a few years ago.
Finally, the politics. In the Czech Republic, we are having the first election campaign where the Internet really matters. The social networking Web sites, virtual discussion groups, even house parties are having their heyday. In the more traditional UK, on the other hand, pre-election TV debates are finally taking place, suddenly raising the specter of “the third man.” It remains to be seen whether the third man turns out to be Barack Obama, or Ross Perot.