Train travel is great. High-speed rail is a wonderful way to travel. Air travel here is ok too. Security is usually far less aggravating than anything involving the TSA, and higher gas prices make it easier to justify the cost of a plane ticket. But if your destination is far enough outside the main rail network, and not far enough away from your origin to want to deal with the temporal overhead of flying, then it’s time for a drive.
I’ve taken three road trips in Europe so far (defining a “road trip” as a drive longer than four hours. Long enough that you might want to stop on the way, and will be staying overnight at your destination), one each to Le Mans, Stuttgart, and Orsay. Not a comprehensive survey by any means, but enough to make some [over]generalizations about Europe. Astute readers will note that these destinations are in countries not Belgium, and that is the first main point of difference from the US.
From central Belgium, you can’t drive any one direction for four hours and still stay in the same country. On account of the Schengen free-travel zone, and the general uniformity of road signage and traffic law, this is for the most part just like living in New England. However, there are some critical differences.
To start, when you cross a border, the language in use immediately and completely changes. This may seem like an obvious point, but it happens as soon as the first sign for “Deutschland, 900 m”, and by the next service area, almost everyone is speaking German. It’s jarring to experience the first time, but there are only a few key words to know on any highway system, and they are easy to figure out. (But Lord help you if you need any complicated kind of help.)
Some of those words are for fuels, which seems to have been made to be as confusing as possible. In French, gasoline is not “gazole,” because gazole is gas-oil, which is not two-stroke fuel-oil, but actually Diesel. Gasoline is “essance” in French, but in Germany it’s “benzin,” which is not to be confused with Benzine (or Benzene). Normally one would not worry about accidentally putting Benzene in your car at a fuel station, but lots of stations have LPG pumps, so you’re never quite sure what kind of nonsense might come out of that nozzle.
To add to the confusion at fuel stations, some of them surprise you by being post-pay. Pump first, then pay inside. With this being all but extinct in the US (probably for good reason), I was totally surprised to find it being a thing. Without the fortunate circumstance of learning by watching in my first encounter with it at a crowded fuel station at the Nurburgring, I surely would have been looking for a pre-pay card reader that did not exist, until going inside to try to pre-pay for gasoline to the great confusion of everyone involved. Which is exactly what happened in my last trip to France, because they don’t put up any dang signs telling you to pump first! But at least New Jersey isn’t there getting in the way trying to “help” you with “full service.”
Anyway, back to crossing borders. Aside from the different languages, there are also different driving laws, cultures, and etiquette standards. Think of the normal differences between US regions or states, and multiply it by three. For example, in Holland, the speed limit is 110 km/h, and the speed cameras will get you with a 5 km/h threshold, so highways are fairly casual. In Germany (which borders Holland) there is often no speed limit at all on main roads, and as a result few speed cameras. So in Germany, highways can be SUPER INTENSE and rules for passing are taken very seriously. In Belgium there is a “priority on the right” rule for intersections that’s uncommon elsewhere because it’s kind of dumb and breaks down easily. The highways around Paris are excessively crowded, and drivers often “forget” to use their blinkers. But at least New Jersey isn’t there trying to “help” with jug-handle left turns.
Navigating by signs along the way requires a better knowledge of geography than in the US as well. The identification of highway directions is not done by the cardinal directions, but by which city it’s headed towards. Of course, when you pass one city, a new one comes up, so as you get further and further away from home, you become increasingly unsure of which direction you need. This would be like going to Connecticut from Virginia via 95 to Richmond, then Washington, then Baltimore, then Wilmington, then Philadelphia, then Trenton, then New York, instead of just “95 North for 500 miles.” Of course this doesn’t matter much nowadays thanks to GPS nav systems, but it still impacts my confidence at each interchange.
Then you go into a city, and, hoo-boy. Now you’re dealing with narrow streets, lots of one-ways, absurd intersections, more traffic, then on top of that drivers get crazier (out of necessity almost), and regional differences get more intense. I couldn’t begin to categorize the regional differences for city driving, but suffice it to say, Suttgart seemed much more orderly than Brussels.
Stopping off in a random city can be very rewarding though, if you have the time to spare on your trip. Cities and towns in Europe are generally much older than any in the US, full of history, and probably all worth seeing at least once. Pick any one at random, get to the center, and you can at least have a nice lunch at a quaint cafe, if not wander around and see some monuments, as I did in Luxembourg.
Stopping off in a city, random or not, is also the way to get gas or food that isn’t wildly overpriced. On the main roads, service stations come at you every 30 km or so, but gas costs about 20% more than it ought, and food & drink sometimes costs double. Whereas in America, there is plenty of highway signage directing you to local food and gas options. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but it’s a lot quicker and easier than picking a random city, hoping you find somewhere to park, hoping there’s someplace to eat near enough to where you’ve parked, hoping they’re open, and hoping they have something you feel like eating, in an effort to avoid paying 18 Euros for a burger and drink. (It would be easier with a navigator.) But like I said, if you have the time, it can be worth the trouble.
In the next year I look forward to taking more road trips to more distant places, perhaps crossing more channels and mountains, seeing sights along the drive and at the destination. There are some things to miss about the American interstate network, but many to appreciate about Europe’s after some acclimation, despite the way it seems to be designed.