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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When It Is All Said and Done, There Is No Place Like Home

I just returned from a visit to Germany and Italy. And I must say, it is good to be home again.

Southern Germany--specifically Bavaria--is a stunningly beautiful place, with picturesque villages nestled in mountain valleys, lots of pristine forests and great beer! Italy, with its great food, its ancient Roman ruins, wonderful coastal cities like Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano, Ravello and of course Pompei--is a treasure.

I will no doubt go again. But when I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles after more than two weeks in Europe, I found myself really happy to be back the USA. And this is coming from someone who spent most of his journalism career working as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America--17 years, to be exact.

Perhaps it is the fact that Europe is overcrowded. In fact, according to the guide who took a small tour group through the Vatican in Rome, the Sorrento and Bay of Naples area is the most densely populated area in Europe and second most densely populated area in the world--after New Delhi in India.

After spending a week in Rome and Sorrento, I can believe it. In Rome people don't double park, they triple park! Streets are clogged with cars, buses and motorbikes all desperately engaged in a sluggish roadway rumba that moves agonizingly forward toward what must seem like some inaccessible goal.

Driving in Italy is an adventure, to say the least. The motorbikes, especially, are worth watching as they dart in and out of traffic, squeezing in front of buses, trucks and taxis. There don't seem to be any rules of the road. It is highway anarchy. Horns blare, people sputter epithets out of their car windows, shake their fists and slap their foreheads in frustration.

Pedestrians are like timid wallflowers at this chaotic motorized salsa--looking for openings to cross streets.

In Germany things are more orderly. They have to be. People there drive really fast--in fact, on some autobahns there are no speed limits. There are rules of road and people seem to obey them. Germans are nothing, if not orderly. That is how a nation of some 80 million people that is about the size of Montana and part of Wyoming are able to co-exist.

In both countries the only way to travel is by train. It is efficient, mostly on time and very comfortable. And you don't have the hassle of traffic jams, gridlock and people yelling at you or tendering obscene hand signals.

The only time I experienced anything approaching chaos in Germany was opening day of the 178th Oktoberfest in Munich's Theresienwiese area. There, hordes of people from all over the world flooded into the Wiesn in search of (what else?) Das gute Deutsche Bier! Aside from the occasional plastered refugee staggering from one of the 14 beer tents along the Wirtsbudenstrasse and the general crush of humanity, things were pretty orderly. Well, that's Germany for you.

Meanwhile, back in Italy, things are never really orderly. One wonders how the Romans conquered most of the known world during their 1,000 year reign and yet the Italians are still having problems trying to establish coherent traffic patterns along roads too narrow for most modern vehicles.

Wait, maybe that's the problem. The Italians are still using the Via Appia, Via Cassia and Via Aurelia. Actually, they are not, but many of Italy's modern roads are not much wider than those ancient roads that were fitted with standardized ruts to accommodate chariot wheels.

When I arrived back in L.A. what a joy it was to jump in my car and hit the L.A. freeway system. Of course, that was at about 11 p.m. when traffic was almost nonexistent--not in the a.m. when L.A.s freeways are often worse than Rome's gridlocked traffic.

What Italy lacks in modern highway systems it makes up for in delightful outdoor cafes and food that is to die for. I can honestly say that during the 7 days I was in Italy, I never once had a bad meal. The pasta was always al dente, the wine wonderful and the settings of the cafes--be they along Rome's Via Cola di Rienzo or in Sorrento's Piazza Tasso--were charming.

So much for the infrastructure of Germany and Italy.

Next: The German and Italian people.
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