The little tings

For some reason, some of the things I find most fascinating when traveling are the little things (or as the Irish would pronounce it, “tings”); the small differences in what otherwise are very similar cultures.

Especially with the UK and Ireland, we share a common language, and largely a very common lifestyle. Carolyn and I can walk throughout either country, and until we open our mouths to speak ‘Murican, no one has any idea we’re from a foreign land, especially one filled with Heffalumps, Woozles, and Trumps.

In no particular order, these are some of the tings I’ve noticed to be different here:


Everyone knows about driving on the left. Most people know that Europeans use a different current. In the case of Ireland and the UK, it’s 230v 50hz. But here we also see this additional switch, which controls whether the switch to the left is even active. And then on top of that, there’s a smaller switch which controls whether the individual plugs are active. I’m not an electrician, so I don’t know how much of this is regulatory overkill, common sense safety, or conservation… or maybe it’s all necessary because 230v 50hz would fry a blue whale if it touched it the wrong way. No big deal overall, just different.


I got a kick out of these instructions on a bag of microwave popcorn. I suppose if you’re going to distribute anything throughout the EU, you need to be readable by everyone. It does make all the hullabaloo about “speakin’ American” in the USA look pretty silly in comparison. So what if there are different languages that have to be posted? We gripe about adding one, and these people are accommodating 24? (Yeah, I counted ’em.) It’s nice to include as many people as possible, even if all you’re telling customers is that you have to open the damn popcorn bag and unfold it before you do anything else.


This is our (okay, by “our” I mean “Carolyn’s”) second experience with the small combination of washer/dryer. Yes, she’s taken on all the clothes washing duties. Just for the record, I do most of my own at home. But these things are so foreign and hard to work with, Carolyn has graciously been willing to take on the task, and I’m blessed for it.

It has now been named, “Lucifer’s Washer.” It’s a space saver to be sure, but clothes not only come out overheated and wrinkly, but it takes for-frickin’-ever to complete. We’re talking four or five or it seems like ten hours. Of course, she might be hitting the “four hour” button each time thinking it’s the symbol for express wash, but there’s no setting in the world that should make a wash and dry take so long. Clothes have to be started before one goes to bed in the hopes that it’ll be done by the time you wake up, we learned that the hard way after staring at a never-ending cycle through two moon phases.

So if you need to supervise it in order to pull out your clothes immediately after drying, prepare for a long day of listening to Lucifer’s Washer grind on your earballs for hours on end. And just when it sounds like it has stopped, and you get ready to pounce… “whoosh, chugga-chugga-chugga” starts up again, following by some eerie and maniacal laughter you can just barely make out beneath the grinding.


This looks to be a common heating scheme, and it’s actually pretty effective, if you don’t mind bending over to set the temperature. Instead of heating the whole damn house, each room has one of these, so you simply turn it on when you’re in the room and leave the other ones off. It heats up pretty quickly, so I have to imagine that if you’re conscientious about those settings, it reduces energy consumption far better than our heat-the-whole-damn-house-including-every-closet American scheme.


Nothing too remarkable about these switches except they tend to put them outside the doors instead of inside. Imagine that, having your light already turned on before you enter the room? Brilliant! How many horror movie scenes would have to be changed if the US used this scheme? The only issue it raises is that it’s very easy to play a joke on whoever’s in the bathroom. But I think it’s safe to say that joke would probably only happen once in most cases, because, you know, everyone’s gotta pee, and no one should have to face an enraged grizzly, a hungry shark, or a wife who is sitting on the pot and had the lights turned off on her.


I already covered this road construction on a previous blog, but it’s worth noting again in the context of, “why is it America doesn’t pay more attention to what other countries do?” I mean, this is just a solid idea, and a way to eliminate one of the most dangerous jobs we have.


Cars: my take on cars over here is that you rarely see SUV’s, even vans are pretty rare, and by far the most common vehicle is the four-door sedan. My recollections of Italy from nearly a decade ago were that they had a lot more of the teeny-tiny mini-cars that still look a little funny. I haven’t seen very many of those in any of the countries we’ve visited this time. The other point of note is that it’s rare to see a crappy-looking old beater. I don’t know if that represents a more prosperous middle class overall or it’s because of government policies that make it easier to own a newer vehicle, but no matter where we’ve traveled in Europe, the cars look pretty nice.


In addition to the scarcity of fast food outlets, with only an occasional big M providing the eyesore of its promise to deliver excessive and fatty calories to the populace, it’s also quite a distinct change to not see huge shopping malls and grocery stores and have-everything stores the size of small towns populating the landscape. There are far more individual “ma and pa” shops everywhere. Part of what makes Europe so fascinating is that you can go from country to country and see different ways of life and architecture and languages and so on. The U.S. would be quite a different tourist destination if every state did its own thing as well. But alas, we’ve got to have those billionaires, so every city gets the same malls and eight fast food joints per person and the same mega-businesses. Europe’s a lot more interesting to visit as a result, not to mention healthier with people less worried about working even more hours so they can buy more stuff.


We haven’t turned on the telly all that often during this trip. I do always enjoy getting a peak at the overall experience in different countries, especially the commercials. For my money, no one does more interesting and crazy commercials than Japan. It’s as if their way of convincing customers to buy something is to be as silly as possible and appeal to the level of a five year-old. It’s actually very cute… in a weird way.

Here, humor is the most common theme, but otherwise there isn’t that much difference in commercials between here and the US. I was curious to see whether commercials were mostly Irish or imported from the UK. Most of them are Irish. There’s a smattering of British accents as well as American, but mostly high production values apparently produced out of Ireland, for the Irish.

However, one constant that seems to be on no matter when you turn on the telly is Britain’s Got Talent. It’s as ubiquitous as Judge Judy (which I mention because yes, she’s on here as well) or the way Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek used to be in the ’70’s, or maybe America’s Funniest Videos today. They even have a Britain’s Got More Talent, which is a sillier offshoot but apparently created because Brits and Irish can’t get enough of the premise. I don’t know if what we’re seeing are repeats or if this is the High Season when all these winners are picked for some later elimination shows, but it has almost always been on when we’ve surfed the telly. I’m sure Britain’s Got Even More Talent is waiting in the wings, soon to be followed by Britain’s Got Even More Talent Than The More Talent We Promised Before.

One of the commercials we just saw advertised was health care insurance for about 30 euros a month. Keep in mind, this is on top of the free national health care they already have, I think it gets you moved up the queue quicker. Meanwhile, in the US… well, you already know what you’re paying for health insurance in the US.

Anyway, as I’ve gazed over the people throughout the big European cities as well as the countryside, I’ve been struck at how reasonably prosperous and content everyone seems to be, even though their big, loathsome, horrible, gonna-kill-all-jobs governments provide far more services than we do in the US, such as health care. The number of homeless people or beggars we saw in Amsterdam, Paris, London, and Dublin was almost nil. I’ve walked past more homeless people in Portland on one block than we’ve seen so far in every place we’ve been, combined.

It seems as if these countries are willing to say, “You know, we’ll be content with having a larger and medically treated middle class with a built-in retirement program at the risk of having a few less billionaires.”

According to the World Health Organization’s rankings, including the responsiveness of said care, the finances, level, and distribution, the number one country for health care in the world? France. Italy comes next. UK is 18 and Ireland is 19. The U.S.? 31st. Keep in mind that the US spends more per capita than any country in the world, and by quite a bit. Despite that, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book, the US is 57th in the world in infant mortality, right in between Serbia and Croatia. There is no western European country worse than we are. The worst? Afghanistan, predictably.

My favorite data point as to the efficacy of any health care system is how well we keep our children alive. Keeping young ones alive is perhaps the paramount imperative of any species. So how where does the US rank in keeping children five and under alive? 44th. Again… we spend the most, but are 44th in the world at keeping our five year olds and under alive. This all accumulated pre-ObamaCare, which provides just baby steps in the direction the rest of the civilized world has already traveled. Sure every country has its problems, and no system is perfect, simply because they’re all human, but when we have something to compare it to, it’s worth looking at the comparisons. Just sayin’.

Okay, end of rant. But when I see health insurance advertised over here for 30 euros a month, the statistics that are so easily accessible to evaluate which direction we should be pushing our own health care become all that more real and obvious. For those of you who believe the politicians’ screams that even just ObamaCare has brought our country to the brink of economic oblivion, do me a favor. Show a piece of data that supports that. Anything. Email me, whatever. If there is no data, then perhaps it’s time to ponder that maybe the U.S. isn’t always smarter than the rest of the world, and we could learn a thing or two, eh?

In the end, we’re all largely the same, and we want the same things. It’s nice to travel over here and have that confirmed. With all the political gamesmanship and lying going on in today’s American election cycle, sometimes it’s nice just to come over and see that people are just living their lives and all the other nonsense is just that.

One thought on “The little tings

  1. Hi to you both, I have thoroughly enjoyed you writings/rantings. It is so you Kevin. But to add to that you are a fantastic writer. I remember living in Germany and there would only be 1 “long” Saturday a month that shops would be open ONLY for 1/2 day (Saturdays were reserved for car washing, day trips and generally relaxing (oh what does that word mean). People got what they needed (not Costco sized anything, only what they could carry in their own bag they brought from home). You planned and didn’t buy for the weeks ahead just in case you got extremely hungry or thought the end of the world was tomorrow. That was a lot of years ago but from what I know they still have the same values. We buy on the premise we “have to have that” and then by the time you look in the frig or wherever you kept it, it is spoiled!
    We are the biggest wasters of not only food but everything. If only someone could teach us and we would listen. But here again americans have all and know all. Sad to say. No wonder other countries are starving.
    i can’t wait for next summer when I take off for where ever my travels take me (probably not so organized like you). I just hope the world is a safer place to see the wonders.
    When do you return?
    Now look at who write and rants!
    PS – Carolyn, I also love doors and I take pics of signs that amuse me!


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