I'm speeding across the middle of France in a TGV train, the green and yellow fields a blur and low clouds looming all around us. It's morning here on the line between Tours and Paris; I am en route to Charles de Gaulle airport, where I will board a flight to Boston in a few hours.
When another TGV passes, going in the opposite direction, there is a brief flash of blue—that's it, and it's gone. Like perhaps every American who rides a TGV or a Japanese bullet train, I think about our country and wonder why I can't ride trains like this at home. Sure, there is Amtrak's Acela, but that only goes really fast for a small part of the long route between Boston and Washington. Service is limited and very expensive. What about the rest of the country?
I know the arguments: our distances are too far, and we're a car society, wedded to always traveling in our own little dome, enclosed, preferably one to a car. But times are changing. I can sense a real shift. Look at some of the trends:
*The Smartcar, a nine-foot vehicle with room for two passengers and just a few grocery bags, is now the hottest-selling vehicle in the US, right after the little four-cylinder Toyota Prius.
*It's become hard even to trade in a large truck or SUV; dealers can't get rid of what they've got on their lots.
*People are buying more bicycles, and using public transportation like never before. There's even a whole new class of bus travel between major cities offering Wi-Fi, comfortable seats and a new level of hipness.
It's simple. Americans are easily startled and do act when money is involved. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas has lit a fire under us; we've realized that it's real money now. Filling up your tank for $65 or $90 is no joke.
I ride this beautiful high-speed train that costs $59 euros to travel about 200 miles. Here there are trains, trams and buses to take anyone just about anywhere. There are even places in the train to put your bicycle. It seems that the government here listens to the people instead of just taxing them.
In most European cities there are bikes that cities put out for citizens to borrow for a nominal fee. Lots of euros are spent here on signs for tourists, maps to find out where you're going, and bike paths and bike lanes. The number one industry in France is tourism, so they spend their money wisely, to accommodate those visitors who really do pay the bills.
Our train passes large windmills turning slowly in a field. They dot the landscape of the French countryside. More and more of them are being put up; more and more people are accepting that they might have to look at their energy being created, instead of simply having it generated for them in distant coal plants.
Another American whining about why we can't be like Europeans? Yes, I guess you can say that. But after you've experienced life in a place where things just seem to make more sense, it's hard not to wonder about why we can't do some of these things in the U.S.
Go ahead, raise my taxes. Just give me a decent railroad, government-paid healthcare and universities, and a society that puts its money into the things that people really care about instead of blowing it on wars in the Middle East.
Max Hartshorne is a blogger who writes posts daily at www.gonomad.com/readuponit.