Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell Podcast
Snap Judgments On An Entire Continent

Snap Judgments On An Entire Continent

Newsletter 2022-07-18

I have no idea if I’ll survive to post this. I’m not afraid my plane will crash, but the normal airline shenanigans could very well kill me. As I write this, I’m waiting for my first flight on a day that started for me at 5 a.m. Switzerland time and should have me back in the states sometime last September. Full disclosure, I don’t understand time zones. According to a fellow passenger making a similar trip, I’ll be awake for more than twenty-four hours by the time this is all over—if it’s ever over. I’m flying livestock class, which is three levels below economy. All three of my flights have already been changed multiple times, switching airports and countries with reckless abandon. The problem, as always, is a staffing shortage, which means we’ll be handling our own bags and also flying the planes ourselves. As an added bonus, the wi-fi in this airport doesn’t work, which makes sense. I shouldn’t be browsing Twitter right now. I should be learning to pilot a 737.

With what little sanity and energy I have left, I’m going to start telling you about my trip to Europe. I went on a cruise up the Rhine River from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Basel, Switzerland, on a journey that started last Saturday and ended Sunday morning when they kicked me off the boat, though this trip might technically keep going forever if I never make it home. I have a ridiculous number of stories to tell you. I can write two thousand words about a week when nothing happened, but this time I actually went somewhere and did something. The amount of new content I’m about to generate is mildly alarming. I’ll send out these stories in the coming days and weeks spread out over the free Monday emails and the bonus Thursday ones for paid subscribers. Oh, and if you’re listening to the audio version of this right now and I sound like I was recently run over by a truck, it’s because I got sick and lost my voice right before I had to take three different planes four thousand plus miles. I thought I was being smart last night when I took it easy on the booze and went to bed early, but I had it backwards. I should have partied harder so the alcohol could kill all my germs. The bottom shelf vodka I never finished could have cured covid.

I don’t have the mental clarity at the present moment to assemble any grand narratives, so I’m going to start out with a bunch of bullet points. Here are some snap judgments about the places I visited. I’ve never offended an entire continent before, so this should be fun. Maybe it’s for the best that I might not make it back to post this.

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Every country has stereotypes they are actually proud of, according to, like, three people I talked to, which I assume is a representative sample size for all of Europe. The Dutch, for example, celebrate their own cheapness, which gave us the term “going Dutch” but did not give us many second dates. I don’t have a drop of Dutch blood in my body, but somehow, they’re still my people.

The Germans like being known for following rules. If the sign says, “Don’t walk,” you better not walk, even if there’s nobody coming from either direction. If you set as much as one toe in the crosswalk when you’re not supposed to, an unseen car will speed up and run you over on principle.

The French are required by law to be wine snobs. If you grow the wrong kind of grape in the wrong region, the government will impose the worst penalty imaginable and send you to Germany.

The French and the Germans love joking about how much they hate each other, but also it’s sort of not a joke. The Germans speak of Louis XIV in the same hushed tones the French save for Hitler.

The only parts of history that are still standing are parts that don’t matter. If a castle is in one piece, it’s because it was built in a stupid place and wasn’t guarding anything important. If it actually had any tactical value whatsoever, it was flattened and rebuilt and then flattened again, probably by Louis XIV, who, according to the Germans, was basically Freddy Kruger, but in pantaloons, which makes it hard to take him seriously.

Just look at that castle. So majestic. So useless.

Starting world wars is a bad idea, but an even worse idea is losing them. I’ll give Germany a pass for World War I, which was sort of everyone’s fault, but World War II was definitely on them. They paid for it. Every walking tour in Germany involves a guide saying some variation of, “Here’s where history used to be before the Allies blew it up.” The problem was the Americans and British had too many bombs and no good way to aim them. They obliterated entire cities to hit one building, and that was the one structure they somehow missed. Exploding literally everything worked, and, by 1945, there weren’t many targets left. Heavy bombers started out targeting ball bearing plants and oil refineries but ended up aiming for belt buckle factories and the print shop that made the “get well soon” cards for wounded German soldiers. The nicest historic German village we visited was only spared because their printing press jammed.

I’ve got some words for Strasbourg. You’ll get yours in an upcoming email.

The bicyclists in Amsterdam are exactly as insane as everyone says. Their bike laws are as follows: The road is a bike lane. The grass is a bike lane. All horizontal and vertical surfaces are bike lanes. If you are on the water, you are in a bike lane. Planes above 50,000 feet must yield to all oncoming bikes. If you get hit by a bike at any time, including when you are in your own bed or while taking a shower, you are at fault. There is a bike right behind you. Don’t even bother to check. If you are in Amsterdam, that statement is always true.

Not pictured: Millions more bikes slightly out of frame.

Everyone in Europe speaks English, but never quite as much as you need. You will understand each other just well enough to get the entire transaction wrong.

Despite “stupid American” stereotypes, Americans and Europeans are pretty much indistinguishable from each other until you hear them talk. Someone in France thought I was a local and asked me for help, and I could not possibly be less French. I hope my confused shrug got them what they needed. When I asked someone for help, on the other hand, I was never sure if the person’s accent would be French, German, or Texan. There was an equal chance for all three.

Prices in Europe were better than I expected, even in areas specifically designed to gouge clueless tourists like me. It helped that the dollar and euro were exactly equal during my time there. Then again, the European Union’s colorful bills look like Monopoly money to me, so I didn’t feel guilty about spending them. Bad decisions were made.

Cheese was expensive. Wine was cheap. Beer was basically free.

Old castles in Europe are like old barns in the Midwest. All but the best examples are neglected and ignored because they’re expensive to maintain and nobody needs them anymore. The biggest castle in each city has a guided tour. The second biggest one is mentioned in the brochure but you can’t go there. The third biggest one is mainly used to store old Christmas decorations. Good luck finding it on any map.

“Old” means two very different things there and here. If something in Europe is from the 1100s to 1300s, it’s old. If it’s from the 1400s to 1700s, it’s vintage. If it’s from 1800 forward, it’s modern garbage. A building erected in 1820 in France has the same cultural significance as one built in 1975 in Cleveland.

Europeans are lazy. It takes them six-hundred years to build one measly cathedral. Worse, there are huge gaps of hundreds of years where no work gets done at all. Those periods are officially recognized as the world’s longest coffee breaks.

Europeans work very hard. The staff members on our river cruise were on their feet practically around the clock and only had one day off every two weeks. They were prompt and polite and endlessly professional, but that was only when I was asking them for drinks. If I asked them to build me a cathedral, they would have clocked out.

There are cathedrals everywhere, but nobody actually prays in them. Well, almost nobody. I’m guessing there were a handful of people in the local congregations because the cathedrals would periodically go into lockdown mode when it was time for mass. Out-of-town visitors were not welcome. As Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, but tourists can go to hell.” There must have been a secret entrance because the locals got in somehow, but I could never find it. I tried, Mom. Just not that hard. When God closes a door, he opens a hidden tunnel for everyone but me.

The Netherlands is incredibly flat, and I say that as a Midwesterner. Wooden clog country makes Indiana look like the Himalayas by comparison. The highest mountain in all of Holland is a speed bump in a school parking lot.

I only saw one Dutch person wearing wooden clogs unironically. A guy in our tour group bought them directly off his feet. On second thought, that stupid American stereotype is sometimes true.

I’ve been recognized in public approximately five times in my entire life, but one of those was on a boat in the middle of the Rhine. I’m not sure if this one counts, though, because I was outed by a fellow Midwesterner who lives two hours from where I grew up. All residents of the corn belt can instantly identify each other by our secret handshake. If you don’t know it, I regret to inform you that you’re from Florida.

If you speak to me in Dutch, French, or German, I can make a reasonable guess about what you’re saying because 99 percent of the time it’s, “Get out of the way.” If your language comes from farther east, however, I have no idea what your words mean, but you sound angry and I will give you anything you want.

The French are very proud of their roundabouts, but their entire country has fewer than Carmel, Indiana. As someone who regularly drives through Carmel, I assure you that neither France nor Indiana has anything to brag about.

The French think the Germans are terrible drivers. The Germans think the French are terrible drivers. They’re both right.

As predicted, I forgot critical items for the trip to Europe, despite triple checking my list before I left. I neglected to bring two sets of headphones, which I desperately needed for an ungodly number of hours in the air, and a belt, which I needed for every outfit. Luckily, I kept my pants up by getting fatter. Adapt and overcome.

One and two euro coins are stupid. They’re too easy to mix up with smaller denominations. Every time I tipped a tour guide, I worried I’d accidentally given them ten cents. Wars have been started over less. Also, I don’t know what the word is for European cents. Mini-euros? That sounds right.

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It is physically impossible to stay awake on a tour bus, no matter how beautiful the scenery. It is also impossible to sleep comfortably on one. I took a two minute nap and am now paralyzed for life.

The biggest problem with Europe is its location. Whoever put it on the other side of an ocean should be fired immediately. It would get way more foot traffic if it was located in a better spot, like on the other side of Ohio.

The United States and Europe are more alike than they are different. One has corn and soybeans and the other has cabbage and grapes, but other than that, they’re pretty much the same place. The biggest thing to set them apart is how long they’ve been around. History is just centuries of bad decisions stacked on top of each other. Give American time. We’ll get there.

Those are my initial thoughts on Europe. I’ll go more in-depth with specific stories in the coming days and weeks. If you’re offended, I’m sure we can sort this out maturely. Unless you’re Dutch, in which case you’re legally allowed to run me over with your bicycle.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.


Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell Podcast
Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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