Carolyn McMaster | May 1, 2010
Spending three weeks on vacation in northern Europe—mostly Amsterdam and Berlin—made me think about the ways we can pretty easily live a little “smaller.” Europeans live in smaller spaces, use less stuff, and reuse much more. They don’t seem as obsessed with green and sustainable as I thought they might be, but it could just be they don’t shout about it as much. They just do it, as they have been for years. For instance:
Bikes are a main form of transportation. Everybody has one, sturdy and utilitarian. In the city, bike paths are ubiquitous. And they aren’t in the road—they typically run between the sidewalk and parked cars. Makes it safer (for cyclists, anyway; I found it a bit perilous as a pedestrian).
Lights for public areas are on timers that switch off after 10 minutes. I’ve wondered for years why we don’t use these in our own apartment and office buildings.
Smaller appliances are the norm, like fridges that hold a week’s worth of groceries (or less) and washing machines that are smaller and front-loading. Air-drying clothes is common, and even families with children don’t always have a clothes dryer. (This is based on very limited observation.)
None of this is news to anyone who’s been abroad, but the climate change imperative threw it into sharp relief for me. In the bigger scheme of things, I also noticed that wind power is taking hold. Old windmills are an icon of the Netherlands, but new wind turbines are also becoming a part of the landscape. I saw some wind farms but was most impressed by the fact that many farms have their own wind turbines. In the northern part of the country it was amazing to see ancient farmhouses coupled with new turbines.
On the transportation front, cars are much smaller overall than on this side of the pond, but I still saw a lot of big SUV-type vehicles, and diesel is in wide general use. On the upside, most filling stations I saw sold biodiesel, and I saw not a few natural gas vehicles and fueling stations.
Finally, I spent my time away without my own computer or cell phone. And since the Iceland volcano kept me in Berlin an extra six days, I was almost unconnected for over three weeks. It was a little freaky, especially toward the end. But ultimately it felt great. Without electronic ties to where I came from, I felt more a part of where I was.